Downtown Rochester fell on hard times after years of disinvestment, suburban flight and the after-effects of urban renewal efforts.
On top of these national-level trends, Rochester’s downtown was heavily reliant on three gargantuan office users: Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb. History was not kind to any of the three anchors: Kodak went through bankruptcy during the Great Recession, Xerox moved its headquarters to Connecticut, and Bausch & Lomb moved its headquarters to New Jersey. The end result was massive amounts of unused office space downtown and elsewhere in the City. Today, however, the future is bright for the city’s downtown as waves of new investment land in the various underutilized and repurposed buildings in the core.
The most striking statistic is the growth in downtown residents. Just since the recession, the downtown core population has risen from roughly 4,500 in 2009 to roughly 6,500 (44%!) today. Furthermore, based on new units coming online, the population is expected to increase a further 40% to over 9,000 by 2018! Therefore, we would anticipate the downtown population to have doubled in 10 years. In stark contrast, the City’s overall population has been in constant decline from the 1960’s, falling from 318,000 to 210,000 people. If fact, the leveling off of the City’s population decline (2010-2015 saw only a 0.4% decline) can be attributed entirely to the renaissance of the downtown.
How has this happened? Mostly by conversion of mammoth office buildings into top-notch mixed use projects with a heavy reliance on residential reuses. As noted by the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation (RDDC), “35 downtown buildings have been converted from under-performing commercial uses to trendy lofts and apartments.” (Source: Downtown Housing Market Report, December 2015) And yet, the vacancy rate for downtown apartments is just a hair over 2%! With vacancy rates so low, it is no surprise that RDDC is “tracking $857 million in downtown development projects” in 2016 and beyond.
One great example is the reuse of the old Midtown Plaza, previous home to eight office buildings, an indoor shopping mall, Greyhound/Trailways bus station, and three levels of underground parking. A portion of the plaza was redeveloped for use by Windstream, bringing with it 350 employees previously located in the suburbs. More recently, the remainder of Midtown Plaza was transformed into the spectacular Tower280, a high-end luxury apartment complex of 181 units with ground floor retail and a large second floor office recently occupied by Camoin’s long standing partner Bergmann Associates. This did not happen on its own, but rather required the state to invest $55 million, along with $20 million from the City of Rochester. The City took the lead by creating a master plan for the site and working with developers to make the project a reality, working from 2007 to today to see this major project through to completion.