What she didn’t know was the extent of the contamination there. She still recalls her shock at receiving a letter from a government agency shortly after she moved in explaining that 400 tons of petroleum sludge had been extracted from the property and that more testing was expected.
“When I moved here, of course there’s no one behind me, there was no one on either side of me, so there were no neighbors to talk to and say, ‘Did you get this letter?’” Williams said. “And I didn’t know very many people.”
Twenty-two years later, much has changed in her neighborhood, known as PLEX for the Plymouth and Exchange streets corridor at its heart. For one thing, Williams has neighbors. Massive investment by the University of Rochester in a hotel and student dorms in nearby Brooks Landing drew young homesteaders who have since formed a tightly-knit group that has bonded over parenthood, planting gardens, and protecting their property values.
To that end, they have also unified over what to do about what hasn’t changed: The blight that is the 24 acres of polluted parcels that make up the Vacuum Oil brownfields along the Genesee River and the derelict refinery and storage plants that bore the company name.
- PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
- Janet Williams bought her house next to the Vacuum Oil site 22 years ago. The neighborhood has changed, she said, but the former industrial site has not.
The ruins are a ghost town of graffiti, garbage, busted windows, and unruly vegetation that are both a symbol of Rochester’s decay and a stubborn obstacle to the revitalization of a neighborhood desperate to shake its reputation as a tattered riverside community.
“To me, that’s my backyard,” Williams said.
Twelve years ago, one of the city’s most prolific developers, DHD Ventures, bought two of the parcels on nearby Flint Street, numbers 5 and 15, and planned to build housing. But nothing has happened.
The city owns the rest of the land, including two key properties on the river. Officials say they hope to transfer them to a developer and get them back on the tax rolls. But they’ve been saying that for years. Efforts to improve the brownfields have been plagued by false starts and seemingly endless cleanup initiatives that make no visible progress.
The prospects for improvement only worsened this year when a bank initiated foreclosure proceedings against DHD, specifically targeting its Flint Street holdings. Complicating matters further is the company’s protracted court battle with Vacuum Oil’s successor company, the petroleum and gas giant ExxonMobil, over liability for decontaminating the property.
In the meantime, residents live with what is by any measure a junkyard on what should be prime waterfront real estate.
- PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
- Luke Stodola and Lindsey Downey, who live on Exchange Street, said the Vacuum Oil property looks abandoned because nobody takes care of it.
He spoke from the porch of a tidy, 19th-century A-frame house with a lush garden in the front yard that he bought in 2016. Stodola works down the street managing The Refinery, an aptly-named former warehouse that’s been converted to commercial and studio space, from which he has a close-up view of the devastation of the Vacuum Oil wasteland.
Records show the debris on the property had gotten so bad in July that city sanitation crews stepped in and charged DHD $264.37 for its removal. City crews also boarded up the vacant building three separate times between April and May.
The place carries an aura of foreboding to Sarah Spano, who has lived in PLEX for seven years and calls the neighborhood “a little bit of a forgotten corner of the city.” She won’t allow her 5-year-old son Arlo to splash in the puddles that gather in the potholes there, and they don’t go near the Genesee River Trail that runs through it after dark.
“That place and that land is just covered with poison ivy and garbage and trash,” Spano said. “When you look at it you think, ‘Oh, nobody cares. This is a place that I can go and get away with whatever.’”
In its heyday, the Vacuum Oil Co. got away with a lot. The company was formed in 1866, the year its founders Matthew Ewing and Hiram Everest patented a method to produce kerosene from crude oil using vacuum distillation.
It wasn’t long before the first buildings of the refinery went up on Flint Street at the river’s edge and caught the attention of John D. Rockefeller. His Standard Oil bought a controlling interest in Vacuum Oil in 1879.
By the time the company ceased operations there in 1935, the site had expanded to 40 acres along the river, from Violetta Street to the north and Cottage Street to the south, with the plant at Flint Street at the heart.
