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Renaissance Square’s a pig in a poke


Well, maybe Governor Pataki will save us from ourselves.

            Late last week, Pataki said he would veto the budget approved by the state legislature earlier this month. There's a move afoot to override his veto, but that's iffy. And among the things at risk now: $18 million for Renaissance Square in downtown Rochester.

            If Renaissance Square is a good idea, I'm all for it. If it boosts downtown development --- if its benefits outweigh its costs --- I'm all for it.

            But those are big ifs. And nobody has even attempted to discuss them. Everybody's just assuming Renaissance is a great idea.

            At least with Tom Wilmot's casino proposal, we've got some estimates. A study by the Center for Governmental Research points out potential positives and negatives: expenses, jobs created, revenue generated, risks to other downtown businesses and property values.

            But with Renaissance Square, there's little but mystery. This newspaper has been asking questions about the center and its components since the git-go. All we've gotten are promises that answers would be coming soon.

            Let's review some ancient history. First there was the idea for an exciting performing arts center. It would have a theater for major shows like Broadway musicals as well as halls for the Rochester Philharmonic, Garth Fagan Dance, and the wealth of small performance groups. One of those halls might be the Eastman Theatre, renovated.

            There was great public enthusiasm about the project, and a broadly based community task force was appointed to do the feasibility studies and start the planning. But the project was quickly captured by political and business leaders who put the deliberations behind closed doors, threatening members of the task force with expulsion if they talked to the media.

            Why the secrecy? Because, said the politicians and business leaders, the project was too important to get caught up in controversy. The secrecy would guarantee consensus and support.

After spending a goodly bit of public money, the task force issued its report, saying that the community could indeed support such an arts center. The EastmanSchool would provide one performance hall, for itself and the Rochester Philharmonic. A big new hall would be created, specifically designed for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League's touring shows, and there would be spaces for the smaller groups.

            Plenty of questions remained, which this newspaper and others kept asking. Who would own the new performance center? Who would operate it? Who would decide the rental fees? Who would determine the scheduling? That would be an important issue, if several performance groups were to share a hall.

            How much would taxpayers have to spend --- not just to build the center but to operate it? How much would come from taxpayer money, and how much from private donations? What would happen if ticket sales and rental fees didn't pay operating costs? Answers, we were told, would come in the next stage.

            Then the task force was disbanded, and the project was slipped into the hands of a five-member committee: two city officials, two county officials, and Wegmans' attorney.

            That committee spent some more of our tax dollars, hiring a consultant --- a local developer --- to begin the planning. And it was assumed that the consultant would get the job of doing the development.

            The selection of that developer --- a major contributor to the Republican Party who was also a board member of the Rochester Broadway Theatre League --- was controversial. When this newspaper questioned it, we were told that his company was the best one for the job: he had a history of successful local developments. And he had connections, we were told, that would up the chances for funding the project.

            The committee's meetings were not open to the public. No public hearings were ever held. And despite repeated attempts, this newspaper was not able to get copies of committee minutes. Nobody took minutes, we were told.

            The final report recommended building the large hall for Broadway shows and similar big events (principal user: RBTL) and two smaller ones for the small arts groups. The EastmanSchool would go off on its own, raising its own funds for its renovation.

            But significantly, the report recommended building the "center" in stages. The big hall would come first. The others would follow. Sometime.

            And then? Well, then the thing just kind of dragged on, in secrecy. And the EastmanSchool and some of the smaller performance groups went their own way, raising their own funds and working on their own performance space.

            And then there was the stock-market bust, and continued local economic decline, and 9/11....

Meantime, the transit authority had come up with the peachy idea of a big new bus station smack in the middle of downtown. It would provide a nice, sheltered place for people to wait for the bus. There might be a day-care center, a food court, small retail shops. Initial estimated cost for the bus station: $25 million.

            Again, this newspaper and others had questions. Do we really need a downtown bus station, given the numerous other local transit needs? How would a bus station in a prime location affect other downtown developments? Would it be compatible with the city's plans for residential uses in the area?

            Why, when other cities were building "intermodal" transportation projects --- linking bus, rail, and plane uses --- would Rochester want to build an isolated, single-use facility?

            Who would provide the $25 mil to build the thing? And how much would it cost taxpayers to operate it each year?

            The transit authority simply dismissed most of those concerns, insisting that a bus station was good for riders and would boost downtown development.

            On questions of cost, transit authority chair Bill Nojay had soothing answers. The transit authority, he said, would be cautious. Officials in cities with bus stations had advised the Rochester authority to be sure it knew how it would pay for the operating costs.

            "You don't want to find yourself three to five years from now cutting service to the poor" to fund the bus station, he told me in 1998.

            At one point, Nojay said he expected that the city --- meaning city taxpayers --- would pay part of the cost. City officials insisted all along that the city couldn't afford to.

            Until a couple of years ago, Nojay insisted that the bus station would be "revenue neutral." The transit authority wouldn't go forward with the project, he said, unless it was certain that rent from adjacent facilities like a food court and retail stores would pay the operating costs.

The bus station then morphed into a grandiose plan --- frequently shown in transit-authority TV ads --- with a large office building adjacent to the bus station. The office building disappeared when local developers said there was no market for it.

            The cost of the bus station increased, however, in part because the city insisted that the passenger loading area be underground, to reduce noise and pollution and lessen the impact on nearby buildings.

            Now, of course, the bus station has morphed again. It's one component of Renaissance Square, which is to also include the performing arts center and a new MonroeCommunity College tech center.

            Our early questions about the performing arts center and the bus station remain unanswered. And I have a major problem with the plans for the tech center. I'm all for new college uses downtown, and the tech center sounds like a good idea. But to build Renaissance Square, we will tear down some decent, though down-at-the-heels, small buildings. A better location for the tech center is one of the most important buildings in downtown Rochester: the SibleyBuilding.

            True to recent tradition, plans for Renaissance Square are being developed in secret. We're asking taxpayers from throughout the state to help us build an expensive project about which we know little. Answers to crucial questions --- most particularly, about costs --- are being bounced on into the future.

            Governor Pataki ought to be worried. Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature ought to be worried.

            And so, folks, should every taxpayer in MonroeCounty. Even if we cobble together enough money to build Renaissance Square, we don't have a clue about how much we'll have to pay each year to operate it.