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Rochester Subway Tunnel To Be Sealed Off By Luxury Apartments

September 8th, 2014

This proposed luxury apartment complex by Morgan Management could permanently close off one of the last remaining entry points to Rochester's old subway tunnel. [IMAGE: Morgan Management]
By Mike Governale

Several years ago the west end of Rochester’s abandoned subway tunnel was filled as part of the Broad Street Improvement Project. Now a planned downtown development could permanently close off one of the last remaining entry points to Rochester’s old subway tunnel. Morgan Management is waiting for approvals to build a five-story luxury apartment complex at Court Street and South Avenue, right smack on top of the subway’s east entrance and the former site of the Court Street subway platform…

An aerial view of the subway entrance and site of proposed apartment complex. [PHOTO: Bing.com]
Although the City of Rochester discourages the public from entering the tunnel, it is currently accessible via an open gate along the Genesee Riverway Trail at South Ave external link (near Woodbury Blvd).

A few other access points exist, but are either too dangerous or too difficult for your average person to use — one way in involves an eight foot drop through the arches of the aqueduct bridge and another involves walking through the pitch dark tunnel from the opposite end of downtown near Nick Tahou’s. With the construction of this apartment complex, the storied subway tunnel (and the awesome graffiti murals it contains) would be effectively sealed off.

With the construction of this apartment complex, the storied subway tunnel (and the awesome graffiti murals it contains) would be effectively sealed off from public view. [IMAGE: Morgan Management]
One well-known local artist I spoke with, Thievin’ Stephen was not happy to learn of the news. “Graffiti artists will find a way in to keep painting,” Stephen said, “but the families and tourists will be lost.”

“There is only one abandoned subway like ours in the country, perhaps the world. Why would anyone in their right mind trade such a strong source of local identity and excitement for a handful of overpriced bedrooms? Downtown Rochester is packed with EMPTY apartments.”

Graffiti in the Rochester subway. [PHOTO: Alex Tong, Flickr]
Rochester has drawn international acclaim for its street art scene – even before the Wall\Therapy project. Just take a drive up North Clinton Avenue and check out the work of Rochester’s FUA krew external link for example.

But, Stephen says the subway walls are still Rochester’s “crown jewel.” He regularly meets people who drive up from NYC and Toronto (among other places) just to see the artwork in our subway and the murals around town. He believes the subway should be used as an urban tourist attraction – to support nearby businesses, not blocked by business.

“The ever changing walls of the abandoned subway, and watching live art, are the most true and genuine sources of entertainment in all of downtown Rochester,” Stephen points out. “Any construction project that blocks access to the subway, or that stifles graffiti within it, will be the same sort of short sighted blunder that led to the decommissioning of the subway in the first place.”

Construction of 124 luxury apartments by Morgan Management could begin early next year, 2015. Although there are a few technical issues and approvals that could hold things up.  [IMAGE: Morgan Management]
Of course, there are still a few technical issues and approvals that need to be worked out before any of this becomes reality. Part of the property (between South Avenue and the project area) is owned by New York State. Because the plan calls for a driveway to traverse it, the State will either need to approve an access point through it, or transfer the land to the developer.

And not all the neighbors are thrilled either. According to one City document I reviewed, Excellus BCBS which owns the building across the street, has expressed concern that this new development would block their views.

Proposed Erie Harbor Promenade connecting the Genesee Riverway Trail with Court Street. [IMAGE: City of Rochester]
Then there’s the issue of public access to the riverfront, and the Erie Harbor Promenade Project external link (a City plan to construct an elevated walkway to connect the Genesee Riverway Trail with Court Street around the back side of Dino BBQ). Either the apartment plans or the promenade plans (or both) would need to be altered to accommodate each other. For example, the elevated walkway as it’s currently planned would block the view of the river from the complex.

All red tape aside, construction could begin early next year, 2015. At that point a big part of Rochester’s identity will be forever changed.

No doubt there will be some debate. But this is nothing new. Cities by their very nature are alive and evolving. Walls go up, walls come down, and layers are built upon layers. In the end someone will decide money and jobs (not art or history) are what’s best for this little pocket of our city.

Still, I can’t help asking myself, “Is nothing sacred?”

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This entry was posted on Monday, September 8th, 2014 at 7:48 am and is filed under Rochester History, Rochester News, Rochester Subway, Train/Railroad Stuff, Transit + Infrastructure, Urban Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “Rochester Subway Tunnel To Be Sealed Off By Luxury Apartments”

  1. ELF says:

    Can’t they fix up the remaining two entrances to the subway?

