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Street fight

The politics of reviving the heart of downtown

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Bill Nojay is a Disturbed man.

            This may come as a surprise to those who've seen the chairman of the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority's board in television ads, pitching a downtown bus terminal (and combined office-retail-residential complex) with a benevolent smile and a confident, hopeful demeanor: Nojay is a big fan of Disturbed, the ferocious, ultra-violent heavy-metal band that recently brought its "Music as a Weapon" tour to town. He considers the group this decade's equivalent to AC/DC, a band he admired in his younger days.

            But Nojay is also disturbed that the RGRTA's efforts to build the facility, dubbed Rochester Central Station, have been a "Highway to Hell," so to speak. And the latest complication, a new plan to build a much cheaper bus terminal in the Sibley's Building that's gaining political support, has Nojay seeing red.

            Nojay accuses Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, in whose district the terminal complex would be built, of blocking federal funds slated for Rochester Central Station.

            "This was one of the worst winters, one of the coldest winters in the last 40 years," Nojay says, "and we had people standing out on the street corner because Mrs. Slaughter blocked the funds."

            Asked why he thinks the nine-term Democratic congresswoman would be indifferent to bus riders' comfort, Nojay riffs on a vitriolic theme he's launched against Slaughter many times before. She's "a very angry, negative person." She "has failed to get a leadership position in Washington in her own party, because no one cares if she shows up for work in the morning." She'll "do everything possible to block any proposal that doesn't come out of her office."

            A spokeswoman told City Slaughter was not available to comment on this issue.

            Nojay says he is also disturbed about the depressed condition of downtown Rochester. The massive office-retail-residential complex proposed in conjunction with the bus terminal at the intersection of East Main Street and South Clinton Avenue is intended to revitalize that long-blighted section of the city. Of course, the complex also adds tens of millions of dollars to the total cost of the terminal project, which Nojay estimates at about $59 million, most of it to be financed using federal transportation funds.

            The project's proponents hope revenue from leases and parking fees will cover the complex's yearly operating expenses, which are estimated to be about $750,000. But demand for downtown office and retail real estate is low, and Rochester has a glut of vacant commercial space --- including Class A office space, the high-end space Rochester Central Station would offer.

            Asked last summer how Rochester Central Station would succeed in attracting tenants where others have failed, Nojay said, "As long as people like the whole crowd... at City believe everything about Rochester is negative, negative, negative, nothing good will happen in Rochester." He then hung up in anger. (City editor-publisher Mary Anna Towler has written editorials criticizing the project.)

            Asked the same question in mid-March of this year, Nojay was willing to elaborate, if not explain.

            "The big problem with real estate in the city is that everyone in City Hall seems determined to block business development downtown," he says. "That's why downtown has been in decline for the past 30 years. It would certainly be helpful if City Hall would get out of the way of private business, stop making doing business downtown a miserable experience for everyone."

            Asked how city officials were actively discouraging business development, Nojay cited parking problems and other quality-of-life issues that he says the city has failed to address.

            "The city has failed to answer concerns about crime, appearance, cleanliness, lighting," he says. "City Hall has done nothing to assure people that downtown Rochester is safe and attractive."

            Whether you share Nojay's opinions or not --- and municipal officials, like City Council President Lois Giess, certainly do not --- they constitute a disturbing view of Rochester. It's a vision of a deteriorating downtown, run by willfully indifferent and ineffectual municipal officials, and represented by a bitter congresswoman who sends our hard-earned federal tax dollars to other states, while our poor citizens shiver in the freezing drizzle, victims of her petty political ambitions and seemingly sadistic self-interest.

            It's not hard to understand how someone struggling against that vision would find some sort of satisfaction listening to lyrics like "Need to get psycho / Wanna hear you scream / Tell me to take you, scare you, fuck you / After we finish the show / It's not enough, you listening whore? / You're one twisted little fuck / And now you wanna get psycho with me" (from Disturbed's "Meaning of Life").

