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Farewell to Midtown Plaza

The top Rochester event of 2007, already noted, was that Mr. Jones died, the same Mr. Jones from the Bob Dylan song. Rochester's daily paper, the Democrat and Chronicle, announced the sad news with the November 13th headline Bob Dylan Muse, RIT Professor Dies at 63, so that, scanning the paper quickly (which is the only way to read the D & C) your first impression is that Bob Dylan is the one who died. This is deliberate; the aim is to hook readers with a Dylan reference. Far from condemning the tactic, I tried it myself with my “top 2007 events” post, and am even feebly trying it again now. I'm not hopeful, though. It didn't work then. Why should it work now?

But other things happened last year as well, the most striking also involving a death, this time not of a person, but of a landmark. Midtown Plaza is due for the wrecking ball. Up and coming Paetec said they would build their new headquarters building exactly where the Plaza sits, if only someone else (city and state) would demolish it. Of course, these guys fell all over themselves to agree. It’s a dream come true. City fathers talk it up as a key step in revitalizing downtown. They may be right. Hard luck Midtown Plaza sits smack dab ground zero at the center of downtown Rochester. It’s a magnet turned the wrong way, repelling efforts to develop anywhere near it. Yet nobody's been able to justify the astronomical cost of removing it, laden with asbestos and God knows what else, without viable plans to do something with the space.

It wasn’t always this way. Once Rochester’s crown jewel, it was envisioned when planners flew over the city, saw tall buildings with parking lots in between, and thought how cool it would be to enclose the lots and put stores and stuff inside. So Midtown Plaza is actually six connected buildings, though you'd never know that from inside. It opened in 1962 and is still billed as America’s first indoor urban shopping mall. It followed by only four years America’s first indoor suburban mall, the kind that are a dime a dozen today in any American community. Both firsts were designed by the same architect, Austrian refugee (1938) Victor David Gruen, who retained his love for Midtown but became disillusioned with how the suburban malls turned out, claiming they had "bastardized" his concept of community center. Midtown Plaza was closer to his heart, combining business, leisure and retail, a town square of sorts.

In 1962, you still got dressed up to go downtown....yes...even with suitcoat and tie....and the new Plaza was a sensation, attracting international notice. A highlight was the Clock of the Nations, which featured 12 nations, one for each hour. When the Swiss hour struck....say it was 3....Swiss music would play and the "3" cabinet door would slide open so that little Swiss figurines could dance and prance about. It all seems pretty cheesy today, but it wasn't then. Santa would show up every Christmas season, and a kid's monorail would circle from behind his throne through an artificial mountain and run the mall's perimeter. We always put our kids on it.

That was then. Today, the anchor department stores that originally commissioned the plaza have long gone. It’s about 90% empty, little more than a stale food court really, a shortcut to pass through as you head elsewhere, the interior hopelessly dated. Easily it has earned its spoton deadmalls.com. You can even hear about it from NPR here.

Always there are people who reminisce, reactionaries who keep insisting that Midtown Plaza should be restored and rededicated to arts, shopping, residential, anything. But they've been saying that for years, throughout its decline. Where have they personally been all this time? Had they aligned their feet with their mouths, Midtown might not have become the ghost town it is today. Some Italians visited a while back and wanted to transform the whole place into an Italian villa [!], but they got cold feet. Everybody does when it’s on their dime. And wasn’t Wal-Mart looking at the site at one time? Or was that just rumor? What a city statement that would be, for the town square to be a Wal-Mart! No, Midtown's glory days have come and gone, so down it goes to make way for Paetec.

PAETEC Holding Corp. is an up and coming telecommunications company presently headquartered in Fairport, one of the suburbs. Their announcement to relocate in the heart of the city is not the first interest they’ve shown in Rochester. Their name adorns the new soccer stadium, where the minor league Rochester Rhinos play. Paetec Park, my visiting nephew assures me, outclasses many major league stadiums.

The last monorail ride at Midtown Plaza was  Dec 24, 2007. A city-sponsored tribute to the mall took place December 1rst. Thousands showed up, just like in the mall's heyday.

Comments

Leslie

Thanks for your kind comment. Glad you liked the post, and Midtown.

Awake In Rochester

Midtown use to be THE place to go during Christmas time. As a kid my mother use to shop there, and I got to whisper in Santa's ear what I wanted for Christmas. It's a shame they won't try to revive it. Downtown isn't what it use to be.

tom sheepandgoats

No it's not. But nothing else is, either. Hopefully the new proposals will work out. There are some attractions to the city, even relatively close by. And an increasing (though still small) number of folks who choose to live downtown.

Bob Williams

Tom,

Great article. I recently wrote one myself weighing all the pros and cons of this proposal. Originally I was 100% against it, however having read a few urban case studies since, this may be the way to go. Anyway, you are right about attractions in the city. I am putting in an offer on a townhouse in the city this afternoon. Really hope it goes through!

-Bob

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