Monday, July 03, 2006

La Marqueta or El Strip Mall?

Forgive me for saying so, but I was as skeptical as anyone when the La Marqueta project was first announced. It seemed a bit far-fetched that a new glass-enclosed Latin-themed marketplace could be successful at the heart of La Avenida (Avenida Clinton Norte for those not hip to the lingo). Given the struggles of the neighborhood with drugs and violence, I doubted that any developer would be willing to give it a try. But Larry Glazer and his Buckingham Properties responded to the City's Request for Proposals and was selected as the designated developer for the project.

It seemed like a decent fit. Buckingham has had decent success with urban retail, first along University Avenue and then along Lyell Avenue, and has done well with downtown loft development recently. This project would add a distinctive flavor to their growing portfolio of inner city properties. Thus, despite my prior apprehensiveness, I acquiesced into supporting the project. It was a cool concept and, if done right, could lead to some real economic growth on La Avenida. I guess I was right to be skeptical.

Last week's City Newspaper ran a cover story on La Marqueta. They talked to local businesses along the multi-ethnic strip who are anxiously awaiting development of the project that has been talked about for years. They described a kin project in Hartford that has been a thorough success there. City Councillor Gladys Santiago (Rochester's only Hispanic Councilperson because, as David Gantt says, we only need one Latino on the Council) is interviewed as well. The troubling part of the article is what Buckingham is likely to turn La Marqueta into.

Rather than it being a year-round hub of neighborhood activity, it sounds like it will be nothing more than a strip mall with a Spanish accent. Something along the lines of a Taco Bell and tile-roofed Dollar General comes to my less-than-optimistic mind. Worse yet, Glazer is demanding parking in front of the new structure. As Sujata Gupta writes, "A controversial part of (the) Glazer plan is a parking lot in front of the site, which eliminates the outdoor plaza. "It has been proven over and over and over again that when you have retail, you must have parking in the front, because you can't have two entrances in the store," says Glazer. "They can't guard two storefronts. This is the reality of what the market will accept."" Call me crazy, but I have yet to see proof of this anywhere in the City of Rochester.

Glazer's opinion assumes that the majority of patrons will not walk to La Marqueta from their homes (roughly half of the households in the neighborhood do not own a car), nor will they park somewhere else along La Avenida to shop at other stores while walking to La Marqueta (the original intent of this development was to create wealth in the neighborhood not cannibalize it by discouraging walkability), and it certainly assumes that patrons are unwilling to park behind a building and walk around it.

From the sounds of it, he doesn't just want a few parking spaces, he wants a really big suburban-style parking lot. The sprawling vacant lot targeted for La Marqueta is just not enough for him. Glazer wants to tear down neighboring homes and businesses so that his development can take up the entire block. He will not begin construction until he has what he wants. Well I for one encourage the city to tell him "thanks, but no thanks". This is not what WE want for our community. The development he wants to build in no way resembles what was intended. To Buckingham, this is about maximizing their profit in a very risky venture. That is understandable, but it is not acceptable.

Buckingham has done some great things in this City, so it is quite disappointing to hear about these plans. The goal was/is not to build a strip mall; it was to build a community gathering place that recognizes the uniqueness of La Avenida. Rather than settling, let's do a nation-wide search for developers (not-for-profits, Latino-owned, etc.) that are willing to do what WE want them to. This is OUR city after all.