Melissa James-Geska stood at the St. Mary’s Campus of Rochester Regional Health, where she was born, as she outlined updates for the Bull’s Head revitalization project.
One of the oldest neighborhoods in southwest Rochester, where West Main, Genesee, Brown streets and Chili and West avenues converge, Bull’s Head is in the process of getting new life.
“I don’t know if any of you here remember DJ’s Ice Cream? Well, that was my dad. If you remember a bossy little three year old sitting at the counter selling candy, that was me,” said James-Geska at the public information meeting for the project Monday.
“I had major street cred selling candy to the neighborhood kids. If you weren’t nice to me, you were not getting Now and Laters and don’t even think about the Lemon Heads,” she continued. “Now, we have a chance to transform the neighborhood that I and all of us in the room have so many fond memories of.”
In fact, James-Geska, who is president of construction contractor US Ceiling Corp., is not the only involved party with roots in the southwest section of Rochester. John Majors, principal of the Oughtness Group, grew up on Burlington Avenue. Dana Miller, the city of Rochester’s neighborhood and business development department commissioner, still lives with his family in the 19th Ward.
The current Bull’s Head revitalization project represents decades of work for Miller, who recalls beginning revitalization efforts as far back as 1995 under what was originally called the Bull’s Head Community Development Corp. He says the efforts have seen success, citing Brooks Landing as a completed project.
“That end of the street, we were able to get done. This end of the street, not so much,” Miller said.
“Twenty years from now, I want a young person who grew up in this neighborhood who is walking across the stage at Harvard or Yale or Morehouse, to have every accolade,” said Majors, who is a Harvard alum himself. “I want someone in the audience to say, ‘That’s a really impressive young person,’ and the person next to them (to) reply, ‘Of course. That young person grew up in Bull’s Head. All those kids do great.’”
The Bull’s Head revitalization effort began in earnest three years ago when the Dawson Co., an Atlanta-based real estate service firm, was announced as the new developer. Since then, a team named DevelopROC has been formed combining construction, finance, and development knowledge.
James-Geska jokingly calls them the “Justice League” based on their collective experience in the field.
The team includes Dawson, USC, the Oughtness Group, investment firm Shift Capital, staff development consultants Renaissance Groups, architects Torti Gallas + Partners, and real estate company Brinshore Development. Combined, these organizations have worked across the country on similar projects in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Omaha and Rochester.
The current proposal represents years of work, incorporating community feedback in prior listening sessions. Its wide scope includes a large amount of mixed-income housing, community and business workforce partnerships, and walkability for its streets.
Revitalization plans have stretched back as far as 1969 for the Bull’s Head area, but they were continually stymied by cuts to federal funding and false starts. The neighborhood faced decades of disinvestment, which has resulted in a poverty rate in the area twice that of Monroe County. The median household income is also half that of the county.
Similar to the surrounding region, Bull’s Head has experienced a decrease in overall population, but has somewhat plateaued in recent years.
The area has had a Black majority of at least 70 percent since 2010. However, Hispanic and Latino residents over the last decade have been the fastest-growing segment, increasing from 9 percent to 14 percent of the population.
There were slightly more than 1,800 housing units as of 2022, census estimates show. The revitalization project proposal would bring 780 to 800 additional units, primarily located in large, dense housing complexes on the north side of West Main Street.
Some units across from St. Mary’s Campus are also included in the plan and could potentially serve as workplace housing for travel nurses to the Rochester Regional Health site.
Daniel Pemberton, executive managing director of the Dawson Co., says that number was chosen because the company has found in previous projects that a scale of that size is required for sustainable change in an area. The plan also commits to a minimum of 20 percent of all units built will be affordable for individuals within 60 percent of area median income.
DevelopROC says it is partnering with a number of community organizations, including through employment opportunities. For example, at 160 Clifton St., the plan proposes an adapted building project to include an office for construction company Livingston Associates, which is recruiting for construction in the Bull’s Head area.
“Too often, these projects aren’t holistic in their approach. So, this brings all these components together in one place and is doing it in a place where people who are looking for work actually live,” said Tony Ditucci, president of Livingston Associates. “We can not only create economic opportunity, but we’re able to bring those people to the opportunities that are being built in their neighborhood in time for them to actually be a part of the project.”
James-Geska says USC plans to move its headquarters from Brighton to the Bull’s Head area as well.
In all, the proposal currently accounts for 34,000 square feet each of street-level retail and office space. DevelopROC is also working to identify a grocer and an agricultural production environment for the area.
In addition, the plan calls for walkways and street plans to create more viable foot traffic.
All told, the project represents about $350 million in investment, James-Geska said. While the proposal is still in draft form, the timeline for construction will begin this spring with an ESL branch set to be built in the former Bull’s Head plaza.
“ESL is a critical piece of this proposed development. As those of you who have been in this neighborhood a long time will remember, we had five banks,” said Miller. “We now have zero.”
Other projects will continue between this spring and the end of 2028, according to the current proposal. DevelopROC will release the full plan to the public on Feb. 27 at the Salvation Army on 100 West Ave. before presenting it to the City Council for final approval.
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. 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].