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RBTL by the river: the next big thing 

[UPDATED] Plans for a new Rochester Broadway Theatre League venue took an abrupt turn this morning, when philanthropist Tom Golisano announced that he was withdrawing his $25 million pledge for the project. Golisano said he was canceling his pledge because no other funding had been secured. City officials, however, said he had told them he was still committed to the project a few weeks ago, shortly before they announced plans to locate the theater by the river. The officials said the city still plans to pursue the riverfront project. It could turn out to be something terrific: a big, multi-use complex a block wide and a block deep along Main Street on the east side of the river downtown.

If all goes well, the tired, pink Rochester Riverside Hotel will be torn down. In its place will be a new hotel, apartments or condos, a garage, and two theaters: a 3000-seat venue designed primarily for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League and a smaller one for the Convention Center and local arts and community groups.

When you look at the renderings done by LaBella and SWBR, you can imagine the area alive with activity: some people walking along the riverfront or spilling out of the complex onto an outdoor terrace, others heading inside for a performance or streaming across the second-level pedestrian bridge.... And in a glass-fronted tower behind, people are looking out of their apartments toward a band getting ready to perform in Charles Carroll Plaza across the river.

That’s the vision for what’s currently being called Riverside Place. It isn’t a done deal, by any means. The cost is estimated at $250 million. There’ll have to be a lot of private financing: equity from the developer and bank loans for the hotel and residential part, and donations for the theater. But there'll also have to be a lot of government funding, for the garage and the two theaters – the Convention Center's and RBTL's.

This is no pipedream, though. City officials are excited about the project, and they say, so are state officials they’ve talked to about funding.

The project eliminates two points of controversy that have dogged the Warren administration. Originally, the theater was to occupy Parcel 5, a key piece of the former Midtown Plaza site. Since Midtown’s demolition, Parcel 5 has hosted some hugely successful events, and activists have been urging the city to transform it into a permanent, multi-use, public open space.

Moving the RBTL theater farther down Main Street also avoids a potentially difficult City Council vote. Parcel 5 is public land, and Mayor Warren wasn’t assured of the two-thirds vote she would need in order to sell it. The new site is privately owned.

The move seems to make sense, but there are questions. How much public funding is needed? How much is justifiable? Does the move affect the revenue projections for RBTL's theater?

Then there's the future of Parcel 5. Will Warren seek a new developer? Or will she recommend turning it into public space, as the activists have urged? City officials say the Warren administration won’t make a decision until at least after the first of the year.

I’m glad so much development is taking place downtown. I’m glad so many people are moving there. But the metropolitan population isn't growing appreciably. I can’t be the only person wondering how much development is sustainable.

Unless developers are lining up to build on Parcel 5, if I were the mayor, I’d put thoughts about development on hold. I’d replace the gravel with grass, plant some trees, stage a few events, let the public stage a few more, and sit back and watch.

Which leaves one more piece of unfinished business from the RBTL-Parcel 5 controversy, and it's a big one: local government's commitment to the arts. A recent consultant's study said a new RBTL theater could help all arts organizations. But it also said Rochester needs a funding mechanism to support all of them. More on that in a few weeks.

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