December 07, 2005 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Next urban comeback: at Lyell and State? 

When you think about the area around Lyell Avenue and State Street, you probably don't envision a thriving international district with Wi-Fi coffeehouses and loft-style apartments. But that's exactly the vision that animates Mitch Rowe.

A veteran City Hall employee, Rowe took his first plunge into commercial real estate about two years ago when, along with his neighbor Tom LaBue, he bought the flatiron building at 3 Lyell Avenue from the city for a thousand dollars.

Today, the rehabbed building is home to the Flat Iron Café. Sandwiched in between Lyell Avenue and Smith Street, the building anchors what could become a significant city intersection.

If that sounds like an overstatement, consider two of the biggest projects being undertaken in the city: the construction of PaeTecPark and the remaking of the Port of Rochester. True, questions remain about both projects; the Rhinos are awaiting word on whether the state will chip in $15 million to pay for key amenities. And though the city has contracted with a Boston firm to redesign riverfront land at the port, the ferry's lackluster performance has cast a pall over the resurgence of the area.

But while these concerns are real, both developments are going to happen; it's just a question of how big and how successful they'll be.

The state Department of Transportation finished a massive repaving of Lake Avenue this year, in anticipation of a boost in traffic between the port and downtown Rochester. Among the improvements was the installation of flagstone crosswalks and iron street lamps along the Lake Avenue-State Street corridor: the same ones that that have been installed in Charlotte. These are installed at key intersections, including the five-corners area where the Flat Iron Café is. The idea is that having similar elements as part of the streetscape will help link together neighborhoods along the whole corridor.

The flatiron building's renovationand the café are emblematic of what backers hope the area could become. It almost didn't happen. In 1999 the city moved to demolish the building, saying it was suffering from neglect and was becoming a hazard.

Among those who objected was John Lippa, now the president of the Lyell Avenue Business Association (he was vice president at the time). "We said, this was historic," he recalls. "We didn't want that torn down." The group went to the Landmark Society to research the building's history and bolster the case for saving it.

After a couple of months, Lippa and others were able to persuade the city to back off. Still, the building wasn't exactly an asset to the neighborhood. Businesses came and went, the most memorable being an adult book store. And during that time the original entry, which faced the intersection at the point of the building, remained cut off, a window, not a door.

After Rowe and LaBue bought the building, among their improvements was restoring the double doors that open out onto the five corners.

The changes they've made are welcomed by Lippa and others in the neighborhood.

"We're very pleased with the appearance of the building," Lippa says. Lippa and Bob Seidel, a retired Empire State College professor who was also active in the campaign to save the building, believe it is a keystone for the area.

"A lot of people see it going down the avenue," Seidel says. Positive changes there are a hopeful sign for the rest of the area, he says.

Rowe hasn't been the only person to recognize the neighborhood's potential. There's a slow but steady flux of businesses opening or expanding in the area. In a small space in the back of the flatiron building, a group of seniors from St. JohnFisherCollege, led by Mark Foti, are opening a comic-book store. Win Fa, an Asian market from a few blocks south, is reopening in a larger space across the street. Deepak Marwaha, who owns a cell-phone store next door, has bought a few more storefront buildings from the city and plans to renovate them for retail space.

Bryce and Doyle, a maker of upscale kitchen cabinetry, has bought another building to use for a showroom.

Although the pace of business activity hasn't been conspicuous, it hasn't escaped notice, either.

"If you walk in a two-block radius of that intersection, you encounter a whole lot of businesses that you didn't know existed until you walk there," says Seidel.

Though he tries to remain modest about it, Rowe clearly relishes the thought that his project is acting as a catalyst for a comeback in the neighborhood. Instead of spending a lot of money on the flatiron building, he and LaBue did much of the restoration work themselves.

"Before that, there were a lot of people who had written the area off and decided it wasn't worth investing in," Rowe says. "I'd like to think that the interest that Deepak and the others showed is connected to the fact that they saw two people willing to roll up their sleeves."

Marwaha says that's a fair assessment. Changing an adult bookstore to a coffeehouse is "definitely changing the look and feel of the neighborhood," he says, and that prompted him to invest some sweat equity of his own.

"It really comes down to the effort people put into the buildings," he says.

Some of the flurry of activity is also surely connected to the coming of the soccer stadium.

"I would've done this even if the stadium wasn't going to be two blocks to the west," says Rowe. But he admits that's not the case for everyone. "Properties on Lyell have been bought up in the last 18 months that probably wouldn't have if the stadium wasn't going there," Rowe says.

Of course, the neighborhood is more than just the five-corners intersection. Despite the draw that PaeTecPark may provide, a true revitalization will hinge on having a regular flow of people patronizing retail outlets.

One of the area's advantages is that it already has a population base. Several businesses have plants in the area. And a major non-profit group, the Center for Disability Rights, is moving its headquarters from rented space a little to the south into a building it has bought at Jay and State.

