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Rochester eyes new branch library in unique RHA housing proposal

Rending shows a four-story building, part tan and white, another section brick with a library on a corner end along a tree-lined street.
Plan Architectural Studio
A rendering of Rosewood Estates on Fernwood Avenue shows the possible library branch, apartment building, new street and new single-family houses in the background.

Leverett Copeland used to be able to walk to the library – first with his kids, then with his grandchildren.

When the Lincoln branch on Joseph Avenue closed for renovations last August, though, he lost that.

“There's nowhere for us to walk or get close to a library,” said Copeland, 50, who lives off North Clinton Avenue.

Half the population in Rochester lives within a 10-minute walk of a public library, records show. But in the northeast part of the city, libraries are in short supply. The next closest branch to Copeland is a half-hour away by foot.

Leverett Copeland
Provided photo
Leverett Copeland

“A majority of the people in the neighborhood are like I am,” he said. “I don't own a vehicle. I don’t make enough money to own a vehicle.”

Enter the Rochester Housing Authority, which has a unique proposal to build an apartment building with a library branch on the first floor.

The combination would be a first for Rochester — and one of the first in New York state — but part of a slowly emerging model in urban development as city leaders look to tackle both the housing crunch and the cost of building and maintaining civic facilities.

What is being called Rosewood Estates is one of several large-scale public housing developments in RHA’s pipeline. That the nonprofit even has such a pipeline is unusual, and it’s been years in the making.

And this would be the first new branch library to be built in Rochester in decades that isn’t just a replacement.

Everything hinges on funding. But officials tentatively are eying a start of construction this fall and an opening in early 2025.

More than books

Work on the Lincoln branch is behind schedule, but officials say the library should reopen in late April or early May.

Lincoln is the largest of the city’s 10 branch libraries. The Fernwood branch, if built, would be slightly more than half of Lincoln’s size but average compared to other branches.

The need is great.

Testing last fall showed less than one in 10 city students in elementary and middle schools reads at grade level. Most were two or three grades behind. Studies show that children who grow up surrounded by books do better with reading and language skills.

The library isn’t just about books, of course. For Copeland, it's a place to socialize and a resource for basics from printing to Wi-Fi. It’s a place to get help looking for a job, or an apartment, to get assistance preparing your taxes. It’s where he votes.

From the archive: Fun and games at changing libraries inspire learning

The inclusion of what are known as “community service facilities” – social services or health care offices, workforce development, day cares – have become common over the past decade across New York state. And that's by design, thanks to a state fund specifically intended to make that happen.

But a library? It’s a model that is new to New York but has slowly been catching on across the nation.

Possibly the first example was part of a 50-acre development nearly two decades ago in the San Francisco area. More recently, there have been combined library and housing developments in Portland, Oregon, and several in Chicago. And there is one being built in Brooklyn that should open this fall.

“I'm glad they put one in apartments,” Copeland said of the proposal. “I hope they put one at School No. 9, as well. We need more libraries. … The library does a lot more than just provide that education. And I think in the northeast, I think that's one of the biggest things that is missing.”

He paused, then added: “One of the things.”

‘A unique opportunity'

Rosewood would be a four-story, 65-unit building with affordable units geared toward individuals and small families. Some units would be set aside for people with a history of mental illness and survivors of domestic violence, under an agreement with the YWCA.

The all-electric building would have solar panels on the roof and charging stations for electric vehicles in the parking lot.

A new street would be added through the 8-acre site. And a second phase would build more than 20 single-family houses. The library came to be part of the plan somewhat by happenstance.

"That was a unique opportunity,” RHA executive director Shawn Burr said. “Kind of fell in our lap at the 11th hour.”

A fence runs along the front of the Rochester Housing Authority development site -- a vacant, expansive property along Fernwood Avenue lined by houses on the other side of the street.
Brian Sharp
A fence runs along the front of the Rochester Housing Authority development site -- a vacant, expansive property along Fernwood Avenue lined by houses on the other side of the street.

The property is a former manufacturing site and one-time brownfield. The vacant expanse, recently fenced, sits at the edge of a neighborhood, on a street otherwise lined with two-story houses.

The city cleaned up the site, then sold it to RHA in October 2018 – about the same time that the Rochester Public Library officials completed a branch facilities and operations plan that identified system gaps. The northeast was one such gap, having lost the Pulaski Library on Hudson Avenue across from Franklin High School in a cost-saving move back in 1994.

Library officials “were looking for a place … heard about our project, got connected,” Burr said. “The conversation happened in the right spot, the right time, and we're able to fit it in.”

City officials declined to discuss the Fernwood Avenue project, noting the project is in the early stages of review. A key step to moving the project off the drawing board will be financing, starting with an award of low-income housing tax credits. That is a highly competitive process. The next round of awards should be announced in the weeks ahead.

Ambitious plans

For RHA to even be building new – and on this scale – is something that hasn’t happened in a long time.

But Rosewood Estates is just one in a series of developments in RHA’s pipeline. Others include:

  • Federal Street Townhouses: The project would tear down eight vacant buildings totaling 16 units in the Beechwood neighborhood east of downtown and build separate eight- and nine-unit buildings and a single-family home. Construction should begin in late May or early June. Estimated project cost: $28 million. 
  • Parliament Arms and Fairfield Village: Two low-rise complexes – one north of 104, the other south of downtown – will see a building razed at each site and new, accessible units developed. No timeline is set. Estimated project cost: $48 million. 
  • Glenwood Gardens: The northwest Rochester project involves 120 patio-style apartments, spread over several city blocks, which will be demolished and rebuilt in phases for senior and supportive housing as well as family units. With the addition of a road, density could increase to 280, with three- and four-story buildings and three- and four-bedroom unit apartments. An on-site daycare is possible. Initial cost estimates are upward of $100 million. 
Shawn Burr, executive director, Rochester Housing Authority
Provided photo
Shawn Burr, executive director, Rochester Housing Authority

After years spent focused on maintaining and smaller-scale projects, this is the most ambitious construction schedule that RHA has undertaken in some time. Each of the above housing developments was built in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Burr added: “We can only put Band-Aids on things for so long.”

This is also about diversifying

“But we've got to do more," he said. "The accessibility factor itself is huge. We have so many properties that the structures are just so outdated, they were never designed for accessibility.”

All of this — the partnerships, building new, diversifying — fits with RHA’s goal to change the face of public housing.

The authority also is expanding into a federal program that will allow it to begin selling its single-family houses to public housing residents or other income-eligible participants. RHA has 49 people in the pipeline, Burr said, and soon will be asking for approval to sell the first seven houses.

“I want to keep feeding that pipeline,” Burr said. “If we can replace (houses) on a one for one, we can have a revolving door of acquisition, renovation, homeownership.”

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.