Developer John Billone Jr. is planning a dramatic redevelopment of commercial space at the East Avenue Inn & Suites, including the addition of large windows and patio space facing the burgeoning Alexander Street area, he said this week.
The 10,000-square-foot building houses a physical therapy office whose lease expires in March 2013. Most of the rest of the space is used as storage while renovations continue on the hotel's rooms and lobby.
Billone, president of Flower City Management Corp. on Alexander, is looking for as many as three tenants in food and beverage businesses to occupy the commercial space.
"We don't know exactly what's going in there right now, but we do know we've got to start it because people don't even know we're open," Billone said. "That's the challenge we have."
Billone has scheduled an open house for Sept. 19, with a ribbon cutting by city officials and project leaders.
"Now that half of the rooms are done and the lobby and fitness room will be 98 percent done, we wanted to bring some attention to the hotel and have that official ribbon cutting," Billone said. "My furniture will be here. My artwork will be here. We'll be ready to show the new lobby and, of course, the new rooms."
The hotel has continued to operate since Billone bought the property for $1.45 million in July 2011. Two sections of the hotel have been upgraded, with work on two other sections on hold while Billone tracks customer needs.
The specifics of what the commercial space will look like hinge on the tenants and their needs, Billone said.
The circular portion of the building that faces East Avenue will be removed and replaced, perhaps by a two-story front with a mezzanine on top or a raised first-floor ceiling, Billone said.
"My plan is to do demolition of this (circular piece), to construct the addition, to do all the doors and windows," he said. "I have to put a fire protection system in. There are plenty of things that I can do between now and next spring.
"In addition, I'll work with the tenants and get drawings for buildouts. There's plenty for me to do, and I know as soon as I start construction out here it will get people's attention."
A large patio area is between East Avenue and the portion of the building to be reconstructed.
"Everyone is attracted to the front because this patio is so large," Billone said. "The plan is to take this (circular structure) right down and to build a big glass addition that goes outside. I do have plenty of people looking at the space."
He wants to convert a swath of lawn on the Alexander Street side into a second patio, which would also include some land on the north side of the building that Billone would bring up to grade with the lawn.
The upgrades could include at least two entrances to the building from Alexander Street, where now there are none.
"This whole stretch becomes really big windows," Billone said of the building's Alexander Street side.
"We want to carve the space up into thirds," he said. "It may not be exactly thirds. What we'd like to see is three unique, different tenants. One may cater more toward morning. One may cater more toward a nice restaurant, a higher-end restaurant. And then maybe something off the beaten path, with dessert-type people-chocolate, ice cream or even the yogurt thing.
"I'm being really particular on what we put in here, for a couple of reasons," he said. "Certainly, the neighborhood has plenty of bars and restaurants. I'm OK with that, as long as the operator is a solid operator and they respect the area.
"Everything we're doing here is for the long term. My preference is to have somebody here that has some staying power, that adds value to the neighborhood and doesn't change their course of business just because they've had a few bad months."
He wants an owner with the stomach to handle the peaks and valleys of the business.
"What you've seen in the neighborhood is when the going gets a little bit tougher, people start tweaking their menu, they start tweaking their hours," Billone said. "It doesn't do the area any favors.
"If you want beer in a plastic cup, there are plenty of areas where you can do that. If you want a nice restaurant, we have a few of those, but I think we could use some more. And being that we've got the hotel, it's important to me that the people who are staying here have a nice place to come and have dinner."
Billone plans to keep an open mind on possible tenants.
"We'll end up with a concept that is unique and really adds value to the neighborhood," he said. "I don't think it has to be a franchise. But my concern also is if you come down on a Friday or Saturday night, after 11 o'clock you see thousands of people down here, and the crowd is a little bit younger.
"I will be very adamant about the hours of operation and what the product is, so when the bars let out this does not become a venue for that."
The property, on the northeast corner of East and Alexander, is at one of the city's most popular late-night intersections. Murphy's Law Irish Pub is on the northwest corner and Monty's Corner is on the southwest corner.
"As much as we've embraced downtown over the years with our development, at 5 or 6 in the afternoon things get quiet," Billone said. "They're doing the opposite here. Things start ramping up here around happy hour.
"You don't have the need to jump in a taxi to come to the East End because you're in the East End. You're in the middle of it all."
The northernmost sections of the hotel are renovated, with Section D converted from 40 rooms to 24 suites and Section C converted to 34 rooms with king-size and double beds.
Sections A and B, containing some 60 beds, have been shuttered temporarily.
"Once the new rooms came on line, we shut the old rooms down," Billone said. "We're going to operate buildings C and D for a time frame that allows us to better understand our market. Then we have the flexibility to tweak the product for A and B."
He hopes to have adequate information compiled within 12 months.
The 58 new rooms are routinely filled to capacity, Billone said.
"We've had weekends where we've not had a single room available," he said. "It wasn't the Jazz Fest. We just opened Building C when the Jazz Fest was here. A few weeks after the Jazz Fest, we sold out, and we've been sold out since then.
"But even with only 58 rooms, oftentimes we still have brand-new product available to the market."
Billone invested $2.5 million to upgrade buildings C and D, with $1 million more budgeted for A and B, he said.
"Then this piece," he said of the commercial space, "with 10,000 square feet, who knows? My role is more exterior, mechanical and electrical. For the buildout, the sky's the limit."
The property is convenient to downtown Rochester and to attractions such as the George Eastman House and the Rochester Museum & Science Center on East Avenue, as well as the Strong National Museum of Play, marketing manager Jennifer Brake said.
"We offer a unique location and product in that people can walk out the door and have access to all kinds of restaurants and museums and entertainment," she said. "And it's all within a few minutes' walk. You don't even have to have a car."
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