Retail is key to downtown development, but it’s changing

Traffic entering the city from Interstate 490 moves down Clinton Avenue. Rochester’s downtown is changing, and its approach to retail may be changing as well. (Photo by Dick Moss)
Traffic entering the city from Interstate 490 moves down Clinton Avenue. Rochester’s downtown is changing, and its approach to retail may be changing as well. (Photo by Dick Moss)

In the 1970s and early 1980s, New York City’s Bryant Park was a dangerous place to be.

Whether people were walking through the park next to the New York Public Library, or along the streets nearby, they risked becoming victim to purse snatchings and more violent crimes.

Today, Bryant Park is crowded with people who live and work in the city, visiting suburbanites and tourists — lots of tourists. The rip-off stores full of souvenir tchotchkes that dotted the nearby streets have been replaced by restaurants and more restaurants, many of them catering to the tastes and budgets of millennials, others offer upscale fare.  The park has a year full of programming, from open-air opera and author lectures in warmer weather to kiosks offering holiday shopping and an ice rink for nine weeks in the winter.

“Bryant Park went from dangerous and depressing and everything broken and graffiti to, really, the town center for Midtown Manhattan,” said Dan Biederman, the man who has managed the park for 40 years and headed neighboring business improvement districts. He has also become a national expert on urban redevelopment.

Sure, you say, that’s New York City, with the foot traffic and spending money of eight million residents, and tourist dollars out the wazoo. Could something like that happen in Rochester, with a metropolitan statistical area of less than one-eighth the size of New York City’s?

Biederman, whose second job is consulting on redevelopment of urban spaces around the country, has seen transformations similar to Bryant Park’s on a smaller scale in places including Greensboro, NC; Green Bay, Wisc. and nearby Buffalo. He admits, though, that he has never set foot in Rochester.

In each of those other cities’ cases, a business improvement district worked with an open space to create a new urban magnet. The new attractions are taking over the role in the social fabric of communities that once were occupied by downtown shopping districts with long-gone department stores. These new spaces offer plenty to eat, loads to drink and experiences, rather than the opportunity to shop for a sweater for your aunt, or a record album for your brother. Often, though, they do include some shopping, even if it’s on a seasonal basis.

Biederman said Greensboro capitalized on its history of the civil rights movement and created a civil rights museum in the former Woolworth’s that had been the site of the first lunch-counter protests.  This was part of a larger re-do of Greensboro’s Elm Street.

Green Bay’s suburb of Ashwaubenon included a formerly run-down parking area adjacent to the famed Lambeau Field of the Green Bay Packers. Biederman was involved in renovating the land into a park that provides programming for the nearly 350 days a year that the Packers aren’t playing. There’s a slope for tubing, participatory art events, and festivals.

In recent years, Buffalo focused its attention on a long-ignored Erie Canal waterfront in Buffalo, creating Canalside.

“It’s slow, but there are restaurants there that have started up, a hotel. People who were skeptical about Buffalo — people are coming back.” Biederman said. Canadians are visiting downtown Buffalo rather than the other way around, he said.

While these types of transformations may seem magical in hindsight, the story Biederman tells about Bryant Park suggests there was lots of cooperation and attention to detail.

New York City police commissioners directed enforcement to curtail violence in the area. Municipal services stepped up their game, too. Landlords were having trouble renting retail spaces because of the general environment.

“What was making it hard for owners to lease were conditions: lots of litter, the smell of urine, unserved homeless people,” Biederman said. The business district and its partners started going after those “broken windows” types of problems one at a time.

“Once all of those were taken care of, the public was on the street much more. It was easier to rent retail space,” he said. Despite the climate of retail today, which is challenging because of online sales, Biederman said this key area in Manhattan is thriving.

In downtown Rochester, many of the so-called broken windows have already been addressed, but retail isn’t flocking to the area. Some downtown mavens point to a resurgence of restaurants and coffee shops, but recently several restaurants closed, too. Talks on what to do with the Parcel 5, the open area created by the demolition of Midtown Plaza, appear to be stalled.

But there’s movement afoot nearby.

