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East meets Wegs

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If Wegmans proceeds with its plans to double the size of its East Avenue store, only one thing seems to be certain: That section of East Avenue near Winton Road --- generally considered the gateway to the East Avenue Preservation District --- may change. Drastically.

            If some neighbors' worst fears materialize, the north side of East Avenue from Probert to Winton will go from being a collection of locally owned street-front businesses to one big wall of Wegmans, with M&T Bank in a new building on the corner.

            Wegmans officials say the expansion will require the demolition of all the buildings Wegmans has acquired, on the north side of East Avenue stretching from the store to Winton Road. The Fountain Bleu hair salon at 1812 East Avenue will also stay unless its owner, Robert Buonomo, decides to sell. (He declined comment for this story.) And Wegmans is constructing a one-story building at the corner of East and Winton that it will lease to M&T Bank.

Since Wegmans started buying these East-Winton properties more than two years ago, the Culver-University-East Neighborhood Group has hosted neighborhood meetings and an extensive design charrette.

            "Each time we have a meeting we make suggestions, and [the expansion plans] seem to reflect those suggestions," says CUE President Sib Pettix.

            But how closely is Wegmans following those suggestions? Well, it depends on who you ask.

            One of the primary concerns among neighbors is how the expansion will alter the East Avenue streetscape. Best-case: neighbors envision saving some of the historic structures on the street while Wegmans builds windows and entryways into, say, the store's flower shop or bakery. Worst case: the new store, which will be two stories tall, forms a large wall on East Avenue with a few windows thrown in.

            Roughly 75 neighbors attended a presentation Wegmans held at City Hall on Monday, May 3. And many weren't at all happy with the plans. Their primary concern was the impact the store would have on the "urban village" feel in this portion of the city.

            The site plans Wegmans displayed at the meeting showed roughly 30 to 40 feet of transparent windows along the 300-foot stretch the new store would occupy on East Avenue. The city's new design standards, however, require 70 percent glazing --- either windows or doors between 2 and 8 feet above the sidewalk --- along a streetscape.

            Roger Brown, an architect with Barkstrom and LaCroix, attended the charrette and the May 3 meeting.

            The "real, true essence" of the neighborhood groups' design charrette two years ago, he told Wegmans officials, was to "create a lot of pedestrian-friendly shops with entrances and windows along East Avenue, so over the long haul, this area would be a really fine place for the pedestrian to be. That was one of the reasons why those three or four historic buildings remained in the charrette, because those pieces added to the pedestrian feel. Unfortunately, the one true thing missing here is there are no access points along East Avenue. So I think the catalyst for starting us on the road to creating an urban village is really not here. But I'm hoping that concept really is looked at, because if not, this is going to be nothing more than a glorified suburban shopping center in the heart of this urban village."

This section of East Avenue has been the home to small, locally owned retail businesses and boutiques for years. Back in the very early 1900s, this was still the center of the Village of Brighton. (The City of Rochester annexed the village in 1905.) A commemorative Monroe County placard sitting along this stretch calls it a "hub of activity" during the early 19th century.

            The building at 1800 East Avenue was, at one point, the Brighton Town Hall. It also once served as headquarters for the Brighton chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union.

            Today, the building houses apartments, Michael Spitale Hair Salon, Sternberg Design, and Blu Water, an Eastern-influenced day spa. And it's one of a few historic buildings now owned by Wegmans.

            Some business owners along this section of East are concerned about losing their buildings' heritage. But they're also worried about their own pocketbooks.

            Trish Laveck is the owner of Blu Water. Since she opened the day spa five years ago, she says she's invested at least $20,000 in the property. It was something she felt she had to do to allow her business to succeed, even though she's a renter. She hired local artists to decorate the interior of the space, which is replete with recycled glass tile. She also embarked on substantial renovations --- installing arched doorways and plumbing, and reconfiguring rooms.

            "I did all of this with the idea that I could be here and have my business thrive in an economy that is really uncertain," Laveck says.

            Blu Water has roughly 500 clients, and Laveck employs five part-time employees. But Laveck's not thinking about relocating, at least not right now.

            "I haven't even thought about it," she says. "I've got to work on saving my building. I want to start a tenant committee. It's interesting how the bank's guaranteed a spot. I wonder why?"

            According to Ralph Uttaro, Wegmans' senior vice president of real-estate development, "in order to buy the M&T property, we had to enter into a long-term lease agreement with the bank. They had significant leverage in that regard."

            Besides, Uttaro says, keeping the historic properties would have made the store too narrow. "The store is narrow as it is, and that would make it extremely narrow. We don't build small stores anymore. That's not our business model."

            In the front of 1800 East, hair stylist Michael Spitale is preparing for what he calls "a real inconvenience."

            "I've only been here for three years, and we've put a lot of money into the redecorating of this space," he says.

            Now there's a possibility Spitale will be moving out of the city entirely, to Brighton's 12 Corners area.

            "It's tough. I really wanted to stay right in this area," he says. "But I couldn't find anything around here. If you go down to the East End, there's just no parking. They have a couple of stores that are vacant there, but they're still vacant because there's no parking. I have to have parking, and it just isn't around here."

            Spitale acknowledges that Wegmans is within its rights to do whatever it pleases with 1800 East. "They bought it and they own it," he says. "They let everyone's leases run out, and they've been great landlords. But these are beautiful buildings. This one and the Doyle building, they're really excellent. You go through the city and there are areas that are just trashed. But nothing gets knocked down there. Instead, we're going to be knocking things down in a really neat area."

Wegmans officials plan to make submit a formal application for the East Avenue expansion to the city by the end of this month. It's at that point that "we really get into the formal local processes," says Art Ientilucci, the city's director of zoning. "Quite frankly, there's going to be lots of opportunities for public input."

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