In April, Mayor Lovely Warren announced that she had chosen RBTL and Morgan Communities to develop Parcel 5, a key part of the former Midtown Plaza site. City Council has to approve sale of the land, and the mayor hasn't sent Council a request for that sale.
Warren's choice was controversial from the beginning, because she was initially believed to have selected a proposal by developer Andy Gallina for a building containing condominiums and retail space, with some public open space at the back end of the parcel. And since the RBTL-Morgan plan was selected, opposition has begun to build. Some of it has come from activists who favored a third proposal for Parcel 5, called Visionary Square, which would have kept the property largely undeveloped, used for public events and with some space for vendors.
More recently, arts organizations have begun speaking out – not so much directly opposing the RBTL-Morgan project as asking for more study of the proposed theater, its finances, and its possible impact on other arts venues and organizations
The project continues to have the mayor's full support. But sale of city property requires approval by seven of the nine members of City Council, and at the moment, there's not nearly that much support for it. And since Council will have the final say, lobbying over the project is intensifying.
Over the past week or so, the Arts and Cultural Council for Greater Rochester, Geva Theatre Center, and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra sent letters to City Council to express concerns both about how the proposal was selected and how the theater might impact the arts community. They are worried, for instance, that the new, larger theater for RBTL might compete with them for scare funds and for audiences.
A recurring concern in the letters and in comments made the last few days is that it isn't clear how the development would benefit the Rochester arts community as a whole or grow the City of the Arts brand. Several organizations have called for an independent impact study.
"A beautiful, new theater is not going to make Rochester the City of the Arts," Geva Artistic Director Mark Cuddy said during a press conference Monday. "We are already a City of the Arts. Does Rochester Broadway Theatre League – and other organizations – deserve a facility? Absolutely. Should the city be involved, we want to make sure all the questions are asked, because it's public value and public land."
Geva's letter to City Council said arts leaders are concerned "that the process of awarding Parcel 5, and now the City Council's consideration of the project, has seemed mysteriously opaque. We do not know when public comment will be heard on the proposal; meanwhile there is a full campaign by the theater developer to 'sell' the project as a fait accompli. This alarms many of us."
The letter, co-signed by Mark Cuddy and Executive Director Christopher Mannelli — but referencing that more than a dozen arts leaders took part in discussions — was accompanied by a 14-page document outlining questions and issues raised by arts community members. Geva emphasized in the document that the group does not take a position for or against the proposal.
The 14-page memorandum, which can be read on Geva's website, outlines four major themes: Is a single theater the best use of Parcel 5 for downtown and for Rochester's arts and cultural sector? How would the theater impact existing venues and non-profits? Could the theater fit on the site? And what can the city do to support Rochester's arts community?
The document poses questions on topics ranging from job creation and state funding to bringing young people back to downtown and the fate of the Auditorium Theatre (RBTL's current home). And, it asks: "what is the public value of dedicating land, construction dollars, and possible annual subsidies to a project that creates more revenue to send out of Rochester to for-profit promoters and producers?"
The memorandum calls for public hearings and asks that City Council's Business and Economic Development Committee and its Arts and Culture committees "conduct working sessions with leaders from arts, culture, and developer sectors."
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's letter, sent on August 2 and signed by President and CEO Ralph Craviso, calls for an impact study to "determine how the current Parcel 5 proposal would affect other Rochester arts institutions, and in particular, our community's performing arts institutions."
The RPO is projecting a balanced budget for the current fiscal year – its first in six years — and some of the increased revenue has come from new audiences brought in by expanded concert offerings, Craviso wrote. There is a concern that an expanded RBTL schedule — going from around 130 live performances a year to 180 in a new theater — would impact the RPO's growth.
RBTL's CEO Arnie Rothschild insists that a new theater for RBTL won't compete with other arts venues and organizations, for finances or for audience, any more than it does now.
In an interview Friday, Rothschild repeated what he has said in the past: that RBTL needs and plans to build a new facility and that its preference is a downtown location. RBTL has also considered suburban locations and would consider that again if it can't secure a suitable downtown site. In the past, those suburban plans have included a large theater for touring Broadway shows and one or two smaller spaces. It's possible that move and expansion could have a harder impact on Rochester's arts community than the move to a single theater space on Parcel 5.
Critics have also raised concerns that public funds would have to help subsidize the theater, but Rothschild says that RBTL has had an operating surplus for 13 of the last 14 years and that its projections show a surplus in the new theater. According to a 10-year pro-forma released by RBTL, the theater would have a net surplus of $219,550 after its first full year of operation, 2021.
The theater proposal has become an issue in the mayoral campaign, with Warren's Democratic challengers, Jim Sheppard and Rachel Barnhart, criticizing the selection process.
Warren recently petitioned Governor Andrew Cuomo for $20 million in state funding for the theater, which is estimated to cost $75 to $85 million. And early this week, State Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle – a former Monroe Democratic Party chair – seemed to split with Warren on the theater. He told the Democrat and Chronicle that it would be "highly irresponsible" for the state to provide that much money for a project he said has too many questions.
The next act in this arts-community drama: City Council has scheduled a public forum for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, August 10 – not specifically on the RBTL proposal but on the broader issue of Parcel 5's future. No legislation related to the development is pending, though, and it's a good bet that there won't be any for several months – maybe not until after the election.
Speaking out on Parcel 5
City Council will hold a public forum for Thursday, August 10, to hear comments and concerns about the future development of Parcel 5. The forum starts at 5:30 p.m. and will take place in Council Chambers, in City Hall, 30 Church Street.
Those who want to speak can sign up in advance by calling 428-7538, or can sign up that night in Council Chambers. Comments can also be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org and by mail to City Council, 30 Church Street, Room 301A, Rochester, New York, 14614.
There will also be a pop-up event on Thursday, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., at Parcel 5 (the former Midtown Plaza site), organized by Visionary Square supporters.
The proposal to build a new theater downtown for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League has begun to generate some drama on its, creating suspicion and bringing divisions in the arts community and the political community out into the open.