Thinking outside the big box
How Village Gate became the commercial anchor for the Neighborhood of the Arts
In 1982, the Marketplace Mall was set to open in Henrietta, adding a fifth suburban-style indoor shopping mall to the already saturated Rochester market. As the ribbon was cut, and the parking lot began to fill up, one Rochester businessman felt the city was ready for something different. Gary Stern had been inspired by the success stories of historic urban properties turned into mixed-use destinations. Larimer Square in Denver, for instance, was saved from the wrecking ball in 1963 by award-winning preservationist Dana Crawford. The oldest block in Colorado’s capital city was transformed into a lively shopping area from once neglected and abandoned buildings.
“Seeing that really influenced me. Every city has places like this,” he says. “The more I saw, the more I became convinced this model could work in Rochester.”
Stern saw potential along North Goodman Street near the Memorial Art Gallery. Its proximity to downtown and the New York Central Railroad once made this a very attractive neighborhood for industrial businesses like Stecher-Traung Lithograph Corporation. By the early seventies, those businesses had moved out, leaving a noticeable void.
“There was no one on these streets at that time,” Stern recalls. “I would come down here and I wouldn’t see a car or a person walking.”
When the Stecher-Traung building at 274 North Goodman Street went up for sale, Gary knew it was time. He bought it for $1.50 per square foot, a price that reflected the poor condition of the building and the neighborhood.
His company, Stern Properties, would later buy five adjacent buildings, including ones previously owned by Schlegal Manufacturing Company, which made automobile upholstery, and the American Chicle Company, manufacturers of chewing gum. Stern then set out on a mission to identify tenants for 400,000 square feet of empty space.
Stern admits, with no written game plan, finding the right direction for the project was a bit like shooting from the hip. “We knew what we wanted but didn’t know how to get there. We’d try something, and if it worked, great; but if it didn’t, we’d go in another direction.”
One of their first ideas was an attempt to attract big brand-name outlet stores. That turned to be an impossibility for such an unproven location. In need of cash flow, Stern’s company turned the first and second floor into a flea market and began to fill the space with antique shops. This was more successful until the antique market began to dry up. The company changed direction again and started renting out small office and manufacturing space.
Along the way, Stern hired local firm Leighton Design Group, and together they made incremental improvements to the buildings while maintaining much of the architectural and historic integrity. When part of the second floor was removed to create the mall’s interior atrium, for example, the wood flooring, beams, and steel were reused elsewhere.
Stern installed sculptures by local artists in almost every available space on the property. The interior storefronts and offices have been designed to look like works of modern art. From the outside, the buildings still look largely as they did in 1900 when they were built, save for the addition of brightly colored window awnings and a lively paint job.
Today, Village Gate is an exciting hodgepodge of retail, restaurants, offices, and apartments. It’s also become a magnet for creative types, in part due to the eclectic nature of the facility, the abundance of affordable studio spaces, and nearby cultural institutions. A three-by-fifteen-block district along University Avenue contains so many museums, art schools, galleries, and artist studios that, in the mid-nineties, the community officially started calling itself the “Neighborhood of the Arts,” or “NOTA.”
You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate the neighborhood’s relatively new creative vibe. Aaron Metras, former president of the NOTA Business Association, is reminded of the impact the arts community has made here on First Friday, a monthly event when artists and gallery owners open their spaces to the public.
“I walk through some of the hallways here, and I’m like ‘Oh my god. There are literally artists everywhere!’” says Metras, who believes it’s that culture of creativity that gives Village Gate and NOTA their edge.
“It makes it a very relaxing environment. It’s the sort of place where you actually want to stroll around and look at stuff. Who knows what would even be here if the artists weren’t here … if this would still be an empty factory or what?”
Metras also owns Salena’s Mexican Restaurant located on the Village Gate courtyard. His business has grown in tandem with the success of Village Gate, and he says the addition of new restaurants surrounding the recently renovated courtyard has made this a dining destination for the entire city.
“You’ve got Mexican, burgers, pizza, a Brazilian steakhouse, sushi, organic and local fare, and a café and sandwich shop. You can eat here once a week at a different place for two months.
Sean DeChalais owns a picture framing shop and art gallery in the Village Gate called Black Radish Studio. Because of the location and its reputation as a hub of creativity, he’s dreamt of owning an arts business here since he was eighteen.
For the thirty-three-year-old entrepreneur, Village Gate offers something not many other commercial spaces could: he lives in a 1,400-square-foot loft directly above his shop. “Being close to my business makes life really easy for me—and the lofts are really nice here.”
If there’s one thing DeChalais would like to see, it’s the addition of a grocery store. Rochester’s Public Market is a short walk up Goodman Street, and East Avenue Wegmans is not too far away. Still, he says, “Some kind of convenience store in here would be great, even just to be able to pick up something small and quick.”
But even without a grocery store, this part of town is light years ahead of where it was when Gary Stern began with nothing more than an empty building and an idea. Back then, the only people he’d see on the street were pushing shopping carts.
“Now I see people out jogging in the morning and riding their bicycles all the time. That’s a sure sign of progress,” he says.
And while all this was happening, a mall across town in Irondequoit—with big national names and anchor stores—would open and fail. Its third set of owners are struggling to devise a mixed-use plan to revive that dead complex.
In contrast, Village Gate seems to have struck the perfect balance—not all at once or with a master plan but little-by-little through trial and error with the help of the people who live there—the way neighborhoods have always been made.
Funny how it takes a village to raise a village.