Like a puzzle with many parts, everything needs to fall into place if East Main Street is to be restored as the heart of downtown it once was for the city of Rochester.
New residents at the Metropolitan and elsewhere will want easy access to goods and services. And while ongoing projects, like Sibley Square closer to East Avenue, are well underway, the section of East Main Street between St. Paul Street and Clinton Avenue, near the Metropolitan, has not kept pace.
That may be changing as landlords, developers and city leaders combine their efforts to overcome some of the barriers to restoring the buildings, retail activity and the overall draw of East Main.
The challenges lie mainly on the north side of East Main Street, west of Clinton, a long block that, unlike the south side, is not bisected by Stone Street.
“It has properties that are not at their highest and best use,” said Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp., putting it politely.
But she is optimistic for the future.
“After a 25-year dry spell, we’re finally seeing water come down the chute,” she said.
CGI Communications Inc., located on the northwest corner of this block, is growing and has plans to expand its business into the recently purchased Gateway and Atrium buildings. On the opposite end of the block, downtown developer Patrick Dutton, who is also involved in leasing and marketing the Metropolitan, hopes to create a mix of residential, retail and restaurants.
Meanwhile the city of Rochester has plans to overhaul the look of Main Street from St. Paul to East Avenue by redoing sidewalks and—most important for retailers—adding on-street parking. The project secured $2 million in state funding this summer, with the city to contribute another $2 million, said Baye Muhammad, who heads the city’s Neighborhood and Business Development Department.
In addition, the Landmark Society of Western New York applied for and received approval from the New York Historic Preservation Office to designate the area as a historic district, an application awaiting final approval from the National Park Service, opening the door to state and federal tax credits for rehabilitation efforts.
All these pieces will be essential to the future of East Main.
“What we hope for is a more lively Main Street, where you can go to a restaurant, a pharmacy, a shoe store,” Muhammad said.
He is glad to see the residential developments, such as the Metropolitan, that are bringing more people into downtown—along with more disposable income.
“As far as government, we want to do as much as we can to attract—first local businesses that want to relocate there, but also any national chains,” he said.
Plans for a Starbucks on the south side of the block are already creating a buzz, he noted.
Dutton, along with his family, owns three of the buildings on the north side of Main Street near Clinton, and he noted that they had been “basically left for dead,” after the Renaissance Square plan collapsed in 2009.
That proposal, which included a transit center, a theater and a downtown campus for Monroe Community College, would have transformed the northwest corner of Main and Clinton but got bogged down in prolonged debate and financing challenges just as the recession hit.
To tackle that corner now, Dutton said, tax credits through the historic district designation will be essential to making any financing work, but he has visions of a “retail-focused destination” for the area.
“These are not easy projects by any stretch of the imagination,” he said, noting his buildings date back to the 1800s. “The risk is just absurd.”
The effort required to bring them back from the brink will be immense, involving everything from structural reinforcement to new stairwells, windows and roofs, he said. But he sees the beauty hidden under decades of neglect and genuinely wants to see the buildings restored.
“These buildings have an amazing soul to them. You can’t replicate this kind of character,” he said.
Wayne Goodman, executive director of the Landmark Society, is another person who sees the old buildings as worth preserving. They are part of the city’s architectural heritage and the city’s history, he argued.
“Architecture as a form of community development takes on all different shapes and sizes, and it’s not just the high style,” he said. The “vernacular” styles are worth preserving too.
If getting downtown recognized as a historic district allows for greater investment in both restoration and new construction, he is all for it.
But tax credits and financing are not the only critical things going forward. Also essential for the development of East Main is the plan for on-street parking that would come with the city’s streetscape redesign.
“It’s one of the many components that’s required for Main Street to come back,” Dutton said.
Restaurants and retailers need not just foot traffic, but customers who know they can park and pop into a store or meet a friend for lunch, he said.
On-street parking creates a flow of visitors pulling in and out and changes the atmosphere in a good way.
“They create a sense of safety and security, all those people coming and going,” Zimmer-Meyer said.
Construction on the streetscape is scheduled to start this spring and finish in the fall. The redesign would change sidewalks, add trees, benches, lighting, bike racks and other amenities to the stretch of East Main from St. Paul to the Liberty Pole area.
Perhaps most critically, it would eliminate bus stops and create space for parallel parking on both sides of the street: a total of 52 new parking spaces between St. Paul and East Avenue.
Finally, CGI Inc.’s owner Robert Bartosiewicz also will be playing an important role in how this area of East Main Street develops.
Bartosiewicz did not respond to requests for comment but has talked with others about a possible museum featuring his collection of high-performance muscle cars. That would be a compelling and unique attraction for downtown, several people noted.
“I think it brings an added interest to Main Street,” Dutton said, calling the venue a potentially “creative and different” destination that would have positive spillover for any retail or restaurants nearby.
Developing a strategic plan for retail development of this corridor will be important for attracting investors and business owners. Dutton said they will want to know what is intended for the neighborhood and how they might fit in. That means stakeholders will need to develop a shared vision, he said.
Zimmer-Meyer agreed that collaboration will be critical, but she is convinced a transformation is coming.
“Two to three years and this section of the city is going to be explosive in terms of the change, the growth. There’s so much in the pipeline,” she said.
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