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Building up Beechwood: Lessons from one city neighborhood fuel effort to strengthen another

habitat construction beechwood
Max Schulte
Meikota Rigge helps lift drywall at a Habitat for Humanity house on Parsells Avenue in northeast Rochester. Rigge is an AmeriCorps volunteer working with Habitat.

Scattered vacancies tear at the fabric of the otherwise tightly packed Beechwood neighborhood east of downtown Rochester.

Tree-lined streets and stately, century-old houses belie the need that exists here.

Well over half the children live in poverty — a rate higher than all of Rochester, which has one of the highest concentrations of child poverty in the nation. And the area has been so starved for investment that a road project where curb bump-outs were installed along Parsells Avenue to calm unruly traffic was cause for a neighborhood celebration.

Times are changing

Construction has begun on what is an ambitious, multi-year effort to build up Beechwood and the adjacent EMMA neighborhood. Developers have joined with neighborhood leaders on a plan to construct or rehabilitate nearly 300 single-family homes, townhouses, and apartments in an area spread across both neighborhoods, encompassing less than one square mile.

“Interest in the neighborhood has really … I wouldn't say spiked, I mean taken off,” said Kyle Crandall, president of the Beechwood Neighborhood Coalition. “We can't keep up right now, honestly, with all of the interest for developments in the neighborhood. We’re doing the best we can.”

Beechwood and EMMA extend along either side of East Main Street, bounded by North Goodman Street to the west and Culver Road to the east. Beechwood is by far the larger of the two neighborhoods. Its northern border is Bay Street. EMMA extends south to Atlantic Avenue and the railroad tracks.

Habitat 3.jpg
Max Schulte
Zach Merica climbs a ladder to install soffits on a Habitat for Humanity house on Parsells Avenue in northeast Rochester.

So why does Beechwood matter?

The neighborhood sits in something of a pocket between the stability of Neighborhood of the Arts, North Winton Village, Browncroft and Homestead Heights, and the impoverished neighborhoods in the 14605 ZIP code — a part of the city that Mayor Malik Evans says is in crisis. Gun violence in those neighborhoods served as the impetus for his declaring a state of emergency this past summer.

“Investment in Beechwood is really important, because you don't want to lose Beechwood, right?” Crandall said, relaying what he has repeatedly told City Hall.

Crandall has watched investment slowly increase. Most notable, he said, was the city dollars spent along Webster Avenue, anchored by a redone School No. 33, attached to a rebuilt rec center and branch library.

The development that is yet to come could bring true transformation. But it has not been without controversy. And there is concern that rents already are rising and could increase more as construction gets rolling.

“We're trying to figure out,” Crandall said, “how do we develop our neighborhood and make it better and stronger without displacing those in our neighborhood that want to remain?”

'A dramatic turnaround’

If you think you've heard this before, you have.

A similar rebuilding effort has been unfolding for more than a decade in a neighborhood called JOSANA, which is located adjacent to the city of Rochester-owned soccer stadium west of downtown.

JOSANA is smaller and was far more distressed than Beechwood and EMMA. All three neighborhoods are majority rental.

Habitat 2.jpg
Max Schulte
A bucket of hammers awaits volunteers at a Habitat for Humanity house on Melville Street in northeast Rochester.

“We trail our peer cities across the country, in terms of the percentage of owner-occupied properties,” said Erik Frisch, the city’s deputy commissioner for neighborhood and business development. “So where we can make investments to change that paradigm, we should be doing that.”

Dozens of houses got built in JOSANA, both owner-occupied and rental.

Bordered by West Broad and Child streets, Lyell Avenue, and Interstate 490, JOSANA was a hollowed-out swath of the city when the stadium, which sits at Smith and Oak streets, opened in 2006.

Roughly one-quarter of the neighborhood sat vacant. So extensive was the blight that planners measured it not by counting boarded-up structures or weed-filled lots, but by the acre – which equaled 33 football fields spread across 30 city blocks.

Flower City Habitat for Humanity led off construction in JOSANA, building 60 houses in the neighborhood, more than 100 in the immediate area. Rochester’s Cornerstone Group added another 91 single-family rentals.

“When you think about the influx of people [in JOSANA], in stable housing, it's just a dramatic turnaround … both visually and the number of people living and being there,” said Scott Benjamin, president of Charles Settlement House which helped convene neighbors and coordinate the revitalization.

