LONSBERRY: Theater bid wins Parcel 5

 This one could work.

 After 25 years of shuck and jive, the quest for a downtown Rochester performing-arts center has taken a giant step toward reality.

 Today, Mayor Lovely Warren announced her recommendation that Parcel 5 – the prime Main Street property that was once the heart of Midtown Plaza – become the home of a multi-story and multi-use building that features a giant Broadway-style theater.

 The theater has been the dream and almost life’s work of Arnie Rothschild, an advertising and political consultant who heads the Rochester Broadway Theater League. Repeatedly he has tried, and repeatedly he has failed.

 But this time looks to be different.

 Because he is joined not only by the mayor and billionaire Tom Golisano – whose support was announced last month – but also by local developer Bob Morgan.

 That’s a pretty good line up.

 But the idea that unites them, and the key to the project’s mayoral endorsement, is to include retail and residential space in the theater complex. In effect, the proposal announced today kills three birds with one stone, and one piece of Rochester real estate.

 This is not an outcome anyone would have expected.

 Until fairly recently, the mayor seemed dismissive of a theater for Parcel 5, and she also seemed fully mobilized to back a differing proposal for the property, from Gallina Development.

 Then things started to happen.

 Last fall, Golisano told RBTL that he would donate $25 million, about a third of the money needed to build a theater. That offer was communicated to City Hall, but was pretty much dismissed by then Deputy Mayor Carlos Carballada. Mayor Warren’s process for selecting a Parcel 5 project went forward without a theater bid and she ended up favoring the Gallina proposal. That would have built a low-rise retail and residential building with a little bit of open space along its side.

 Mixed use – places to work and places to live – was a priority for the mayor, and for developers like Morgan. Intense investment in downtown Rochester has focused on creating housing – mostly premium housing. Much of that is to go into refurbished office buildings, the skyscrapers that emptied out as Rochester’s business community dwindled. Morgan is deeply involved in those efforts.

 What is the demand for downtown housing? I can’t begin to imagine. Sometimes the push to make more apartments and condos has a Field of Dreams aspect to it, as ever more homes are built for ever more people who are expected to come downtown for ever more jobs that simply aren’t there.

 But that’s what the mayor wants, and that’s where the developers are putting their money.

 And that’s what Gallina wanted to do at Parcel 5.

 And until about two weeks ago, that was full steam ahead.

 Until somebody did the math and it became apparent that Gallina didn’t have the financing it needed. They couldn’t borrow enough money for such a speculative project.

 So Gallina was out.

 And that led to a meeting last week – on March 30 – at City Hall, and Arnie Rothschild brought Bob Morgan to make the pitch to Lovely Warren.

 Today’s announcement seems to indicate that meeting went well.

 The developers told the mayor that they wanted to essentially meld the core of the Gallina project – apartments and stores – with the core of their project – a theater in which to put on traveling Broadway plays.

 That offers the downtown residents necessary to make retail work, and the retail necessary to make downtown living possible. It also overcomes the objection that a theater would sit empty and lifeless most of the time, and that the employment it created would be sporadic and low paying. Combining the two, the argument goes, allows for stores in which people can work every day, and a new facility that can be used as it is booked.

 It also creates some premium residential space that might be especially appealing to upper-income theater fans.

 Now that the mayor has picked this project, what will happen?

 Well, she has to get City Council to go along, and developers have to find patrons and donors to kick in several million dollars – and then they together have to convince the state government to put in some money. Any one of those things could turn out to be a deal breaker. But none of them seems impossible.

 The mayor expects to give Arnie Rothschild and Bob Morgan – and their organizations – a few months to gather dollars and pledges. That will be a crucial step. But the involvement of Bob Morgan and Tom Golisano give the project an air of credibility and confidence, and should make fundraising easier.

 Political support will need to be built. That might be dicey because of the rift in the Monroe County Democratic Party and the looming primaries for mayor and City Council. It would be nice to see all the candidates for all the offices endorse the project, and not use it as a punching bag to help themselves or hurt an opponent. It would also be good to see the Democrat half of the state legislative delegation likewise backing this as opposed to turning it into a weapon against a rival.

 What’s my opinion? Well, like I said, this one might work.

 It has serious people behind it. It meets the priorities of a powerful mayor. It might be something nice for downtown.

 I think it ought to be given a shot. I think City Council should back it, and I think we should wait and see if promoters can get the donor portion of the money raised.

 Too often, discussion ends up being about what we should have done. I think we should have left Midtown Plaza standing. Some think we should have vied for a casino. Some think we should just declare downtown dead and move on. Some think a new arena is a wiser investment. Some think tax dollars should never be spent to help build a project like this. Some think every ounce of effort downtown cheats the people in the neighborhoods.

 Each of those viewpoints may have merit. But taken together they are an insurmountable road block.

 We’re very good at saying, “No.” We’re very good at finding the fault in a proposal.

 But while no proposal is perfect, this one seems to be pretty good.

 This one seems like it might work.

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