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To market with downtown 

City Council's Bill Pritchard eyes the future of the center

It's been a little more than a year since Bill Pritchard was sworn in to City Council, filling a seat vacated by Nancy Griswold. While spending much of the past year learning the ropes of his new post, Pritchard has also placed his focus on downtown development.

Much of that is an outgrowth of Pritchard's six years serving on the city's Planning Commission, which he chaired during the adoption of the city's new zoning code in January, 2003. That code's completely untested approach to downtown eases building-use requirements and complicated permit-application processes, handling the center city with a set of design guidelines only. In other words: the possibilities are practically endless.

In his capacity as councilmember, Pritchard says he's been working to ease some of the bureaucratic red tape urban developers have to navigate. He's also been working to buck the perception that there's no development happening downtown, and that the city is so desperate that it should accept just about any proposal that comes along. The downtown casino proposed for Midtown and the Sibley Building "is more about personal investment issues than what's best for the community as whole," he says.

Pritchard's vision for downtown is more holistic. The influx of empty nesters interested in urban living to developments like Sagamore on East (high-rise condos being built by Christa Development on East Avenue between Swan and Scio) and the draw of the loft lifestyle for recent college graduates could transform downtown into an urban "village." Pritchard sees a downtown filled with housing, micro-businesses, and retail where people eat, live, shop, and seek entertainment.

Pritchard's not interested in devising all sorts of public incentives for people to develop downtown. "I'm probably one of the most pro-capitalism people on City Council," he says. The former RIT adjunct who has a master's in international studies with a specialization in international business would like to leave downtown up to the free market. And he thinks it can be done. Following is an edited transcript from City Newspaper's recent interview with Pritchard.

City: It's not hard to see why someone would have negative impressions of downtown, particularly Main Street. There's a stretch of Main west of Clinton that's just filled with vacancies. In what areas is downtown starting to show some promise?

Pritchard: You have to look at all of downtown. There are parts that are struggling. The corner of Main and Clinton is struggling. But our office-space vacancies are right on par with the suburbs. There's this impression that there's all this vacant space inside the city, and that's probably because it's more concentrated.

In the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation's May 2003 survey, Class A vacancies in the suburbs are 17.5 percent (including subleases) versus 17.1 percent in the city.

I'm running into this again and again, where the perception is not matching reality. I read the article with [County Legislator] Chris Wilmot ["Say What?" August 25]. I've heard what other people have to say. And, frankly, I'd like to hear downtown developers respond to the comment that there's nothing happening downtown. I think they'd respond in a very different way.

City: Why do you think there's this perception, though?

Pritchard: Reality often has to play a catch-up game with perception. What people hear they turn into fact: "You can't go downtown because it's dangerous." "You can't go downtown because it's too far to drive." It comes down to experience. When people step out of their safe zone, they learn a whole lot.

I had a really good personal experience.... I went to Pittsburgh last November. I'd heard all these great things about Pittsburgh, how it's a model for urban renewal, etc. And I saw a lot going on.

Then about two or three months ago there's an article in the paper talking about Pittsburgh's struggles, on how they were on the verge of going into receivership with the state on Pennsylvania. The articles pointed out the false sense of hope communities can gain from vast public-works projects that are created at horrific public expense. In spite of gleaming towers and shining new buildings, they're not growing their tax base. That's what's going on in Pittsburgh, and I see us making the same mistake here.

City: In what way, specifically?

Pritchard: Well, I think the casino, number one. I'm not against casinos. I'm against a casino at that location. I'm very concerned that a casino at that location would destroy the growing housing market that already exists.

The number of lofts and apartments in the city center has doubled in the past two decades. There are 120-plus retail establishments in downtown alone. I don't know if too many people want to live within arms' reach of a casino and everything that comes with it.

City: And this is high-priced housing that's going up near the proposed casino site.

Pritchard: Absolutely. And I think they'd take a hit in their values. But, even more dangerously, this could stop other development from happening.

City: You mention retail, but there's still nowhere for people who live downtown to shop for groceries.

Pritchard: That is a problem. But I don't think that's where we should be putting our efforts in the short term for downtown. Right now, we still need more people living downtown. And our culture is so car-driven that even if we had a full-service grocery store downtown, I highly doubt the people who live on Gibbs Street would walk there to do all their shopping.

