The Port of Rochester is not living up to its full potential, city officials say. A redevelopment project, done right, will boost the port's profile, make the port a year-round destination, bring in traffic for Charlotte businesses, and raise tax revenue for the city, they say.
The city's desire for a transformational project has led to the selection of a developer who plans a multimillion-dollar reinvention of the Port of Rochester with a hotel, condominiums, townhouses, and commercial and office space. That's on top of a marina already under construction by the city.
But the drama of the project — it is unlike anything currently in Charlotte — has some people accusing the city of turning a public asset into a playground for the rich. Penthouse units in the housing developments will range from $900,000 to $1.2 million, according to the developer's proposal.
Others concerns involve parking, views, the character of Charlotte, and the future of the underused terminal building. There is also skepticism of the city's ability to pull off the project; critics cite the high-profile failures of the fast ferry and the city-subsidized Pier 45 restaurant at the port terminal.
"They can't even keep that place open year round, and it loses money in the three months it's open," says Sean Schiano, who is on a joint committee of the Charlotte Community Association and the Port of Charlotte Merchants Association. The groups joined up to represent the Charlotte community on the port redevelopment.
"We understand that we want development in Charlotte," Schiano says. "But we want a sustainable development. We want responsible development — something that has community involvement and something that actually fits in the community of Charlotte."
A community meeting with the developer, Edgewater Resources, will take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 8, at the Robach Community Center at Ontario Beach Park, 180 Beach Avenue.
Edgewater's proposal includes a 96-room hotel, 120 for-sale condominiums, and 50 townhomes. The primary market will be young professionals and empty nesters — the same demographics that experts say are driving the resurgence of downtowns nationwide.
Sale prices of the housing units will start at $199,000 for a one bedroom and climb with the height of the buildings. "Affordable" units will be included on the lower floors of the condominiums and townhouses. The way that the City of Rochester defines affordable, officials say, means that the units will essentially be middle income. A single occupant wouldn't be able to make more than $56,300 annually, for example.
City Council approved a zoning district for the port area in 2012 that allows considerable height for the buildings. The hotel, for example, could be 13 stories tall. Mark Gregor, the city's manager of environmental quality, says the height is a compromise to make sure the project is viable for the developer. A very early proposal had private development covering about 20 acres of the 25-acre site, Gregor says. The current plan is slightly less than three acres. The trade-off, Gregor says, is that the buildings have to be higher.
But the city has taken steps to preserve the views from Lake Avenue, he says, by limiting the height of the parts of the buildings that are on the road. The zoning allows a three-story maximum on Lake, Gregor says, and then the buildings will go in and up.
Regarding the hotel, Gregor says that market research shows it is viable. And transient boaters say they would come to Rochester if they had a place to tie up their boats and stay, he says.
"We'll have a boater lounge with restrooms and showers," Gregor says. "They'll be able to buy ice. They'll be able to do their laundry."
And Gregor refutes the suggestion that the city is privatizing the port. The marina will be open to the public and surrounded by a park and public promenade that will connect the Genesee River Trail to the Charlotte pier. And there is talk of a civic square with a reflecting pool or skating rink as part of the port project.
Although the developer mentions plans for the terminal building in its proposal, Gregor says the city has not committed to selling the building. The city did give Edgewater a list of questions regarding the building, however, to find out how a redeveloped terminal would fit into the rest of the project.
That the uproar over the project would happen now is a bit curious, considering the city approved the zoning district with the building heights in 2012. Gregor says he thinks people perked up because construction has begun on the marina, and because Mayor Lovely Warren agreed to show all the proposals the city received for the port.
Normally, the public would only see the selected project. Without the context of the city's internal review of the proposals, Gregor says, people reacted to the designs they saw in the media. But those designs aren't final, he says. People are seeing one version of what the project could look like when it's fully developed, Gregor says.
"It's a very, very early point in the process in terms of what the concept of the development will look like," he says.
A proposal by a different developer, CEA International acting on behalf of local firm Morgan Management, was much more modest: 200 rental apartments with underground parking.
The city chose the Edgewater proposal because it contains all owner-occupied units, which is better for the neighborhood, Gregor says. And it includes a variety of housing options at a wide range of prices. And the CEA proposal doesn't have the transformation potential of the Edgewater plan, Gregor says.
Some people are worried that the project will alter Charlotte's cozy charm. The neighborhood is strictly middle class, with a mean household income of less than $50,000, according to Census data.
Gregor says the city has been talking, with varying intensity, about redeveloping the port since the 1960's. The port is vastly underused, he says, generates no property tax revenue, and has a bit of an inferiority complex.
"If you talk to other harbors and other ports around Lake Ontario, we have been simply known as the harbor with the parking lots," Gregor says. "And no place for guest or day boaters to go, reliably."
A successful project will give a boost to the whole area, he says. Anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent of Lake Avenue storefronts are vacant, Gregor says.
Although there's been talk in the community about creating an atmosphere similar to Niagara-On-the-Lake, Steve Golding, the city's manager of downtown development, says the port project should be distinctly Rochester.
"You want to create something that hopefully the community will like and the developer can work with, but will also have its own character," he says. "They'll know they're in the Port of Rochester."