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Grabbing Bull's Head by the horns 

Amiel Mokhiber was driving around the city scoping out potential locations for the sub shop he wanted to open when his eyes fixed on a building at the corner of West Main and Brown streets in the heart of the Bull’s Head neighborhood.

The first thing he noticed was the steel turret on top of it, the second was the robust foot and vehicle traffic around the intersection, an essential for a business that would depend on walk-in customers. He soon opened Amiel’s Jumbo Submarines there, and it did so well that after the first year he bought the building from his landlord.

“It was Main Street,” his son, Amiel Mokhiber Jr., recalled in recounting the story of his father’s business. “When don’t you want to be on Main Street? Back in the day, Main Street anything was the place to be.”
click to enlarge Universal Heating Co., which opened in Bull's Head in 1973, is one of few remaining businesses in what was once a thriving commercial area. - PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • Universal Heating Co., which opened in Bull's Head in 1973, is one of few remaining businesses in what was once a thriving commercial area.
But that was in 1963, when Bull’s Head was a thriving commercial center. Now, vacant lots outnumber businesses in the West Main, Brown, and Genesee streets corridor. By the 1970s, the forces of suburbanization caused businesses to move or fold, and the following decades weren’t much kinder. Amiel’s closed its Bull’s Head shop at the end of the 70’s, though Amiel Mokhiber Jr. still runs locations in Henrietta and Victor.

For two decades, various city administrations have attempted to generate investment in Bull’s Head, working with residents and civic leaders to develop revitalization plans, to no avail. In the absence of private capital being sunk into the neighborhood, the city quietly over the course of years gobbled up vacant parcel after parcel with an eye toward implementing a master plan, a grand vision, of Bull’s Head as a retail and residential hub.

That process was recently completed under the administration of Mayor Lovely Warren, which took control of the final 12 acres at a cost of roughly $10 million. Most of the properties are within or adjacent to a misshapen pentagonal block bounded by West Main, Brown, York, and Kensington streets, although the city also spent an additional $1 million to buy Bull’s Head Plaza at the corner of West Main and Genesee streets.

The Warren administration is now taking the most significant steps to date to court a developer who officials hope can make a resurgent Bull’s Head a reality.

“It really was a strong, vital hub for the community and it’s really lost a lot of character now,” Rick Rynski, the city’s Bull’s Head project manager, told potential developers during an informational session in August. “The community really wants to bring that back.”

The city is in the process of selecting that developer but has not disclosed who is in the running for the award.
click to enlarge A city-owned building on Brown Street is part of the Bull's Head redevelopment site. - PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • A city-owned building on Brown Street is part of the Bull's Head redevelopment site.

Bull’s Head has its roots in a cattle market from the early 1800s, before Rochester was even incorporated as a village. Many of the people herding their cows to the market stopped at the Bull’s Head Tavern, which became popular enough that it gave the area its lasting moniker.

As the decades passed, the area evolved into a cluster of businesses, shops, restaurants, and offices. In 1932, one of the first Wegmans stores opened at Main and Brown streets, complete with cutting edge refrigerated display windows and vaporized water sprays for produce. From 1952 to 1967, Dorschel Buick sold cars on Genesee Street, where a section of Bull’s Head Plaza now stands.

But that’s what Bull’s Head was. The question now is how will the city remake it?

Dana Miller, the city’s director of business and housing development, told prospective developers during that August informational session that the city expects any firm awarded rights to the city-owned property to build a mix of retail and commercial space, housing, and some buildings for some health-related uses to complement the nearby Rochester Regional Health St. Mary’s Campus.

Miller declined interview requests for this story, citing the city’s ongoing master developer selection process.

Under the city’s urban renewal plan for the area, Bull’s Head Plaza would likely be redeveloped to look less like a strip mall and more like urban commercial space. Officials have vowed to help any business or office displaced by the city’s project to relocate in Bull’s Head.

The city also plans to address the chaotic traffic patterns around Bull’s Head by reconfiguring some of the streets. For example, Brown Street would be redirected so it doesn’t intersect with West Main and instead feeds into a roundabout connected to an extension of Genesee Street. The change, combined with the apparent elimination of Kensington Street, would create additional development opportunities.

