RENOVATING HISTORY -Sibley Square
The exterior of the building remains mostly familiar, but the most dramatic transformation has taken place behind the bricks, away from the public eye. As a result, impressions from the past linger. “From the outside nothing’s changed,” said Ken Greene, director of commercial development for Sibley Square. “But everything has changed.” “That is my greatest challenge,” Greene said. “The challenge when you’re restoring a historic building is that nothing on the outside changes — because you’re restoring a historic building.”
Sibley Square’s own ‘Willy Wonka’
When Greene approached Jodi and Greg Johnson about their possible involvement in the building’s food hall, “to be honest, my first reaction was absolutely not,” said Jodi Johnson. That was in 2019, and she couldn’t imagine the Sibley building as a logical next step for The Cub Room, the couple’s fine dining restaurant in Rochester’s South Wedge. But Greene eventually persuaded them to take a tour. “He ran us through this huge, amazing building with such excitement and enthusiasm,” Jodi Johnson said. “He got us excited. You could feel the stuff he was dreaming.” She grew up in the Rochester area and had heard tales of the downtown’s heyday from her mother and grandmother. The couple had lived in New York City, and enjoyed the energy of an urban environment. And an attractive aspect of opening in The Mercantile was that leases are structured as a percentage of sales rather than a fixed rent. (Winn made that decision prepandemic, and it proved to be a fortuitous approach.) The couple would sign on to open two eateries — Cut and Flour Kitchen — within Mercantile on Main, the bright, spacious food hall that opened in January. They plan to open Rufus Cocktail Bar in February. Being a part of the building’s transformation has been “really a unique experience,” Greg Johnson said. “It’s never been seen in Rochester. It’s exciting to be a part of it.” Jodi Johnson gave Greene the fitting nickname “Willy Wonka” for his ability to make people see a vision of an idyllic, symbiotic community within the building’s brick walls. For the past four years, Greene has been charged with executing the vision of the building’s Bostonbased owner. His duties range from negotiating leases to overseeing construction to handling complaints from tenants. “I have a yearning to create stuff,” Greene said. “This building has been a remarkable palette for me.”
Developing a culture
Eight years and a few months into Winn’s transformation, the building has gone from 70% vacant to 70% redeveloped. It isn’t finished — and it isn’t yet profitable. “We did what we said we were going to do,” said Meade Curtis, Winn’s vice president of development. “We brought it forward in a pretty credible way. It wasn’t easy.” The building’s former office tower has been transformed into a mixed-income, residential high rise. Of its 280 apartments, 20 or so workforce apartments have yet to be leased, Curtis said. These are geared toward “workforce” or middle-income renters, who are making less than $70,000 for a family of two.“We knew that there was demand for apartments, and we knew we were building a first-class asset. That execution went largely according to plan,” Curtis said. But “that’s not the success,” he said. “That’s the starting point for the redevelopment of the rest of the building. That got our foot in the door, and maybe pushing the gas pedal on the rest of the development with confidence.” Now comes the harder part: Filling the remaining 170,000-plus square feet of commercial space. That includes the critical task of filling the ground-floor retail and getting the community to embrace and patronize those businesses. The first floor is now home to the Mercantile on Main, the new food hall, as well as DGX, a small grocery store; The Commissary, a food business incubator; two banks; RIT’s City Art Space; Lifespan; Eastman Dental; Rochester Childfirst Network; and the Rochester Police Department. Three ground level spaces remained to be filled, and Curtis and Greene are quick to tick off their wish list for them. A gym would be ideal. Greene likes the idea of the space that faces the downtown transit center offering a service that meets the needs of people who use public transportation. He has an idea for a brewery incubator with centralized production equipment. “We definitely needed a focused business plan beyond ‘if you build it they will come,’” Curtis explains. The network of tenants, complimentary and somewhat interdependent, each also generate outside traffic. The new tenants “should have symbiotic quality with other businesses in the building,” he said. Greene describes his role as more than just filling space, but instead curating a group of businesses around the themes of innovation, education and incubation. The Mercantile was created as an amenity for people who live and work in the building. But shades of the building’s culture can be found among the entrepreneurs who have recently opened eateries there. Meghesh Pansari, 25, changed his career path change from academia to business owner after a random encounter and a tasty sandwich. One lunchtime, a friend sent him a Snapchat of a great-looking burger being sold from the Palermo’s Foods cart on North Goodman Street near Norton. Hungry, he headed to the cart and started chatting with its personable, charismatic owners: Ramon Arguinzoni, 34; his brother, Wilfredo “Chef Fredo” Arguinzoni, 29; Michael Shoaf, 33; and Erika Rivera, 22. Fueled by social media and word of mouth, it was doing a good business. Inspired by their conversation, Pansari ran home and cooked up a dish he grew up with. Called pav bhaji, it’s an aromatic vegetable curry served with rolls, something like a vegetarian equivalent to a sloppy Joe. “If you go to India, there’s dudes hustling the sandwiches on the side of the road,” he explained. He took it to the Palermo’s cart, and after the owners tasted his sandwich, they urged him to reach out to Greene, as they had just signed on to open an eatery in the food hall. From his home kitchen, Pansari prepared a takeout lunch for decision makers at Sibley Square. Days later Greene texted him, urging him to moved forward and start an LLC. But Pansari’s restaurant experience was limited to pizza delivery; he had studied liberation theology in college and his graduate work was around labor movements. But with support from Greene, the other entrepreneurs involved in the Mercantile and the resources within Sibley Square, he made the transition from home cook to opening his own restaurant. When COVID-19 slowed construction on the food hall, Pansari joined The Commissary, a kitchen incubator founded by Rochester Downtown Development Corp. that drives economic vitality in downtown Rochester. It offers licensed kitchen space, equipment for rental on an hourly basis and a space to hold events like cooking classes and pop-up dinners. Pansari hosted a series of pop-ups — the first in person and the rest takeout through The Commissary’s takeout window. He developed a menu of daily offerings based on customer feedback gathered during those events. Meanwhile, the owners of Palermo’s Market were also gearing up to open. When they needed professional photography, they turned to John Schlia, a photographer in the building. All of the restaurants in Mercantile on Main collaborated with each other on the opening, and together they worked with Dunne Goodwin, a digital marketing agency in the building. Since The Mercantile on Main opened in January, sales have exceeded expectations. Pansari’s kitchen equipment can’t keep up with demand, so he is now using The Commissary to prep on Sundays and to bake homemade bread. “I wouldn’t have done this anywhere else,” Pansari said. And Greene suggests that if the businesses in The Commissary or The Mercantile on Main wanted to package a product for retail sales, they could consult with Ithaca Hummus, which is also in the building. NextCorps, a business incubator that provides entrepreneurs with mentoring, training and resources, as well as ROC Game Dev, which fosters a community of game creators.
