Where Rochester’s downtown once featured four department stores and two grocery stores, now there are none.
A quarter century after the last department store closed, in the places where all of Rochester once shopped, there’s a car museum, a large gravel lot and a stately building with papered-over windows.
The old five-and-dime is now a Social Security office, and there appears to be just one clothing store in all of downtown, offering sportswear for young men.
Retail has been on hiatus for some time downtown. Downtown experts say it’s never coming back the way it was, but there are some encouraging signs of new and different retail life:
- This week’s Rochester Cocktail Revival.
- This is the second year for both Rochester Restaurant Week and Roc Holiday Village.
- Construction will begin in the fall on two projects in Sibley Square. One is the kitchen commissary, a food-business incubator run by Rochester Downtown Development, and the other is a food hall riffing on the success of places like North Market in Columbus, Ohio, and ethnic markets in New York City.
- Late last year Rochester Institute of Technology opened a downtown art gallery.
- Sibley Square is shopping around the idea for a new full-service grocery market on the ground floor, along the lines of the now-closed Hart’s, but about half the size.
- Amid the high-tech startups and empty nesters flocking to downtown to live in luxury apartments, there’s also a growing number of eateries and devoted followings of two major festivals that bring in international headliners — the Jazz Fest and Fringe Fest.
In terms of traditional retail, you can still buy a few things downtown, such as fashionable kicks, comic books, art supplies and high-end furniture. For essentials, though, you probably have to go elsewhere.
“Do they sell handbags or cables? The answer is no,” said Ken Greene, asset manager at Sibley Square, the mixed-use project being redeveloped from the former Sibley’s department store.
Nevertheless, it is possible to buy any number of brewed coffee drinks, upscale meals, casual meals, vegetarian meals, craft beer and specialty cocktails, suggesting a shift away from material purchases and more toward experiential service retail.
“We see our retail becoming more service-driven for the community,” Greene said, noting the return of banks — with or without staff physically present — and the planned addition of urgent care.
“I think food and beverage is going to be part of the answer and you need a critical mass for that,” said Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp. Indeed, downtown Rochester’s population is about 7,200 now, double what it was in 2000.
So the restaurants that have been popping up around downtown are serving both an urban working crowd and an urban residential crowd.
The once-popular notion that retail stores will start to return from the suburbs once we hit a certain number of downtown residents, however, is a notion that has gone the way of the, well, department store.
A little thing like the “Amazonification” of retail happened since retail left downtown. That includes sales moving onto the internet, not to mention an entire industry that arose in the last few years to bring consumers whatever they need from brick-and-mortar stores.
You don’t need those stores near you if you have apps like Uber or Shipt or GrubHub or InstaCart.
“On-street, brick-and-mortar operations are not likely to come back,” said Zimmer-Meyer.
People are voting with their feet, however, that they do want to be ON the bricks — whether it’s the Jazz Fest, Midtown Eats or a winter village that was a huge hit at holiday time the last two Decembers.
“In this community it seems to me that we tend to do things in short spurts. We love festivals. Look at Roc Holiday Village,” Zimmer-Meyer said. “They had food and beverage and retail sales… people went nuts.”
Jenna Manetta-Knauf, owner of Bella Events and originator of the Roc Holiday Village, said she got the idea from New York City’s Bryant Park, which has ice skating in the winter and a series of pop-up shops and eateries in the holiday season.
The local event featured 20 retailers offering things from hand-made soap to funky furry hats. Food, drinks, music and ice-skating all encouraged people to hang out and do their holiday shopping, and groups could rent heated igloos to hold their own parties.
Manetta-Knauf said sales exceeded expectations, with vendors telling her they experienced the highest number of sales in their business’s history.
“It was crazy,” she said.
Events like that are shaping how people shop, Zimmer-Meyer said.
“It’s an experience, all about the experience. That’s one of the things we’ve heard continually about the whole national debate about retail,” Zimmer-Meyer said.
Pop-up retail is becoming more popular in Rochester too. Earlier this year Sibley Square hosted a pop-up vintage furniture sale that did well, Greene said.
Manetta-Knauf manages the Wilder Room in the former Rochester Club and that space was booked for a pop-up women’s fashion retail event.
Designers use their social media following to advertise an event and then set up shop, perhaps with a bar, other refreshments and music, in an event space. The Wilder Room isn’t the only one designers have used for pop-up sales.
“Once or twice a year they pop up in different spots and people go and buy their stuff,” Manetta-Knauf said.
While these pop-ups and festivals are all part of the evolving retail picture, Zimmer-Meyer said Rochester could use a coordinating organization to make sure they keep happening, she said.
She noted the vibrant winter scene Ottawa enjoys, where the community celebrates its frigid temperatures.
“This is what I want Rochester to be all the time,” she said. Downtown Rochester draws crowds during events like the Jazz Fest, she said, but there isn’t much residual effect. “The festival ends and everyone goes home,” she said.
Greene suggested downtown is going through an evolution of sorts that is dependent on both numbers and demographics of new residents and daytime occupants.
“As downtown continues to grow, you’ll start to see hair salons and nail salons. You’ll start to see drycleaners, more daycares. There will be service-related retail,” he said.
When Sibley’s leased space to Monroe Community College, Rainbow, a discount clothing store, was a good fit for community college students. But now that MCC has its own downtown campus and Sibley’s is adding 280 apartments, a more upscale store to serve the new residents is in order, Greene suggested.
Similarly, bodegas have sprung up downtown to accommodate tens of thousands of bus riders who come through the RTS transit station downtown. There are three in a two-block stretch of North Clinton Avenue, Greene said. As the population of downtown residents increases, those residents will need a more expansive food market, he said.
“There are just so many obstacles to successful retailers in downtown Rochester,” Greene said. One is parking — Rochester-area residents still want to park within three rows of a store, like at a mall. Then there’s a shopping nostalgia, which he described as “A psychological barrier in trying to recreate the retail experience of the past.”
People do hanker for the past, Zimmer-Meyer said, at least in terms of finding a central place to inhabit together.
“With everybody doing stuff online, and operating so individually, there is a human need to come together,” she said. “We love coming together for special things. For special reasons. We’ve got to look at what’s happening in other cities that are doing a far better job” of that year-round.
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