As daylight hits the graveled lot of Parcel 5 on crisp early September Rochester morning, anything remarkable about the barren sliver of downtown directly across from Sibley Square is hard to see.
But for two days beginning Sept. 13, the space became a veritable floating aquarium, as French inflatable art company Plasticiens Volants performed its “Pearl: Secrets of the Sea,” a dance of momentous sea creatures wavering to music above the East End featuring, among others, a 60 foot whale. A kick-off to the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival’s 2019 weekend, it was the second run of the tethered balloon puppet show at Parcel 5, following up on 2017’s tribute to the universe, “Big Bang.”
“That was their U.S. premiere,” said Erica Fee, founding producer and board president of the Fringe Festival. “This is a world-renowned French inflatable company doing huge, giant inflatables that move and react. They’re not like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade at all.”
In acts like this, or Trombone Shorty at the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival, or everything-Rochester food festival ROC the Taste, we find the current station of Parcel 5.
First, a quick history lesson. Parcel 5 is a former piece of Midtown Plaza, which began its demolition under Mayor Bob Duffy in 2010 with support of a $44 million state grant. Since then the parcel has likely been the most hot-button piece of real estate in the city of Rochester. In April 2017, embroiled real estate mogul Robert Morgan and Rochester Broadway Theatre League (RBTL) president Arnold Rothschild had their proposal for the Golisano Center for the Performing Arts approved for construction on Parcel 5. That $135 million project was sprawling, including a 3,000-square-foot theater alongside a 150-unit residential tower and a 1,700-space underground garage. Last November, Tom Golisano, who had originally pledged $25 million to the project, pulled out as the project found a new site at the Rochester Riverside Hotel, tacking on even more ambitious components, including 3,000 seats in two theaters, a restaurant and a retail center, driving the price tag up to $250 million. The future of that project is, also, decisively unclear.
As for Parcel 5, community advocates have long petitioned to reserve the space as a community commons, not unlike the Boston Common, under the “Free Parcel 5” banner. Mayor Lovely Warren is now in support of a $23.5 million development of a year-round festival site, similar to Kansas City’s Power and Light development. A request for comment for this story from the mayor’s office was responded to with “we have nothing new to report on Parcel 5.”
In the eyes of Richard Glaser, founder of Roc Growth, there are plenty of new things to talk about at Parcel 5.
“The traffic is changing, it’s happening, and it’s happening organically,” Glaser said. “People are being drawn back into the city. This is an American town, and fortunately, Rochester has amazing bones, the city is designed in many ways with infrastructure that’s incredible.”
The land at Parcel 5 has not been designated as any particular development in the long-term, but of note to Glaser is that it has naturally filled the role advocates for a commons had argued for. For organizers of festivals like Fringe or the Jazz Festival, Parcel 5 is convenient. It’s central, relatively easy to set up shows in and fills a growing need for space.
“If we have a location like Parcel 5, that’s there, that’s available to us, are we going to use it? Yeah,” said Marc Iacona, executive director, co-producer and co-owner of the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival. “I think we were the first to have a major event and use it.”
Iacona takes it as a compliment that other Rochester festivals have seen the potential to use the space for their own events. Fringe has, for its past several years, found use for Parcel 5 for a number of events, and while there are challenges to hosting shows in an undeveloped lot without easy access to running water or electricity, Fee said it has served a pivotal role in the festival’s growth as, what she calls, a “bifurcated model.”
“So what we do is we organize some big, free outdoor headline events and headline comedy, and we do that to drive people downtown,” Fee said. “We hope that those big outdoor events will drive people to venues, whether it be Geva Theatre or Black Friars or wherever else.”
It’s very similar to the Jazz Festival’s model, where big, free shows bring people downtown, giving them quick, easy access to paid shows. Spaces like Parcel 5 or nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park are then invaluable. They serve the role of veritable festival hubs. But for Iacona and Fee, there’s nothing specific about Parcel 5 that makes it a superior venue space. Its advantage to them is, simply, its existence.
“There’s a time and a space for what we do, and I feel that if that parcel is going to be developed into that type (commons) of venue space, we’re going to utilize it,” Iacona said. “If it doesn’t and it gets developed, we’re not going to quit, we’ll find another space. In addition to Martin Luther King, there are other spaces, we’ll find a space.”
Fee had a similar view. That, once all of the political arguments surrounding Parcel 5 are over, it’s far less about the space itself and much more about getting the festivals to survive and thrive.
“I’m not necessarily in love with Parcel 5, but I am in love with the idea of there being a downtown event space,” Fee said. “So, events and activities and festivals have been known to be transformative. There are plenty of studies that show the more you focus on events downtown, the more you focus on unique events downtown, the more chance there is of really revitalizing a community.”
For example, a 2006 University of Purdue study found that festival attendance had a notable impact on perceived quality of life. While nowhere near the impact of perceived personal health or income, festival attendance had contributed to a slight increase in quality of life, based on the 4,592 individuals surveyed.
Glaser sees the number of people filling Parcel 5 for these events as a key indicator of how the process for development should be carried out—listen to the community. In his view, the goal of Parcel 5’s development should be, regardless of how it plays out, to satisfy the needs of the community through a thorough, transparent process.
“That parcel was where Midtown Plaza was, there’s a reason that one of the first, and very famous, indoor malls was placed there,” Glaser said. “Here on Main Street, where there was once the largest department store north of New York City in the Sibley Building. This was a city that deserved that. We self-flagellate and forget that, but as a transplant, I see it here.”
In seeing the proposals at Parcel 5, Iacona has his own views, but prefers to stay positive, to think of how the festival can continue to serve the city regardless of what happens to Parcel 5.
“I choose to hear everything and stay positive, and it’s a negative, I think about whether it’s valid and how to fix it,” Iacona said. “I love having it there, but if tomorrow they said they’re putting a shovel in the ground and RBTL is going there, I would be happy for them and figure out how we can work with them. If it’s another developer that says there will be no entertainment…we’ll find another plot of land.”
That sentiment is echoed by Fee. While she has wishes for Parcel 5, namely, that it had easier access to infrastructure, her goal is to continue to put on Fringe and make it the best festival it can be. Officially, the board of Fringe has no opinion on the future development of the parcel, stating in an Aug. 2017 statement “in regards to the City’s current proposal for a performing arts center at Parcel 5, Rochester Fringe Festival has no opinion either for or against. We simply wish to reaffirm, as has been previously stated, that open space for downtown festivals is critical–not only to us (as an annual festival that drew more than 68,000 attendees downtown in 2016 and will continue to be a banner event for Rochester)–but for other downtown festivals as well.”
“These public events, these public spectacle events, gatherings in general, we’re so tuned into our phones and working on our own that these gathering places are becoming even more important for a sense of community, but also our sense of self-worth,” Fee said.
That, at its core, is where Fee, Iacona and Glaser all find common ground. While they have their own thoughts and beliefs on what should go at Parcel 5, what they agree is that whatever does go there must be something that serves the community. It must be something that draws people downtown, both for financial reasons—the Jazz Festival, for example, now reports economic impact at over $180 million—or for the simple sense of rebuilding community pride.
“We’re just one component, there are several other things that are driving profit each year in downtown,” Iacona said. “As long as that space is there, we’re going to use it as part of our footprint.”
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