But I see growth in entertainment-related retail: restaurants, bars, coffee shops. In the future, I see bookshops, barbershop, full-service spas....

City: Are we drawing interest from those types of businesses?

Pritchard: Nobody's banging my door down to bring those in. But once we have the people, I think we'll be able to draw those kinds of retail establishments that don't require customers to lug a cart of groceries around. I'm confident of that.

City: Sagamore on East is already half-full, right?

Pritchard: That and they're high-end. That is gonna draw more interest in that area. I wish I owned some property in that neighborhood. There will be more of a demand for high-end restaurants. I'm seeing more entertainment establishments for people who can afford six-figure housing.

I'm also optimistic about the growing interest in downtown. People are interested in growing small and medium-sized businesses in downtown, in partnering with the city to reduce the bureaucratic barriers that are, quite frankly, a part of government.

City:What barriers?

Pritchard: Well, people have to go through multiple steps to do one thing. They have to deal with different departments that have different focuses. You have Housing and Community Development, and you have Economic Development. And when you have people coming in whose projects fall under both departments, they're dealing with two sets of people who will think differently.

It's not onerous. But you've got to make it as easy as possible, and have a focus on the customer. What can we do for you, versus Here's that form you've got to fill out.

City: Are you making any significant progress in this area?

Pritchard: Yes, we are. There's still a ways to go. But the first step was the revision of the zoning code. The way we treated downtown made it much easier to attract businesses. You can do almost anything. That's how it should be.

The city's Department of Economic Development is working very hard to reduce the regulation burden, but we still have a long way to go.

City:What role do you think Empire Zones have played in the development of downtown?

Pritchard: I don't think we'd have Sagamore on East without them. Empire Zones have played a positive role for those sections of downtown they cover.

You know, I'm torn. As member of City Council, I'm elected to protect city interests. But I'm a regional guy at heart. I was gonna say that it's unfortunate Empire Zones have gone beyond their initial purposes of helping blighted urban areas. Now we're seeing them out in Penfield. Relative to downtown, Penfield's doing better. But I was in a bunch of different cities recently --- Dallas, San Diego, San Antonio, Philadelphia --- and, trust me, Penfield has some catching up to do. If we continue to compare ourselves to the city or town down the street without looking at the larger picture, we're in big trouble.

City: But it seems we shot down regionalism --- or any approach to consolidation --- in the last county executive election.

Pritchard: Unfortunately. And that election probably set us back decades. When there was a referendum on metro policing in 1989, it was shot down mercilessly. No politician running for countywide office is going to bring up metro policing any time soon. It's been 15 years. I think same thing is going to happen to consolidation.

And I'm not saying we should eliminate every form of government in Monroe County and reduce it all to one. I'm not convinced that's the best way to serve local interests. But we should be looking towards this.

Because there's no movement toward consolidation here, and because we're in such dire straits economically, there's this perception that if we don't grab onto a casino we're just kissing away a $500 million investment, as if there's nothing else going on.

As of August, there was a total of $474 million in current and projected investment in downtown. Only $73.9 million of that is public money. Most of this is investment that's going to grow.

The casino will produce a short-term stimulus in the form of a huge amount of construction. And 2,000 to 2,500 people would be hired to work there. But the city will bear the cost of maintaining the infrastructure. We'll collect some kind of fee in lieu of taxes. But once that contract expires, there will be no obligation to renew at the same level of commitment.

City: Some people may have grabbed onto the casino concept because it at least offered a solution for the Sibley Building.

Pritchard: I have a solution: housing. That building could still be renovated. The casino proposal called for that to be turned into a hotel. So it's feasible.

This casino is more about personal investment issues than what's best for the community as a whole. I always laugh when someone from Gates or Greece is promoting the casino and blatantly dismissing its ill effect. I would too, if I could drive in and leave the problems behind.

City:Is Renaissance Square included in that figure of current and projected investment?

Pritchard: Yeah, but that still leaves over half of this amount in various investments. Over $244 million.

City:What do you think of Renaissance Square?

Pritchard: I concur with PFABBS [the activist group People for a Better Bus Station]. We need more community discussions. I was at the November hearing RGRTA held, and it was laughable. Well, the format wasn't laughable. They gave what they said they'd give: a forum for people to air support or opposition. But there was no evidence of a community discussion. Most people spoke in opposition to people who just sat there. That is not what we need.

