Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Treatise on Midtown Plaza

Other news managed to squeeze its way in between the copycat rhetoric, chanting, and promises of 'change' of Super Tuesday. On RNews, it was announced that the City of Rochester had made an actual offer of purchase for the Midtown Plaza complex with the express purpose of having it condemned, razed with state funding, and parcelled out primarily to PAETEC Holding Corp., a telecommunications company headquartered currently in the southeast suburbs. Picture by Ron Morales (CC A-SA 3.0)

RNews and the Democrat and Chronicle reported on the story with short print editions today (notice how the D&C always make the dollar amount say what they need it to say in an endless quest to be the perfect assholes and stir up negative sentiment), meaning the time is now to be the dissenting voice to this hasty and seemingly short-sighted development plan if warranted. I don't have a degree in Urban Planning, Architecture, or Business Management, so emotion may seep into this at times (I was quite sad at and after Midtown's final Christmas 'celebration'), but I'll try to do my best to use actual observations along with my recent urbanist reading binge to comment thoughtfully on the pros and cons of this development.

I hate to start with a history lesson, but I think one is warranted here considering the subject matter. Many thanks to Wikipedia and all the Wiki Foundation does to make knowledge available to the masses free of charge.

Midtown Plaza was dedicated on April 10, 1962 as the first downtown indoor mall in the United States. It was designed by Victor Gruen who had also designed the first mall as we now traditionally know them (Enclosed Shopping Center) in 1956. In hindsight, its ironic that the plaza was actually a response to growth in popularity of strip malls. Owners of the McCurdy's and B. Forman Co. department stores downtown (whose original buildings still comprise part of the plaza) were concerned about the viability of downtown retail and proposed linking their buildings with a 'modern' shopping mall. Photo by Flickr User AdsitAdventures (CC A-NDW 2.0)

In its time, Midtown won several design awards as urban planners worldwide came to see it as a potential answer to the urban crisis plaguing the sixties. To be fair to Gruen, later in his life he continued to have great affection for Midtown despite characterizing his own suburban designs as, "those bastard developments." His intention was to create a pedestrian friendly town square which explains the culturally enriching Clock of Nations at the center of the very open (by today's standards) mall. Integrated into the complex is a seventeen story office building as well, lending dynamic character to the weekday pedestrian population.

To put its decline in context, one would think based on the tales of other cities that if something like this was doomed to failure, it would have bit the dust in the 1980's during the great greed generation. Rochester, however, managed to shake its rust belt destiny until roughly 1999. The point and shoot camera boom of the late 80's/early 90's coupled with Xerox's advances in lasercopying meant a localized prosperous economy compared to its Syracuse and Buffalo counterparts and a lag in the death of downtown retail. The death knell began to sound in 1994 when both McCurdy's and B. Forman finally closed their doors. That B. Forman was replaced by a Peebles was of little consolation as more of the urban fabric was ripped out in 1995 with the closing of Wegman's, downtown's only full size grocery store.

Ironies abound when you think about what is being proposed here compared to the role downtown shopping centers have played in other cities nationwide. The first major irony is that downtown is regaining a critical mass of residents, some new urbanists who strive to live car-free as a healthier way of life. A Wegman's would no longer be able to claim that it was overserving the population. Wegman's under the rule of Daniel Wegman is a different animal than under the mindful eye of Robert Wegman, the chain's founder, but that is for another post.

A second irony is that the mall downtown as a revitalization technique is not a failure in some cases and arguably wasn't here either. In my hometown of Scranton, PA, the opposite occured. An entire two blocks of derelict buildings were imploded to make way for the Mall at Steamtown. Packaged in with this economic development (that kept and/or drew shoppers downtown) were renovation to the Oppenheim and Lewis & Reilly buildings, perennial eyesores now occupied or at least suitable for office occupation. Steamtown National Historic site was also integrated into the plans and linked via PEDESTRIAN bridge. In St. Louis, Missouri, Union Station was left for dead in the late seventies. Its conversion into a mall/hotel complex has made it one of St. Louis' largest tourist attractions.

That said, Rochester's urban issues are unique to Rochester in scale and solution. The administration believes that displacing merchants, radio stations, and office tenants serves the greater good by bringing another company's world headquarters downtown. In trying to rebutt this assertion with a quantitative list of both pros and cons, I find that many of the conditions are qualified, that is to say they are not cut and dry and some contingent on future events. Some of these qualifications spawn others. If any of the following analysis/opinion isn't clear, please contact me and I'll do my best to clarify. Photo by Flickr User AdsitAdventures (CC A-NDW 2.0)

On its face I would deem the city's spending of $6 million (as much as they plan on buying the property for) to relocate tenants already doing adequate business extraneous at best. However, there is sentiment that such relocation will not remove said tenants from the 14604 zip code, allowing them to continue to provide their essential services from other locations downtown. Many proponents claim that this would enable more original use for the Sibley Building on East Main Street, original flagship store of the Sibley's Chain (everyone can identify with the major downtown department store of their city, for me it was the Globe). This thinking points up a tertiary concern of mine related to the era of cheap energy as termed by J.H. Kunstler. This concern has become my major point on the subject of Midtown. Many new urbanists including myself feel that continued increase in gas prices will render suburbs and especially exurbs obsolete. Redensification will include an immigration to downtowns to save on costs of transporting goods to remote locations. I feel it is a mistake to demolish ANY potential retail space in the urban core at this point in time.