During the decades in between, Vacuum Oil and its successor companies produced everything from kerosene to lubricating oils for machinery and naphtha gas for street lighting, all of which through a variety of ways seeped deep into the soil.
Refining oil has always been a dirty business, literally and figuratively.
- PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
- A former Vacuum Oil building sits vacant along the Genesee River at 5 Flint Street.
In 1887, Everest and his son, Charles, were convicted of conspiring to blow up and destroy a competing lubricating oil company in Buffalo. It was revealed in court that the manager of the company set 250 barrels of crude petroleum on fire after the Everests threatened him with financial ruin.
The father and son were reportedly acting in league with large Standard Oil stock holders and officials. Sitting in court every day of the trial were John D. and William A. Rockefeller.
The company got its comeuppance later that year, when a series of explosions ripped through Rochester. The blasts, which left three High Falls mills in ruins, were traced to a two-mile long pipeline through which Vacuum Oil was pumping naphtha to a gas and light utility downtown.
A few months later, in 1888, a grand jury indicted Vacuum Oil on three counts of “maintaining a public nuisance.” The company was accused of the unsafe storage of explosive substances, burning its refining waste, blanketing the neighborhood with greasy soot and “noisome odors and noxious gases,” and dumping oil, grease, acid, and sludge into the Genesee River.
Public complaints about Vacuum Oil swelled. The noted horticulturalist George Ellwanger called the company an “unsufferable nuisance” in the Democrat and Chronicle.
“The foul odors from it taint the air all through the southern part of the city,” Ellwanger was quoted as saying. “The smoke and soot from its mammoth chimneys destroy and defigure everything in the neighborhood. These works which have so long menaced the life and health of our citizens ought to and must be removed."
But the remnants of the oil works remain and today are a different kind of nuisance. They provide cover for drug users, vandals, squatters, and people up to no good, residents say.
- PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
- Frances Walker, stood in her Riverview Place yard and explained that the thick vegetation on the Vacuum Oil site provides cover for people up to no good.
"The scariest part is when the boys run through there or the police be chasing them and you never know what's going down," Walker said.
Once upon a time, development of the Vacuum Oil site seemed imminent.
In 2015, the city devised a detailed plan shaped partly through community input to guide investment in PLEX. It included improving the Genesee River Trail to connect it with different areas of the neighborhood, and envisioned public canoe and kayak launches.
The city and DHD conducted in-depth studies to understand the extent of the site’s pollution. They found that the properties were thoroughly contaminated with petroleum and its byproducts, metals such as lead and arsenic, PCB’s, and volatile organic compounds.
- PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
- Testing wells protrude from the ground throughout the Vacuum Oil brownfield sites.
Consequently, DHD in 2017 submitted to the state Department of Environmental Conservation a proposal to clean up the property. The company estimated it would cost $17 million to knock down the buildings at 5 and 15 Flint Street, remove contaminated soil, and take other remedial measures. But DHD withdrew that proposal.
Alan Knauf, an environmental lawyer representing DHD, explained that the work would have been too costly and taken as long as two years, during which trucks loaded with contaminants would have to drive through the neighborhood.
Now, Knauf said, the company is considering what he described as a “more economical cleanup,” one that would require removing only the most saturated soil and capping and venting the rest.
Part of that consideration is footing the bill, which DHD is attempting to pin on ExxonMobil, the successor of Standard Oil and all its interests, including Vacuum Oil.
Courts have ruled that ExxonMobil is liable for the historic pollution on the site, and that the company and DHD would have to litigate the costs. Knauf said that case is still active and that DHD and ExxonMobil have ongoing conversations about the cleanup.
“We’re trying to get Exxon to just step up and just end this and get it done,” Knauf said.
An ExxonMobil spokesperson did not respond to questions about the company’s role in the remediation process.
But Dana Miller, the city’s director of business and housing development, said the city has been talking with ExxonMobil about its obligations.
“We’re still working with them to determine exactly what level of cleanup would be acceptable to us and how much of that cost they’d be willing to help cover,” Miller said.