The city didn’t just pull its vision for Bull’s Head from its back pocket. It incorporates several years’ worth of input from neighborhood leaders, residents, and business representatives. They asked for amenities that would make the area more inviting, such as lighting, landscaping, and banners, and goods and services, particularly a grocery store, which Warren has said is something the city is pursuing. A Tops supermarket is just shy of a mile away on West Avenue.

They also wanted housing for the elderly or for residents to age in place. Dawn Noto, president of the Susan B. Anthony Neighborhood Association, supports building senior housing at Bulls Head. She noted that aging residents with deep connections to southwest neighborhoods often don’t have housing options that enable them to continue living in their communities into old age.

“We need to talk about it more because that’s the social network,” Noto said.
Warren, too, has pointed to a lack of single-level senior housing in the city, and officials are talking to potential master developers about making senior housing part of the Bull’s Head plan.

There is one aspect of the plan that could prove controversial: a new police station positioned either at the rear of the Bull’s Head Plaza property or on a side street of West Main Street. Through years of meetings, residents consistently asked for a greater police presence. But that was before the deaths of George Floyd and Daniel Prude at the hands of police, and national conversations about policing that have followed.

Those conversations upended plans for a police station on East Main Street at the other end of the city. The City Council repealed legislation providing funding for the station after pressure from activists. City and Rochester Police Department leaders are also in the midst of reviewing potential reforms for the police department.

“When the dust settles on that, it's my hope that there will be a community-oriented police presence at Bull's Head,” said John DeMott, a 19th Ward Community Association member who helped organize Bull’s Head input sessions for the city.

click to enlarge Rochester Regional Health's St. Mary's Campus is an anchor at Bull's Head. - PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • Rochester Regional Health's St. Mary's Campus is an anchor at Bull's Head.
Universal Heating and Cooling has called Bull’s Head its home since 1973. Manager Chadd Haskins began working at the business on West Main Street, which his father owns, in 1987. He and his father have resisted the city’s attempts to acquire their property, but Haskins said he believes they’ll be able to stay. He said they like where they are because it’s a central location.

“We have a lot of customers in this area,” Haskins said.

Despite the city wanting their land, Haskins supports much of what the city wants to do at Bull’s Head, particularly plans to reconfigure some of the streets. He believes the neighborhood is well positioned for a commercial resurgence.

“There’s not a lot here to begin with, so you could put in almost anything,” Haskins said.

There are signs that efforts to revitalize Bull’s Head may be primed for success, among them that people and organizations are putting their faith in the surrounding area.

Flower City Habitat for Humanity hopes to complete its 100th house in the adjacent JOSANA neighborhood next year, according to Ethel Duble, a spokesperson for the organization. The group committed in 2007 to building 100 owner-occupied houses within a half-mile of School No. 17 on Orchard Street.

When Warren announced the city’s new Revitalize Rochester Fund in August, she chose to set her news conference at a vacant lot at West Main and Kensington streets. The fund is to provide loans and grants to entrepreneurs who want to start or expand businesses in select parts of the city, one of which is Bull’s Head. In her remarks, Warren acknowledged that Bull’s Head has seen troubled times and has suffered from disinvestment, but she also pitched it as a place of opportunity.

“Bull’s Head today is a foundation for entrepreneurs to build their vision,” Warren said. “This area’s about to go through a dramatic change and we’re looking for people who want to be a part of that change. And the Revitalize Fund will invest in their vision in Bull’s Head and other neighborhoods.”

DeMott, who has watched the project unfold through several administrations at City Hall, draws optimism from another project that happened at West Main and Canal streets. That was where Home Leasing developed the Voter’s Block apartment community, constructing new duplexes and single-family houses, and what is now the 1872 Cafe — an homage to the area where Susan B. Anthony and 15 other women cast a ballot in 1872. The company also renovated a historic building across the street from Voter’s Block, retaining street-level retail.

“To me, they’re an example of the kind of developer who could come to Bull’s Head and take part of it and make both the commercial and the residential stuff happen,” DeMott said.

Jeremy Moule is CITY’s news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.

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