No two structures on the same street look alike, in color or detail. Residents wanted the new to blend with the old.

And while there has been a modest rise in property values, officials say few if any people have been displaced. The population of JOSANA has risen by more than 1,500 people to about 5,000, drawing working families, refugees and other new Americans.

‘It’s never just about housing’

Habitat has committed to building three dozen houses in Beechwood.

Home Leasing, Rochester Housing Authority, the Greater Rochester Housing Partnership and City Roots Community Land Trust will tackle the rest.

“I'm lifted up by the amount of partners,” said Habitat President and CEO Matthew Flanigan. “Yeah, it could be too many chefs in the kitchen. But it's a big kitchen. There's plenty of room.”

The JOSANA initiative marked the first time the nonprofit so intensely focused its housing construction on such a compact area. That brought business efficiencies. It also sowed a sense of community. Habitat homebuyers help in building the houses they buy, and several forged relationships while helping build one another’s houses.

The initiative also showed the value of resident participation and buy-in, and the need for leadership with a strong neighborhood association.

But Flanigan is quick to add: “It’s never just about housing.”

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Max Schulte
Construction notes are left on the studs of a Habitat for Humanity home on Parsells Avenue in Rochester.

“There's also work going on for workforce development, which we lean into, health, education, food – so it's not a food desert,” he said. “All of those things are important because ... I could build you a wonderful house, but if you don't want to live in it because where it's at, have I done anything?”

The JOSANA effort also highlighted the importance of neighborhood schools.

There, it’s Enrico Fermi School 17. In Beechwood and EMMA, it’s East High — which sits at the edge of the two neighborhoods but is attended by barely a third of the neighborhoods’ kids. Even that is up significantly in recent years, thanks in part to the push to improve the neighborhood.

A similar push is being made to correct similarly dismal neighborhood representation at School No. 33.

The goal is to build connection between the two schools and to the two neighborhoods, said Lashunda Leslie-Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Connected Communities.

Neighborhood leaders, the University of Rochester, Farash Foundation, and developer Home Leasing partnered to create Connected Communities in 2016, to coordinate efforts to revitalize Beechwood and EMMA. This integrated approach, referred to as the Purpose Built Communities model, is intended to be resident driven.

Home Leasing brought this concept to the city. But the company admittedly struggled early on in Beechwood and EMMA with a project converting an East Main Street building into apartments.

“We didn't do the outreach we should have done, in the way we should have done it,” said Home Leasing CEO Bret Garwood. “And so that did kind of propel somewhat of a different approach.”

This time, Home Leasing and Connected Communities got everyone at the table from the start.

Yet Home Leasing is again facing pushback. The developer’s plans include some six- and eight-unit rentals, each with its own front door in two- and three-story townhouse-style buildings.

A rendering shows one of Home Leasing's eight-unit, two- and three-story attached townhouse-style rentals proposed to be built in the Beechwood neighborhood in northeast Rochester.
IN/EX Architecture
A rendering of one of Home Leasing's eight-unit townhouse-style rentals proposed to be built in the Beechwood neighborhood in northeast Rochester.

Though consistent with the city’s desire for greater density, that is more than what Crandall and other Beechwood neighbors envisioned. The city’s Zoning Board recently denied approval for three of those larger buildings, causing Home Leasing to pause and reassess its role in Beechwood going forward.

The Purpose Built Communities approach has been replicated iacross the country with mixed results.

In the best cases, investments beget more investments. That’s what happened in the flagship Purpose Built Community, a section of Atlanta called East Lake. But that neighborhood also drew so much developer interest that planners couldn’t keep up, the area gentrified, and the locals got pushed out.

In Beechwood and EMMA, leaders and developers are focused on building as much affordable housing as possible, providing a continuum of options and hopefully ensuring balance.

“And so we're trying to learn not just from their successes,” Leslie-Smith said. “But also their mistakes.”

Neighborhood snapshot

  • More than 8,600 people live in the combined Beechwood and EMMA neighborhoods. Beechwood is by far the larger of the two.
  • The area was mostly developed by 1900. R.T. French Co., maker of French’s mustard, once was headquartered here — at One Mustard Street.
  • Today, median household incomes hover around $28,000. Forty-two percent of residents here live in poverty, including 57% of children in the neighborhood live in poverty.
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.
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