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What’s next for Downtown?

City’s center undergoing many changes

Rochester Mayor Robert J. Duffy and an unidentified construction worker shake hands after the mayor delivered the ceremonial first blow to the former Midtown Plaza site on Sept. 27, 2010. Vasiliy Baziuk/file

As Petula Clark sang in her unapologetically upbeat song, “everything’s waiting for you, downtown.”

Local leaders have invested hefty amounts of tax dollars in the massive amount of development, renovation and expansion taking place in Center City Rochester, where more than 50 projects are now under way.

City leadership for the past several years have pushed Downtown hard as part of their regeneration efforts. High-end apartments, office buildings, shops and restaurants are in development or are being built-out.

Now, everyone is waiting to see just what the return on the taxpayers’ investments will be.

The vast majority of Rochester’s recent development has been backed with public financing, grants and tax incentives that helped to draw developers and businesses.

Midtown Tower was sold to developers Christa Companies/Morgan Management for $1 to help them meet a deadline for a $37 million federal loan to build luxury condos and apartments. About $2 million was given to convert the H.H. Warner Building on St. Paul Street into luxury lofts. The city gave ESL Federal Credit Union a $700,000 discount on the land where its new headquarters is now situated.

Taxpayers are footing the bill for Downtown development on a broad scale, and while there is a serious risk for the city and its taxpayers, Rochester development leaders say it’s worth that roll of the dice.

“The risk is, you lose your investment. I don’t want to pretend there’s no risk,” said Bret Garwood, Rochester’s director of business and housing development. “We’re not betting the farm here. We’re making an investment.”

There are some marquis projects, like the planned new headquarters for PAETEC on Main Street — estimated move-in date at the end of 2012. Nothnagle Realtors’ move from Monroe Avenue in Brighton to a new headquarters on Main and Broad streets most likely should wrap up by the end of the year.

The $71-million Christa/Morgan plan for Midtown Tower includes commercial space for the first three floors, 186 apartments and 24 condos on the upper floors that could be priced at or near the $400,000 range.

Chris Muller, a spokesman for PAETEC, said the company is working slowly through the approval processes for its new headquarters. Right now, however, all that’s moving forward is the demolition and paperwork.

“There’s still the hole in the wall the mayor put in at the opening ceremony,” in September Muller said. “I think we’re getting closer to moving forward. We’ll probably have an announcement shortly with the city and PAETEC.”

Downtown residential

Garwood said many types of housing in Downtown are being developed now that previously have not been, like owner-occupied condos and townhomes and loft apartment spaces. There is also no housing for seniors who want a single floor and lower maintenance. But why would seniors, leery of crime and traffic, want to live Downtown when similar types of housing already are on the marked in the suburbs?

“The cultural center of our city is inside Center City,” Garwood said. “I think we have improved people’s perception of crime. Public safety has to remain a priority if we are to attract people to Center City.”

Steve Golding, the city’s manager of downtown development, said there is not a large amount of residential property Downtown. The market is dry.

All in all, 18 separate residential projects are now in various stages of development, which could add about 500 market-rate housing units and close to 90 mixed-income rental units.

Developer Richard Ferguson is converting a commercial space into five new upscale and affordable lofts called Industrie Lofts, on Water Street.

St. Paul is also getting more residential development. Patrick Sara is developing Searle Building to a mixed use, and Casablanca Properties is proposing 60 to 70 lofts, ranging from smaller lofts for new renters and higher end lofts, in the Cox Building. (The Searle Building project is not receiving any public financing.)

“At this point, it’s a few that aren’t being subsidized,” Golding said. “One thing we’re seeing is, we’re not doing as many grants. We’re doing low-interest loans so we get our money back.”

Things appear to be taking shape Downtown, albeit slowly. A large chunk of the residential projects should be done by summer 2011, but the wait continues when it comes to learning whether the investment was worth it.

“Downtown is the center of our region. We have conventions come here, we have businesses coming here,” Golding said. “It’s coming along, but it’s going to take time.”