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Developers eye large downtown parking lot for five-story apartment building

A five-story apartment building for lower-income residents is being proposed for this parking lot in downtown Rochester. View is looking northeast, toward West Main and South Plymouth.
Brian Sharp
A five-story apartment building for lower-income and recently homeless residents is being proposed for this large parking lot along West Main Street in downtown Rochester. The lot takes in an entire city block, bordered on other sides by South Plymouth Avenue and South Washington and West Broad streets, by the City School District's Central Office.

A five-story apartment building for lower-income and recently homeless residents soon could replace an expansive parking lot on the west edge of downtown Rochester.

The demand for such housing is great.

“The gap between people's income and the cost of housing is not getting better,” said David Cleghorn, who is part of the development team with a nonprofit called HELP USA. "We have a crisis of affordability throughout the country.”

More than half of Rochester households are considered rent-burdened, spending more than 30% of their income on housing. That was before the pandemic. Rents have continued to rise, but experts say unaffordability in the city stems from lower incomes and poverty.

The Center City Courtyard proposal with its 160 apartments is being designed for that population.

Half of the units would be supportive housing with social services, medical and mental health care available onsite. All would be affordable to those making less than 60% of area median income.

The U-shaped building would rise between West Main and Broad streets, in front of the City School District’s Central Office. What’s there now is a gravel lot, more than an acre in size, encompassing an entire city block.

The west side of downtown is pockmarked with parking lots, though becoming less so as developers build on or reserve the lots for tenant use. The courtyard project includes underground parking for residents and visitors.

HELP USA is a national affordable housing developer based in New York City. The firm is making its first foray into Rochester, teaming up with local developer CSD.

“We've looked at projects over the years in Rochester,” said Cleghorn, the organization’s chief housing officer, “and we decided to pass on all of them until now.”

The nonprofit got its start in the mid-1980s, opening apartment-style homeless shelters with onsite services in Brooklyn and the Bronx. That grew into permanent housing projects, like what is being proposed here.

Cleghorn oversees that aspect of the business, as the organization’s chief housing officer. Over the past decade, HELP USA has taken on more than a dozen such developments across multiple states.

“There's tremendous need for affordable housing everywhere,” Cleghorn said. “The amount of housing that we need to build for affordability, true affordability to exist is just staggering.

“And permanent housing development like we do, which is multi-family, is only one piece of the puzzle.”

The reason for previously passing on Rochester was not for a lack of need or demand. He said Rochester already has “a lot of well-regarded and competent affordable housing developers that have worked there for years.”

Cleghorn and his colleagues didn’t want to step on any toes or compete for the same limited resources available to do the work.

The scale of this project is the draw.

HELP USA wants to have a greater presence in western New York, Cleghorn said. That desire is driven by its board, led by Maria Cuomo Cole, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s sister.

He sees little difference between Rochester or Buffalo, where HELP USA has two developments, or New York or Philadelphia, where the nonprofit is particularly active.

“There's a lot of hardworking people that, you know, spend too much of their family's income on housing ... to the detriment of other things,” he said.

Cleghorn is familiar with the Rochester area. His wife and one of his closest friends grew up here. He spent summers here in college, and he has friends he still visits often.

“Not that that's how we make our development decisions,” he said. “But it's always been on my radar of a place that we wanted to be more active in.”

Construction could start as early as December but is more likely to take place in the spring, aiming for completion in 2024.

Other partners include the Urban League of Rochester and Victor’s Eagle Star Housing, which works with homeless veterans.

Brian Sharp is WXXI's investigations and enterprise editor. He also reports on business and development in the area. He has been covering Rochester since 2005. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.