Rochester Mayor Malik Evans believes remembering the history of an area matters to understand how far it has come.
“Where we’re standing, for a long time, was known as Parcel 2. Some of us who remember that far back, remember it as Midtown Plaza,” Evans said in his opening remarks at an event held by the Rochester Beacon Wednesday. “It’s become a fast-moving wave now, and now it’s time to catch it.”
“The Future of Downtown Revitalization” was the first in-person Rochester Beacon event since the COVID-19 outbreak. It was held at a new five-story, mixed-used building co-owned by the marketing firm Butler/Till and Buckingham Properties, itself a major redevelopment project for downtown.
Sponsored by HB Cornerstone, which designed the space, Bond, Schoeneck and King LLP, the Burke Group, Canandaigua National Bank & Trust, Butler/Till and Hamilton A/V, the event drew a capacity audience of roughly 100 people. Anchored by a panel focused on downtown revitalization efforts and the workplace future, the discussion also drew questions from the audience.
Jim Bourdeau, chief legal officer for Constellation Brands, Ken Glazer, chairman and CEO of Buckingham Properties, Ebony Miller-Wesley, director for the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship at Rochester Institute of Technology, and Laura Fox O’Sullivan, vice president at Rochester Downtown Development Corporation participated in the discussion moderated by Beacon publisher Alex Zapesochny.
In his opening remarks, Evans also reflected on what change is needed for the city and was optimistic about development projects such as Inner Loop North, which would add 28 acres of usable space (by comparison, the Inner Loop East project freed up six acres); ROC the Riverway, which, among two dozen other developments, would give Rochester the third state park in New York in an urban area (High Falls State Park); and a new “Mayor’s Speakers Series,” which would allow cities to share what they have learned from their own revitalization efforts. Evans indicated that Andrew Ginther, the mayor of Columbus, would be the first featured speaker.
“We used to be a company town, now we’re a town of companies,” Evans said, emphasizing that revitalization for the city also means change.
That change is impossible without the right housing and economic situation, which O’Sullivan believes is at an appropriate level now. Combined, downtown Rochester, which is still dominated by rental properties, has more than 1,600 new units in the housing pipeline. In addition, $2.5 billion has been invested in the area since 2000, including $10 million for the Downtown Revitalization Initiative and a $50 million Phase I award for ROC the Riverway.
Part of that effort along the Genesee River includes the relocation of Constellation Brands’ headquarters from Victor to the Aqueduct Building downtown. That move by the beverage maker is expected to create 80 new local jobs following its completion in 2024, in addition to bringing more than 300 employees to the downtown area.
While there were many benefits to this move, including better commute times for Constellation employees and a “campus-like vibe,” Bourdeau also noted the value added from the residents of downtown.
“Our consumer base is very, very diverse. And yet our workforce in Victor is not very, very diverse,” Bourdeau said. “We can draw now from this gorgeous pool of people in Rochester for our jobs. I’m not making fun of Victor, but it’s going to be so much more colorful, so much more diverse, and so much more fun to work there.”
The panelists acknowledged that the pandemic has changed some mainstays of the workspace, including being physically present in offices. A study at the beginning of this year by the Pew Research Center found that employees working from home are doing so more out of preference rather than fear of COVID. Those working at the office do so now because they feel more productive.
“People want to be able to get away from their home or their apartment or their dog for a quiet place to Zoom. They just don’t want to get dressed and go in, all the way to the office,” Glazer said of new “focus office” areas being added to some residential developments. “Something simple like one office space on a floor in a residential building is what they want.”
He added that hybrid schedules remain popular and can lead to tricky rental situations with some companies that see some days of the week more active than others.
Also impacted by this lack of a return to the traditional office space are the entrepreneurs supported by Miller-Wesley, who said she is still feeling optimistic, but less so than before the pandemic.
“We were moving forward with that live/work/play concept for downtown, but then we were shut down,” she said, pointing to the entrepreneurs CUE has worked with, particularly restaurants and service businesses like hair salons. “When we shut down, we still had people living here, and people had to play at home. Now, we’re back to living and playing downtown, but not working downtown. There was a halt to launching and growing businesses.”
The rising cost of real estate is not helping, either.
“Right now, the cost of real estate is way up. The price of retail space is way up compared to what it was three years ago.” Miller-Wesley said. “(Businesses) already struggle with startup costs, so when you talk about securing space, any of these small businesses who are looking to be located in this area, they can’t afford it.”
According to the most recent data from real estate appraisal site Property Shark, office space for sale in Rochester had a median market value of above $440,000 with a median tax bill of almost $16,000.
Other panelists, who agreed there was a need to support small businesses, also brought up other challenges specific to Rochester, primarily the perception of safety downtown, an issue that was raised by Constellation employees before the headquarters move was finalized.
“There are a lot of perceptions that are not accurate about safety. Are there issues? Yes, of course there are. But if you ask anyone who lives in this area or works in this building, they feel fine walking around,” Glazer said. “We (the panelists and the audience) have a job to do. We have to cheerlead. It’s not that hard, because when they get down here, they’ll see how good it is.”
While 2022 has been a particularly violent year for Rochester, incidents are not near areas slated for development. According to the most recent data from the Rochester Police department, homicides caused by firearms have been concentrated in the northern police beats of Clinton and Lake avenues.
Event panelists agreed that, while a difficult undertaking, greater opportunities and increased presence downtown could be a salve for many issues in the region. Greater residency leads to greater foot traffic which leads to safer streets and more economic activity.
“It’s sort of a chicken or the egg thing,” Bourdeau said of the relationship between businesses and residents. “(Constellation Brands) said, ‘Okay, let’s go do it then.’ A strong downtown helps all of us.”
Added O’Sullivan: “When Jazz Fest hits, is anyone complaining about walking five blocks? No. Does anyone feel unsafe? No. Because there’s people everywhere, there’s something worthwhile, worth walking to.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. Photos by Paul Ericson and Justin O’Connor. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.