When College Town’s original owners expressed a desire to sell the development, the University of Rochester had to make a big decision, one that would deepen its relationship with Rochester.
“One of the core beliefs of the university’s strategic plan is to contribute to and benefit from a just and vibrant city of Rochester and the Rochester region,” says Sara Miller, UR spokesperson.
As UR explored the option to buy College Town, university officials conducted due diligence to make sure it would be a good fit.
“The purchase also considered how local ownership of the mixed-used development would benefit our neighboring communities,” Miller says.
On July 27, UR completed its purchase of College Town for $51.5 million. The 312,000-square-foot, mixed-use complex located between Elmwood Avenue and Crittenden Boulevard was previously owned and managed by CT Rochester LLC—the original developer of the project.
After CT Rochester expressed interest in selling College Town last summer, the university created a new affiliate, Meliora Development Co. LLC, to complete the purchase and assume the responsibility of managing the property.
“College Town will be managed in the same spirit as it was designed, but local ownership for the first time since its opening will introduce a new leasing strategy that has a greater emphasis on recruiting additional local and good-fit businesses into the development,” Miller says.
While businesses and students have responded positively about UR’s ownership, they are curious about its future.
“When I first heard the university bought College Town, I was shocked. It was always advertised as a UR space since I first got to campus, so I assumed the university owned the land,” says Mel Harrell, an undergraduate student and member of the class of 2024. “My main question would be: How will the university adapt College Town to fit the needs for students?
“Many colleges and universities have areas near campus that take the university’s dining dollars. With this new purchase, I wonder if the university will allow the same.”
Birth of a concept
Before College Town, Mt. Hope Avenue near the university housed one of Rochester’s first motels—the Towne House Motor Inn—and a Wegmans store, in addition to a couple of other mainstays.
Change came in 2008. UR released a campus plan, prioritizing strengthening the bond between the university and the surrounding community. Joel Seligman, then UR president, led the charge and a group visited Philadelphia to understand the University of Pennsylvania’s efforts in building the University City District. The district launched in 1997 to revitalize the neighboring community.
Called an “atypical business improvement district,” by David Brito and Jack O’ Sullivan in a 2022 report for the Global Institute on Innovation Districts, UCD brought community and local leaders together to transform the neighborhood.
“West Philadelphia is described as one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest cities in the United States,” the report states. “It has needed an organization like UCD which is dedicated to detailed change and which has stayed the course in the long term. However, the significance of what has happened in this city extends far beyond its boundaries. The UCD experience provides a master class for many places. In particular, we can learn a lot about how innovation districts worldwide might execute some of their ambitions for transformation.”
While it was crime and poverty that propelled UCD’s move, UR and local leaders found the intent to be similar. The city of Rochester formed the Mount Hope Task Force, a group of businesspeople, community members, city leaders and university officials with the desire to revitalize the area along Mt. Hope Avenue.
After approval from the university’s board of trustees and the city agreeing to rezone the district, UR announced the plans to construct College Town in 2011 to create a university-neighborhood community. Cleveland-based Fairmount Properties LLC was hired for the project. The development firm was joined by Providence-based Gilbane Development Co. to form CT Rochester LLC, an entity in charge of managing the project’s construction and operations after opening.
College Town was designated a Transformational Priority Project in 2012 by the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council. Funding for the $100 million commercial and residential space came from a variety of sources, including $17 million in public infrastructure improvements by the city. The project also received $800,000 in federal funding to improve mass transit with the help of the Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority.
A Housing and Urban Development Section 108 loan to the city to the tune of $20 million helped, as did $4 million from then Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council Initiative. The County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency also granted $13.5 million in tax incentives.
Original construction for the College Town development was slated to begin in the first quarter of 2012. After being delayed to November of the same year, construction experienced further delays before groundbreaking occurred on May 2, 2013. The Towne House Motor Inn was eventually demolished.
On Oct. 17, 2014, the university, city leadership and community members celebrated the opening of the first portion of College Town: the two-level Barnes & Noble at the corner of Elmwood and Mt. Hope avenues that still serves as the campus bookstore today. Among the festivities included dedication of the plaza in front of the Barnes & Noble to Ronald Paprocki, who at the time was the university’s senior vice president for administration and finance and chief financial officer, and who coordinated the university’s involvement in the construction project.
“This is an historic day for the University and the city of Rochester,” said Seligman at the time. “As one of the largest development projects in the history of the city of Rochester, College Town is strengthening the economic fabric of our community by providing essential services and incredible new spaces. It is an excellent model of how public-private partnerships should work, and let me express my sincere gratitude to all our outstanding partners who have made this vision a reality.”
Over the next two years, more businesses began to emerge along the redeveloped strip of Mt. Hope Avenue, and residents began to move into the 154 residential spaces known as the Mt. Hope Lofts, located above the retail storefronts.
Some of the businesses that opened during this time still remain in place today, including the Canandaigua National Bank & Trust Co. branch, Insomnia Cookies, Breathe Yoga and Juice Bar, the Creator’s Hands, Moe’s Southwest Grill and Beerhead Bar & Eatery (previously known as the Beer Market). Other businesses that opened but did not stand the test of time include a Jimmy Johns franchise, Saxbys Coffee, Bourbon and the Corner Bakery Cafe.
