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At long last, real hope for downtown? 

It has been painful to watch, this slow deterioration of downtown Rochester over the past quarter-century. Many of us can still picture, vividly, MidtownPlaza filled with shops, Sibley's decked out for Christmas, Main Street packed with shoppers.

All of that is long gone, and it's not coming back. Some will say the near-death of downtown was inevitable, the result of natural market forces that occurred throughout the country. I think we could have prevented it, should have prevented it. But no matter. What's done is done.

The important thing is: what next? And slowly, I'm beginning to believe there's more than a moderate chance for a rebirth on Main Street.

We've got yet another plan for downtown's future, this one produced by the Washington-based think tank known as the Urban Land Institute. Previous plans --- Vision 2000, Rochester 2010 --- were set in motion by City Hall. The ULI study, and the subsequent report, released earlier this month, was sponsored by the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation and was supported by city government, county government, and local corporations and real-estate investors.

The significance: a wide variety of business and government leaders were worried enough about the deterioration of the heart of downtown --- the Sibley's-Midtown area --- that they decided to look for advice. Together.

Nobody thinks that reports by themselves lead to action. But they can be a start, and RDDC president Heidi Zimmer-Meyer says this latest report will serve as a "platform" for what comes next.

The ULI report recommends converting Sibley's to housing, tearing down part of MidtownPlaza and replacing it with a performing-arts theater, a park, and more housing. It recommends converting older office buildings north of the Renaissance Square site into condos --- and building still more housing north of Sibley's.

In all, ULI panel members think downtown could support 5000 to 7000 new housing units.

Are they nuts? Don't they realize that MonroeCounty --- and the city in particular --- is losing population?

"They knew that before they came," says Zimmer-Meyer. The ULI experts also knew that the city and its suburbs are in competition with one another for that shrinking population and for retail stores and offices.

But the ULI panel members think there's a market for that much new housing downtown. Not all at once. But over the next 10 years, yes. And Zimmer-Meyer says she agrees.

"The re-urbanization movement, people moving into downtown, is a national phenomenon," she says.

Rochester has missed out on a lot of national phenomena. But maybe we won't miss out on this one.

Among local developers, "there seems to be an appetite and a belief" that there is a demand for housing downtown, says Zimmer-Meyer. There's a growing sense that there's money to be made from it. "We have more developers, more investors, more projects" going on right now, she says, "and the ones hitting the market are being absorbed."

Enthusiasm aside, everyone involved in the ULI project knows that getting that much new housing won't be easy. Developing Midtown and Sibley's, in particular, will be enormous challenges. They're huge properties, and they're privately owned, and Midtown has asbestos problems. Government doesn't have a lot of money to lure developers into those kinds of projects.

Now, says Zimmer-Meyer, RDDC and others are taking the ULI recommendations and are trying to put together a strategy to reshape and revive downtown.

"It doesn't mean that every single thing they recommended is going to be a top priority," she says. But one thing is clear. Housing will be the driving force. There has to be enough housing to support retail.

The downtown of a decade from now won't be the downtown of the 1980's. It'll probably never be the site of a major department store again. But 5000, 7000 housing units? Fourteen thousand new downtown residents? That would make a difference.

For years, we seemed to be fighting almost impossible odds downtown. Now, for the first time in a long time, there's a glimmer of hope.

And incidentally: if the ULI report's promise is fulfilled, somebody ought to pass out medals to the real heroes in this long, long story: a quarter-century's worth of city officials, to be sure. But also the less visible heroes: the residents of the Grove Place neighborhood, the Little Theatre owners, the club and bar and restaurant owners, downtown arts leaders, the initial housing developers --- all of the people who have kept the faith and invested their own money in downtown all these years. Without them, hope for downtown revival would have died long ago.

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