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Vacant sites offer potential

Rochester Business Journal
May 31, 2013

As daunting as the redevelopment of Midtown Plaza seemed years ago, it pales in comparison with developing 90 or more acres of largely empty land on the west bank of the Genesee River.
The acreage, including the former home of Vacuum Oil Co. Inc., is among the remaining vacant parcels in Rochester that could be developed, city officials say.
Other opportunities range in size from open space on the site of the former Downtown Motor Lodge on South Avenue in the South Wedge to a 10-acre site on Fernwood Avenue in the northeast quadrant.
And, city officials add, those vacant parcels do not include high-profile redevelopments such as Midtown Plaza, the Eastman Business Park, the Port of Rochester and Alexander Park.
"We do have a lot of vacant land available downtown," said Bret Garwood, director of business and housing development for the city of Rochester. "Land downtown doesn't have to be as big as perhaps land in the neighborhoods, in order to be developed, just because of the density."
Additional land in city neighborhoods also could be developed, Garwood said.
"That doesn't mean it's all ready," he said. "I would describe some of this land as shovel-ready because there are cleanup issues or the cleanup issues have been addressed. And some of the land is maybe available for development in the very long term."
The 90-plus acres of the South Genesee River Corridor includes the Vacuum refinery at Flint Street and Exchange Boulevard-south of the Ford Street Bridge-and extends from the Court Street bridge south to near the eastern end of Brooks Avenue.
"It's a very large area," Garwood said. "There are great development opportunities there-but down the road, once that's cleaned up."
The brownfield site was once the headquarters of Vacuum Oil, founded in 1866. The local company became part of Standard Oil Co. in 1879 and became independent again in 1911 when the U.S. Supreme Court dissolved the Standard Oil trust.
"If we don't act in certain ways now, five years and 10 years just keep moving forward," Garwood said. "Five years ago, we started Midtown. You have to have that long-term vision but also make sure you keep working on these things."
The city received a $200,000 grant in 2007 to assess the brownfield and its cleanup. Mark Gregor, the city's manager for environmental quality, is coordinating the work being done at the site, which links Court Street with the University of Rochester's Riverview Apartments.
"There's been some land use plans for how that can be redeveloped," Garwood said, "but that's going to be a very long discussion and negotiation and cleanup process in order to get that land developable."
The land will continue to be studied for contaminants, and that could be followed by a cleanup and a community plan, Garwood said.
"It's a development initiative we have to pay attention to and shepherd over several years in order to have a real opportunity," he said. "If we just let it be and not work hard on it, we won't have that opportunity."
The refinery made naphtha, a fuel for street lights, according to research by John Curran, a member of the Plymouth-Exchange Neighborhood Association. An explosion in 1887 sent 14,000 gallons of naphtha into the city sewer system, where it ignited several miles away and resulted in one of the largest man-made disasters of that century, Curran wrote.
The refinery closed some 45 years later, and many of its buildings were razed, he wrote. Others became warehouses for Sears, Roebuck and Co. until rail service there ended around 1970.

Top candidates
The former operations center of Rochester Gas and Electric Corp. at Front and Andrews streets, a city-owned parking lot at 420 E. Main St. and a brownfield site on Charlotte Street a block north of East Main Street also are candidates for redevelopment.
In March, Morgan Management LLC announced its intention to buy 1.6 acres at 103 Court St. behind Dinosaur Bar-B-Que and build a $20 million luxury apartment complex with 100 units. The purchase is contingent upon working out details related to easements and the eastern entrance to the Rochester subway tunnel.
Morgan Management has not submitted any applications to the city because it is waiting for the city to decide on issues that will affect the project, firm vice president Kevin Morgan said.
"The big issue with that parcel and whether or how it's developable is all these easements that encumber the site," Garwood said. "They have to finish an evaluation about whether they can accommodate those easements to the satisfaction of the city. That's going to occur through discussions with our engineers and through site plan review."
In northeast Rochester, the first steps toward redevelopment of the La Avenida neighborhood have been taken with construction of a new El Pilon Criollo restaurant. It is the first new building on North Clinton Avenue in 12 years.
The city has acquired 25,000 square feet of commercial space, or some two acres, in that neighborhood.
"We're trying, in cooperation with the public works that has gone on up there, to get investment to re-establish a commercial corridor," Garwood said. "We had good success with El Pilon.
"We're hoping, ... with some of the larger parcels of land that the city owns, to over time identify development opportunities."
Carlos Carballada, the city's commissioner of neighborhood and business development, said he hopes El Pilon Criollo will have the same impact on northeast Rochester that ESL Federal Credit Union has had downtown since moving its headquarters to Chestnut Street from Irondequoit in 2010.
"That was the first new building downtown in I don't know how long," Carballada said. "We were very fortunate to get them. But something like that always seems to act as a catalyst for other things. There's an excitement about that because it was unusual.
"You can see what's been happening all along Main Street. Bret and his colleagues have figured out a way to get developers interested in some of these buildings. Not only are we able to help and get others to help in that process, they're historic buildings and historic tax credits help. All of those things come together."

