The city is facing a difficult choice considering plans for the heart of downtown Rochester. Buoyed with optimism that hasn’t been felt since Midtown Plaza opened over a half century ago, people are taking sides on the question of what belongs on the last sizable piece of land left after the demolition of the former shopping plaza. Fervent supporters of a big new theater, (“performing arts center” in today’s lingo), are happily arguing with those who think our city needs a public square at the core, a beautiful, mostly green gathering place that would also host events and shops. Further complicating the mix, City Hall has issued a request for proposals for the Parcel 5 site that demand the project contribute to the economic vitality of downtown.
I want to suggest a solution to the dilemma.
Let’s look first at the performing arts center. In order to get objective data to evaluate feasibility, the city, the Rochester Broadway Theater League and others financed a feasibility study, which was released last month. The section covering site assessment inexplicably (to me, at least) examined only one site east of the river, which most people agree is the heart of downtown. That was Parcel 5. No explanation was offered for not considering others identified as potentially available. This matters! As published, the study has the potential to lead City Council to assume that if they want to see a performing arts center at the downtown core, it will have to be on Parcel 5.
A new anchor of prosperity for Rochester
I wish to make the case for another site identified in the study: the site once proposed for the Renaissance Square development.
Along Main Street, extending west from Clinton Avenue, most of the buildings are vacant—and all are vacant and abandoned above the first floor. It has long been considered an eyesore. It is just 200 feet down Main Street from Parcel 5. As a theater site, it has many attributes:
- It is 15 percent larger than Parcel 5. The feasibility study stated that designers had a hard time shoehorning the preferred theater plan into the smaller site.
- It is bounded by a generously proportioned rear alley, which would allow for theatrical moving vans to park out of sight before unloading.
- It is adjacent to the Mortimer Street Garage. An above-grade connection could be built over the alley. Additionally, just 200 feet along Clinton Avenue is the St. Joseph’s Garage.
- Location here could spur retail development: across Clinton Avenue, on the ground floor of Sibley Square; across Main Street, in the now nearly empty concourse of shops at the Metropolitan, formerly Chase Tower; and, most importantly, at Parcel 5, whether developed as a central square with retail space or with a building or a combination of both.
As with many of the other sites identified, this blighted group of buildings could be acquired by the city using eminent domain since there is a public purpose, then resold to the theater developer.
Synergy is possible with good planning: there has been a surge of interest in the creation of a public square on Parcel 5. Proposals will be submitted on Sept. 9, including a blend of usable green space combined with retail space. (Go to thisisnotapark.com for examples of central parks in other cities that have stimulated downtown development.) If a performing arts center is found to be feasible, and if it were located at the Main and Clinton site I have described, there would be a place for one or more or a blend of the proposals being developed for Parcel 5.
Rochester is indeed fortunate to have these options and possibilities!
Richard Rosen is an architect and planner at Mark IV Enterprises and has been engaged in placemaking downtown for three decades. (Mark IV has no interest in this matter.)
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