Saturday, February 09, 2008

Welcome Downtown, ESL

A big name in the local financial scene, ESL Federal Credit Union, revealed plans on Thursday to move their corporate headquarters to a new building in downtown Rochester. The new six-story 180,000 square foot building will house more than 300 ESL employees, including 30 new hires over the next three years. ESL follows Paetec Communications as the latest locally-based company making the move to our rejuvenating center city.

As one of downtown's biggest boosters, I'd like to thank ESL for their commitment to this community. They could have very easily chosen to locate their headquarters in a non-descript suburban office park like other local corporate icons such as Paychex, Constellation Brands, Global Crossing, or their main credit union rival, Summit FCU. Instead however, they chose to make a bold statement about both their own corporate future as well as the future of this city. In doing so, their investment will contribute to the vitality of our region's most important destination. If only five percent of those 330 employees decide to take up residence in the downtown area, that's another 17 apartments or condos occupied. As downtown increases in attractiveness, that five percent will surely rise. The same cycle that leads to disinvestment also can lead to investment when you start turning that wheel in the other direction.

Once again, thank you to ESL. Their plans are contributing significantly to the air of optimism spreading across Rochester. Now then, I must be brutally honest with my assessment of the proposed design for their new headquarters. First, the main entrance and street frontage along Chestnut Street are phenomenal. The curved, collonade concept is a daring vision that is quite surprising given the relatively tame designs typically produced by LaBella. I am however, quite worried about the streetscape. If it is anything like the side street/parking garage entryway view in the above image, I can't help but be concerned. This could become another Excellus Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building -- nice looking from one side, but completely lifeless on the other three. My worries are magnified by the roofline of the ESL Building; it looks eerily reminiscent of the roofline of the Excellus Building.

If it wasn't obvious, I feel that the Excellus Building is one of the worst buildings ever built in Rochester. It pays no attention to the streetlife and turns all of its attention inward. South Avenue will never be a lively street if that building cannot be retrofitted to bring retail to the streetfront or, at a minimum, some dang windows! In that respect, ESL is indeed vastly superior; at least there are windows. But why can't we have a building that has first floor retail on all of its street frontage? It seems to me that the corner of Woodbury and Chestnut would be a great location for a restaurant. It's across the street from one of the top tourist attractions in Upstate New York (the Strong National Museum of Play), has great accessibility and visibility, and would have very little competition because all of the other lifeless office buildings in its neighborhood lack retail/restaurant space.

I may be rushing to judgment. Perhaps ESL is planning first floor retail besides the new bank branch. But none of the news articles that I've read on the subject have mentioned it and none of the renderings that I've seen highlight it. I'm not a "beggars can't be choosers" sort of guy. I don't believe that any city should just approve every development it comes across simply because it's better than the alternative. That goes against every tenet of quality city building. And while a bank branch is better than an office, and ESL certainly is entitled to have a branch at their headquarters, it isn't the same as a store or a restaurant. Banks are only open business hours, they're usually drab and lifeless, and they're almost always oversized. Retail and restaurants, on the other hand, are open during the evenings, usually have vibrant window displays and entryways, and they typically take up less space. The more streetfront retail space, the more sidewalk activity.

I say these things not because I'm against the ESL headquarters. On the contrary, if it gets built as designed, it will still be a great improvement over the pothole-strewn surface lot it will replace. The building's design is not boring and boxy, but rather, displays an exciting facade that would be unique in our region. I am simply pointing out that there is always room for improvement. If it's not too late, I would encourage the good folks at ESL to consider allowing for first floor retail space. It would be good for the employees, good for the clients, good for the long-term viability of the building, and good for the downtown community at large. And would it be too much to ask at least some employees to walk, bike, carpool, or take public transportation to work? Oh well, I'll save the downtown parking fallacy for another rant.