Though Nojay complains that politics has impeded the progress of Rochester Central Station, he rejects any consideration of a new, alternative proposal --- on purely political grounds.

            That plan, dubbed Sibleys Station, would create a transit center for RTS buses on the first floor of the Sibley Building --- located across Clinton Avenue from the proposed site of Rochester Central Station. It was designed by volunteer architects and engineers from the Urban Design Committee of the American Institute of Architects' Rochester chapter. Its proponents say Sibleys Station could be built for only a fraction of Rochester Central Station's cost, while still giving bus riders shelter and helping to revitalize downtown.

            Sibleys Station has the support of David Gantt, the Rochester Democrat who chairs the State Assembly's Transportation Committee. Slaughter has also seen plans for Sibleys Station, and she supports them, says John Lovenheim, a retired Rochester businessman and member of the Urban Design Committee, who's promoting the alternative proposal. And during his State of the City address in early March, Mayor Bill Johnson expressed interest in locating thebus transit center in the Sibley Building.

            Nojay has not seen the plans for Sibleys Station, but neither does he intend to lay eyes on them.

            Why?

            "We don't think that any so-called plan, produced by a lackey of Louise Slaughter, has any chance of integrity," he says.

            Slaughter and other critics of Rochester Central Station "have come up with a dozen different objections, at least a dozen different excuses for opposing the transit center," Nojay says. "This [Sibleys Station plan] has nothing to do with serving public transit, it has nothing to do with improving downtown, it has everything to do with delay, delay, delay."

            "Bill Nojay has no integrity," Lovenheim says in response.

            Lovenheim, who also chairs the Sector 5 neighborhood group (which includes downtown), denies that the Sibleys Station plan is politically motivated.

            "I have no idea what [Nojay] means by that, and what [an alleged Slaughter connection] has to do with anything," he says. Slaughter, Gantt, and Johnson only saw the plans after they were completed, Lovenheim says. "Nobody asked us to do this; nobody has financed us; and no political group or party or person has been involved with this in any way, shape, or form."

The designers of Sibleys Station estimate thattheir project would cost, at most, about $7 million. The plans involve providing seating and limited amenities (such as a coffee shop and a newsstand) inside the Sibley Building's ground floor, where bus passengers could watch screens and listen to announcements of bus arrivals and departures. A smaller, more scaled-down facility, called Lincoln Station, might also be built diagonally across the intersection of Main and Clinton (near Chase Tower) to serve passengers taking eastbound and southbound buses.

            The designers of Sibleys Station say the project would require fairly minor traffic modifications, such as making Clinton Avenue a two-way street for buses along some parts of its length, and adjusting the stoplight at the intersection of Main and Clinton to facilitate pedestrian crossing between the two stations.

            Lovenheim says transferring buses in a subterranean facility, which the authority's plan calls for, will be unpleasant for riders, some of whom will stay in the underground area to catch their next bus if that bus is arriving soon after they're dropped off. No matter how extensive (and expensive) Rochester Central Station's ventilation system may be, he says, riders would still be breathing diesel fumes.

            Nojay didn't seem concerned about the possibility the underground transfer area would be unpleasant, or unhealthy, for passengers. But he also distanced himself from the idea of creating a subterranean transfer point.

            "The below-grade approach was identified and required by the mayor and the president of City Council" as a condition of their support for the project, Nojay says. If Giess and Johnson no longer support Rochester Central Station, Nojay says he won't feel compelled to make an underground transfer area a part of the design. The underground component adds about $17 million to the project's cost, he says, and the authority could still explore other design options.

            Johnson could not be reached for comment. Giess says plans for the underground component were part of a memorandum of understanding she, Johnson, and Nojay signed several years ago, and that the subterranean element satisfied her desire to open the above-ground area for further development.

            However, she adds: "We didn't create the design, [RGTRA] did.... I always envisioned people would be waiting upstairs." Giess says the possibility some passengers would either not take the time or have the time to go upstairs between buses never occurred to her. "I don't remember how it would all work," she says.

