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Edgewater to present designs for port development



On Wednesday, September 17 -- Edgewater Resources will present its plan to transform the Port of Rochester from a mostly quiet river and beach area into a year-round destination resort with a hotel, shopping, restaurants, condominiums, marina, spa, and other amenities.

The City of Rochester has asked for a high-impact, transformational development, and Edgewater owner Gregory Weykamp says that he means to deliver.

The Port of Rochester. - FILE PHOTO
  • The Port of Rochester.

That will include buildings that are eight to 10 stories high, Weykamp says. And for some Charlotte residents, you can stop right there.

"We don't want it," says Susan Miller, a member of the grassroots group Charlotte Strong. "We definitely, definitely do not want high-rises."

Charlotte Strong formed because the Charlotte Community Association was not advocating strongly enough on the neighborhood's behalf, Miller says. She says that Charlotte Strong has seven core members and between 300 and 400 supporters.

Sean Schiano of the community association says he hopes that people will at least hear Edgewater out and give the company a chance before making up their mind.

It's understandable that Charlotte is not speaking with one voice on this issue, given the scale of the proposed project and its potential to permanently alter the character of the community. Supporters and detractors of Edgewater both say they believe they are representing the wishes of the majority of Charlotte residents.

Susan Miller of Charlotte Strong. - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Susan Miller of Charlotte Strong.

And even within the groups themselves, there is disagreement. Some of Edgewater's critics, for example, say that they support limited housing at the port. Others say they don't want any development at all. Some who support development at the port -- if not necessarily Edgewater as developer -- say that the opposition is limited to a small but extremely vocal minority.

Weykamp has participated in public meetings and numerous public workshops and says that what people really want is a quality development.

"What we heard from the community time and again was, 'We want it done right. The quality is the most important thing,'" he says.

To offset the cost of producing a top-notch project, he says, the buildings have to be of a certain height because people will pay for lake views.

"Views of trees obviously don't command as much value as views of the lake," he says. "If it came down to a compromise where it has to be so low that we can't do the quality, we wouldn't do that. We would leave that to a different developer, because that's not who we are. I also think it's the wrong thing for Charlotte."

Edgewater got off to a difficult start when a project diagram, which Weykamp says was meant only as an internal planning tool, was made public. The diagram shows rather utilitarian-looking buildings in excess of 10 stories tall.

"That was presented and interpreted as a design, which it is not," Weykamp says. "I think those are ugly drawings, too. I think it's unfortunate how the graphics were rolled out, but I didn't have anything to do with that. And we've been playing catch-up ever since."

Susan Roethel of Charlotte Strong. - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Susan Roethel of Charlotte Strong.

The diagram was made before the city chose a developer, Weykamp says. It doesn't make sense to invest a significant amount of money in designs, he says, when you haven't even been hired.

The development would be built in phases, Weykamp says, starting with a 40- to- 60-room boutique hotel. Above the hotel would be 12 to 24 for-sale condominiums.

"That's a small enough size; we know that's not going to fail," Weykamp says. "We know we can sell 12 to 24 units very, very comfortably."

Those first condos would also give Edgewater crucial information, he says, such as which units sell first and fastest, and what buyers like and don't like. They would also test the viability of the overall project.

The condos would probably start at around $200,000, Weykamp says, for a smaller, one-bedroom unit. The prices would increase with height and size all the way to the penthouse, which could go for more than $1 million, he says.

"What we always find is we have a lot of interest during the drawing phase, and then the first weekend the building's open and people can get in and walk through the unit and take a look at the view and see the quality, all of a sudden you sell half a dozen units just like that."

Although Edgewater's marketing studies show that the market will support units at these prices, Weykamp says that the only study that really counts is the one that comes with a check attached.

"Until somebody does that, you don't really know," he says. "And I understand that people haven't seen a project like this before. But we're confident."

One of the main concerns that some of the critics have is that the new development would block their views of the water -- essentially selling the views to people who can afford hundreds of thousands of dollars for a condo.

"The Charlotte community has been saying for many years that it wants to maintain the maritime historical significance of the area and maintain vistas of the river, the harbor, and the lake," says a document from Charlotte Strong.

"We want development that will fit our neighborhood," Miller says. "It's more like a village, not a downtown. For years, Charlotte residents have been saying no to high-rises. Why are they pushing it on us?"

And when Weykamp says that the project would actually improve views that really aren't that great to begin with, Charlotte Strong member Sue Roethel snaps back, "Better to whom? The people who buy the $1.2 million condos?"

One of Edgewater's ideas, Weykamp says, is to create a low-level plinth on the building. So the first couple of stories would front Lake Avenue, then there would be the plinth, and the rest of the building would go up and in, Weykamp says, so that Lake Avenue doesn't feel too closed in or dense.