Across East Main Street stands Sibley Square, the project encompassing the former department store and office tower that was part of Rochester’s retail heyday. The office tower was remade into apartments, and today 95 percent of Sibley Square’s 175 apartments are occupied, says Ken Greene, asset manager for WinnCompanies, which is redeveloping the space.

Greene says downtown Rochester has 80,000 people a day with whom he’s trying to connect.

“There’s three populations we’re looking at:  Who lives downtown and what do they need? Who works downtown, and what do they need? And who’s traveling and transferring at the bus station and what do they need?” he said.  Sibley Square aims to satisfy all those needs, whether it’s lunch for less than a ten spot, or a lead on a new occupation.

The first floor of the square, which is devoted to retail and services, has one bank branch and soon will welcome another, Greene said. It also includes two art galleries, one run by Rochester Institute of Technology, a senior services agency and a dental clinic. Expected soon is the Kitchen Commissary, a sort of culinary incubator run by Rochester Downtown Development Corp., which plans to open next spring. Next to the commissary is space Sibley Square has reserved for a mercantile or a small grocery store with fresh produce and meat as well as packaged goods.

The building also houses a day care, and is working with a proposed high school for adults who need to complete requirements for their high school diploma. A co-working space is in the building and will soon expand to a different floor, Green said.

NextCorps, the technology incubator, is on the building’s sixth floor, with 70 fledgling tech startups.

“When I think about the building, reactivating the core, it’s a significant (boon) to Downtown Rochester,” Greene said.

None of the individual features at Sibley Square are unique, Greene notes.
“Everything we’ve done at Sibley’s is being done somewhere else. There are high schools for adults in 60 locations around the country,” he said. Tech incubators, kitchen incubators, educational and art facilities, restaurants and marketplaces all exist elsewhere.

Sibley’s unique take?

“I have not seen other places in the country that have taken all of these things and have housed them in one building,” Greene said.

When the redevelopment is complete, he said, “It will change the inner city for decades.”

Sibley Square and Bryant Park both illustrate a popular theory that retail has moved more toward experiential offerings rather than traditional retail. Some downtown theorists suggest the idea that a critical mass of people living and working downtown will cause retail to return in spades is not viable anymore, given the changes in consumption patterns.

Jaymes T. Keenan, a retail specialist with the Rochester office of CBRE, a real estate services company, isn’t quite ready to give up on that theory yet.

“Retail follows people. Retail is never going to be the first one in,” Keenan said. He thinks the downtown population needs to be close to 10,000 before substantial retail returns. It’s now at more than 7,000 with housing for another 3,000 planned or underway.

Keenan is, however, willing to redefine what retail is.

CBRE is now leasing 111 apartments in the newly built The Nathaniel at South Avenue and Court Street. The company is also looking for a retail tenant to occupy 4,000 square feet on the ground floor.

“There is always going to be a need for experiential retail,” Keenan said. “We’ll move away from hard goods or the amount of hard goods that are sold in retail space. It’s an evolution of the definition of what retail is.”

And as for experiential retail, he means stores or services that can’t be replicated by online or delivery shopping services. You have to be there to really experience it: boutique fitness places, for instance, or coffee shops like the one a stone’s throw from The Nathaniel, Fuego Coffee.  Besides the off-line nature of these places, Keenan said, they offer something else: a sense of community.

People who visit Fuego, Keenan said, are “likely going for a cup of coffee, but it’s not just about going there and getting coffee. It’s about finding a community.”

This kind of community building starts downtown, because that’s the heart of any community, he said. He spots all kinds of positive signs, from the filling in of the Inner Loop, to the proliferation of coffee shops, for downtown.

But unlike the era when department stores dominated downtown Rochester, the center city now has people who both live and work downtown.

Some residential tenants of the Metropolitan, for instance, work for Datto, the cyber security service provider, in the same building.

“They’re here 24 hours a day. That’s a new thing for us,” Keenan said.

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Retail business arising in new forms downtown

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.

Ken Greene
Ken Greene

“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.

Heidi Zimmer-Meyer
Heidi Zimmer-Meyer

“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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