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Deciding what’s in store for Midtown

Bert Orr:
Deciding what’s in store for Midtown

Bert Orr dispatches the radio reporter in no more than a minute.
The reporter, calling from a station whose call letters Orr cannot precisely remember moments after hanging up, wants to know what Orr’s plan is for Midtown Plaza.
“There is no plan as such, and I’m in the middle of a meeting right now,” Orr says, politely but firmly dismissing the request.
Local expectations of some new developments at Midtown have been simmering since California entrepreneur Peter Arnold’s company bought the 1 million-square-foot downtown office and retail complex in November.
Once the retail hub of a thriving downtown, the 37-year-old plaza has declined to an anemic shadow of its former self with thousands of square feet of vacant retail space.
When Arnold Industries Inc. bought Midtown, many here assumed the Californian had some grand design to revitalize the plaza.
He did not, but he hired a top-flight Chicago property-management and leasing firm, LaSalle Partners Management Ltd., to come up with one. That is where Orr, a LaSalle vice president, comes in.
On the job as Midtown’s general manager little more than a month, Orr has not had much time to assess the complex’s options. But he comes to the job straight off a five-year assignment running a similar mixed-use downtown mall in Hartford, Conn., and so is not approaching the project entirely cold.
Orr thinks repositioning Midtown is a doable but by no means certain project that could take years of effort and certainly will require a lot of money, some from public coffers.
In fact, he has a plan, or at least the elements of one. The design is an evolving effort, long on concept and short on detail, which might explain his reluctance to share it in a telephone interview with a radio reporter.
The short version, Orr says, is this: convert much of the vacant retail space into offices and other uses, and get more people moving through the plaza. Accomplish that, and appropriate retail will be relatively easy to fill in.
The chances of inducing major department stores to Midtown are not good, Orr says.
Some in Rochester hoped LaSalle’s pull with big-name corporations and retailers would translate to attractive leases at Midtown. But Orr says that is not how it works. The big clients do not ask LaSalle where they should be. They tell LaSalle where they want to be.
“Nordstrom’s (at Midtown) isn’t going to happen,” he says.
Saying exactly what will happen is trickier. Orr has tried to develop a framework to reposition the downtown behemoth.
Fleshing out the plan, he says, requires cooperation from local officials.
Turning Midtown’s largely windowless, columned retail space into offices will be an expensive and complicated proposition. And it will demand more parking. That probably means some help from the city.
Orr also hopes the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority will decide to put a transit hub, an instant source of foot traffic, at the mall.
Another traffic builder would be a performance space and corporate teleconferencing center that Orr wants to carve out of some vacant retail areas.
Will city and county officials–who are weighing construction of a $30 million performing arts center near High Falls–see such space as unwanted competition?
Orr is not sure.
Part of his homework for the Midtown project was a study of Rochester’s existing downtown development plans. He tried to mirror them in creating a preliminary blueprint for Midtown. But so far he has had little chance for substantive discussions with local officials to see how his ideas play with them.
Orr has had tentative talks with Fashun Ku, city economic development commissioner, and has met with some Rochester Downtown Development Corp. officials. He has yet to sit down with Rochester Mayor William Johnson Jr. or county officials.
It is not that they have rebuffed him. But Orr thinks negotiations could proceed at a quicker pace. Like teenagers at a junior high school sock hop with the boys and girls hugging opposite walls at the gym, someone needs to cross the floor so the dancing can start.
Whatever happens, Orr says, the plaza needs to be linked to other, ongoing downtown development plans, such as the transit mall.
Who pays for what likely will determine how Midtown’s repositioning ultimately plays out. Here, Orr is aware of the delicacy of his position.
On one side is Arnold, whose resources, Orr says, are relatively limited. On the other are local officials, also with limited funds.
Both have strong interests in seeing a revitalized Midtown. In the middle is Orr, trying to bring them together to make it work.
“What they have to understand,” says Orr of Rochester officials, “is that (Arnold) is an entrepreneur. He’s taking a big risk, but he can’t do it all by himself. He’s going to need some help.”
Local officials who have met Orr speak highly of him.
Bruce Russell, former Eastman Kodak Co. corporate real estate head and a key member of RDDC, said he was highly impressed with Orr’s professionalism and with the LaSalle vice president’s grasp of the realities of high-stakes real estate.
Ku, while not ready to commit city money to a parking garage, likewise sees Orr as a professional, and as personally forthright.
Also impressive to Ku are Orr’s credentials in his own field.
Orr studied urban planning and public administration, and once worked as a city administrator.
Wayne Mills, vice president of corporate real estate for Travelers Property and Casualty Corp., cites dealing with local-government officials as a particularly strong skill of Orr’s.
Travelers owns two buildings in Hartford that Orr managed.
“There is not much to know about management of downtown buildings that (Orr) doesn’t know,” Mills says. “He does a nice job dealing with tenants. He does a nice job dealing with city officials.”
Orr ran five properties owned by Travelers and Aetna Property & Casualty in Hartford, among them the Civic Center Mall, a 1970s-vintage, enclosed downtown retail arena similar to Midtown.
Here, Mills says, Orr faced challenges, but “held the line.”
Orr himself says the downtown Hartford mall is similar to Midtown in virtually every aspect, including a fair amount of retail vacancy.
He took over management of the property five years ago and, as he is now doing with Midtown, developed a repositioning plan. But Aetna, for reasons of its own, decided not to carry through. The property has since been treading water, he adds.
Orr says he could do the same hold-the-line kind of management at Midtown, but it would be a slow death for the Rochester plaza.
Midtown “missed the ’80s and missed the ’90s. Now is the time to do something for 2000 and beyond,” he says.
Orr, 44, brings two decades of varied experience to his position at Midtown. He earned an undergraduate degree in urban studies from the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind., proceeding immediately to receive a master’s degree in public administration from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., in 1977.
In his first job out of graduate school, he served as city administrator for Boxford, a small city in Massachusetts.
Orr says he stayed only one year, leaving partly because he found the job to be too political.
Afterward, he held a series of sales and corporate finance jobs, working over the next five years for Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co., PepsiCo Inc. and United Technologies Corp.
By the early 1980s, Orr had decided that he wanted more action than corporate finance could provide, so he took a job as project manager for a Hartford construction firm, Building Systems Co. When the firm disbanded his group, Orr had an offer from LaSalle, but declined the job because it meant moving to New York City.
Instead, Orr went to work managing a small portfolio of commercial buildings in Hartford for the Fusco Corp.
In 1993, when LaSalle took over management of Aetna’s Hartford real estate portfolio, the Chicago firm again tapped him. This time, Orr accepted.
Though he says he had “pretty much decided” to finish out his career in Hartford, Orr says he has switched gears with the Midtown assignment, and now sees himself staying in Rochester for at least five to six years. His wife and two children will move here when the school year finishes.
Orr describes himself as an intensely private person who is uncomfortable putting too much of his inner life into the public arena. He offers his analysis of Midtown and its options in a dispassionate manner.
Yet a parting thought Orr offers after a lengthy discussion of Midtown suggests an eagerness to finish what he could not complete in Hartford, and to seize an opportunity to really show his chops as an urban planner.
“Do you know what my fantasy is? Maybe in five years we’ll see this project written up in The Journal of the Urban Land Institute.”

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