Searching for Community From Thirty Stories of Brutalism

by Bill Ball

When Xerox built the tallest building in Rochester, NY in 1967, it poured and then sandblasted thirty stark stories of exposed aggregate to anchor an imposingly gray headquarters complex covering almost a city block. It then promptly moved its HQ to Connecticut two years later and continued to scale back its presence at the Rochester building until finally completely moving out of the facility 2018. The Rochester central business district was left with a complex of over a half-million square feet of virtually empty office space, out-buildings (including a large auditorium), and extensive underground parking that dominate the immediate neighborhood as well as the skyline. Xerox’s declining presence mirrored the City of Rochester’s population trend, which declined from a high of 330,000 in 1950 to 205,000 in 2019 (although the population decline has slowed dramatically in recent years). Xerox Square had the potential to be the biggest of more than one largely empty office complexes in downtown with few prospects, especially once the pandemic closed in.

Into this void stepped local company Gallina Development Corporation with a bold plan for such a soft market. Having successfully redeveloped a smaller nearby office tower into a mixed-use venue, Gallina purchased the Xerox Square complex in 2020 and convened a group of leaders from several nearby colleges and universities to get their input on creating what the company has named “Innovation Square,” to feature a mix of student apartments, corporate tenants, retail, and amenities with better connections to the neighborhood. The former corporate headquarters is already becoming a mixture of campus style housing with amenities open to advanced undergraduate and graduate students from several institutions on the one hand, and corporate offices where the students will have access to internships and co-ops on the other. The first group of 150 students will move in for Fall 2021, growing to a total of 500 residents in subsequent academic years. Leasing to corporate and retail occupants is happening almost simultaneously.

Creating a campus (minus a resident university) and a sense of community in this setting is daunting. The complex was designed as a mid-century daytime workplace for a single company. Although the tower is tall, each floor plate is relatively small. Community space will need to focus on the street-level. The tower sits on a mostly wall-lined concrete and stone plaza designed to keep the neighborhood at arm’s length and to survive Rochester’s harsh winters. The only previous community spaces, including a skating rink reminiscent of Rockefeller Center’s, are hidden in the sunken interior of the plaza and have long since fallen into disuse. Looking outward, community gathering places are currently sparse. There are some restaurants in the neighborhood, although only one or two that would typically appeal to students in terms of hours and pricing. Other residential blocks are few, and grocery stores fewer, in the vicinity. Most of the future inhabitants of Innovation Square are likely to be students of Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), a large, self-contained, residential campus about a fifteen-minute drive away in suburban Henrietta. The change of neighborhood context for these students will be dramatic. 

From the neighborhood point of view, it is significant that although there are other commuter campuses in downtown Rochester, Innovation Square will be the only residential one. When filled, it will increase the population of its immediate neighborhood by 50%. Like the students who will be arriving, current residents are in overwhelmingly non-family households in rental accommodations. However, they are much older and more diverse, poorer, and with substantially lower educational achievement than the students likely to move in to the neighborhood. A great potential is being created to facilitate creating connections between future and existing inhabitants.

The developer is building in opportunities for student community and learning on the campus through lounges, dining, fitness and other recreational space in the out buildings and sunken courtyard. To open connections outward to the neighborhood the streetscape of the square is being greatly greened and softened, morphing from domination by walls and steps to a primary entrance that is greener and gently sloped for ease of pedestrian and vehicle access. More dramatically, the main entrance to the complex is being relocated from a standoffish formal lobby around a corner. The new entrance will welcome all traffic right through the future (and more colorful) heart of the campus without encountering obstacles to flow. A street-facing restaurant is under development and a street-facing urgent care facility is under consideration. Outdoor public event space with associated retail is planned. One of the largest bridges to the outside community on the campus may end up being the 700+ seat auditorium, created as a venue for corporate meetings, reimagined to include ticketed events ranging from traditional performing arts to esports competitions.

Although a purely commercial project, students are being included in guiding the development of Innovation Square from the beginning. Great Lakes Gaming (GLG), founded by current RIT student Ben Garvey is working with Gallina to develop a floor of the tower as a gaming lounge and has been asked to participate the development of esports events. Garvey is enthusiastic about community building for his audience: “with high-end gaming equipment and a dedicated space, the video gaming community in Rochester is finally receiving a location in downtown to relax, play and compete.” For the current semester Kelly Jahn’s interior design class at RIT has been refocused to develop design concepts for the lounge facility. As she notes “both the GLG Lounge and Innovation Square are new project concepts for Rochester, and share a vision for building community through education, technology, and innovation.” This collaboration has already paid dividends for her students, with one being hired by the developer as an intern and a second, a deaf student, invited by Gallina to consult on designing spaces to better accommodate the deaf and hard of hearing.

The project also has a role to play in the broader context of the future of the central business district. In addition to the planned 500 residential students the project will bring many workers back to the core of Rochester’s downtown. Moreover, Innovation Square is situated within a 15 minute walk radius from most of Rochester’s primary business, civic, and cultural venues, as well as its most dramatic section of waterfront. Other pockets of creative revitalization are in progress within the same radius, including a large residential coworking redevelopment on the Genesee River, a mixed income apartment complex led by the Strong Museum of Play (of all things), improved trail access to view the dramatic 100 foot drop of High Falls, and continuing removal of the Inner Loop, a downtown beltway that cut through residential neighborhoods. If solid community connections can be made that assure the sustainability of the effort, the Innovation Square project will improve the prospects for downtown Rochester via its living/learning environment. Evan Gallina certainly sees Innovation Square as a key player: “our goal with this project to provide a dense student population in our center city in an effort to grow our economic ecosystem.”

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