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What's in store, part II

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Last fall, Wegmans shuttered its Mt. Hope Avenue store, despite neighborhood objections. Now the company may be brewing up a different but oddly similar situation at another branch.

            Two years ago, City Newspaper reported that the supermarket chain was eyeing the possibility of expanding the popular East Avenue store. The evidence was mainly facts on the ground: The company had bought up almost all the properties between the store and the corner of Winton Road.

            Neighborhood activists and preservationists were concerned that the company might bulldoze some 19th-century buildings --- part of the historic Brighton village center --- to make way for a big-box design and additional parking. But company spokesperson Jo Natale said there were "no plans at the present time to expand."

            Now company officials and City of Rochester staff are sitting down for what Natale calls "preliminary meetings" about the block's future. Do these plans involve demolition of any historic structure that Wegmans owns, like the 1895 "Green Building" (1895) that once housed a Women's Christian Temperance Union chapter? Natale won't comment specifically.

            Things remain at "a preliminary planning stage," she says. "We have not made those decisions... We don't have any details to discuss." She adds the company is keeping lines of communication open to neighborhood groups.

            Joni Monroe, head of the Rochester Regional Community Design Center, says community groups will soon meet with Wegmans. She recalls that back in 2001, various groups took part in a design charrette focusing on this very block.

            "We're putting together some things from other cities," Monroe says. She recalls touring a Whole Foods market in Washington, DC, that could set a standard. "It's not a big box affair," and it's "beautifully designed" to blend with the cityscape, she says.

            Monroe finds lots of good things in the existing East Avenue Wegmans. "People who shop there," she says, "go for the intimate scale." The low ceilings and low lighting add to the intimacy, she says.

            The president of the Culver/University/East Avenue Neighborhood Association speaks in the same vein. Wegmans now has a fine opportunity before it, says Sib Petix, a Park Avenue resident who's also a realtor. "I'd love to see them save those buildings and build around them," he says.

Pieces of sky

Henny Penny is no friend to County Executive Maggie Brooks. The county's fiscal condition is serious, Brooks says, but the sky is not falling.

            "I'm a little more optimistic than that," she says.

            Still, the county executive told her Budget Advisory Team last week that nothing is more important than the work they're doing right now.

            "This is our priority," she says. "We're counting on you."

            The county legislature raised the property tax more than 13 percent in the current budget to deal with a $42 million budget gap. Things look tough for 2005, too. State revenue to the county is down $7 million in the governor's budget proposal. And many say the county has exhausted its ability to make cuts, sell off assets, and to use one-time revenues to plug the dam.

            Moody's Investors Service has put the county on a watch list. The agency is concerned that the county's structural imbalance continues despite the steps taken to balance the 2004 budget.

            Brooks charged her advisory team with a top-to-bottom review of county government. The team will identify cost-cutting measures and streamlining and consolidation opportunities.

            It is time to be bold, she says.

            "I want you to look at government in a way we've never looked at it before," she told team members. "What we need is sweeping reform recommendations. The low-hanging fruit is gone."

            Nothing is off the table, Brooks says, except tax increases. Brooks ran on a pledge not to raise taxes.

            Brooks did not establish a deadline for the team to finish its work. But she said it would be "nice and useful" to have some information when the county starts its budgeting process in April.

Gay marriage here and now

At the Auditorium Center the other day, Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley director Chuck Bowen opened a program on same-sex marriage with what he called a "symbol" --- an announcement that child care was available down the hall. Then came another symbol of an evolving movement: Bowen said the Alliance's youth group now has 400 members. "They're here participating today," he said.

            The audience was 250 strong, and outspoken. Local attorney Jennifer Gravitz described a form of silencing, though. Gravitz said her life partner couldn't join her at the podium and be identified because she works for a religious group not covered by SONDA, the state Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act. "She'd be fired for saying she loves me," said Gravitz.

            Ross Levi, the Empire State Pride Agenda's policy director, surveyed the legal and political landscape: the Massachusetts court decision that establishes full marriage rights, for example; and San Francisco's issuance of some 3,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

            But Levi, who noted the estimated 1,700 legal privileges and duties attached to marriage, covered more than the law. There's something special about marriage, he said. Nobody, he said, ever called home to declare, "Mom, I'm getting civil unionized!" He predicted success in achieving full civil rights. "It's no longer a matter of if," he said. "It's when, and when is now."

            And he meant now: There are roughly 10,000 legally married same-sex couples in the US already, he said. The big question, he said, is whether New York State will recognize these legal civil marriages performed elsewhere.

            This will eventually come down to local authorities. And, said Rochester city councilmember Tim Mains, activists have already approached City Hall to see if marriage licenses might be issued to same-sex couples. Officials have said they lack authority to do this, said Mains. (New York's constitution isn't as helpful in this regard as California's.)

            What about the state level? "All the Assemblymembers and senators were invited to be here today," said Chuck Bowen. "Do you see any of them?" No, sighed the audience. So the take-home message was about political involvement. A Gay Alliance handout (see www.gayalliance.org for background) emphasizes the basics: contacting elected officials, writing letters to the editor, and so forth.

            The Pride Agenda (www.prideagenda.org) is circulating a "Pledge of Resistance" that sounds more militant. Signers take this pledge: "to mobilize in defense of civil marriage for same-sex couples and against any federal amendment to the Constitution... or state action here in New York to codify civil marriage as between one man and one woman."

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