Chris Hilderbrant, the Center's director of advocacy, says he hopes CDR's newly renovated building can act as a counter-balance to the stadium, an anchor for pedestrian traffic when there are no soccer games.

"We want to serve as a hub," he says.

CDR has been at its current location on State Street for six years, says Hilderbrant. It's outgrown that space, but its leaders wanted to stay in the area, partly out of a conscious choice to remain connected to the city, and partly because that section of State Street has good access to bus routes, something critical to both staff members and their clientele.

"The move to that location is consistent with our commitment to the city," says Hilderbrant. "Our organization has grown up in this area. It's a great location for us."

The cost of the renovations to CDR's new building --- which include a power wash to remove 100 years of grime from the building's brick façade --- is about $3 million, says to Hilderbrant. When the organization moves in, it'll have 60 fulltime staff members working there, plus about 65 more who'll split their time working there and elsewhere for CDR.

Those numbers make CDR's project the second largest investment in the area (after PaeTecPark), according to their own reckoning.

Along with the new building, the group also bought the adjacent storefronts that line State Street, and though they're not part of the initial rehab, Hilderbrant says CDR hopes that with some help from the city, they'll eventually become an important part of the neighborhood's rebirth.

But reviving a neighborhood takes more than just filling a few storefronts. Problems abound. First there's the area's reputation.

"There's probably still a perception on the part of a lot of people that that area's not safe," says Mitch Rowe. That perception is false, he says; he's been at his building working "at all hours of the day and night," he says, without trouble.

In addition to being thought of as generally a tough neighborhood, Lyell Avenue is known as a red-light district. If the perception that the area is unsafe or unsavory persists, people who otherwise might patronize coffeehouses and restaurants in the area may take their business elsewhere.

Then there's parking. Unlike downtown or the East End, there are no large municipal parking garages within easy walking distance from the five corners. Even large lots can be difficult to find and are often off limits to the public. What little parking is available is street side.

And finally, the area suffers from a weaker form of the same problem that ails the HighFalls entertainment district: lack of housing. Although there is some housing in the area, it's limited in the immediate neighborhood. For a critical mass of people to exist, more housing, particularly for middle-income families and young professionals, will need to become available.

For the first problem --- the area's bad rap --- help may be on the way. John Lippa and Bob Seidel are both involved in the startup of a prostitution task force that's being put together. Working with the Rochester Police Department, NET offices, the County Health Department, the County Human Services Department, and representatives from the faith community, local residents and businesses are hoping to clean up the illicit sex trade in the area.

"If we can reduce the odium that's attached to Lyell Avenue, that will help," says Seidel.

Parking and housing remain more intractable obstacles, for now. CDR's new lot will be the biggest in the area. However, at least initially it won't be open to the public. Hilderbrant says that could change.

"I could foresee exploring that," he says.

With the coffee shop all but finished, Rowe and LaBue have turned their attention to the second and third floors of the flatiron building, which they plan to convert to loft-style apartments. Rowe is hoping the trend of upscale lofts that's spreading downtown will reach north toward his neighborhood. One positive sign: Buckingham Properties' current conversion of the ArtcraftBuilding, not far to the south, into lofts.

And then there are a few bonuses, positives that many prospective business owners or investors might not have counted on but will get anyway. One is Empire Zone status; part of the city's zone covers the five-corners intersection, and businesses will be eligible for tax exemptions. (Longtime observers will note with some irony that this is exactly the type of revitalization the Empire Zone program was intended to boost when it was begun.) The intersection also represents the northernmost edge of the CenterCity area in the zoning ordinance. That means property owners have fewer restrictions about such things as providing a minimum number of parking spaces.

Looking into the future, it's tough to tell what's in store for the area around the five corners. Lippa would like to see a design charrette as a start. But he's also well aware that a lot depends on the response from a BobDuffyCity Hall.

"We'll have to see how the new administration deals with this," he says.

Plans for at least one charrette --- in nearby JonesPark --- had been in the works. The Interfaith Action organization had argued that it was immoral to spend loads of public money on a new stadium while the needs of the poor in its shadow went unmet. Deputy Community Development Commissioner Larry Stid had met with the group about its concerns, Rowe says. Stid died last month, however, and plans for the charrette are now up in the air.

Rowe declines to speculate much about the area's future growth. He mentions looking forward to small changes like better signage for local businesses and getting trees planted in empty tree grates. (That last wish seems to have been granted. A City Newspaper photographer, assigned to find an empty grate, couldn't; all had recently been filled with saplings.)

Rowe does make one prediction, though.

"I know for sure next year is going to be better than this year," he said. "In less than 10 years we'll have full occupancy of all the retail space in that area."

Lippa puts it more succinctly still:

"We're looking for a renewal," he says.

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