The Rise and Fall of Midtown Plaza Mall in Rochester, NY

The Birth of Midtown Plaza

In the heart of Rochester, New York, a grand vision took shape in the late 1950s. The Midtown Plaza venture was announced with great fanfare in January 1958.

During that period, the trend of strip plazas was on the rise, and the future of Downtown Rochester seemed uncertain. Two forward-thinking entrepreneurs, Gilbert J.C. McCurdy, and Maurice F. Forman, were determined to address this concern. They developed an indoor shopping center, a concept that would revolutionize urban spaces.

A celebrated architect, Victor Gruen was the creative mind behind Midtown Plaza, officially dedicated on April 10, 1962. More than just a shopping center, it was the first indoor mall in a downtown area in the United States.

1963

Gruen intended to create a pedestrian-friendly town square for Rochester, a medium-sized city near the mouth of the Genesee River. He incorporated art, benches, fountains, a four-hundred-seat auditorium, and a sidewalk cafe into his plans.

The opening of Midtown Plaza marked a significant milestone, drawing the eyes of the world to Rochester. Urban planners and city officials from various countries were drawn to witness Victor Gruen’s innovative response to the urban challenges of the mid-20th century.

The design excellence of Midtown was recognized with multiple awards, and its grand opening even made a feature on NBC-TV’s Huntley-Brinkley Report. It was more than a mall; it symbolized urban renewal and innovation.

The Golden Years

The early years of Midtown Plaza were marked by economic vibrancy and a center of retail activity for its region. It was a place where people gathered, shopped, and socialized.

The upscale hotel and restaurant, the Top Of The Plaza, became a cultural hub, hosting performances by jazz legends like Count Basie and Buddy Rich. It was a place of elegance, excitement, and community connection.

2007

Gruen’s vision for Midtown Plaza was about commerce and creating a space that encouraged social intermingling and the enriching essence of urban life.

The aerial view of Rochester, described by Gruen as a giant parking lot, was transformed into a lively town square. Midtown Plaza became a symbol of what urban spaces could be, and it continued to hold high regard in Gruen’s eyes throughout his life.

However, as with all golden eras, changes were on the horizon. The 1980s brought challenges as suburban shopping malls began opening outside the city. The region’s population increasingly spread outward from the city center into suburban and rural areas. Midtown Plaza, once a beacon of urban innovation, began to feel the pressure of changing times.

Decline and Struggles

The decline of Midtown Plaza was gradual but inevitable. Surrounded by pockets of poverty, it struggled to keep tenants. The once-thriving hub began to show signs of wear and tear. In 1994, the closure of the mall’s two mainstays, McCurdy’s and Forman’s, signaled the beginning of challenging times, followed by the shutting down of the Midtown branch of Wegmans Food Markets, a well-known regional grocery chain.

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The difficulties for Midtown escalated during the late-1990s. Once hailed as a beacon of New Urbanism, the Plaza found itself on the 2002 Empire Zones list, and its reputation shifted to that of a poignant symbol of the encroaching suburban sprawl. The once-vibrant space became a shadow of its former self, filled with downscale clothing stores, a dollar store, and a few jewelry stores.

Despite the decline, the food court remained full during its final years, serving workers from nearby offices. The community still gathered there, but the magic of the early years was fading.

The announcement on October 16, 2007, that Midtown Plaza would be demolished marked the end of an era. The community braced for change, and a tribute to Midtown attracted thousands to “a magical event” – the final Christmas season.

Closure and Demolition

The final Christmas season at Midtown Plaza in 2007 was a poignant one. A 40-foot Douglas Fir was donated to the mall, and the Monorail operated every Christmas season, had its last run on December 24, 2007. The mall’s closure on July 29, 2008, was met with mixed emotions. Some businesses relocated, while others closed their doors for good.

Demolition work began on unoccupied portions of the building complex, and the last occupant, the Adirondack Transit Lines intercity bus station, closed on November 3, 2009. The once-bustling space was now quiet, awaiting a new future.

The process of tearing down Midtown Plaza commenced on September 27, 2010, marking a significant moment in the history of Rochester’s urban landscape. The community watched as a piece of their history was torn down. Mayor Robert Duffy announced that the site would be ready to construct new developments. The memories of Midtown Plaza lingered, but the physical structure was gone.

Reconstruction and Redevelopment

The space that once housed Midtown Plaza did not remain empty for long. Reconstruction and redevelopment began, transforming the area into a mixed-use residential and commercial space.

The high-rise tower section was stripped and prepared for conversion, eventually becoming Tower 280 At Midtown. The Seneca Building was remodeled and opened as an office building for Windstream in 2013.

New constructions like the Democrat and Chronicle Building and the Butler/Till Building added to the landscape. The area was modernized, with new sidewalks, traffic signals, and a common place called Midtown Commons. The three-level parking garage was fully updated and repaired, serving the new buildings on the site.

Plans for Parcel 5 included proposals for a performing arts center, and after much debate and changes, a modified proposal was chosen. Other entertainment venues like the Kansas City Power & Light District and Canalside in Buffalo also inspired the area.

Legacy and Cultural Impact

Midtown Plaza’s legacy is not confined to its physical structure. It lives on in the memories of those who visited, shopped, and socialized there. The Clock of Nations, designed by Gere Kavanaugh, remains a well-known piece of art, representing 12 nations with unique puppetry.

The influence of Midtown Plaza on urban planning and architecture continues to be felt. It pioneered creating spaces that were about shopping, community, and connection. Its rise, decline, and transformation tell a story that resonates with many urban areas nationwide.

The redevelopment of the area is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of Rochester. The new buildings, businesses, and public spaces carry forward the spirit of innovation that marked the birth of Midtown Plaza. It’s a reminder that change is constant, but the essence of community endures.

Conclusion

Midtown Plaza’s journey reflects the broader story of urban development, cultural shifts, and community resilience. From its inception as a groundbreaking urban mall to its decline and eventual demolition, Midtown Plaza has left an indelible mark on Rochester’s landscape.

Its reconstruction and redevelopment symbolize the city’s ability to adapt and innovate. The memories of Midtown Plaza continue to evoke nostalgia, while the new developments inspire hope and excitement for the future.

The story of Midtown Plaza is not just about a building; it’s about the people who gathered there, the memories they created, and the legacy they left behind. It’s a story that continues to unfold, a story that is intrinsically tied to the heart and soul of Rochester, New York.

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