As the Rochester Zoning Board of Appeals reviews the Genesee Brewing Company’s application for a zoning variance so that they can tear down two of three historic landmarks on their property at Cataract Street in our city, let’s do the same and review the situation here.
In this aerial photo, the building they will be reusing for their tasting room and visitors center, 25 Cataract Street, is to the left of the footbridge (once the Platt Street Bridge, now called the Pont de Rennes, in honor of a Rochester Sister City) on the eastern banks of the Genesee River. The landmark buildings they propose to demolish are to the right of the bridge, in that triangle of land against St. Paul Street that is part building and part parking lot.
The best of the landmarks is 13 Cataract Street – that’s the one casting the longer shadow in this image. (Scroll down to see our earlier blog entries showing all these buildings, if you’d like). It dates from the late 1880s, and was designed by the noted brewery architect A. C. Wagner (also the architect for the Stegmaier Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, thankfully preserved and reused, and now on the National Register of Historic Places).
The other building, 7 Cataract Street, is a two-story masonry construction built in the early 20th century. It was the bottling house.
Okay. Now since the Genesee proposal went public, there has been an outcry from some local residents here that goes like this:
“It’s their property. They can do what they want – let them tear it down. If you historical fanatics want to save these buildings, then why don’t you buy them?”
Two important facts refute this kind of rubbish.
First, we did buy them, in a way. All of us citizens.
When the NYC equity firm called KPS purchased Genesee Brewing in 2009, the City of Rochester gave them over $9 million in forgiven loans, water bills and taxes. Around Genesee Brewing, KPS created the North American Brewing Company, now the 8th largest brewery in the country. We’re glad for all their success, and all the jobs saved and created, but we do have more than a bit of skin in their game.
And second, there is a little thing called the law. In Rochester, in order to destroy buildings designated of historic value, an applicant must meet certain standards. This applicant fails to meet these standards. Here’s why.
Section 120-195B(4)(b)of the Rochester Zoning Ordinance says:
(b) An area variance shall be granted only if the applicant establishes the existence of each of the following conditions:
 Benefits. The benefit to the applicant if the variance is granted outweighs the detriment to the health, safety and welfare of the neighborhood or community by such grant.
No problem here, since the applicant gets the benefits and we get, well, nothing. There will be no neighborhood left when they are done. Fail.
 Essential character of the area. No undesirable change will be produced in the character of the neighborhood or a detriment to nearby properties will be created by the granting of the area variance.
You decide this one. Would you call removing the neighborhood undesirable? Would you call a giant empty parking lot a detriment? Would you call losing two landmark buildings in favor of – nothing – an undesirable change? Fail.
 No other remedy. The benefit sought by the applicant cannot be achieved by some method feasible for the applicant to pursue, other than the area variance.
As we heard during the ZBA hearing on this matter, there are many other remedies still available. Some of them are being pursued even now. The applicant could yet: work out some kind of a deal for the buildings; stabilize the buildings for reuse as their success continues to brew; donate the buildings to a variety of interested groups. Too soon to tell about possible remedies. Fail.
 Significance. The requested area variance is not substantial.
Seems pretty substantial. Fail.
 Physical and environmental conditions. The proposed variance will not have an adverse effect or impact on the physical or environmental conditions in the neighborhood or district.
Look at the aerial image of the neighborhood or district. Imagine the physical environment without the landmarks, and with more parking spaces. We hold certain truths as self-evident. Fail.
 Not self-created. The alleged difficulty was not self-created, the consideration of which shall be relevant to the decision of the Board of Appeals but shall not necessarily preclude the granting of the area variance.
When KPS bought Genesee Brewing, they knew that the buildings were designated as of historic value. They had been left uncared for, and after their purchase they continued to be uncared for. Now we hear that they are in such a deteriorated condition that they must be destroyed (this is patently untrue, by the way). Can’t have it both ways, brewery guys. Either you could have solved this “difficulty” by caring for the buildings, or you can solve this difficulty now by caring for these buildings. But if they are too deteriorated to save, exactly who else could have created that problem? Fail.
So there are six standards under our law by which to test any desire to demolish the Cataract Street neighborhood. The applicant fails to meet all six standards.