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Downtown's patron saint

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Much of what you see when you catch a glimpse of the city's skyline is part of Larry Glazer's real estate empire.

Glazer's company, Buckingham Properties, either owns, co-owns, or manages nearly 13 million square feet of real estate space, including some of downtown Rochester's most iconic buildings: Midtown Tower, Xerox Square, and the Bausch and Lomb building.

Glazer, Buckingham's CEO and managing partner, began the company in the late 1960's when he partnered with a friend on a duplex. Now with 60 buildings in the Rochester area as well as projects in Florida, Buckingham is a rapidly growing, highly diversified real estate development company.

Glazer says he learned early on that a key to success in the real estate business is what developers call "assemblage."

Construction on the Midtown Tower location off Main Street. - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Construction on the Midtown Tower location off Main Street.

"You become impactful in an area — not dominant and controlling, but more impactful," he says. "It's not about a single house or a store; it's what can you do that positively impacts an area."

Glazer says he applies that philosophy to his business. That includes his plans for the Midtown site beyond Midtown Tower — which will be a combination of residential, office space, and retail when it's completed.

"We're trying to acquire other properties over there because we want to be impactful," he says.

Glazer has presented a plan to city officials that includes more retail space, a movie theater, and possibly a hotel. He's dubbed the massive project "The Grove."

To say that Glazer is bullish on downtown is a gross understatement. Despite a sometimes less-than-rosy economic outlook for upstate New York, Glazer says he believes that downtown is poised for an upturn. His biggest challenge may be convincing the rest of us.

The opportunities are there, he says, but after so many years of negative news, people, including financiers, have developed a "show me" attitude. Getting over that hurdle is half the battle for developers in this area, he says.

Glazer says he isn't foolhardy when it comes to risk, and he doesn't believe he is overextending himself with the investments he's making in downtown. Another lesson he's learned about real estate, he says, is that you can control a lot of things, but you can't control the timing of opportunities. And you have to decide whether or not to act on them, he says.

In a recent interview, Glazer talked about his plans for downtown and why Rochester needs more state and federal financial aid. He says that while he supports a Business Improvement District for downtown in theory, he's not convinced downtown should start one at this time. (A BID is where business owners agree to a service fee to maintain and market the area.)

The following is an edited version of that discussion.

Your fingerprints are all over downtown. Do you have a vision for what downtown could look like in 10 years?

Glazer: I did not start out with a vision. The reality is I look at a building and I try to figure out if it makes economic sense. If we can figure out how to do it and make it work, then we go after it.

It so happens recently that one opportunity came after another, and one thing I've learned in all my years in real estate is that you don't pick the timing; the situation tells you whether the opportunity is there and you can either do the deal or not do it. But you don't get to choose the timing.

We'll go through great periods where it's pretty quiet. Then all of sudden, 16 properties will come along and each of them makes sense. And since we're trying to be impactful to an area, you have to figure some things out. Can you handle them? Can you run them properly? Can you finance them?

My vision starts with the idea that downtown can come back and it will be vibrant. It will be different than it was. But I've spent the last few years traveling around this country looking at downtowns, and I see what they've done. And I'm telling you that there's no reason why Rochester can't do it, too.

The Bausch + Lomb building is Larry Glazer’s most recent purchase. - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • The Bausch + Lomb building is Larry Glazer’s most recent purchase.

Has the city been a good, business-friendly partner?

People were very worried about this last election, and they asked me what I thought. Here we have a good mayor [Lovely Warren], in my opinion, who has a vision. She wants to get from point A to point B. I don't think she's as concerned with process as other mayors, but she has a mission and she wants to get this stuff done. And she's in a hurry.

She understands the importance of employment for city people, neighborhood development, and improving city schools. And the fact that she's focused her energy on this is really good.

Is there a city that you think Rochester could learn from?

I recently flew out to Seattle and it so blew me away that I couldn't get over it. I was in awe of what they've done to this old industrial city.

Their downtown office section is so vibrant it's scary, and everybody thinks, "Well, it's Seattle." But really they've been able to do it because they have some homegrown businesses that committed themselves to downtown.

Google is just finishing up on eight million square feet of space downtown, Microsoft has 15 million square feet of space, and Boeing has six million square feet downtown.

And these are companies that are not located in skyscrapers and high-rise buildings. These are companies that repositioned themselves in older, industrial age buildings.

People there have a whole different attitude toward downtown than I've seen elsewhere. For example, they strongly discourage cars. They've invested in mass transit so you can move around easily. Parking doesn't become as big of an issue.

The Tower at Midtown will consist of a mix of residential, office space, and retail when it is completed. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • The Tower at Midtown will consist of a mix of residential, office space, and retail when it is completed.

Still, people are going to ask how that applies to Rochester, because Rochester is not Seattle. Are you using that's city's approach to addressing parking as an example of transformative decision-making and leadership?

Yes. But look, we're not going to change that fast. For example, we're still very much a car society. And if you don't deal effectively with parking [in Rochester], you don't have anything. You have almost nothing to give people. I have learned that over and over.

Parking is a fact of life and people here want convenient, inexpensive, and safe parking. And the thing is if they don't get it here, they can go to Irondequoit, Brighton, Chili, or anywhere they want and they can get it for free.

Much has been written about the economies of the upstate cities, particularly Rochester and Buffalo, that isn't favorable or encouraging. So what makes you so bullish on Rochester?