The Flint Street parcels are part of the state’s Brownfield Cleanup Program, which would entitle DHD to tax credits after the parcels have been remediated.
The credits could come in handy considering the mounting legal and financial troubles facing DHD and its principals, Thomas Masaschi and Jason Teller.
Late last year, U.S. Income Partners, a Henrietta-based lending institution that specializes in financing real estate developments, filed a string of foreclosure proceedings and other legal actions against DHD-held properties, accusing the company of defaulting on tens of millions of dollars in loans.
Among those were the Flint Street parcels. The lender alleged DHD had defaulted on $1.6 million in loans on those parcels alone. While some of the cases have been referred to mediation, the Flint Street foreclosure filing hasn’t yet been assigned to a judge.
Recently, DHD has begun unloading properties it owned in downtown Rochester, including a gleaming glass-façade residential and office tower at 88 Elm Street that the company refurbished and the overhauled Terminal Building on Broad Street.
Masaschi did not respond to calls seeking comment.
The PLEX neighborhood has never been a wealthy one.
It is part of the city’s former 3rd Ward, which census data show was home to mostly Italian and Irish immigrant laborers in the 1930s. Back then, a small contingent of Black and poor residents had begun to settle on and around Clarissa Street in the adjacent Corn Hill neighborhood.
In the coming decades, disinvestment fueled in part by redlining and an exodus of white families to the suburbs spurred a massive demographic shift in PLEX. Many of the white families that left held on to their aging homes and rented them to new Black families that had migrated to Rochester from the South and were steered to PLEX because of its proximity to Corn Hill.
Today, census data show that Black people account for nearly three out of every four PLEX residents, and that an estimated 65 percent of households in the neighborhood have incomes under $25,000 a year.
But over the last 10 years, a new wave of homebuyers and investors began to take interest in the area, spurred in part by the construction of a footbridge over the Genesee River connecting PLEX to the University of Rochester.
“What we’ve seen in the PLEX area has been an increase in rental units that have been purchased, rehabbed, and then rented to students,” Miller said. “That’s been a major change right along the Plymouth Avenue-Barton Street-Cottage, some of the streets that are right in the central part of the PLEX area.”
When the city reassessed houses earlier this year, its first reassessment in four years, home values in PLEX rose almost 20 percent. The median home value climbed to $37,500 from $32,000 and the average home value increased to $41,937 from $34,955.
- PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
- Sarah Spano, who lives on Exchange Street, tosses a sungold tomato from her garden to her son, Arlo.
Her home had been vacant and neglected before she got her hands on it. The backyard was covered in poison ivy. Now, she grows tomatoes, kale, squash, zucchini, and broccoli there. The vegetable patch complements a handsome flower garden at the front of the house.
“I like to think I bring value and community to this neighborhood,” Spano said.
The residents around the Vacuum Oil site see potential in it and recognize that any improvement would have a dramatic effect on the neighborhood and its character.
But many residents are pessimistic that any change is imminent and complain that they have been shut out of the planning process.
Miller said DHD principals met with city officials in January to discuss a mix of affordable, market-rate, and student apartments on the Flint Street properties. He described the affordable units as catering to renters with incomes that are below 60 percent of the area median income.
“We’ve not been informed of anything at all that would say those plans are not active,” Miller said.
Residents said they welcome more housing. Anything would be an improvement over the wasteland there now. But their main concern is that any project benefits people who already live in the neighborhood and doesn’t drive them out.
- PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
- Lindsey Downey brings a peach to her neighbor, Janet Williams.
The PLEX Neighborhood Association had been working with Masaschi to develop a community benefits agreement — a contract that would lock the developer into making good on certain conditions. Fashioning a park out of some of the vacant land was high on the list.
But Dorian Hall, the association’s vice president, said those talks stopped after the City Council approved a zoning change for the property in 2018 that converted the land to a high-density residential zone from a low-density residential zone.
“He hasn’t been back to the table, so I don’t know what’s been going on,” Hall said. “It’s been crickets.”
Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.