The path to Chateau’s future use starts now

April 2, 2019

Five proposals are being reviewed for operation of Rochester’s historic Chateau Theatre for the next three to five years.

How the downtown theater will be used beyond that remains to be determined.

Since the city closed on the purchase of the empty former theater-turned-bookstore in 2016, it has been considered a focal point for Destination Medical Center’s Heart of the City subdistrict.

“Our community is poised for greatness in the Heart of the City, and you will see that come forward in the next couple years, and Chateau will be an extremely important part of that,” said Lisa Clarke, executive director of the DMC Economic Development Agency.

Even before the city finalized the deal, it was making plans for potential next steps, focusing on elected officials’ vow to make it a community asset.

“We feel this building really belongs to the community, so we will be looking for purposes that really open it up and make it very available to the community as a whole,” Rochester City Council President Randy Staver said when the planned purchase was announced.

Unsettled plans

The planning effort led to the creation of the Chateau Theater Reuse Task Force, which ultimately put forward a $23 million renovation plan to create a performing arts theater that could also serve as a ballroom or banquet space. Under the proposal, the main floor would have the option of tilting to create stadium seating or remaining flat for tables.

While the Rochester City Council approved the $147,000 contract with Miller Dunwiddie Architecture, which produced the plan approved by the task force, the council has yet to vote on a long-term plan for the theater.

A potential vote on the proposal was delayed amid discussions of nearby development, which includes the Wells Fargo Bank building renovations being done by Ryan Companies, as well as the continued unknown plans for the former Michaels Restaurant and adjacent parking structure.

At the time, city and DMC officials noted construction plans could reduce costs or point to modifications related to Chateau Theatre efforts.

With that in mind, finding an interim use was suggested, which required the current renovations to make the building accessible to the public. The changes do little to modify the interior for future uses beyond removing the escalator and most of the second floor, as well as upgrading restrooms.

Rochester Deputy City Administrator Aaron Parrish said doing more isn’t an option right now, based on budget constraints.

“We don’t have the partners or the resources to fulfill the overall vision that was laid out in the task force’s report,” he said.

Seeking a partner

While much — if not all — of the reconstruction for a long-term use could come from state DMC funds, the cost of operating the venue would fall on the city. Proposals have indicated annual operating expenses could be nearly $700,000 a year.

Additionally, Parrish said, the DMCC board and City Council have indicated a desire to find a way to reduce the construction costs.

One option would use tax credits dedicated to preserving historical structures. Those credits, however, aren’t directly available to the city, since they are only provided to private developers.

“That’s where it becomes imperative for us to find the right development partner, who is willing to own the property for the tax-credit period and likely turn that back to public ownership,” Parrish said.

While some potential partners are said to be waiting in the wings, Parrish said it’s important that the city take cautious steps to ensure the right development partner is in place.

Additionally, he has noted that the state DMC funds are not in place at this point.

While the state plans to provide up to $128 million in funds for public DMC projects and spaces, the first funds — $2.6 million — were released in 2017. Additional funds will be released each year based on the amount of private investment made in the DMC district.

Parrish noted the state funds are being divided among a variety of projects underway in the district, from street and sewer upgrades to designing new public spaces. It means that access to the public funds needed to renovate the Chateau could be years off.

Patrick Seeb, the DMC EDA’s director of economic development and placemaking, said that’s why the interim use is crucial.

He said it will generate greater public interest in the building, while also serving as a test for the potential market.

He said it’s a step in achieving the task force goal.

“Conceptually, I think we are implementing the task force proposal,” he said. Seeb was a member of the former task force and a supporter of creating a performance space that can be used for other purposes.

“The value in the task force outlining that concept, I think, has been extraordinarily helpful,” he said, adding: “The pathway to get to the version that Miller Dunwiddie designed starts with this initial activation.”