One of the fundamental tenets of New Urbanism is that "neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population." One of the most untrue, but sadly most common arguments against Midtown is that suburbanites don't feel 'safe' there, which is to say that black people shop there in significant numbers. There is no other way to spin this and its preposterous. I dare any naysayer to show me a documented instance of an assault at Midtown Plaza. They have a competent full-time security force like any other mall. This line of thought exposes the typical Monroe County resident's narrow minded thought process. This same line of thought explains their reluctance to see the value in an indoor centralized mass-transit terminal and universal disdain for the Renaissance Square project.

On to the risk involved. It has been declared that the state of New York would be responsible for demolition costs in excess of $50 million. This will enable the city to hand over a significant parcel of land to PAETEC at almost no charge. PAETEC would only be on the hook for building their headquarters. This would be all well and good if we had a crystal ball that told us PAETEC would have the capital at that point in time to proceed and that they would be building something that dignifies the site. Note closely that PAETEC is a telecom industry company and that giants such as AT&T and their spinoff Bell Labs were once great companies on par with Kodak, thought to be invincible. What happens if suddenly PAETEC pulls out at the last minute? Or their design shrinks to the point where its not a signifcant addition (replacement?) to our skyline? Photo by Flickr User AdsitAdventures (CC A-NDW 2.0)

Governor Eliot Spitzer, in one of his addresses to upstate communities about state money for major development projects, stated, "But right at the center of downtown is a major obstacle to development: a 1960s-era shopping mall that is 75 percent empty,” the governor said. “Not only does this structure present a physical impediment to revitalization—it is 10 acres large and right in the middle of downtown—it also presents a symbolic impediment. To everyone who visits downtown Rochester, it represents decline and decay, rather than the beauty and vitality that truly characterize this city."

It is somewhat hard to argue with that, though I could do without the placating tone. It seems like a certain sadness is clouding my judgement to some degree about the fact that despite being the first downtown mall, Midtown is still a mall and takes foot traffic away from downtown streets. From an architecture standpoint, it is unfortunate that the demolition will be all-encompassing, taking down all buildings immaterial of use or aesthetic. The B. Forman Building (1920), for instance, is actually quite pleasing on South Clinton Ave. with its stone exterior and large display windows. The McCurdy Building (1901) exterior however was bastardized in 1986 with the finest in fake white panel to emulate the cube model. The Euclid Building, home to most radio stations, and Seneca Office Building are essentially architectural saddle sores. If the PAETEC headquarters is built to full scale as promised, this is an opportunity to enrich the iconic photographs of the city rather than subtract from them. Another hope is that the remaining land can be used for private mixed-use development, certainly a worthy endeavor. If this is not the case, adding another corporate headquarters that drains out of downtown like clockwork at 5PM isn't doing the city any favors.

The concept of disrupted urban fabric is also worth mentioning if only briefly. While the criticism of malls diverting foot traffic holds, this one performs another purpose in the downtown skyway network (the merits of which are also debatable). To remove Midtown is to create a gap between the Washington Square neighborhood's major office buildings (Frontier, Xerox) and the Convention District (Chase, South Ave. Garage, Hyatt, Convention Center). Whether this current fabric is urban linen or urban nylon remains to be seen.

In conclusion, I can understand to a degree the Urban Land Institute's recommendation of the demolition of Midtown Plaza (and I plan to do an executive summary/critique on their 46 page report on strategies for re-creating the urban core). However, I urge city leaders to perform due diligence if they haven't already. Once Midtown is gone it is gone and all of the energy that went into building and tearing it down vaporized. They should seek reassurances from their target tenants as well as extend reassurances to those relocated. Perhaps what I consider ironic isn't irony at all (maybe Steamtown is eventually doomed to fail) and that the true urban character is slowly but surely creeping back into the public consciousness. Matthew Daneman, who actually reports for the Democrat and Chronicle landed a feature in USA Today in January. Entitled, "The Latest Trend in Malls: No Walls," he implied that urban core shopping malls were a failed experiment as far as a fix-all for urban ills and that people preferred street life regardless of the weather condition. Finally, in that same piece Michael Braun, the president of a California development company, is quoted as saying "What America is discovering is people hate driving their cars. Today, Manhattan is the most desirable place in the whole wide world. You can walk anywhere you want." Encouraging to say the least. Let's just hope landmarks like the clock are preserved for future generations as a way to explain the well-intentioned efforts of Victor Gruen and Geri Kavanaugh.


tom sheepandgoats said...

This is a fantastic article (and blog). I followed back the comment you left on my post re Midtown (thank you) to discover this. Far and away the most thorough item I've found about Midtown. I love your concept....championing urban living, and your obvious love of Rochester, my home town. Your premise may well be valid that economic constraints will drive a rebirth of the central city. Alas, unlike you, while my heart is in the city, my butt is firmly planted in the suburbs. But it wasn't always that way; I've been a city dweller most of my life. Only, not ever in the cool parts, always in the plainer neighborhoods. I do sit at Java's occasionally, where I sometimes write my own posts.

I have a Rochester category as well, on local things that catch my eye, but it's by no means as exhaustive as yours. My only gripe about your blog is.....where in the world am I going to find time to keep up with it?

And.....on seeing the photos, I was surprised to see the credit. I know Ron Morales from the old days. Now to see if I can find any contact info.

Bob and Tia said...

Thanks for the compliments Tom.

Well we put in our offer today. Hope to hear back sometime this weekend so we can proceed. Until then I haven't been a city resident since Scranton, Pennsylvania in the summer of 2000.

Keeping up with this blog won't be as exhaustive going forward as my job became incrementally busier today. Figures there is a lot of great development news on the homefront. Ground was broken at High Falls for some Mixed-Use and ESL announced plans to bail on Irondequoit and build a new 6 story headquarters downtown. Hopefully I find some time in Ottawa this weekend to blog it.

Ron Morales lives on Monroe and is the proprietor of