The Strong National Museum of Play has grand plans that, when they reach fruition, will dramatically alter the look of one corner of Rochester’s downtown.
Other less grandiose yet august ideas undertaken just a few blocks away from The Strong will have, or have already had, the same impact for once-dreary downtown streets.
The progressive approach to a rebirth of downtown is all due in large part to the elimination of an underused downtown expressway.
In saying goodbye to about one-third of the sunken, paved barrier that was the Inner Loop, the City of Rochester is saying hello to much greater development and growth.
“Instead of this highway with cars going 50 to 70 mph, it created parcels of land for people to work, play and be better connected,” Baye M. Muhammad, commissioner of neighborhood & business development, said.
A long-vacant lot between East Main Street and Charlotte Street is now upscale living. Another unkempt plot at 52 Broadway will be developed in the near future (requests for proposal are being accepted now).
And with what could very well be the cornerstone of current downtown development, The Strong intends to break ground this summer on the Neighborhood of Play on Parcels 4 and 5 of the old Inner Loop. It’s a project that will add 100,000 square feet to its existing 285,000 square-foot facility as well as a hotel and mixed-use housing and retail structure.
The very place where cars once sped by will become, by the summer of 2020, a place where people come for a weekend of stay and play.
“Now for a family coming from (Washington,) D.C. or Cleveland, instead of a one-day visit to the museum, it could be a two-day visit to our city,” Muhammad said. “And then when they go home, they’ll tell the story, which will be a good one.”
Now look back: How often did that happen 10 and 15 years ago, where visitors spread the news about the niceties of Rochester’s downtown? You know that answer.
But times are changing. Whereas the Inner Loop kept people out of the loop, there is now much more downtown synergy. Phase 1 of removing the moat, as city leaders refer to the former highway, is complete. The long-term goal is for complete elimination of the dividing roadway.
“There’s a lot of energy in this city and a lot of energy to come,” Deputy Mayor Cedric Alexander said. “Through the vision of the mayor (Lovely A. Warren), we’ve created an environment that welcomes everyone into the city.”
That includes businesses. Fisher Associates, the professional design firm, moved from Henrietta to Charlotte Street this spring. Allied Universal Services moved from Kodak Park to 3 City Center on South Clinton Avenue. Even a small business like SiteHub wanted to be downtown, moving into the Talman Building at 25 E. Main in the fall.
Gallina Development’s re-creation of the Chase Tower is complete. Renamed The Metropolitan, the tower is home to residential, office and retail space. The Metropolitan’s skyscraping neighbor, Tower280, was redeveloped by Morgan Management and Buckingham Properties and is similar in makeup with high-end residential living plus office and retail accommodations.
Existing businesses have made a commitment to their own space as well. The Hyatt Regency hotel completed a $19 million renovation of all 343 guest rooms in the fall. Morton’s The Steakhouse opened within the Hyatt in October and the hotel’s The Street Craft Kitchen and Bar also opened for dining and libations. The spring also means Center City Terrace and Lounge, a 1,600-square-foot outdoor bar on the Hyatt’s fourth floor, will provide starlight views.
Across Main Street is the Rochester Riverside Hotel, which was purchased in October by the Hyatt’s ownership group, MC Management. The Radisson name is gone but there eventually will be a new brand name added to the enterprise, said Jay Rettberg, general manager of the Hyatt. A renovation will probably take place within 18 months, he said.
“We’re excited to see the direction the city is going in,” Rettberg said.
While eliminating one portion of the Inner Loop was a critical component for growth, re-imagining and narrowing the traffic lanes on Main Street was equally important.
“When you need to get in shape, you start with your core,” said Norm Jones, commissioner of environmental services for the city. “Main Street is our core.”
No one would consider some new striping, new asphalt and the addition of bike lanes and bus lanes to be equal in impact to the renovation of the Sibley Building or Chase Tower.
“It wasn’t too sexy,” Jones said of a project that included federal, state, city and private dollars. “But you have to have an infrastructure in place to complete those major initiatives. Main Street supports Tower280, The Metropolitan, Sibley Square, 200 East Main St.
“Main Street is the core of our city.”
Indeed, the roadway splits all of downtown and extends to Genesee Street on the west side and Winton Avenue on the east side. It is the major thoroughfare through downtown. And it’s now just one lane in each direction through downtown.
In place of the eliminated traffic lanes are bike lanes and bus lanes. Some 52 parking spaces were added between Chestnut Street and South Avenue. More will be added between St. Paul Boulevard and the Four Corners intersection.
The “bump-outs” at intersections weren’t created to aggravate snowplow operators but rather to make the distance across a few steps shorter given the time of a green light. In-laid games such as hopscotch and four-square are planned for downtown sidewalks to provide kids with an avenue for fun.
But the biggest remake was funneling traffic from two lanes into one.
“It’s called traffic calming,” Jones said. “The more lanes you have, the faster people tend to go, switching in and out of lanes. Your city streets become more like a highway.”
Just off Main Street in the East End District is Charlotte Street and the 72 apartments in Charlotte Square. All are leased. The development was a Home Leasing project. The company also built 10 townhouses right next door because people like the area.
“It’s hot, hot, hot,” Nelson Leehouts, chairman and CEO of Home Leasing, said. “It’s close to downtown but not as busy as Four Corners. There’s so little home ownership opportunity within the Inner Loop.”
His company built on a property that had sat empty for about a dozen years. Before there could be development, there needed to be soil remediation by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation because a dry cleaning operation had operated nearby for nearly 70 years.
“It was one of the longest vacant properties in the city,” Leenhouts said.
Now it has boasts luxury living in a lively part of downtown that has a modern look.
“The city has been absolutely wonderful with new streets, new utilities and landscaping.”
It’s all part of city leadership’s grand vision. For Warren and the people in her administration, the future includes a city that features walk-ability and affordability. City leaders also want it to be a place that is vibrant after 5 p.m.
Much of that is tied to foot traffic.
“We want to build a city that’s not reliant on the car,” Muhammad said.
Right now, “Rochester doesn’t have a parking problem, it has a walking problem,” said Patrick Flanigan, interactive media editor for the city.
To make the city more walker friendly, barriers such as the Inner Loop needed to come down. That has happened. In its place come establishments that draw people, be it residential communities, offices or retail.
Requests for proposal (RFPs) have gone out for Inner Loop Parcel 3, Parcel 7 and the empty lot at 52 Broadway. The city will choose what it believes is the best project for each plot, within the grand plan. Urban density is critical.
“We want to strategically plan out what will go in certain spots,” Muhammad said. “We need to make the city more walk-able and to do that we need to be more dense. With more things to do, people won’t mind walking.”
City officials will also start imitating college football and basketball coaches by courting prospective businesses. The folks at City Hall know simply planning a new downtown doesn’t mean office space will automatically fill up.
“We have to step up our game,” Muhammad said. “Businesses don’t just come here, you have to go get them. And we have to help existing businesses grow.”
Equally important is creating affordability, especially in housing. Home Leasing has two plans for affordable housing in the works.
“We want a broad range of income levels,” Muhammad said. “The Sibley building (Spectra at Sibley Square) is a great example of that with senior apartments.
“We don’t want to end up like D.C. which is completely un-affordable.”