Weykamp and city officials reject the suggestion that the city is privatizing the port. The marina would be open to the public and surrounded by a park and public promenade that connects the Genesee River Trail to the Charlotte pier. And Weykamp talks about a civic gathering space with a reflecting pool or skating rink as part of the project.

"You'll be able to be at the corner of Lake and Hincher, look through a really nice space with nice restaurants on the side and activities and an ice rink in the winter kind of thing," he says. "And look down and see the marina and the boats in the water. I really, sincerely believe that we'll be creating better views than exist today."

Low-income housing has come up repeatedly during discussions of the port development. The worry is either that the project will flop and Edgewater will resort to low-income housing to fill it up, or that Edgewater is being coy about its intentions and has planned to include low-income housing all along.

The concern appears to stem from the initial package that Edgewater put together for city officials, before the company was chosen to develop the port. The paperwork lists low-income housing tax credits as a possible funding source for the project.

Both Weykamp and city officials emphatically deny that low-income housing would be part of the project. Weykamp acknowledges the reference in the early paperwork, but says it was in response to the city's request to identify all possible sources of funding.

"Some folks for whatever reason have just really latched onto that as proof that we're going to do low-income housing," he says. "As I said time and again, we're simply not here to do that."

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, only rental properties are eligible for federal low-income housing tax credits. Rental units are not included in Edgewater's plans.

The project is required to have some affordable housing, but under the city's charter, affordable is defined as a person or family earning less than 120 percent of the median family income. That means that a family of four couldn't earn more than $80,400 annually to quality for an affordable unit in the development.

And phasing the development in will test the viability of Edgewater's broader plan for the port, Weykamp says.

"We're not going to build everything at once," he says. "That would be a silly thing to do from a development perspective, because you need to be responsive to the market."

Everybody agrees on one thing, however: that the port isn't exactly alive with activity in the late fall and winter.

"What I really would like to see is more people down there in the wintertime," says Schiano, of the Charlotte Community Association. "I personally love the water and the ice and the snow. It's something that people don't realize how beautiful it is."

To Edgewater's detractors, the fair-weather nature of the port means there isn't demand for a massive development project. They cite the failure of the city-subsidized Pier 45 restaurant at the terminal building as proof. The restaurant was billed as a way to get people down to the port in the off-season.

"None of these [port] places are packed in the winter," Miller says. "This is not going to happen -- I don't care -- until pigs fly."

But Weykamp says you have to play the long game. The trick to making the port into a year-round destination is to build density, he says, and that takes time.

"People ask me a lot of questions about parking," he says. "I don't mean to diminish the parking problems in the summer, but every resort community has parking problems in the summer. That's just the nature of the beast. What I'm really worried about is the empty parking spaces from September through May. In all seriousness, that is a much bigger problem for the community of Charlotte than a couple of months of parking trouble in the summer."

You need to create a critical mass of residents, Weykamp says, so that restaurants and shops can stay open in the winter. Density is also how you disperse troublemakers, he says, and youth fighting has been a recurring problem at the port.

"You just need more people there," Weykamp says.

Schiano says he just hopes that people give Edgewater a chance. The proposal deserves a fair vetting, he says, and then the community can make up its mind.

"I really wish that the entire community would listen to everything they have to say and not tune them out because a certain group doesn't want this developer and they want to start the selection process over," Schiano says. "I wish that everyone would listen and give everybody an opportunity to speak and be heard."

Even if Edgewater doesn't end up developing the port, he says, the company may have ideas that the community can use going forward.

But Miller and Roethel of Charlotte Strong say that there's nothing to talk about. They don't trust Weykamp or Edgewater, they say, and that as long as the proposal includes buildings they consider high-rises, they will remain in opposition.

"My feeling is, what's to think about?" Miller says, citing the petition that Charlotte Strong gathered with more than 2,300 names asking the city for a new port developer. "What's to think about if the community does not want this? I'm no big business tycoon, OK? But my question is, what am I missing here?"

Weykamp says he knows there are some people he will never win over. But he says he believes there is strong support for his project. He says that his goal is to capture the authenticity of Charlotte -- what makes it special. The neighborhood and the city may have lost industry over the years, Weykamp says, but the natural resources -- the lake, the river, the beach -- remain, though they are underused and undervalued.

"What's special about this place is that history -- the golden era of resorts when Charlotte was the Coney Island of the west," he says. "Industries left, so what do you have left? The natural resources. They have a specialness and a character that make people want to go there. And that's how we've been approaching this. I really feel comfortable that we're on the right track."

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