Have you been to Buffalo lately? You won't believe it. It's on fire. And I'm from Buffalo, so I know the area well. And there's no question that for a while, it was a behind-the-times place. But in the last couple of years, they have really pulled together.

We are way behind Buffalo, in my opinion. But when you have a lot of catching up to do, that's what creates opportunities. And that's what I love about Rochester right now. There's so much going on, and so much potential.

And when I say downtown, I don't mean that little Midtown section of Main Street. I think it's really important to keep expanding the definition of downtown; don't let the walls of the Inner Loop be the definition of downtown.

Here's the problem: We have a history of failures here — the Fast Ferry, and a variety of other things. And that puts people in a "show me" mood. So somebody has to be the first guy to step up and say, "I believe it's going to happen."

There are a lot of really good developers here doing great things. Unfortunately, these really big projects are like big ships that take a lot to turn around. But once that happens, momentum starts to build. And I think that's where we are.

So even with high taxes, decades of jobs leaving the area, declining population, you're still optimistic?

The answer is yes. Everything you've said is correct, but there are still a million people in this area. And they still need goods and services. They need places to live and places to go. Somebody is going to fill those needs. I say, why shouldn't it be us?

Buckingham Commons - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Buckingham Commons

Clearly you see opportunities in downtown, particularly for residential development. But don't we need population and economic growth to hedge the kind of investments you're making? Otherwise, isn't everyone scrambling for the same limited number of city tenants?

Rochester's population has stabilized, but I think there's a lot more work to do to make the area grow. More of the right kind of development is needed to create momentum. But we're closer than we've been.

I personally believe that it's wrong to shuffle the chairs around on the Titanic; that's just moving people around for the sake of moving people around. That's a lose-lose for everybody involved.

As a developer, of course I want as many tenants and as many buildings as I can get. But it's not right to do that; it's not good for the area. It destroys the tax base and it does a lot of other bad things. Sure, in the short term, the guy who gets the tenants is happy.

But what are they gaining? What is the city gaining? Nothing, that's what.

(Glazer says he's had numerous opportunities where other landlords' tenants have come to him for space. In those cases, he says he's urged the landlords to work something out with their tenants.)

Now if somebody called from Spencerport or Livingston County and said, "I want to move to downtown," I would grab them in a second.

Governor Cuomo committed to a $1 billion economic turnaround package for Buffalo in 2012. Is that what's behind Buffalo's growth? And are the county and state doing enough to help spur economic growth and rebuild Rochester's downtown?

The truth is Buffalo went to the government and said, "We're dying. We need serious help."

Rochester had a long history of being very successful. We had Xerox, Kodak, Bausch and Lomb, and those are just the big names. The list went on and on. We had low unemployment, great schools, and a stable government. But times have changed. We need help.

The parity that Mayor Warren and Mayor Richards talk about is serious. We are not getting the same level of aid as Buffalo and Syracuse because for years, people thought we didn't need it. Now we have the most pressing needs.

This is a real concern of mine. Today, we don't have the lay business leadership that we used to have. Those people who cared enough to make a difference, to pick up the phone and make things happen aren't here. And those who are here aren't believers in downtown or they live out in the suburbs. They're not focused on urban matters. And I think we need to start pulling together to make sure we get our fair share of aid.

On that point, do you support the Business Improvement District being promoted by the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation?

That's a slippery and difficult question for me. To be truthful, what they want to accomplish is good. Do I think they are structured properly now to accomplish what needs to be accomplished? Probably not. I've been in all of the meetings, and I think there's more work that needs to be done.

But I have been in other cities that have BID's, and they can be very successful.

Downtown Rochester - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Downtown Rochester

Some people say you're overextending yourself with all of these investments. Is there a risk that Midtown Tower, for example, doesn't turn out the way you want and becomes a detriment to the city instead of an asset?

Is Midtown a risk? Yes. Life is a risk. Seriously, if you can't handle risk, then don't get out of bed in the morning.

What I don't think people see necessarily is that this is hard work and I've always chosen hard work over risk. And this [Midtown Tower] is riskier than the kind of projects I've tackled in the past.

I have to take a building apart and I have to put it back together. It's sitting on top of a garage, which means that there are all kinds of construction issues. The walls on that thing are a foot thick. And the building wasn't taken apart carefully. And when we put it back together, we have to deliver to people what they want. And we have to do it cost-effectively.

We had to get banks to step up after we've had all these years of negativity with everybody saying, "Downtown is dying." I'm saying to them, "Believe me, we'll do it, and give me $50 million. And by the way I don't have any tenants."

If you look at Midtown Tower, more than half of the building will be residential. I have no question that the residential will fill right up. It's going to be a unique product competitively priced with great amenities, and it's in a great location.

We have the first floor and that's going to be retail. It's a bit tricky, but I think there's a demand for good retail downtown.

That leaves the second and third floors for offices, and I am working on a lease that will fill the whole space and bring 500 new jobs downtown if it works. This is a national tenant that's new to the area.

We want to take parcel two [at the Midtown site]. We have a letter of intent signed from a company that wants to put a 10-screen movie theater in here. We would have 50,000 more square feet of retail and maybe a hotel.

Every developer has ups and downs. Talk about one of your failures and why it didn't work.

We bought this shopping center in the city and we bought it at the right price, but we could not fill that space with tenants. It was really tough.

Somebody came to me and said, "Why don't you open a department store and we'll be partners?" The deal was that he would stock the stores for us and we would run the business. I so got my ass handed to me on that one. The store lasted about four months.

I licked my wounds and moved on.

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