As the first public forum on the future of Parcel 5 began, droves of attendees clad in green T-shirts, embossed with “Free Parcel 5” across the chest, flooded into the Rochester City Hall council chambers. Amid them, politicians, local activists, theater executives and business owners all awaited their chance to voice their visions of the future of the Midtown gravel lot.
The controversy surrounding Parcel 5, an acre lot where Midtown Mall once stood, stems from a perfect storm of perceived lack of government transparency, minimal opportunity for public input, a vacancy of feasibility studies and a belief the estimated $130 million performing arts center and residential complex, presented by the Rochester Broadway Theater League, decided on by Mayor Lovely Warren in April, would be a massive boondoggle.
Many in attendance compared the creation of the performing arts center to the infamous failure of the fast ferry under former
Mayor William Johnson.
“If we’re serious about the arts, the city should invest in a fund,” mayoral candidate Rachel Barnhart said. “It’s clear we need to go back to the drawing board, and in the meantime, why not make it a temporary park? Downtown is for everyone.”
Following Barnhart’s statement, City Council president Loretta Scott read a statement from absent councilmember Adam McFadden. McFadden voluntarily declined to attend the forum, claiming its timing was motivated by politics rather than legitimate public concern, a sentiment met with boos from the crowd.
“There are numerous reasons I’m opposed to the public forum, it’s nothing short of election year politics,” McFadden stated.
William Sullivan, finance chairman for the RBTL, echoed this sentiment, pointing to the failed $230 million Renaissance Square Project falling victim to “political squabbling.” Sullivan also referred to statements from the Geva Theatre Center Inc.’s art director Mark Cuddy, who spoke Monday on the need for better studies on the proposal, as “self-serving.”
“The Rochester Broadway Theater League firmly believes this performing arts center belongs downtown,” Sullivan said.
Vocal on pure opposition to the performing arts center, members of the Free Parcel 5 group, a grassroots collection of activists petitioned to turn the lot into a shared community green space. Ray Ray Mitrano, a city resident living nearby Parcel 5, argued the performing arts center would only create temporary visitors downtown from nearby suburbs.
“We live in a segregated city, we need a cultural hub that brings our city together and integrates ideas,” Mitrano said. “A performing arts center may bring people downtown, an openly accessed, diverse public space will keep them there.”
Focusing on the logistics of the performing arts center project in comparison to the demographics of Parcel 5’s neighborhood, many members of Free Parcel 5 argued the project would be made for city dwellers, but rather to attract people from surrounding suburbs. For example, according to a 2016 study by the Rochester Broadway Theater League, from 2015 to 2016, 71 percent of touring Broadway show attendees were female, 91 percent were white and 52 percent reported an average income over $100,000. The average age of attendees was 54.
Comparably, according to the U.S. Census, 51.7 percent of Rochester’s population is female, 43.7 percent are white and 33.5 percent live below the poverty line, with a per capita income of $19,158. The median age is 31.4 years.
For other local staples of the arts community, the performing arts center project was met with concern for the health of their own operations. Ingrid Stanlis, chair-elect for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Inc., expressed concern about the new theater stealing audiences from the RPO’s offerings, which in recent years have expanded beyond the bounds of solely classical into more modern and experimental performances. Stanlis suggested better feasibility studies be done to understand the impact.
“Let me be clear, the RPO does not take a position on Parcel 5. but our successful new offerings may be the same as offerings at the performing arts center,” Stanlis said.
Despite scrutiny from across the city spectrum, RBTL held steadfast to its belief the project would prove an economic benefit to the city as a whole.
“Over the past three decades, we have put on over 300 productions and brought in a staggering $350 million,” said Linda Glosser, RBTL vice president
Glosser pointed to the loss of an opening touring production of “the Lion King” at the Auditorium Theater due to a lack of air conditioning, the opening going to Syracuse instead, as an inevitability that will happen again should the center not be constructed.
Despite a stark contrast between stances of proponents of the center and supporters of an open green space, the forum carried with it an air of satisfaction and revelry in that public voices, silent in the selection process for the future of Parcel 5, were being heard.
Ken Sato, a member of Free Parcel 5 who had submitted a request for a civic square on the lot in 2015, used the majority of his time at the podium to celebrate the democratic process in action.
“No matter what happens with Parcel 5, this process will make this city better,” Sato said.
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