Drive down East Main Street during any hour of the day and you will surely pass the desolate site where Midtown Mall once stood. Of course, it’s not always quite so desolate. During Rochester’s beloved Fringe Festival and the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, the humble 1.2 acre plot of land swells to life, brimming with dance, laughter, musical vigor and, occasionally, monstrous balloons liberated from the contentious plot of land, hovering in the night sky above.
Parcel 5, as it’s referred to, has been possibly the most highly debated subject in the City of Rochester over the past couple years. Every time the City Council takes up the subject, citizens pack the room, voicing their concerns about the future of the site. Just about everyone who lives in the city has an opinion they’re eager to express. Rightfully so, whatever project ends up on Parcel 5 will undoubtedly define downtown development for decades to come. As it stands now, that project is set to be the Rochester Broadway Theatre League’s Golisano Center for the Performing Arts, or GCPA.
Part of Rochester’s Midtown Rising project, Parcel 5 and adjacent acreage has already received $44 million in state funding used to demolish Midtown Plaza.
The Performing Arts Center
Decided in April, the Golisano Center for the Performing Arts and an adjoining tower is a project spearheaded by RBTL President Arnold Rothschild and real estate magnate Robert Morgan. It’s quite an undertaking: a 3,000-seat theater for RBTL mixed with Morgan’s 150-unit residence, plus a 1,700-space underground garage and a sprawling high-definition display facing East Main Street. In total, it’s a project expected to cost $135 million, $25 million of which has been pledged by native billionaire Tom Golisano. In line with city stipulations, RBTL has to purchase the parcel from the city for $1.05 million and be barred from receiving any city funding for the project.
“It’s going to be a venue that will be used 180 to 200 nights per year, and that’s without conventions that will come and use the venue, or corporate meetings, because Visit Rochester at one point projected they could get an additional six conventions here if they had a 3,000-seat meeting room,” Rothschild said. “So all in all, there’s a lot of moving parts, but we’re working on it diligently, and it’s all coming together.”
The GCPA will be a successor to the Auditorium Theatre, which is increasingly suffering from the ravages of time. The need for an updated Auditorium, originally built in 1928, is palpable. Wooden pillars are jury-rigged in the wardrobe room beneath the stage, holding up the weight of increasingly bigger and more lavish performances. Drummers are often moved out of the orchestral pit into another room, playing to the scenes via a microphone. Add to that a green room looking more at home in a YMCA and a leaky roof that requires repairs in the six-figures each year and you have a good grasp of why the RBTL has rallied for new digs.
Simply renovating, RBTL CEO John Parkhurst said, is an option that logistically is not in the cards.
“Off the top of my head, the cost would have been $25-30 million,” Parkhurst said. “And the biggest thing is we needed to add seats to make it affordable. If you compare our prices to something like the Jazz Festival, our prices are very reasonable, and we want to keep them that. But if expenses keep going up, prices go up.”
In response, Jean Dalmath of Dalmath Associates, who handles public relations for the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, noted that a club pass selling for $184 up to December 31 equals out to around $7 per show, for an average attendee attending five shows per day for five days, with a total of 221 shows. Tickets for Seal and Allison Krauss’s shows stand as the priciest in the 2018 season, running at $70 on the low end. Comparably, a three show season pass for the RBTL’s 2018 season runs at $115 on the low-end.
Additionally, XRIJF made ready use of Parcel 5, with both Trombone Shorty and Hooligans performing free shows at the space over the past two years, attracting 25,000 festival goers.
“We can’t afford to miss a season,” Parkhurst said. “We’ll go out of business, plain and simple. It’s not like we can shut down for two years and do a renovation.”
For Rothschild, that makes creating a new, state-of-the-art theater all the more reasonable, and would, in his view, serve as a boon for downtown. The Auditorium, meanwhile, will be used for local art troupes and comedy acts and will remain under ownership of the RBTL.
GCPA would generate a variety of different jobs, Rothschild said, and what projects like this “typically do is (create) a tremendous amount of increased demand for hotels around them. People come into town, stay over, stay in the hotels, eat in the restaurants.”
It’s a major claim—possibly the most important question when discussing the future of downtown development. Will GCPA bring people here? For the answer, the RBTL offers an economic impact statement comparing GCPA to other projects in cities of similar size. Take, for example, Durham, North Carolina’s Performing Arts Center, known as DPAC. According to DPAC officials, the total economic impact made by the theater in the 2015-16 season was $109 million, with $79.8 million added to Durham’s economy. Durham is slightly larger than Rochester, with a population of 263,016 to Rochester’s 208,880. However, Rochester has a larger metro area: 1,082,284 compared to 547,710 in Durham-Chapel Hill. This matters for a critical reason: three out of four attendees of DPAC in that season came from outside the city, and Rochester has almost twice as big a pool to pull from in the immediate area.
“The Broadway League has a formula that for every dollar in ticket sales, there’s about $3 in economic impact, from people going to restaurants, and parking, and buying clothes and going out for dessert after,” Rothschild said. “What we believe you’re going to see is somewhere around $45 million in economic impact just from Broadway, and then all of the popular entertainment events that will come to the building as well will be important.”
The economic multiplier effect is one Rothschild views as unique to performing arts centers.
