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Taking stock of downtown Rochester as officials eye its future; public forum is Thursday

Max Schulte
Downtown Rochester skyline with work being done on the Aqueduct Building for the new Constellation Brands headquarters.

The future of downtown and how to fund it is at the center of the debate over creating a special taxing district for the Center City.

But what is the state of downtown today?

“I’d say it’s a nuanced conversation.” said Jaymes Keenan, an associate with the real estate services and investment firm CBRE|Rochester.

A healthy Center City matters to more than just those who live, work, or invest downtown. Officials say it plays a unique role in the regional economy, identity and growth.

But the momentum in downtown’s revival that was evident before the pandemic has taken a hit.

Max Schulte
Downtown Rochester skyline.

Work on public spaces along the riverfront continues, as do the projects re-purposing empty office towers and other buildings for apartments. Construction on Constellation Brands' new Broad Street headquarters rolls on, too.

Still, there are a number of vacant storefronts — on Main Street, and in new developments along the former Inner Loop on downtown's east side.

Keenan's focus is retail, and he said that looking back over the past decade or so, the story of downtown Rochester is a positive one. The growth has mainly been in food and beverage businesses, he said, pointing to restaurants like Branca Midtown and Native, and all that has been done at Sibley Square.

City Council is hosting a public forum on a proposed downtown Business Improvement District on Thursday at City Hall, 30 Church St. The forum is expected to begin at 5:15 p.m. Those wanting to speak must pre-register by emailing or calling (585) 428-7538, providing their first and last name, phone number, and address.

“But with all that said," he continued, "I don't think the retail development has been to the level that a lot of us might have anticipated or expected it would be given how many residential units we now have in operation downtown.”

Retail follows rooftops, that's the theory. And downtown seemingly was nearing the critical mass of people needed for things to snowball, and retailers to jump in when the pandemic hit, Keenan said.

That leaves office space. And that’s another nuanced conversation.

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

Keenan’s colleague at CBRE, Alex Amorese, said the office market downtown has remained steady for years, with the vacancy rate hovering around 16%. That is just slightly higher than the metro area. Most employers have figured out their return to office, hybrid or remote work plan. So what we see, in terms of foot traffic is likely it for the time being.

"I don't think you're going to see any major shifts, dramatically, until we start to see those leases run out," Amorese said, "and decisions being made (on) what these users are going to do."

Max Schulte
Downtown Rochester skyline with kodak building in background.

There is reason to be optimistic.

Amorese points to new or expanded offices -- be it the RDG and Partners accounting firm taking over the old Hart’s Groceries space in the East End. Or FTS recruitment and staffing agency occupying vacant third-floor space in the Democrat and Chronicle and Windstream building on East Main Street.

And stay tuned, he said — there is more to come.

In-depth: Showdown over a downtown business improvement district

Brian Sharp is WXXI's business and development reporter. He has been covering Rochester since 2005, working most of that time as an investigative reporter with the Democrat and Chronicle. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.