There's at least one potential downtown project whose fate isn't hinging upon the transit center. And its impact on the Center City could be far greater than anything else in the works.
Monroe Community College is eying the corner of West Main Street and South Plymouth Avenue as the future home to its new Advanced Technology Education Center, a complete downtown campus that would be built from the ground up and offer instruction, but not housing, to between 2,500 and 3,500 students.
"My sense is that their vision is going to be extremely powerful, and is going to change the face of the community," says Rochester Downtown Development Corporation President Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, who recently met with MCC President Thomas Flynn to discuss the college's plans. "They've got a very interesting and ambitious concept. They're going to have to go through whatever process is required by their institution to move forward. But should it move forward. There is tremendous potential to expand a whole section of downtown."
While MCC's board of directors still has to vote on the site, and SUNY has to give MCC final approval for the selection, Flynn says Main and Plymouth "has leading candidacy."
The college is also waiting to hear about funding for the $62.8 million project, which will be split evenly between the county and the state. If the funding comes through, MCC hopes to have the project finished within six years. The Technology Center is at the top of the college's list of priorities, Flynn says.
Even if the college winds up finding an alternate site, the Tech Center will still be a new construction project.
"We're talking about building a whole campus," Flynn says. "We're talking about starting from scratch and building a facility, not trying to renovate something for the college. We want to build something that will meet our needs."
Flynn says the Main-Plymouth site's distance from any other proposed downtown projects, like the possible transit and performing arts centers, also makes it attractive. Among the other positives are "ease of access" and the fact that the west side of downtown is "a growth area."
Many high-tech office and residential spaces have been filled in that partof downtown over the past five years. And while both Flynn and Zimmer-Meyer decline to discuss details on the Technology Center project, Flynn says "we're talking about a campus that's going to be built there to serve the citizens in that area and to serve the businesses in that area, and our city, for 100 years or more."
When City spoke with Zimmer-Meyer just prior to her meeting with MCC, she said she hoped the college would explore other alternatives to building a new site at Main and Plymouth. A new downtown campus would cause MCC to pull the Damon Center out of the Sibley Centre. Right now, the Damon Center is one of the main tenants left in Sibley, whose owners, Rochwil Associates, owe the city $6.9 million in taxes, delinquent loan balances, and interest.
Flynn says when the college renewed a five-year Sibley lease with Rochwil last year, he advised the building's owners that "we were moving forward with this, and everybody should be made aware of that. And there's a five-year notice." (MCC has options to extend its Sibley lease as needed.)
During his meeting with Zimmer-Meyer, Flynn says, "Basically, the point I was trying to make is that anything we build downtown is good for downtown, regardless of where we build it. The Main and Clinton area will not live or die based on what Monroe Community College does."
Zimmer-Meyer says she came away from her meeting with the college "blown away."
"They have looked at other options," she says. "And I'm confident that their process has been extremely carefully researched. I'm a very skeptical and careful deliberator when it comes to major change downtown. But I have such confidence in their ability to do the right thing for the community. And I don't say that lightly."
Politics vs. projects
Asked for her perspective on the two options being floated for a new downtown transit center, Zimmer-Meyer says the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation isn't nearly as concerned about location as it is about"the process by which the community is making these decisions breaking down a long time ago."
Rochester, she says, has developed a reputation for politicizing large public projects. "We don't have the exhibited ability to come together behind a short list," she says. "We have a reputation for not being able to work together as a community. It's hurt us in Washington and it's hurt us in Albany. So we'd better get past that. It happened with the fast ferry. It happened at the beginning of the performing arts center process. And it's happening with the transit center. That whole situation broke down on the basis of personalities and politics. And I think it's become far more divisive on both fronts than it should be."
So what's it going to get past all of this?
"It's going to take leadership with a different point of view," she says. "The mindset of the region is changing anyway, and that's forcing a lot of players to do business differently. That kind of change is why you have [Rochester Business Alliance CEO] Tom Mooney coming out and saying we need to consider consolidating the county and city governments. That never would have happened two years ago. Change is being demanded. Corporate players are saying this is not the way we want to see things done."