  2. Renee says:

    The subway tunnels are definitely a unique attraction to our city and it seems to me that saving them (and possibly doing something creative with them like other cities have done) and having new development in the area don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Is there a way to preserve the entrance or use another entrance? And is the developer open to ideas about preserving the access to the subway?

  3. Shawn says:

    The ever-changing walls of the abandoned subway, and watching live art, are the most true and genuine sources of entertainment in all of downtown Rochester,” Stephen points out.


    I’m all in favor of the preservation of the subway but that area of it is currently a large parcel filled with weeds, knee high grass, and crumbling concrete. If it were made into a proper park or green space, that had paid homage to the subway, that would be one thing. But it’s next to one of Rochester’s most famous restaurants (visited by thousands of out-of-towners when they visit every year) and next to one of the busiest 490 entrances in the city. Utilizing that valuable parcel for
    apartments might not be ideal, but as long as they couple it with a continuation of the river trail, I’m all for it.

  4. Martin Edic says:

    There are not a lot of empty apartments downtown- there are practically zero. Why not engineer an entrance beneath Court Street from the Library? That’s where the tunnel really starts. And while they are at it put some stairs in by Blue Cross arena so people don’t climb down an old metal barrier gate. The liability there must be nuts. Don’t get me wrong- I love that space and the art but this project really sits at one end. This piece makes it sound like they’re destroying the whole section.
    All change is not bad. Most of this site is a huge hole in the ground.

  5. Vicki says:

    This building is going to be a jarring contrast to the old train station, where Dinosaur BBQ is.

  6. Denise says:

    Personally I think it is a shame. We have lost so much of our architectural history already. And this time to more over priced housing that the average ro hysteria can’t afford. I was a part of the group that planned a reception in the part over the river. We highlighted the art on the walls and people loved it. It really is sad.

  7. Brian Krall says:

    who do we talk to in order to protest this? And who would like to join with me in petitioning it? Please contact me at [email protected] and put “subway petition” in the subject line.

  8. Urban Explorer says:

    In my view, the graffiti wall (which is pretty amazing) has survived and thrived because of benign neglect by official-dom. The subway is not legally accessible now, although to date the city and state have done little to truly secure the access points. Graffiti artists, their admirers, and in one of the more bizarre and obnoxious spectacles I’ve ever witnessed, the Flour City Hash House Harriers, have managed to find their way in.

    If the city were to “fix up” or formalize the remaining entrances, or create a new one, it have to deal with vastly increased liability, building codes, lighted emergency exits, handicapped accessibility, security, etc. I’m also curious as to whether the graffiti community, which seems to like semi-legal spaces, would still find the subway tunnel an attractive canvas if it were made legal, accessible, well lit, and safe for soccer moms from Chili.

    It’s a real conundrum that I’m not sure there’s a solution to.

  9. Patricia Reed says:

    fixing up that little corner would be nice…a park leading into the unique subway would be great !….but LUXURY apartments ? really ? who would want to live there, with all the traffic and dirty river ? perhaps just a regular apartment building for regular people with a garden area would be the answer…..

  10. Ron Linville says:

    objections : 1) the river front should be MORE open, not less….more PUBLIC, not more PRIVATE 2) we will need that subway track back, as we move back to public transportation; closing t was bad, but understandable in the (illusory) age of Endless Oil 3) before that, there area many uses the bed cold be pt to which would not involve destroying this treasure

  11. Ron Linville says:

    is there a Save the Subway GROUP?

  12. Jim Mayer says:

    I don’t agree with the arguments here. Yes, the graffiti is cool. The flip side of the argument, though, is:

    (1) The entrance, especially at night, looks like a crumbling ruin. It’s a bit better now that the city has cleaned it up a bit, but I used to find it quite intimidating, especially at night.

    (2) In conjunction with the 490 overpass, it creates a barrier between the Genesee Riverway trail and downtown. By the way, the trail is the only decent way to walk downtown from the South Wedge.

    (3) Give me a break about Excellus BCBS. Look at the #!$@% fortress wall they built at street level on South. That’s one of the worst pieces of urban design ever.

    (4) I don’t see the impact (either way) from the Erie Harbor Promenade project. That’s going to be very low compared to the building.

    (5) In conjunction with the developments near Capron Street, a residential development here stands a chance of activating another pocket of life in the downtown area.

