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Rochester plays catch-up to benefits of mixed use

From the 27-story Chase Tower in the heart of downtown to the sprawling 65-acre CityGate project on the city’s edge, much of the new development in Rochester has a common theme: mixed use.

The Chase Tower, historically an office building, will soon be converted into a mixture of offices, apartments and stores. CityGate will blend the Costco store with canalside apartments, shops, offices, restaurants and a hotel.

Likewise, the Sibley building, Midtown Plaza and College Town all combine shopping, restaurants, office and residential into their new spaces.

“It’s going back to the way it wasreally historically,” says Joseph Eddy, vice president of WinnDevelopment LLC, the Boston-based firm that is redeveloping the Sibley Building. “You go to Pompeii, you go to Rome, they had mixed use. It’s not a new concept.”

Single-use urban high-rises had a few decades of prominence, but now mixed use is coming back in most American cities, he says.

“It’s a national trend,” Eddy says. “It’s the way people live today.”

Indeed, Rochester seems to be a little bit behind in mixed-use development, says James Taylor, CEO of Taylor, The Builders, a general contracting firm in Penfield that worked on College Town.

“I think the trend has been pretty prevalent nationwide, and we’re just catching up to it,” Taylor says. “But it’s definitely getting legs, and I see a lot of support and growth in this area in the future.”

This is happening despite the fact that developers say mixed-use projects tend to be more challenging to design and build.

“It’s really complicated,” Eddy says. “There are a lot of things you have to figure out on security and on logistics, from things like trash and deliveries, and entryways and signage and wayfinding.”

Adding residences to the Chase Tower triggers new codes, such as fresh air requirements and elevator issues, says Andrew Gallina, president of Gallina Development Corp., which is redeveloping the building.

“Unfortunately, they’re kind of invisible improvements,” Gallina says.

Gallina also has to consider how to manage security where private residences mingle with public spaces, and how to manage foot traffic from a new street-level entrance.

“Some of the uses and the way the building will function is just inherently different in a mixed-use building,” Gallina says.

Construction can also be tricky on a mixed-use project.

Workers had to be bussed in to the College Town site because there were so many, Taylor says, and multiple general contractors were working there simultaneously.

“There were days when four different trades or occupations wanted to occupy the same square foot of real estate on the site,” Taylor says. “It was pretty challenging completing that.”

Also, it was tricky coordinating the opening, he says. Retailers had different target opening dates. Stores generally wanted residents to move in before they opened, while residents wanted stores open before they moved in— and neither wanted to hear construction noise while the rest of the project finished.

Those were short-term problems, however.

“You walk around in there now and you just feel the positive vibe,” Taylor says.

It is that sense of vitality that developers are hoping to create with mixed-use development at CityGate, less than a mile away.

Anthony Costello, CEO of Anthony J. Costello & Son Development LLC, in Rochester, says he and his son debated for years what type of development to build on the old Iola Campus, which they bought from Monroe County. They considered single-use shopping, offices and living spaces but ultimately settled on mixed use, he says, after seeing how well it has worked in other cities.

“It’s been very successful throughout the country,” Costello says.

Now that Costco has moved in and Costello is signing leases for other parts of the development, he says it is clear that mixed use adds value. Costello was just talking to a potential office tenant who was excited, he says, about all the benefits of the mixed-use setting for its 250 employees.

“The project itself has more life with people living there, with people staying in the hotels there, with people dining there, with people shopping there, people in offices there,” Costello says. “It’s alive.”

For Gallina, the decision to convert Chase Tower to mixed use was driven by the market. When the Chase Tower was built in the 1970s, the demand for office space downtown was strong, he says, but now the downtown office market is slow and rents are falling.

“With that in mind, we’ve got a lot of volume and space,” Gallina says. “The way to fill the building up, to compensate for that trend, is to go to the hot market, which is housing.”

The tentative plan for the building keeps office space on floors 4 through 13, he says, while floors 14 through 26 would become apartments and condominiums.

He hopes to find retail to occupy the ground level that will service the residents, such as a barber shop, dry cleaner and perhaps a small grocery store.

This is Gallina Development’s first mixed-use project, Gallina says. Most of its developments are in the suburbs.

“I think mixed use is more of a downtown phenomenon,” Gallina says. “That’s my opinion. … Our suburban office market is not a walkable environment. Very few places can you walk out your door and get lunch or dinner, and that’s what we’re hopeful to bring downtown. People want to live where they can work and play.”

Taylor, however, believes that mixed-use ventures can work in the suburbs under the right conditions.

Taylor, The Builders is now working on a mixed-use development in Perinton called Whitney Town Center, with 150 senior apartments and 30,000 square feet of retail and professional office space.

Mixed use makes sense there because of the high density of households in a 3-mile radius of the site, plus a few large employers, to support some new businesses, Taylor says. It is less than a mile from the Village of Fairport, it is on a bus route and it connects to the town’s trail network and the canal.

“So we’re trying to build that little town center, that little community feel right here in suburbia,” Taylor says.

Taylor sees demand for walkable, mixed-use development in the suburbs, especially from baby boomers who are downsizing.

“Downtown loft apartment living is not for everybody,” Taylor says. “A lot of people still want to maintain their connection with their little communities, with the villages or towns where they raised their families. So they’re looking for an opportunity maybe to get out of that four-bedroom house but still stay in their original community.”

WinnDevelopment’s Eddy says mixed use works well in the suburbs when there is enough density, as in the inner suburbs of Boston, but not in every case.

“I don’t think you really see it in Rochester, and some of that really has to do with scale,” Eddy says. “You really need to have a lot of office and residential to be able to support the retail.”

WinnDevelopment bought the Cedars of Chili apartments for redevelopment and briefly considered converting it to mixed use, Eddy says, but ultimately decided to keep the project residential.

“People that live there can walk to a Wegmans, they can walk to a lot of retail in downtown Chili,” Eddy says, “so we’ve thought about it, but I just don’t think at this point it makes sense.”

The Sibley building, though, is a perfect fit for mixed use, he says. The tower is just right for residential, the lower levels have large floor plates better suited to office or institutional use, and the ground level is in a great location for retail.

“It can make for a very complicated development process,” Eddy says, “but the end result is something much better for people that live in the city.”

Julie Kirkwood is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

7/31/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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