I'm not convinced Renaissance Square is sustainable. There's evidence the bus terminal will be a burden to Monroe County taxpayers to the tune of a million-plus every year.

Before this became Renaissance Square, there were the original plans to build just a bus terminal at that corner. Those plans included a big office tower. But downtown developers said we don't need more office space. Well, that was income-generating portion of that project. Public transportation, by its nature, is not likely to generate a profit. And there's reason to believe a new terminal's not a top priority to bus riders.

Look at Frontier Field. Look at [former County Executive] Bob King's promise for that it would not to cost taxpayers a dime. He's right. It's costing us millions of dimes; millions and billions of dimes.

The promise that Frontier Field would generate a great deal of growth in that area also never materialized.

City:Where does High Falls fit in all of this? There's been a lot of negative press lately about the struggles we're facing there.

Pritchard: [Former] Mayor Ryan and [former] Deputy Mayor Chris Lindley did the right thing. It was a gamble going back to the '80s, when things were worse downtown than they are today. It was the right investment for the time. And I still think it was sound.

But we're at a fork in the road. We've got to let the free market do what it needs to do to earn a buck down there.

Look at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. People from the suburbs --- my parents --- who would not come downtown for anything else go there for Dinosaur. They come, they park, they eat, they leave. If you build the right business, people from all around will come. That's what we need in High Falls.

And I'm disappointed in Cordish. [Last year, the city signed a five-year deal that pays the Baltimore-based Cordish Company $2.4 million to operate and serve as a consultant for the nightclubs at 60 Browns Race.] I'm not blaming them entirely, but I'm paying very close attention to things as they go forward.

These things take time. It really goes beyond what Cordish is responsible for. We need to strengthen the office space down there. We need housing. The area has to be multi-use.

City:So you'd leave High Falls to the free market?

Pritchard: Eventually, yes. But we need to be gradual about it.

If I were a business owner in East and Alexander, I would be upset too. There's been almost no public dollars spent at East and Alexander other than street maintenance.

City:Is there a risk that we're leaving fate of downtown development up to bars and nightclubs?

Pritchard: Well, that's what we're doing at East and Alexander, sure. But look at the Medical Arts Building [277 Alexander Street, being renovated as a mixed-use development]. I give John Billone and Flower City Management a lot of credit for what they're doing there.

Where I have a problem is when somebody's interest in making a buck begins to eclipse the benefit to the community. That's where government should step in.

We're kidding ourselves if we think $15 million for a new soccer stadium [PaeTec Park] was extra money. That's $15 million that didn't go into another development project elsewhere. I'm not anti-soccer or anti-soccer stadium.

If I had been on City Council when those discussions were had, I would have spoken up and said no. That project will have modest benefit on the neighborhood around it. I hope I'm wrong. But that $15 million represents money in opportunity lost.

City: And you don't think Renaissance Square will have any substantial long-term benefit?

Pritchard: I think the MCC Advanced Technology Education Center [a component of the Renaissance Square plan] can sustain long-term growth.

City: Even if MCC pulls out of Sibley?

Pritchard: See, I think Sibley should be housing. There are other uses for the Sibley Building.

City: But is there a proven demand for housing in the Sibley Building?

Pritchard: There's a proven demand for housing downtown.

Maybe MCC should stay in Sibley. But you're envisioning Renaissance Square as it's currently configured. The lines could be flipped. It could head east toward Midtown and Franklin.

I think the tech center, wherever it winds up downtown, will have a multiplier effect. The Performing Arts Center doesn't have me convinced. I'm just not sure there's a need. This comes from people in the arts community. Not everybody. It's divided. But I'm not sure if we need it on the scale we're proposing.

City:How active a role can city government play in spurring downtown development, given the city's fiscal constraints?

Pritchard: Our ability to offer financial incentives is limited. But in the area of streamlining the application process, we have a great opportunity.

I think the future of downtown is not in securing next tenant for a 12-story tower. It's in multiple micro-businesses. That's where our future's gonna lie. We have to stop thinking of downtown as it was. It will never be as it was. And that's not a bad thing. It can be better, just different.

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