A final addition to College Town came in June 2015, when the 136-room Hilton Garden Inn opened, owned and managed by DelMonte Hotel Group. The hotel still operates under the same ownership and management.
Today, College Town looks a bit different compared to how it began almost a decade ago. Some spaces in the development continue to be occupied by the university, including UR Medicine’s Dermatology medical office, and the university’s Office of Human Resources. A UR fitness center moved in last year. A popular venue, it has drawn additional foot traffic to the complex, Miller says.
Many new businesses also call College Town home, including Taichi Bubble Tea, a Texas de Brazil location and a new Mochinut location that arrived in April.
“We think the purchase is great news because we have always had a connection with the U of R,” says Greg Goodrich, founder of Beerhead Bar & Eatery. “We think it will provide more opportunities to host university-related events and grow our connection with the university and community.”
UR’s purchase of College Town includes all the restaurant, retail and Class A office spaces in the development, including the CVS Pharmacy and Barnes & Noble, and the nearby parking garage. The acquisition also includes the Mt. Hope Lofts, where 10 units are designated as affordable housing.
The sale did not include the Hilton Garden Inn. UR will, however, continue to own the land the hotel is located on and lease it to DelMonte Hotel Group. (Pyramid Brokerage, which handles retail leasing, and Delmonte Hotel Group did not respond to the Beacon’s requests for comment.)
Michael Zanghi, UR’s new director of real estate operations and College Town, will oversee the property under Meliora Development. Previously, Zanghi was an employee of UR Medicine’s real estate services office.
Meliora Development intends to retain the 10 apartments in the complex designated as affordable housing units, under an existing Community Benefit Agreement with the city, Miller says. The residential portion of College Town is fully rented and the commercial/retail spaces are more than 90 percent rented. The soon-to-be tenant at College Town is Joy Mart, an Asian food store, which is owned by a UR alumna.
“Michael Zanghi and his team plan on gathering input from members of the University of Rochester community and the Mt. Hope community about possible future businesses and services to recruit to the area,” says Miller. “And on the operational side of things, managing College Town through Meliora Development Co. ensures that the property is held to the same high standards as other university properties.”
For Harrell, a grocery store would be a welcome addition.
“We do not have a walkable source for fresh food or groceries by the U of R, and this does present a burden to students who do not have a car on campus,” she says.
Constantino’s Market was one of College Town’s original tenants, opening in April 2015. It marked the return of a full grocer to this area of the city and was praised as a business focused on offering high-quality, fresh, local products. But less than a year later, it decided to close the 20,000-square-foot store.
“Despite many months of collaborative effort and support to help the Cleveland-based grocer succeed in its retail space, the business has not been profitable,” Seligman said in a February 2016 statement on the closing. “As a result, the owners understandably have had to make the hard decision to shutter Constantino’s Rochester operations.”
UR is working on a list of needed updates and repairs throughout the property, Miller says, but there are no significant renovations planned at this time.
UR is expected to unveil its new strategic plan, “Boundless Possibility,” to the university community next month. According to its timeline, the university is currently creating work groups of faculty, staff, students, administrators and volunteer leaders, and engaging existing committees and advisory groups.
The plan is grounded in three essential beliefs, as it considers the university’s reputation and role as a global research university. One of these beliefs, as Miller describes it, is “contributing to and benefiting from a just and vibrant city of Rochester and the Rochester region.”
“Our future is inextricably linked to the city we call home, and we are committed to continued economic, educational, social, and cultural partnerships with the greater Rochester community,” the belief states.
That understanding underpinned the birth of College Town as a concept. In a 2015 white paper titled “The Next Level,” Seligman emphasized that the university’s progress is bounded by the greater Rochester community. The paper outlined three areas—community engagement, K-12 education, and entrepreneurship and economic development—as priorities to strengthen the community.
“The stronger our community is, the stronger the University will be. While Rochester’s suburbs today generally are doing well, the City of Rochester is struggling with the highest rate of extreme poverty of any comparably sized city in the United States,” Seligman wrote.
Rochester continues to battle poverty, but its educational institutions and their commitment to the area remain a source of pride. As College Town settles under UR’s ownership, the neighboring communities will have a say. UR sought their input before investing in College Town and intends to continue its relationships with its neighbors.
“College Town’s marketing director regularly attends the community/neighborhood meetings to hear residents’ input about College Town and its future development, and will continue to do so,” Miller says.
The university’s announcement of its purchase echoed a similar sentiment of community engagement, featuring the perspectives of Dan Hurley, president of the Upper Mount Hope Neighborhood Association, and Sarah Mangelsdorf, current UR president.
“The success of College Town is important to the community, and local control will provide a stronger commitment to its vibrancy as well as a renewed energy to the neighborhood and businesses in the surrounding community,” says Hurley.
“With our purchase of College Town, we aim to build a greater sense of community and connectedness for students, employees, patients, visitors, and neighbors,” says Mangelsdorf. “The university’s new strategic plan and a planned update to the institutional campus master plan launching later this year will provide opportunities to reimagine how the development fits into university life.”
Evan Coleman is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and a recent University of Rochester graduate. Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].