June 28, 2006 News & Opinion » Featured story

North Clinton rising 

A stalled ethnic market gains momentum

North Clinton Avenue|Rochester development|

North Clinton rising

A stalled ethnic market gains momentum

Albert Algarin is talking about a marriage. We are walking along North Clinton Avenue, as we do almost every Friday. Algarin, who's due for knee surgery the next week, uses a crutch to support his weight. The pale sun hangs overhead. Somewhere nearby, a radio plays a Latin pop song. A woman dances on her stoop --- a sexy, soulful dance.

North Clinton Avenue, says Algarin, is like a bride, "a bride waiting for her groom." The groom, he says, is La Marqueta. It's a colloquial word: marqueta. Spanish street talk, says Algarin, for marketplace. It's more than that, though. It's a hybrid word, a reflection, perhaps, of the immigrant experience. Or maybe that's a stretch.

But so, then, is Marqueta: a proposed Hispanic marketplace in the heart of Rochester's inner city. The land for the project is a barren field. A plastic bag bobs in the wind and catches in the weeds. Nearby, along one of North Clinton's many side streets, glass shards and drug needles lie in the grass. Someone's ripped the siding off a house, now boarded up and marked for demolition.

But for Algarin, president of the North Clinton Avenue Business Association and former Northeast Rochester resident, there's gold beneath this dirt. It glistens. See, he says. He's pointing to a clothing store painted orange, yellow, and purple. Across the street, an Asian woman cranks an old lever to open the gate to her restaurant. Toddlers from North Clinton's BethesdaChildDevelopmentCenter walk hand-in-hand toward Borinquen Bakery.

This, says Algarin, is what North Clinton is all about: color, festivity, passion.

What it is not about is implied. It is not about the decay. It is not about the crime, the arson, the gunshots in the night. Wipe North Clinton clean, says Algarin, and you have not just a Latino hub, but an international one. Look at the Yemenese clothing-store owner, the Eastern European butcher on the corner, the new soul-food restaurant chef serving up plates of chitlins and collard greens. Look at these merchants, he says, and you begin to see what the area can be.

Remove the roof at Marketplace Mallin Henrietta,add a few street vendors, novelty shops, grass, flowers, benches, an open-air café, and maybe a church, and you can envision something close to a placita. These Latino marketplaces often serve not just as shopping areas but also as town centers. They are places where people congregate to eat, shop, or just pass the time.

Rethinking retail, however, is a difficult task --- especially in a climate as frigid and fickle as Rochester's. But if recreating the placita in its entirety would be difficult in the northeastern United States, creating a hybrid of sorts may be possible. At least that's what city officials hope.

The city addressed ways to clean up North Clinton Avenue between Upper Falls Boulevard and Avenue D --- often referred to as La Avenida --- in its 2000 revitalization plan. Among the ideas was La Marqueta, a retail complex on a vacant city-owned parcel in the 800 block of North Clinton Avenue.

Using DeWolff Partnership Architects as their project consultant, city officials envisioned a glass-encased building fronted by an outdoor plaza with tiled walkways, gardens, and a fountain. Five years later, those renderings have been scrapped, but plans for La Marqueta are moving forward.

Larry Glazer of Buckingham Properties has agreed to buy and develop the land. His was the only firm willing to take the risk. Among the biggest developers in the city, Glazer's projects include successful mixed-use buildings on University Avenue and a conversion of the Artcraft Optical building downtown. He also recently bought the former GeneseeHospital on Alexander Street.

Glazer describes Marqueta as a strip mall with a Hispanic touch. It will be colorful, he says, and certain façade elements will reflect Latino architecture. If his description sounds vague, it is. "I don't want to promise something that I can't deliver," says Glazer, who submitted preliminary design plans to the city earlier this month. What he does say, though, is that he would like to build a two-story complex, with 20,000 square feet of retail on the first floor and 10,000 square feet of office space on the second.

Plans for the second floor, though, are tentative. Glazer says there's a need for basic services in the area, such as doctor's offices and counseling centers, but he's not sure he can attract tenants. "We can't build it and hope they will come," he says.

A controversial part of Glazer plan is a parking lot in front of the site, which eliminates the outdoor plaza. "It has been proven over and over and over again that when you have retail, you must have parking in the front, because you can't have two entrances in the store," says Glazer. "They can't guard two storefronts. This is the reality of what the market will accept."

