News & Opinion » News

The downsizing of Renaissance Square


A mid-sized theater is no longer part of the mix at Renaissance Square.

This according to both the project architect, Moshe Safdie, and the project manager, Mark Ballerstein.

Renaissance Square --- the downtown project combining a bus terminal, an MCC campus, and a performing arts center, was originally supposed to include three theaters. There was to be a large one for Broadway shows and similar events, a mid-sized space for groups like the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and a small theater.

Safdie will be in Rochester in early October to unveil his final conceptual design. Last week he told City Newspaper that a mid-sized theater won't be part of that design. Plans are now for that theater to be located on East Main Street, diagonally across from the Eastman Theatre. Funds for the mid-size theater may end up being raised separately, and the control may be passed to City Hall.

The local arts community hasn't reached a consensus on what combination of performance spaces it needs, said Safdie. Lack of money, he suggested, may be part of the problem.

"I'd say things did slow down, because there was a great struggle about budget," he said. "There's also great soul searching about the arts program and how much is included and not included. The objective on one hand is to satisfy all the needs of the community, which involve a mid-size theater" in addition to the Broadway hall and a smaller space.

"So there's the wish list and the resources," Safdie said.

"I think the way that things are resolving themselves is that the Renaissance will go forward with the Broadway roadhouse and possibly a small --- very small --- kind of community auditorium. There is the objective of creating a mid-sized theater in proximity to the Eastman. And that is now being pursued by the mayor's office in terms of the funding and all that. So it's related but separately programmed and funded."

Safdie's also been involved in preliminary efforts for that project.

"We actually made a whole series of sketches for a complex at Eastman, and I think these were useful in terms of determining cost and availability of land and all that stuff," he said.

Ballerstein confirmed that the scenario Safdie described --- a large theater and a small one in Ren Square and a mid-sized venue near Eastman --- is the resolution being pursued by the Main and Clinton Local Development Corporation. (That's the corporation formed by the county to create Ren Square; Ballerstein works for both the county and the corporation.)

A mid-sized theater "really wouldn't work well down at Main and Clinton," he said.

Ballerstein initially said that "there really isn't a decision yet" on the arts space, but asked what other options were being discussed, he replied: "It's more the relative size and different configurations" than a change in the overall plan to have a separate theater near Eastman.

"We're pretty much decided," he said. "That bigger direction will not change."

But if the bigger direction, as he terms it, is settled, the details are far from being so. That's still being hashed out by members of the arts community, who are meeting with officials from the county, city, and the transit authority.

"I would hope we're two months away from having consensus," Ballerstein said.

Safdie's coming with the designs in half that time, though. Shouldn't they have an agreement hammered out by then?

"I'm hoping we do, but I can't guarantee it," said Ballerstein, a bit ruefully.

So what's the hold-up? Ballerstein cites the same two factors as Safdie.

"We need to have consensus" among the arts community, he said, and "it needs to be affordable." Ballerstein doesn't say it, but as Safdie suggests, the latter appears to be a barrier to the former: the resources versus the wish list.

Money is part of the picture, agrees Arts and Cultural Council President and CEO Sarah Lentini. She identifies "the shrinking amount of resources" as "one reason to be extra careful."

That means building spaces that are not only as cost-effective as possible to construct, but also the most cost-effective to operate. Trying to achieve that has so far help keep the plans from reaching consensus, she said.

"There's concern about putting something out there that's final without having considered all the alternatives," she says.

Much of the money for the performing arts center component of Ren Square is supposed to come from private donors. In fact, the original impetus for a multi-theater center (which later grew into Ren Square) came from a desire to prevent competing fund drives for two separate theaters. Now that goal is back up in the air. Ballerstein said the mid-sized theater will cease to be a part of Rennaisance Square.

"It'll be a new project, a separate project," he said.

It's too early to tell, he said, what that will mean for funding or whether there will still be a coordinated fund drive.

Lentini believes there will be.

"I don't think that precludes coordinated fundraising, if not joint fundraising," she said. "That would be the most logical way to approach it."

Ballerstein seems less certain.

"I think that very much depends on how that other theater is proposed," Ballerstein said. "It depends on how focused it may be or how inclusive." It may also depend on the new theater's timing, he said.

And although Ballerstein doesn't say it, that may depend on who's taking the lead on that mid-size theater.

Safdie suggested that the city is going to do that, but Deputy Mayor Patty Malgieri, the city's point person on the project when it comes to the arts space, seemed to believe a decision on separating out the mid-sized theater had not yet been made.

"That is one of the options," she says. "That still hasn't been brought to a final resolution."

"If in fact that is the option chosen, the mayor has expressed the interest in taking the lead," Malgieri says.

Failure to reach consensus in the arts community or to communicate among stakeholders may be troubling, but Safdie doesn't appear worried.

"Such projects are by definition complex," he said. "Anything involving the community and three levels to four levels of government is complex. And we're dealing with four levels of government, several authorities, historic classification, an arts community which is not single in its voice, but multi-faceted in its voice. That breeds complexity. Add to that that there isn't enough money to do the dream program: by definition that adds more complexity. If we had all the money we needed and all the voices, that'd be one thing."

"So you've just got to be patient and persevere and go step by step and deal with every constituency that needs to be dealt with until you have some measure of consensus and hope that the public embraces it and the politicians continue to support it and that the private sector rises to the occasion. For example, we've got retail in the project, and if the private sector doesn't rise to the occasion because they have no confidence in downtown, that's going to be trouble, too."

Of course, beyond all the slow machinations that go into any large public project, there's the small matter of what the final project will actually look like. Would Safdie be willing to give us a sneak preview of what to expect when he unveils his latest plans in October?

"Well, it's very much in the spirit of what we showed the public before," he said. "I don't think there's going to be any earthshaking surprises, because in detail there's a hundred and one subtle issues about, you know, how you ventilate a bus station and try and cut the costs down and stuff like that, but the sort of mall that connects Main Street to the bus terminal, the bus terminal under a landscaped park, the college surrounding the campus green that we created using the historic buildings, the theater on Main and Clinton --- I mean it's all in the spirit of what people have seen. It's just much more detailed, much more worked out and much more efficient."