Northeast quadrant
The northeast quadrant's other prime opportunity is at 100 Fernwood Ave., on 8.5 acres owned by Conifer Realty LLC. It is north of Clifford Avenue and east of Portland Avenue.
"It's a unique amount of land to have in the neighborhood," Garwood said. "I would describe that site as ready for development, but working a deal to drive development there is going to take some time."
Conifer received a Restore New York grant of $787,000 through the city in 2010 to demolish a warehouse at the site. That work has been done.
"We want to do the right thing, in cooperation with the neighborhood," Garwood said. "There have been thoughts about a combination of home ownership and rental housing. But doing it slowly, carefully and well is important, because getting home ownership projects is a priority for the city."
Conifer chairman Richard Crossed thinks housing is the right fit for that location, though his firm does not normally do single-family units.
"It's one of the largest vacant sites in the city," he said. "We would like to see that developed for housing. But we haven't really focused on it very much, quite frankly.
"We would like to work with the city to find a way to develop it so it's compatible with the neighborhood. It's a matter of time to find the right not-for-profit or developer that would focus on home ownership for that location."
Developing owner-occupied city housing can be difficult, Garwood said.
"We've had a great success with Brooks Court, which is being developed right now," he said of development at the former location of Valley Court Apartments in the southwest quadrant. "But in so many of our neighborhoods, when you see the median sale price citywide of $70,000 and it takes $150,000 to build a home, that's not easy."
The anchor for redevelopment in the southeast has been Alexander Park at Alexander Street and Monroe Avenue. The eight-acre tract is the former site of Genesee Hospital, much of which was torn down.
"That was a Restore NY grant that helped demolish those buildings," Garwood said. "That's a great opportunity for vacant land.
Another one in the southeast is the Downtown Motor Lodge site, he said.
"(It) has incredible views of downtown and walkable access to the river, South Avenue, the East End and downtown. That has been on the radar screen for development for quite a long time."
Flower City Management Corp. owns the property.
"We are in negotiations with respect to the former motor lodge site for a mixed-use residential project," President John Billone Jr. said.
Details are being worked out, he said, but will likely include affordable housing similar to the Erie Harbor development.
The city is preparing a request for proposals to develop 151 Mt. Hope Ave., a one-acre city-owned parcel along the Genesee River north of the Hamilton Tower and south of Time Warner Cable Inc. offices.
The site has environmental and geotechnical issues below ground to be resolved.
"Hopefully, that'll complement all the activity that's happening on Mount Hope and continue the stitching together of the South (Genesee) River Corridor downtown," Garwood said.
"Erie Harbor has been a fantastic success in terms of leasing. The rents there are strong. The ability to get a project that works, hopefully a mixed-use project to bring some of the amenities that Corn Hill Landing has on this side of the river, would be great."
The city wants to develop 399 Gregory St., former site of an auto body shop and city-owned since 2004 through foreclosure. It was remediated through the state's brownfield cleanup program.
"That's a good example of new construction on these fairly small development parcels," Garwood said. "The economics of it are hard, just the development costs of it compared to our rents. Rents don't quite support it."
In the southwest quadrant, demolition of the Valley Court Apartments will result in 29 new homes on newly named Brookcrest Way in the 19th Ward.
"When is the last time you had a builder come in and build 29 homes for sale in the city?" Carballada said.
Nearby, the city would like to see 14 single-family homes at the Olean Kennedy site at the corner of Olean Street and South Plymouth Avenue. That project is on hold because of environmental and geotechnical issues.
"There are some environmental issues, but the more serious issues are geotechnical issues," Garwood said. "That's a fancy way of saying all the infrastructure from long ago-streets, roads, all that sort of stuff-is actually under that ground and needs to be removed."
The cost to do that is substantial, he said, and likely will be added to the city's capital improvement program.
"It'd be wonderful if we could sell homes there," Garwood said, "but they would probably sell for $70,000 or $80,000, and you can't build homes for that amount.
"Before we commit to digging up all that old infrastructure, which is going to be more than seven figures, we'd want to know that that project could work. It would have to come with some combination of state or federal or city subsidy."
The opportunities along Jefferson Avenue in the southwest quadrant are much like North Clinton Avenue in the northeast, with largely vacant commercial corridors, Garwood said.
"The city has a lot of developable land there," he said. "What do we do with these commercial corridors where the city owns a lot of land, where we've done some good planning and infrastructure work, and we want to re-establish nodes of commercial activity?
"We still have long stretches of the road that likely-in the short term, anyway, and maybe forever-aren't going to fill up like they once were or aren't going to be lined with retail. We don't shop the way we used to to support the dozen commercial corridors we have in the city."

Port of Rochester
Development in the northwest quadrant is dominated by the marina project at the Port of Rochester in Charlotte and redevelopment of the Eastman Business Park.
"The Port of Rochester is obviously the most substantial piece of land," Garwood said. "There's a lot of potential there.
"Before Kodak went into bankruptcy, we rezoned a huge portion of the parking lots on Lake Avenue to make them development-ready. They only have a history of being parking lots. We're not talking residential development; we're talking economic development. Those remain with great transportation access, great utility access, zoned ready for economic development. That has great potential."
The Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council lists the business park as its top priority.
"There are issues at the park that have to be corrected, particularly when you talk about the utility structure there," Carballada said. "But that park is very important to the city because of its potential. It is necessary for us to make sure that it is maintained and continued."
Some 6,000 people are employed at businesses in the former Eastman Kodak Co. complex, Carballada said.
"And that doesn't take into consideration some satellite offices that some of these people have throughout the city," he said. "The number could be significantly higher than 6,000.
"If I were to tell you I was going to bring a company in that has 6,000 employees, I'd get headlines. Well, it's important to keep what we have. Someday there could be 15,000."
Also in the northwest, the city wants to clean up and redevelop the former home of Photech Inc. at 1000 Driving Park Ave. Building demolition at the 12-acre industrial site was completed in 2010.
"The economics of renovating an existing building, especially an historic building, are easier in our market than new construction, just in terms of cost and availability of different types of resources," Garwood said. "But I also think there's a general preference for doing historic preservation of all these office buildings that have been converted to housing."

5/31/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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