Sunday, February 17, 2008

How to Salvage Renaissance Square (and Credibility)

Criticism has been hurled at every aspect of the Renaissance Square project since Day One. Opposition to an underground bus station was loudly voiced, so the designers came up with a plan to move it to the surface. Many were concerned about the prospect of historic structures being demolished, so the designers came up with a plan to integrate the Edwards and Granite buildings into the project and spare the Cox Building. There were worries about increased transit travel times due to left turns needed to navigate the one-way streets, so the designers came up with a plan to convert St. Paul and Clinton to two-way traffic. The arts community was angered by a plan to subsidize the Broadway theater and ignore other local arts needs, so the designers came up with a plan to include three theaters: big, medium, and small. For every major criticism, a decent solution was devised. Until now.

Much to the delight of its detractors, it appears that the Renaissance Square project is nearing its demise. The "starchitect" hired to guide this project to fruition, Moshe Safdie, has been fired; his vision simply unattainable for the arbitrary $230 million limitation we placed on him. The FTA continues to sit on the project's review, seemingly unwilling to approve its construction. The "Performing Arts Center" component now cut from three theaters to two seems to have not attracted the private investment needed to make it happen. At best, the comedy of errors that Renaissance Square has become is an example of how not to manage a major public development. At worst, it is yet another in a long line of mismanaged boondoggles that have plagued this community over the past three decades.

An opportunity to inject a $230 million investment into the most unsightly block of downtown Rochester may be lost. The most visible face of this community to visiting businessmen and conventioneers will continue to be that of neglect and economic devastation. But does it need to end here? As a long time defender of the project, and someone who continues to see the revitalization opportunities that it would create, I simply cannot stand by and let this project die. I have a plan to save this project and, in so doing, save some semblance of credibility for the County Executive and her staff.

A quick look at the budget shows that both the transit center and the MCC campus are paid for. In theory, we could break ground tomorrow on these components. Of course, it's not that simple. Despite the fact that no money has been raised toward the performing arts component, the public will not allow Renaissance Square to move forward without it. A new wrench has been thrown into the mix in the form of the redevelopment of Midtown Plaza. The need to close the 1,800-space parking garage at Midtown has prompted the need to keep the Mortimer Street Garage open. Mortimer was expected to be torn down as part of the performing arts center. If Mortimer stays, the Broadway theater likely cannot fit on the site. While most see this as an opportunity to kill the project, I see this as an opportunity to move forward.

First off, the cost can be reduced significantly by eliminating the large theater. Less cost = less fundraising = one obstacle removed. Secondly, removing the large theater from the scope of the project will provide an opportunity to save the historic buildings at the corner of Main & Clinton. Between the Midtown redevelopment and the reimagined Renaissance Square, finding a developer to restore these buildings into retail, restaurant, office, hotel, and/or residential use should be quite easy. More historic buildings saved = less opposition = another obstacle removed. Third, the arts community's own studies show that the most pressing theater need locally is that of the small "blackbox" theater. According to a recent Democrat & Chronicle story, the 2,800-seat Broadway theater would be in use only 170 days a year while the 250-seat blackbox theater would be used 331 days a year and has the added benefit of helping ensure the survival of Downstairs Cabaret and other smaller arts organizations in our city. Keeping the blackbox theater = support of the local arts community = yet another obstacle removed.

This project is too important to let die. We cannot afford to turn down an opportunity to invest $200 million in a long-declining eyesore in downtown. With Midtown being redeveloped into the home of thousands of workers, hundreds of units of housing, and new retail and restaurant space, we cannot afford to allow the iron wall of buses to continue clogging Main Street literally choking away any chance at revitalization. Renaissance Square will provide an enclosed and controlled transfer center for RTS and Greyhound/Trailways. That reminds me, Greyhound/Trailways needs to move from Midtown, this will give them a proper home. Midtown is also prompting Wilmorite to develop plans to revitalize the Sibley Building, however these plans cannot be implemented until MCC is out. If Renaissance Square is cancelled, it will be many years before MCC can find a new downtown home. Or worse, MCC could choose to leave.


I am proposing that Renaissance Square move forward with the transit center and MCC campus intact and as designed. The performing arts component would be reduced to include only the blackbox theater. The Mortimer parking garage will remain and the historic buildings at Main & Clinton will be restored to their former lustre. This plan will allow the project to move forward with little additional funds needed. A fundraising effort to support the original vision of three new theaters (big, medium, and small) will be commenced with a goal of raising up to $100 million. This will also give the community more time to determine the appropriate locations for the medium and large theaters, though I envision them at Midtown and/or the "Block F" site cater-corner from the Eastman Theater. Most importantly, this will give our elected officials the opportunity to save face. It will show that all of the work done to date, worth some $15 million of our taxpayer dollars, has not gone to waste.