The city's deputy commissioner of economic development, Phil Banks, says he was disappointed to see the plans putting a parking lot in front of the building. But he says it's also important not to create a building that limits retail potential, especially in such a high-risk area. "Even though I didn't like it, I had to understand where he was coming from," says Banks. "He's the developer, and there are other designs aspects that I found very attractive."

Banks says Glazer will have to justify his proposal to a project-review committee composed of city officials and private architects. That committee will also determine what elements of the plan run counter to zoning requirements and what variances Glazer would need.

Banks stresses that the city remains committed to creating a noticeably ethnic marketplace. "It's got to be something different for it to work," he says.

Stalling progress currently, though, are not Glazer's design plans for Marqueta, but neighboringbuildings that he believes will discourage people from shopping there. Of particular concern, he says, is a needle exchange site.

"How am I possibly going to bring good tenants in when I have a needle exchange there?" Glazer asks. The needle exchange will move to another location in the area, and the city, says Banks, is working through the condemnation process needed to demolish the building. But that takes time.

Glazer also wants to demolish a neighboring building housing a Chinese restaurant and a couple of houses behind Marqueta. It's impossible, he says, to break ground on the project until those demolitions are completed. Glazer says he doubts work will begin until at least the spring of next year. He hopes, he says, to hold public forums for people to view and discuss his design plans sometime this fall.

Glazer's hesitation underscores perhaps the project's biggest challenge: its surroundings. The risks associated with Marqueta, Glazer and other proponents acknowledge, are impossible to ignore. "Impediments to North Clinton Avenue's commercial success include high vacancies, deteriorated buildings, sporadic retail blocks, and serious criminal activity, including drugs," city analysts wrote in their 2000 study.

Those problems are particularly prevalent in the neighborhoods bordering North Clinton Avenue. Many houses here are boarded up and covered in graffiti. Looters have broken windows and stolen vinyl siding. Police Captain Mark Case, who often joins Algarin's Friday walks, advises people to wear thick-soled shoes to avoid getting stuck by heroin needles. A huge challenge, says Algarin, will be to convince people to shop in an area showing such decay.

For all the neighborhood's difficulties, though, city analysts found that several factors make Marqueta economically feasible. Rochester, like many areas around the country, has seen a surge in its Latino population. According to the 2000 Census, Rochester was 13 percent Latino, and many of them are concentrated in the city's northeast quadrant. More than 40 percent of the people living around the Marqueta site are Latino, according to the city's 2000 economic analysis of North Clinton.

The same analysis also determined that approximately half of the occupied storefronts in the area had recognizable Latino names or carried many Latino-specific products. But North Clinton Avenue has more than just a Latino draw, researchers found. With between 12,000 and almost 20,000 cars driving through the area every day, North Clinton remains one of Rochester's most heavily traveled arteries.

"Only major roads such as Ridge Road, Lake Avenue, and the expressways have higher traffic counts," researchers wrote. Moreover, only about half of the residents in the area own a car, compared to more than 75 percent citywide. "Local residents will walk up to half a mile for weekly shopping needs," researchers wrote.

Finally, the researchers quoted a 1999 study by Hunter Interests, Inc., which determined that northeast Rochester can support up to 80,000 square feet of additional retail space.

Look at those numbers! exclaims Gladys Santiago, vice president of City Council and Council's only Hispanic member. We're sitting in a diner on Culver Road.

There's a bite to Santiago's voice. Marqueta is the primary reason she ran for office 12 years ago, she says. Northeast Rochester is also the area Santiago calls home. "Latinos, a lot of them ended up on Clinton Avenue," she says. "We were one of those families. So my dad put a store up, a grocery store, sold all those products that he used to get from New York."

Various groups, says Santiago, have been trying to revitalize North Clinton Avenue for a quarter century. Originally, Latino leaders hoped simply to clean up the street --- which has been accomplished to some extent through small-business improvement grants. Many stores have received coats of fresh paint, and Algarin's business association recently secured enough funds to place more than 25 planters along North Clinton.

But Marqueta has stalled. North Clinton's residents, says Santiago, not only deserve Marqueta, they need it. Just look at the Tops at the Upper Falls Boulevard-North Clinton intersection, she says: "It's packed. It's packed, for God's sake. If it was bigger, you know the business it would be making!"

Many, like Santiago and Algarin, point to an East Coast Hispanic marketplace as indicative of Marqueta's commercial potential. Hartford, Connecticut, first opened El Mercado 17 years ago. Since then, says Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, one of the project's earliest proponents and New England's first Latino mayor, the strip has become the city's ethnic hub.