    The only concern I also came up in Viki’s comment. The Dinosaur is one of the few spots of late night activity downtown outside of the East End, and the proposed development is large compared to the old railroad station the Dinosaur is in. I’d like to see some analysis and some good renderings of how the buildings will look together.

  13. patsy6 says:

    My thoughts exactly, Urban Explorer.

  14. Jim, the conflict with the Erie Harbor Promenade was explained to me by the Zoning office. The walkway will rise up to street level before it reaches Court Street. I don’t have an illustration of it, but there’s something about the elevation of the first level of this building that doesn’t quite match up. It’s not a huge deal. I’m just pointing to some of the issues still to be ironed out.

  15. John Smith says:

    A Small High Rise like this… http://imgur.com/PVKRVNm would be better than that, nice views and more people!

    As for transportation… the city should one day explore a PRT System…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1rf_lOb3b0

    In a city with the WORST driving conditions in the nation! A alternative form of transportation connecting Downtown to U of R to RIT would be a great asset. I don’t get what’s wrong with people in this city they’ll whine about brushing snow off their cars and getting their car wrecked during the winter… but they’ll push back against any attempt at better transit….

    We need to do start taking risks… otherwise were going to end up like a company that was too afraid to take risks… (Eastman Kodak).

  16. Matthew Denker says:

    So I am very interested in this project, but I think the article and the comments miss some key points.

    First – this building, to my understanding, is not sealing the interest in the way the tunnel fill-in at the other end did. Indeed, one of the reasons construction hasn’t started sooner is to work out the engineering to maintain access to the subway ROW for county vehicles. The lover level (trackbed) will be used for parking for the building. The developer could, in the future, be worked with to provide some kind of public access.

    Second – Downtown Rochester has incredibly high occupancy for the apartments there. The vacancy rate is under 5%, which means that of the 2,800 apartments downtown, there are only 140 empty ones. Clearly there is some serious demand.

    Third – While I share some concerns with what this building might mean for Dinosaur, I believe the renderings to be particularly unfair to Dinosaur in the background. This is done to accentuate this building. In fact, I am not so sure this building will be much taller.

    Fourth – This is a great opportunity to work with the developer on some small, but crucial, public improvements in the area. Building sidewalk on South Ave, improving the lighting under 490, and potentially painting some murals down there would go a long way towards repairing the connection between this part of downtown and the South Wedge.

    I like the idea of alternate designs, although I think if a tower of any size were to go on this site, it should be set to the south end of the site away from Dinosaur. In some ways, it is surprising that this site is being developed before a few others that seem notably more valuable, but this site does benefit from the investments coming over at Capron and the other buildings there.

  17. Bob says:

    I’m with Jim Mayer on Excellus! What about all the poor pedestrians on South Avenue who have been forced to look at THEIR soulless mono-culture of a building?

    Knock a few doors in the facade and add some sort of customer service component on the ground floor and then we’ll talk about their views!

  18. Martin Edic says:

    As is usual with a lot of these comment threads, many seem to be written by people who have not actually spent much time downtown. Matthew is correct about the vacancy rate- it is very low and the demand will only increase as more retail and entertainment development takes place. Right now the Woodbury Place (former Merkel Donohue space) is being quickly developed, spurred on by GEVA leasing 13-15 units for actors and crew. This is directly across from the Morgan project site. The Morgan site is prime waterfront downtown space and, unlike Corn Hill Landing, the waterfront retail space will have sunset views.
    Given that the Midtown site is one block away and will have a variety of development including a potential multiplex theater and grocery along with restaurants, this are will be extremely desirable for both residents and businesses. It may very well be a major destination downtown.
    And BTW, the river is not ugly- a very good friend of mine has a loft in Capron with river views and it is beautiful. I’m tired of Rochesterians talking about our water assets as though they were polluted cesspools…try actually looking for yourself!

  19. Urban Explorer says:


    In general agreement with your points but the first floor retail space will not have waterfront views. It is only a small part of the first floor and will face north and east, towards Court Street and South Avenue. There will be a solid wall and building servicing areas behind it. The rest of the first floor will be a covered vehicular drop off loop (liable to feel “cave like” to pedestrians on the adjacent South Avenue sidewalk, not unlike the Hyatt), lobby, residents lounge, etc.

    I’m not concerned about the proximity to Dinosaur BBQ from an architectural standpoint for two reasons:

    A: Cities are made more interesting by having a juxtaposition of styles

    B: Dinosaur itself has done quite a bit to mess up the lovely little Lehigh Valley RR Station building with it’s outdoor cookers, rusty windmill, and other assorted honky-tonk bric-a-brac.