Imagining a post-COVID future
Greene estimates he has given more than 500 tours of Sibley Square over the past year. In the first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic, people had a feeling of a “deer in headlights,” he said. But in recent months, people are starting reenvision what office space will look like moving forward With working at home becoming a part of daily life, Greene is hearing that spaces don’t need to be as large. There will be fewer people working in offices, but then again they’ll need to spread out. He’s also hearing, “I’ve learned that I can’t create culture on Zoom. Culture comes from people interacting with people in human form.” While vaccines are being rolled out, he senses that it could be awhile until people feel safe working together again. He is putting his imagination to work on how to create larger gathering spaces that are safe. “We can’t just sit on our hands for the next two years, because business needs to go on,” he said.
Spark for downtown transformation
When the Sibley renovation started eight years ago, Tower280 remained a shell, as construction would not get underway until the following summer. The Metropolitan was still Chase Tower; Gallina Development wouldn’t buy the building for 18 months. Buses and shelters still lined Main Street, as the transit center wouldn’t open for another year. North Clinton and St. Paul were still one-way streets. The sunken Inner Loop was still there, with its closure a year away. Since Winn started renovating Sibley Square, the downtown has made strides toward becoming a more vibrant urban neighborhood. The most obvious evidence: People can be seen walking their dogs in the area. “I think the east side of downtown today is significantly different than it was eight years ago,” Greene said. “I think Sibley’s has had a material impact on that.” He suggests that it took the commitment of Winn to spur other developers to invest in buildings downtown. Maria Furgiuele is executive director of Community Design Center Rochester, a nonprofit organization that focuses on shaping public spaces. She believes that the progress on Sibley Square has been a huge step in the right direction for downtown. “The subdivision of the building is fabulous,” she said. “Building a community in center city is tremendously positive. It’s wonderful to see the city center evolving as a neighborhood.” She said it would be beneficial for the building to have spaces that involve the sidewalk to create an inviting pedestrian experience. “There’s always to make things better,” she said. “This is a great beginning.” Greene can tell the neighborhood has changed because of the nature of the complaints he hears from tenants in the building. Last summer, the biggest complaint was the noise of skateboard rs riding the rail near the Liberty Pole. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘That’s like Pittsford Plaza problems,’” Greene said. “If we as a community have gotten to a place where the noise of the skateboarders are what we’re focused on, we’ve made significant progress in the evolution of downtown Rochester.” But the prospect of a Pittsford Plaza-type environment is exactly what activists like Danielle Ponder fear. Ponder, who is also a musician and a lawyer for the county Public Defender’s Office, points out that Sibley Square and other downtown projects have received millions of dollars of local, state and federal aid, while mostly Black and brown people living a few blocks away continue to struggle to make ends meet. Ponder contends that the transformation of Sibley’s — and downtown in general — was not intended for the area’s current residents, but for mostly white people returning to the city from the suburbs. Some would argue that a vibrant downtown with profitable buildings on the tax roll would bring opportunities to nearby residents. But that trickledown approach doesn’t work, Ponder contends. Sibley Square has made major strides in the past eight years, but there’s still a long way to go. The building is not an island, and for it to thrive, the downtown needs to continue to rebound in a similar fashion. Greene looks across South Clinton Avenue at several unsightly buildings and wonders what can be done about them. And he looks across Main Street at Parcel 5, a city block filled with gravel. The space is a political hot button, with the city government wanting new development and many calling for some kind of a park. “Just plant grass,” Greene says with exasperation. “Enough is enough. Plant grass until you figure it out.” Developer Andy Gallina owns a number of nearby buildings, including The Metropolitan (formerly Chase Tower). He’s not surprised that Sibley Square has not yet turned a profit; The Metropolitan only became profitable in the past 18 months, he said. Gallina sees these projects, also including Tower280 and his planned overhaul of the former Xerox Tower into Innovation Square, as too big to fail. “If I fail at Innovation Square, it will have serious, serious ramifications … not only as a bad reflection on our company but the city,” he said. “There is way too much at stake.” The question remains whether Rochester has the vision to create a downtown that is both thriving and diverse, and brings wealth not only to developers but also to longtime residents who live a few blocks away.