Like North Clinton Avenue, says Perez, Mercado's commercial strip was riddled with crime. It had drugs. It had gangs. It had murders. Now, he says, crime in the area has declined. And Latinos from across the region visit Mercado to shop and eat both inside and outside the complex. Mercado and its surroundings, says Perez, do better business than Hartford's center city.

Much of the area's success, he says, can be attributed to Hartford's Spanish American Merchants Association. Similar to Algarin and his efforts with the North Clinton Avenue Business Association, SAMA leaders worked tirelessly to clean up their commercial district. They too walked the street, got rid of loiterers, and gained the trust of area business owners. Now, says Algarin, businesses pay up to $30,000 to put the SAMA logo on their advertisements --- money that goes into growing Mercado.

Hartford city officials are looking to build a high-end retail and housing complex next to Mercado, says Perez. The area surrounding Mercado is still poor, he says, and his hope is that a mixed-income project of this nature will elevate the area economically as well as draw non-Latinos into Hartford's inner city.

Mercado, however,has one distinct advantage over Marqueta: the Mercado area is more than 90 percent Latino. The North Clinton area is less than half that.

But that alone, say Marqueta's proponents, doesn't erase the similarities. Moreover, says Daisy Rivera Algarin, a bilingual marketing specialist for the city and Albert Algarin's wife, businesses on North Clinton have a history of evolving to suit their clientele --- which includes Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Asians, and Eastern Europeans. "It's interesting to watch the menus," she says, noting for example: "If you go to Wang's Chinese, you can get Chinese food and Puerto Rican tostones."

Instead of referring to Marqueta as a Latino marketplace, says Albert Algarin, it might be better to think of it as an international market with a Latino feel. Non-Latino merchants in the area say they appreciate that Marqueta might have room for them, as well. "We need a store for us," says Fahd Abdulsalam, a Yemenese immigrant and manager at His & Hers Apparel on North Clinton. Given the opportunity, Abdulsalam would like to open a boutique inside the Marqueta complex.

And Glazer says he would like to see a mix of small mom-and-pop stores and larger franchises. "Just because it's a Latino or black neighborhood doesn't mean that they don't need basic services that everybody uses everywhere," he says.

The city's economic development officials originally thought that "people would come from Pittsford and all over to shop there," says Glazer. "I said, 'I don't think so.'" Marqueta may eventually have a regional draw, he says, but the immediate goal should be to create a self-sustaining marketplace.

Most hope, however, that Marqueta will eventuallyattract a wider audience. Marqueta, says City Councilmember Ben Douglas, cannot exist in isolation. Not only should it reduce blight and crime in the immediate area, but it should spread growth outward, south toward downtown and north toward Irondequoit. Whereas Algarin sees Avenida as the bride and Marqueta as the groom, Douglas says: "If La Avenida is the bride, the groom is the entire community that surrounds that area. Because the bride cannot make that marriage all by herself."

Marqueta can replicate Mercado's success, Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez says, if the city and the North Clinton Avenue Business Association remain committed to the project. "It has to be an investment that continues to get leveraged," he says. "You can't just do one move and hope that that will finish it."

Time, says Angelo Caraballo, the North Clinton Avenue Business Association's community liaison, is one thing he and Algarin understand. Caraballo calls his commitment to the North Clinton area his "15-year plan."

Changes are already happening, says Algarin. When he began walking North Clinton Avenue's business strip once a week in 2002, the situation there was "rough," he says. "I saw a lot of debris. I saw boarded-up houses in the business strip. I saw a lot of hangouts," he says.

Now, says Algarin, there appears to be a small resurgence in commercial activity, and storefront loiterers have become less visible. Caraballo points to the third story of a building. That, he says, is where merchants asked police to hide out and watch for drug exchanges. The targeted business has since closed shop.

Algarin recognizes, though, that there are a lot of different voices and visions surrounding La Marqueta. But he says deep down just about everybody involved in the project wants the same basic things. They want, he says, to build a marketplace for those already living in the North Clinton area, and they want to create a marketplace that people --- both inside and outside the city --- look to as the ethnic center of Rochester.

"We're here because we're seriously committed to building this neighborhood," he says.

He's cleaning up North Clinton Avenue, Algarin says, for tomorrow's generation: "Those kids are living in the neighborhood that I lived in. If I can leave a better neighborhood for them, then they'll leave a better neighborhood for the next generation and the next generation."

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