When City described the plans for Sibleys Station to Nojay, he criticized almost every aspect. He questioned the feasibility of having buses stop outside the Sibley Building, saying there wouldn't be enough room for all the buses along the street, particularly during peak pick-up and drop-off times. He said the traffic and commotion at such a street-level station would dissuade businesses and prospective tenants from occupying the floors directly above Sibleys Station. And he said the Sibley Building is structurally unsuitable for the kind of redesign a bus terminal would require.

            Not surprisingly, Lovenheim disputes all of those objections. He says the architects and engineers who crafted the Sibleys Station plans studied the bus schedules and the Sibley Building's blueprints before completing the proposal.

            Told of Nojay's comment that the presence of the station would dissuade development on the upper floors of the Sibley Building, Lovenheim says, "I think it's absolute bullshit. If having bus riders precludes having office space, how in God's name is he going to build an office tower on his bus station?"

            Technical considerations aside, Nojay has one objection to using the Sibley Building that, in his mind, makes the idea moot. And, again, politics comes into play.

            The Sibley Building is owned by Rochwil Associates, a partnership associated with Wilmorite Inc. Members of the Wilmot family, such as Wilmorite Chairman Tom Wilmot, are significant donors to Democrats. And Rochwil owes the city $6.9 million in taxes, delinquent loan balances, and interest on the building.

            "Now, I'm not going to cast motives to people, because I don't know," Nojay says. "But if I wanted to raise a question about why [Democratic politicians] have... come out of nowhere supporting the Sibley's Building, which also doesn't make any sense whatsoever as a transit facility, I might question whether or not a bailout of $6 million in back taxes is a motive. These people are all Democrats, they've got some tough races coming up, and I can think of no better way to please the largest Democrat fundraiser in the Rochester area than to give him a $6 million gift."

            In reality, it's not quite that simple. Tom Wilmot has contributed to both Democrats and Republicans --- for example, Tom and Colleen Wilmot are listed on the invitation for the 2003 Monroe County Ball (a Republican fundraiser) as "major sponsors." And Lovenheim says plans for Sibleys Station do not involve buying the Sibley Building, but merely renting the first floor. Though the station's presence could, in theory, help bring tenants to the building and, thus, generate more revenue for Rochwil, it would not necessarily erase the company's outstanding financial obligations to the city.

Meanwhile, efforts to finance Rochester Central Station continue with renewed intensity. In early March, the planning committee of the Genesee Transportation Council --- the regional organization that administers federal highway and transportation funds --- voted to allocate $30 million to the Rochester Central Station project. The GTC board is scheduled to vote on the five-year funding plan that includes the allocation in June.

            Rochester Central Station's proponents hope the additional $30 million, combined with $12 million the authority has already secured for the project, will make it easier to attract the remaining $17 million from the federal government. Nojay says the authority won't break ground on the complex until all the funding is secured. Nonetheless, the process of picking a private developer is moving along --- RGRTA Chief Executive Officer Donald Riley says seven qualified developers, from here and elsewhere, are now under consideration.

            Congress will likely reauthorize the next five-year federal transportation appropriations bill this year, and RGRTA officials are lobbying to have funds for the terminal complex included. Whether those funds, if included in the bill, are actually allocated, is another matter.

            "We hope to get that [funding] in the next couple of years," Nojay says, "but Mrs. Slaughter's opposition surely does not make it easy."

            "It is so frustrating in this town to try to do something, to move forward a project [in which] I can deal with people on an honest, let's-put-the-facts-on-the-table kind of basis and work out a solution," Nojay says.

            The RGRTA has spent three years looking at a dozen different sites for the terminal, says Nojay, and now the issue of its location is being debated again.

            Of course, those who view Sibleys Station as a reasonable alternative to keep bus riders out of the rain are just as frustrated with him.



Read more in our Cover Story section about downtown development,here

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