BY CHRISTINE CARRIE FIEN
Circular pockmarks where the white paint has peeled to reveal the red brick underneath make the former Westminster Presbyterian Church on West Main Street seem spotty with open sores.
Once undoubtedly a place of celebration and community, the historic church is now seen by some as a blemish on a resurging neighborhood. To others, it’s a historic asset and a prime candidate for a creative new use, such as an indoor mall or west-side performance center.
“We have people who are booking music events at the Memorial Art Gallery who live and work on the west side,” says Dawn Noto, president of the Susan B. Anthony Neighborhood Association. “We’re looking for some kind of community space. We really don’t have a space that’s available for multiple events.”
Marvin Maye, owner of 660 West Main, has proposed tearing down the vacant, 19th century church and an adjoining house to build a Dollar General and two additional commercial spaces on the site. The church is in the Neighbors United neighborhood in southwest Rochester, bordering the Susan B. Anthony Neighborhood and Bulls Head.
Noto says a Dollar General would tarnish the economic resurgence taking place in the area.
“There have been tons of investment and preservation efforts,” she says. “It’s all restoring, preserving — infill that’s sensitive to what’s going on and looks sensitive to what’s going on.”
Noto’s working with neighbors and adjoining neighborhood associations to save the church, including circulating petitions and writing letters to the mayor and City Council.
The fight has gotten a boost from City Hall. Demolishing the church and replacing it with “an undistinguished box building and an expansive parking lot,” would have a significant impact on the character of the neighborhood, says a July 26 letter to Maye from Marcia Barry, the city’s director of planning and zoning.
Maye must complete a thorough environmental review of the potential impacts of his project before the city gives further consideration to the application. The church is a Building of Historic Value in the city: an official designation that increases the requirements Maye must meet before he can move forward.
Neighbors United, Bulls Head, and Susan B. Anthony are all part of a major gateway to downtown. The area has suffered from disinvestment and related issues over the years, but also has a rich cultural history. Susan B. Anthony is the marquee name, obviously, but William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his family lived in what is now known as the Neighbors United neighborhood, and Rochester’s first hospital was built in Bulls Head.
There are also some beautiful, almost-palatial homes along the gateway.
“If they were on East Avenue, these homes are half-a-million dollars,” Noto says. “There’s some gorgeous [homes] right in this pocket here on West Main. If we see commercial development like Dollar General, we’ll lose that residential that’s there.”
And there are a range of projects and preservation efforts under way, completed, or planned. There’s the new Voters Block building on West Main, home rehabs on Madison Street — home to Susan B. — and upcoming rehabs of industrial buildings, including an adaptive reuse of the Volunteers of America building by Buckingham Properties, and DePaul’s conversion of the former Cunningham Carriage Factory into affordable apartments.
And the City of Rochester has made many streetscape improvements, including a new heritage trail and markers, and a walking path.
“It seems to me that it would be shortsighted and counter to these ongoing revitalization efforts to demolish [the church] and replace it with something that may not really serve the community’s needs,” says Caitlin Meives, preservation planner for the Landmark Society of Western New York. “It also seems to me that the church building is marketable. I haven’t been inside, but from the exterior, it doesn’t look too bad. It needs work to be sure but it looks like a manageable rehab. And there are plenty of examples of adaptive use of historic religious buildings.”
Church owner Marvin Maye says no one complaining about his proposal has actually been inside the church. The building has major problems, he says, but he declined to elaborate.
“My thing is, if you’re going to speak on it, speak on it from knowledge,” Maye says. “Don’t just walk outside of the building or look at the paperwork and say, ‘Oh, this building is 140 years old, it would be a shame.’ It’s a shame for it to get in this condition. Don’t sit there and throw stones when you’re just standing on the outside trying to make a point. That’s useless.”
Maye bought the property last year.
A letter to Maye from the city’s Barry puts the cost of restoring the church at approximately $600,000. Rain entering through holes in the church roof has weakened floor joists and caused plaster to fail, the letter says. Vandals have stolen piping, asbestos has been disturbed, and the boiler system is beyond repair, it says.
Maye says he is revamping his application, but he wouldn’t say what changes he plans to make.
He says he has reached out to many possible tenants for the site, but that the location of the neighborhood scares some people away.
“The neighborhood is what it is,” he says. “These people are not coming into the neighborhood to have a gun stuck in their face.”
At least one neighbor does want the church and the house demolished. A woman who declined to give her name says the church is an eyesore and that the Dollar Store would be welcomed.
“It would make the money,” she says. “This would be a good thing for the neighborhood. Bring jobs.”