“In a sports venue, people go to the venue and they eat in the concessions and then they go home,” Rothschild said. “But with entertainment events, they go out for dinner before, they go out for dessert after, they go out for drinks, whatever.”
GCPA is expected to have its own, third-party restaurant on site. Ultimately, the goal is to keep momentum going downtown, growing the number of performances from 125 a year at the Auditorium to 180 at GCPA, and presumably the city would reap the economic benefit.
“It’s not necessarily that we’re going to have more different shows,” Rothschild said. “But we will be able to get those big name acts, like Hamilton, and keep them here for longer.”
Right now, GCPA is in the process of securing funds for the project, including $20 million from the state. If all goes according to plan, Rothschild hopes to have the center up and running by late 2020.
Revolt of a community
Visitors who came to City Council meetings the past few months were likely greeted by swarms of green T-shirts, adorned with the phrase “Free Parcel 5.” They likely heard vivid, passionate speeches about the future of Parcel 5—this coveted piece of land in the beating heart of Rochester. And likely on hand was Alex White, a three-time mayoral candidate on the Green Party ballot and owner of Monroe Avenue game shop Boldo’s Armory. White has been a vocal critic of the project since its inception.
“My problem with the theater is: Where’s the money?” White said. “This is a scheme. They’re kind of hoping it works, and I don’t like business plans based on hope. I’m a business owner— I’ve made a business plan. In fact, I’ve done it a couple times. I understand how this works, and their business plan doesn’t make sense; it doesn’t finance itself.”
As White and every other opponent of the project is quick to point out, last year’s process of choosing a future for Parcel 5 was ripe with controversy. In their estimation, GCPA was given special treatment, with Morgan’s piece tacked on after the window closed for submissions.
Gallina Development offered a mixed-use proposal for the Parcel 5 space. Lauren Gallina, marketing director, explained the merits of their project.
“One of the things we saw for our project was 24/7 use, daily activity, people coming and going at all hours of the day and night,” Gallina said. “Versus, the performing arts center only has so many performances per year, and the majority of daytime hours it would be dark, it would not be in use. So creating that daytime vitality, coming and going, supporting local retail as well as commercial office users that would be coming and going from the building, versus people coming in for a performance and then leaving.”
The Gallina project included a 14-story mixed use space featuring 31 condominiums, retail spots and 50,000 square feet of commercial office space for use by the owner. The idea, as Gallina described, was to create a vibrant downtown, where people would not just come for an attraction, but rather for long-term investments as condo-owning residents.
“At this point, 96 percent of people living downtown are renting or leasing; only 4 percent are actual homeowners,” Gallina said. “It’s a very small percentage of people that are actually investing in downtown long term, where when you have people owning their homes, they have a sense of pride in their neighborhood and what’s happening there.”
The Gallina Project is not going forward at Parcel 5, but another concept is still alive for many. A Rochester civic space, or Visionary Square, has been the main focus of people behind the “Free Parcel 5” banners. The concept is simple, and akin to what the space is currently being used for: an open space for the community meant for people to freely shop, play, gather and, essentially, hang out.
“We’re using the vacant space there multiple times a week for things already,” White said, “showing that there is a need for a space like that. And (the city) ignoring their own use of it. They did a fundraiser for Puerto Rico over at Parcel 5, partially because it was easy for the city to use the space for that with virtually no notice. Why are we giving up a space we find so valuable for a plan that is the worst thing we could put there?”
Much like RBTL’s economic impact statement, the civic space advocates have brought to the table their own economic parallels to projects in other cities. Take, for example, Columbus, Ohio’s Columbus Commons. The Commons is a six-acre public park, though privately owned, which opened in 2011 and includes a concert stage and hosts 250 annual events. Eerily familiar, Columbus Commons sits on the site of a defunct 3-story City Center mall, which became a high crime area as the mall neared closing. Since its opening in 2011, the area around Columbus Commons in downtown Columbus has received over $400 million in private investment in apartment complexes, retail and commercial space.
The argument for a civic space also is boosted by the argument of who the GCPA is being built for. If the Broadway Theatre League’s statistics are correct, it certainly isn’t for the average Rochesterian. According to a 2016 study by the Broadway Theatre 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.
Rochester’s population, according to the U.S. Census, is 51.7 percent female, 43.7 percent white and 33.5 percent below the poverty line. The average age of attendees was 54, compared to an average age of 31.4 in Rochester.
“I don’t know what it will take—whether it be sidewalk trampolines, adult playground equipment or, what about a skatepark?” White said. “These are simple things, things that can bring a community together and make a more vibrant downtown, where startups want to come to, where Amazon might want to come to.”
Rothschild and Parkhurst aren’t reluctant to admit that the project would bring more people from outside the city to downtown. They believe that opening something that can bring people from Pittsford, Brighton or Webster to see what the city has to offer will increase foot traffic, change perceptions and, ultimately make for a better Rochester.
For now, Parcel 5 remains vacant, although in reality it teems with life. It hosts frequent pop-up events from protests to art exhibitions. The heart of Rochester beats at Parcel 5. Perhaps only time will tell how that vibrancy might change as development of one of the biggest capital investments in the city gets underway.