Last month, members of the public could pay $20 to have lunch and hear visitors from other cities sing the praises of large projects they say have revitalized their downtowns. The event was hosted by the Renaissance Square Corporation, which is planning the $230 million complex that is to house a bus terminal, performing arts center, and MonroeCommunity College tech center.
Last week, Rochester residents got to discuss the complex for free.
Two Democratic CountyLegislators --- minority leader Stephanie Aldersley of Irondequoit and Calvin Lee of Rochester --- held a public hearing, the first on Renaissance Square since right before Thanksgiving. Some 25 people turned out to speak, most of them opposed to the project. They charged that there are too many unanswered questions about such issues as pollution and traffic congestion, and that there has been too little planning and public involvement.
"It's a little late to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube after we've torn down all the buildings and discover that we haven't done enough planning," said city resident Carlene Woodward.
County Executive Maggie Brooks recently appointed a committee to oversee the project, but while it includes public officials, there are no representatives from citizens groups. "Apparently, Maggie Brooks does not see the public, the people of Rochester who will pay for and use the bus terminal, as a partner on this oversight committee," said speaker Harry Davis.
Speaking in support of the project, Heidi Zimmer-Meyer of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation said Renaissance Square would create a new era of growth, revitalizing downtown and creating a vibrant streetscape that would draw visitors and housing.
"Its impact will be far-reaching and will drive new development potential to adjacent properties, add to our marketable assets as a region, and generate enormous pride again in the center of our community," said Zimmer-Meyer.
The new MCC facility could "drive demand for student housing in adjacent buildings ripe for conversion to lofts and apartments," she said. And with a larger student residential population and a performing arts center drawing visitors, the area could foster an increase of coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and clubs, she said.
"The project would have a significant impact on the psyches of Rochesterians, for whom the highly visible deterioration in the center of their community has caused a marked loss of community pride," said Zimmer-Meyer.
Paul Haney, former director of finance for MonroeCounty and an active Democrat, raised concerns about the cost of the project.
"I am appalled that after five years of asking, no one has defined what the annual operating costs of the underground bus station will be or how they will be paid," he said. "The estimates floated range from $500,000 to $1.5 million."
"It is a solution that has been in search of a problem for six years and still hasn't found it," said Haney. "It is a hole in the ground that makes no sense."
City resident Richard Margolis agreed. "There's no evidence that we need a bus station," Margolis said.
Considering other pressing financial issues facing the community, such as funding for school nurses, said Margolis, "it is somewhere between absurd and insulting" to spend so much money on this project.
"This whole project is a waste of funds with very little profit," he said. "I think it would be negligent of us to invest so much in a failing project."
Rochester City Councilmember Tim Mains said the project needs to be evaluated further. "In the short run, the project will bring some much needed construction jobs," he said. When the project is built, however, "then what?" he asked.
Christopher Burns, of Rochester Young Professionals, proposed a Main Street trolley as a way to bring more people downtown. And speaker Clay Harris said downtown needs more than a bus terminal. He reminisced about the "hustle and bustle" of downtown a few decades ago.
"Man, what a beautiful place it was," he said, almost wistfully. "It was like a small New York City."