    I’m more concerned about the proximity from an odor issue. Do residents of luxury apartment really want bbq smoke and smells wafting into their bedroom windows at 8AM?

  20. The sole purpose of this article was to point out the change in access to the subway – not to promote or oppose the development. I leave that for everyone else to debate.

    Having said that, access to this subway entrance WILL be blocked off to the public. City staff were clear about this when I spoke with them. Access will be for City, RG&E, and County/Library employees/contractors/workers. Access will be provided via two sets of locked overhead garage doors which can be seen in the plan view shown in the above article (labeled with a red arrow as “old subway entrance / truck drive”).

    No provisions for public access are in the works, nor is there any talk of this for the future.

    Moving on, any reference to downtown occupancy/vacancy was anecdotally mentioned by those interviewed for the story. According to RDDC, market-rate rental vacancy rate is 4.9% (and 96% of all downtown residential space is rental) and demand is growing. That’s pretty good. Though I do believe Thievin’ Stephen may be thinking of OVERALL floorspace, including office/commercial/retail. The downtown commercial market is weak right now with vacancy hovering around 20% or more. Soooo, the question which maybe should be asked is: Might it be better to convert some of the surplus of office/commercial space into residential space before building new residential buildings? But again, I’m truly indifferent about this particular development. I just offer this as another perspective.

    With this story I’m really just reporting on a few issues which the news media will never dive into. Access to the old subway tunnel? Who cares?! Well, when the name of your website is RochesterSubway.com, that’s a story you’re obligated to cover 😉

  21. Jim Mayer says:

    Mike, with a name like RochesterSubway.com you’re certainly entitled! That said, the article felt to me like an “anti” piece. Perhaps I haven’t recovered from reading the Charlotte development comments yet 🙂

  22. Jim Mayer says:

    Martin, thanks for bringing up the river.

    My wife and I live at Erie Harbor, which is on the Genesee just upstream from Court Street. The river is beautiful. It changes with the wind, with the time of day, and with the seasons. We see ducks, geese, seagulls, herons, egrets, and cormorants. We see and hear the racing shells practice in the morning. We see carp jumping during their spawning rituals. In the winter, the pack ice turns the river three-dimensional. In the spring, the river is swollen and fast moving… we see whole trees floating downriver! This time of year, the river is calmer and on a windless evening glassy smooth.

    Because I row racing shells as well as watch them (http://www.geneseerowingclub.com), I’m on the water at least three times a week and get to see it up close. This time of year the trees are just starting to turn; within a few weeks the view of the shoreline from the river will be amazing. Right now it’s just beautiful, especially in the morning or early evening when the light comes in at an angle.

    The Genesee River is wonderfully alive. It’s one of Rochester’s great treasures.

  23. Doug says:

    I remember maybe 25 years ago my father took me and my brothers into the subway. I’ve been meaning to go back for some time.

    How safe is it down there? Should I take a buddy?

  24. Renee says:

    Doug, the City is offering tours of the subway tunnel on Oct 4 as part of the River Romance Tour weekend (Mike posted a link to it on the Rochester Subway Facebook page).

  25. Doug says:

    Cool, thanks!

  26. Tim Thomas says:

    It would be a shame, but completely understandable, to block off public access.

    I’ve been down there a number of times admiring the art, most recently this evening bringing my daughter and a friend down there to take photos for a class she is taking.

    Will a litigious society, I’m surprised that the entrance by Dinosaur is still open. That section has lots of crumbling structures, and once inside there are (or were) open manholes.

    I’d love to see this preserved, but I’m not sure how that can be done.

    I’ve visited most of the Wall\Therapy sites in town and that’s another great way to see similar sort of art.

  27. In case you missed this story last week on WROC, they interviewed Mike Governale, Thievin’ Stephen, and one of the City’s engineers…

  28. Jimmy says:

    Everyone completely overlooked the problem of how the homeless will be able to access the tunnel.

  29. Christopher Playford says:

    And so now it begins. The access road that led to the Lehigh Valley RR yard has been torn down. I assume none of the boxes, hardware and so on that once held the electric line had been preserved.
    Would have rather seen the road fixed up and area developed into a historical park.

  30. Sarah says:

    It’s neat to see the original concept compared to how it turned out: https://www.dgabuilders.com/downtown-rochester-apartment-new-construction

    I believe there is still access to the subway via a path that goes under the building somewhat and along the river retainer wall.

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