For decades, it was perhaps the most underutilized thoroughfare in Rochester, an urban-renewal-era roadway meant to move drivers into and out of downtown in rapid fashion.
In reality, the Inner Loop was very much a moat, sans water. The sunken, four-lane expressway cut off neighborhoods, discouraged walkability and turned long stretches of side streets into nothing but frontage roads.
Which is why the eastern portion of the Inner Loop no longer exists. The city of Rochester wants synergy among downtown neighborhoods, not barriers, so it wiped the highway off the map—with the blessing of, and funding from, the federal government.
The roadway was filled in, divided into parcels and offered to developers who could help revitalize neighborhoods and trigger a rebirth from Charlotte Street around to Monroe Avenue.
Now, a quarter century after filling in the Inner Loop was first proposed, there is the promise of vibrancy where once there was just crumbling concrete and potholed pavement.
“We’re at the center point of some of the larger economic development in the city,” said Chris Spinelli, co-founder of ROC Brewing Co. at 56 South Union Street. “It’s an amazing thing to watch.”
By the time construction is finished on the seven Inner Loop East parcels, there will be 530 new housing units that span every income level, as well as a new hotel, an expanded National Museum of Play at the The Strong and retail space.
“When everything’s built and you’re able to walk down that street and never know it was a highway, I think that’s what’s going to make this entire vision complete,” said Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren.
This has been Warren’s pet project. She doesn’t take credit for the concept—the original seeds were planted during William A. Johnson Jr.’s tenure as mayor and $17 million in federal funding was obtained when Robert Duffy was mayor—but her administration has brought it to fruition.
A $22 million roadway fill-in cost has led to $229 million in development.
“If we filled it in and nothing happened, then that’s a problem,” Warren said. “But we were confident for two reasons: We knew what happened with the Midtown development. Tower280 went up and suddenly everybody’s looking at downtown; and also we didn’t have a lot of vacant, developable land in downtown Rochester.”
Other communities have noticed. Government leaders from Flint, Mich., and Syracuse came to town to learn how Rochester dismantled a thoroughfare and reconnected downtown neighborhoods.
“We were the first in the nation to fill in an old highway,” Warren said. “You talk to mayors across the country and you realize the negative effects urban renewal had on cities. So being able to have these relationships with other mayors is important. They’re saying, ‘You did this. Tell me how you did it.’ And we look at what other people are doing as well.”
The transformation near The Strong is already impactful.
“It definitely opened up the neighborhood significantly,” Spinelli said. His business was virtually hidden on the old one-way portion of South Union but has a front-row view of the Inner Loop Parcel 4 and 5 projects.
“The rebirth is also uniting the East and Alexander, Monroe Avenue and Park Avenue neighborhoods,” he said. “It is that exact touch point for all the key neighborhoods connecting into center city.”
That’s one reason ROC Brewing will expand. The firm has shared its building but will become the sole tenant and will add a restaurant to meet what Spinelli believes will be increased demand. That growth is a byproduct of the Inner Loop fill-in.
The most noticeable expansion will be at The Strong. Not only will the facility grow by 90,000 square feet, but there will be adjacent lodging in the soon-to-be-built Hampton Inn & Suites. It’s all part of what is being called the Neighborhood of Play, which the museum believes will draw up to 400,000 new guests every year.
“We’ll become a vibrant neighborhood,” said Steve Dubnik, president and CEO of The Strong. “I don’t think it would have happened without the filling in of the Inner Loop. It frankly has transformed this corner of the city. It was the catalyst for creating the Neighborhood of Play.”
The Strong partnered with Penfield-based Indus Hospitality Group and Konar Properties on the project, which includes creation of 237 housing units, a 1,000-car parking garage and retail space. A new street — Adventure Place — winds through the development.
Farther down South Union to the northeast are Inner Loop Parcels 1, 2 and 3. Home Leasing’s Charlotte Square on the Loop on Parcel 1 will have 50 affordable housing units, with eight reserved for the Spiritus Christi Prison Outreach program. The program helps ex-offenders re-establish themselves in the community.
Home Leasing also is involved on Parcel 3, partnering with Trillium Health to build Union Square. There will be 70 housing units in a diverse, LGBTQ-welcoming environment, with rents from $733 to $1,475.
The plan also calls for a pharmacy as well as other retail space. There currently is no pharmacy downtown.
As a certified B Corporation, Home Leasing believes strongly in making a difference. B Corps attempt to balance profit and purpose, using profits and growth as a means to a greater end for employees, communities and the environment.
“One of the things we really like to do when we take on a project is to be part of something greater than just building the housing,” Bret Garwood, CEO of Home Leasing, said.
“We saw this as a huge opportunity to accomplish something good for the community, where we could build a range of housing types so everyone can participate in the revitalization of downtown.”
Once work is finished on the Parcel 3 project in the spring of 2021, Home Leasing will have built 202 housing units: 72 in Charlotte Square, 10 townhomes, 50 at Charlotte Square on the Loop and 70 more at Union Square.
“In those few blocks, and even with each individual property, there’s quite a bit of diversity,” Garwood said. “Those 200 units will produce options with rents as low as $450 and as high as almost $3,000.”
The Parcel 2 project has been redesigned. Developer David Christa initially planned to build upscale housing. It instead will have 114 workforce housing units, which Warren says are in short supply downtown. There’s plenty of luxury housing and affordable units are included in many projects. But for the low-middle/middle-income earner, it’s tough to live downtown.
“That’s the market we’re trying to make sure we take care of right now,” Warren said.
The Parcel 2 project also includes a day care facility.
More housing will be featured on Parcels 6 and 7. Capstone will build five townhouses on Parcel 6 while PathStone will work alongside Geva Theatre on a building that will have 54 housing units as well as first-floor theater rehearsal and ancillary space.
While Inner Loop redevelopment is heavy on housing, the city hopes increased residency will encourage retail to join the party.
“We look at retail vacancies in the area and we recognize we have some challenges there,” Warren said. “The reason we’re pushing for many of those projects to be completed around the same time is that we believe that will drive business in that area.”