Friday, June 08, 2007

Rochester's Economic Limbo: How Low Can We Go?

In a recent post, I noted that for most of the past half-Century, the Rochester area has been the jewel of Upstate New York. Jobs, population, and income growth consistently outpaced our upstate neighbors and that smugness that we are so well known for became firmly entrenched in our collective psyche. Guided by Eastman Kodak, Xerox, and other super-sized manufacturers, our elected officials and economic types went about their merry lives with little care for the future. We were a region of Alfred E. Neumans, responding with "What, me worry?" every time a local firm moved out of the area (e.g., Stromberg-Carlson/General Dynamics, Champion, French's, etc.) taking pieces of our former vitality with them.

By the 1980s, the Rochester area had, for all intents and purposes, stopped growing. Sure, we weren't shrinking like the other Rust Belt metropolises that surrounded us, but when compared with the nation as a whole, we were dead. Our venerable Big Three had passed their peak and were on a decline that would practically bring this region to its knees. But our smugness remained. It reached the point where the typical response to questions regarding our economy were met with, "at least we're better than Buffalo." Fast forward 20 years and very little has changed; except that we are doing worse than most of our Upstate friends and neighbors. Sadly, I think we've reached the point where we can no longer say, "at least we're better than Buffalo."

This morning I opened the virtual pages of the online news world and in the Buffalo News, I found a rendering of another physical manifestation of Buffalo's increasingly revitalized economy. The former Thaddeus J. Dulski Federal Office Building, an empty 15-story, 470,000 square foot office building built in 1971 that once housed some 2,000 government workers, will be completely redeveloped into a mix of Class A office space, luxury condominiums, and upscale hotel space. Uniland and Acquest, the project's developers, purchased the building at auction for $6.1 million; they now plan to invest at least $60 million into its sleek future.

Below: Dulski Today
Below: Dulski Tomorrow

This is not the only high-profile addition to the new Buffalo. A 10-story Federal Courthouse designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox is under construction next to their classic City Hall. A UK-based developer is redeveloping the historic Statler Towers into a mix of office, hotel, and residential space and is moving ahead with plans to build Upstate New York's new tallest building, the 40-story, 600-foot tall Buffalo City Tower, on a nearby lot. Further north of downtown, Uniland has unveiled plans for a 23-story luxury condo tower at Gates Circle. Bass Pro Shops has signed on to be the lead anchor in a major mixed-use development adjacent to HSBC Arena tentatively known as CanalSide. A high-rise condo building is going up along the waterfront and the local Blue Cross/Blue Shield is finishing up their new headquarters downtown as well.

Below: New Buffalo Courthouse

Below: Buffalo City Tower
Below: Gates Circle Condos

But let's get back to the Dulski Building and how it relates to Rochester. You see, we have a similar situation here in Rochester, except there are no developers coming to our rescue. The nearly-empty, long-deteriorating eyesore that is the Midtown Tower is begging for this sort of investment. Built in 1962 (and renovated in 1980), the 17-story 240,000 square foot tower stands as a monument to our city's collapse. A recent report issued by the City of Rochester indicated that the building should be rehabilitated and the common sentiment is that it should take on a form similar to what is taking place at Buffalo's Dulski Building. The current New York City-based owners of the Midtown Plaza complex want out, but the City of Rochester passed on the chance to purchase it. No local developers have stepped forward either, meaning that this property will likely move on to the next out-of-town management firm looking to make a quick buck at our expense. Does anyone have Uniland's phone number? They have a relatively sizeable presence in the Rochester area already; maybe they'd be interested.

If I'm not mistaken, a few years ago excellent local architect Bud DeWolff developed a concept design for a new Midtown Tower very similar to the Dulski. It would be re-skinned in glass and reborn as office and/or residential space with a hotel on top. Although this vision has gone nowhere, it should not be considered a pipe dream. There is a need for a new hotel in Downtown Rochester, either one that is focused on leisure travelers rather than business travelers or one that is dedicated to extended stays (i.e., all suites). There is a fast-growing office tenant downtown that is in need of additional space as well. CGI Communications may need to leave its Granite Building headquarters soon, not only because of Renaissance Square, but because they're simply running out of room there. Combine these two, and boom, you've got yourself a viable project.

But alas, there is no project. And there is no tangible sense of revitalization in Rochester. Our leaders claim to be committed to reversing the exodus of our young people, but despite countless reminders that young people prefer vibrant urban places, the only development we have around here are Wal-Marts and Targets on the fringes of suburbia. There is not a single construction crane mixed into our downtown skyline. Is this how our local elected officials and appointed economic development officials should earn their paycheck? It's easy to point out that the Buffalo area is still losing people and possesses far from a booming economy. But it is a good sign when deep-pocketed developers are willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into your city. Will Smugtown get its act together or will we simply move on to saying, "at least we're better than Elmira."