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More growth downtown? Developers keep signing on 

click to enlarge The Strong museum and its partners propose an expansion of the museum, parking for 1,200 cars, a hotel with at least 120 suites, 201 housing units, and a mix of retail. - PROVIDED IMAGE
  • The Strong museum and its partners propose an expansion of the museum, parking for 1,200 cars, a hotel with at least 120 suites, 201 housing units, and a mix of retail.
Given the grimness of the national news, any hopeful local news is welcome. And last week we got some, in the form of development proposals for the land once occupied by the eastern Inner Loop.

If the proposals hold up to scrutiny, if City Council approves them, and if there’s a market for them, we’ll get a new downtown mini-neighborhood, with housing, retail, offices, a small hotel, and a museum expansion.

On Friday, Mayor Lovely Warren announced the Inner Loop developments that her administration is recommending. Significantly, all are from people with extensive experience in the kinds of projects they’re proposing.

A group consisting of the Strong Museum, Indus Hospitality, and Konar Properties wants to build not only an addition to the museum but also a small hotel, a 1200-car garage, retail space, and 201 units of housing. Strong, of course, isn’t in the commercial development business, but Konar owns and operates both housing and commercial space in the city and suburbs. And Indus owns and operates numerous chain restaurants (Taco Bells, Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC’s) and small hotels in the Rochester and Finger Lakes area.

A partnership of Morgan Development and Christa Construction – both of which already have numerous projects throughout the Greater Rochester area – want to create 117 studio, one-, and two-bedroom apartments, underground parking, and retail and office space. Christa would move its headquarters from the suburbs to downtown Rochester.

And Home Leasing, a longtime Rochester and eastern US developer, wants to create 49 units of apartments and townhouses. It would be just east of another new Home Leasing project, one that will inject substantial additional life into a pocket of downtown that already includes housing, the Little Theatres, and Hart’s Grocers.

All this as about a dozen other new housing and mixed-use projects are underway downtown: hundreds of new apartments in a region with a relatively flat population growth. More retail space in a downtown where we recently demolished a failing retail center.

Is there a market for all this?

National studies indicate that young adults and empty nesters value both the convenience and the entertainment and cultural offerings of downtowns. And when I asked Mayor Lovely Warren last week about her confidence in the local market, she pointed to the persistent low vacancy rate in downtown housing, and the fact that new units are snapped up almost as soon as they become available.

And Warren thinks the new downtown housing has an additional plus: for decades, many of the Rochester area’s apartments have been in the suburbs. They’re older now, and they don’t have the amenities that the new downtown units have.

Warren also mentioned what a couple of experienced developers told her recently: that overall, all around the country, fewer people are buying homes –reluctant, for example, to take on a mortgage when they might change jobs in a few years.

As for more retail: Warren’s communications director, James Smith, says we shouldn’t think in terms of large department stores. Instead, we should think about the street-level retail and service businesses that serve nearby residents and downtown workers. They, too, add the kind of vibrancy that makes downtowns attractive.

And, Smith said, they add jobs. Jobs that can offer employment to city residents.

We can’t force a healthy downtown. A healthy downtown involves extensive symbiosis, multiple parts feeding off of and dependent on one another. Right now, we’re seeing that develop, bit by bit. New housing. Another business wanting to move its employees downtown. Arts and entertainment offerings – and audiences – growing.

Plans for new development aren’t the same thing as completed buildings full of people. Hope isn’t reality. But as I have listened to friends gloating about their new downtown homes, and as I watched a Kodak Hall full of classical music patrons cheering for the RPO on Thursday night, and stood in the midst of thousands of people whooping it up at the Fringe Festival’s Streb spectacle Friday night, it has felt really good.

And it’s beginning to feel real.

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