Case Study

The Sibley Building in Rochester, NY

7 min read

City Within a City Finishing Final Phases 

With the opening of a third phase of housing and a giant marketplace and food court modeled on Boston’s historic Fanueil Hall and New York’s Chelsea Market, an epic mixed-income, mixed-use historic development is nearing completion in Rochester, NY, after 12 years of creative and complicated work.

The Sibley Building, a vast, 1.1 million-square-foot property  in downtown Rochester, already has three separate housing developments finished, according to Mike Binette, managing principal of The Architectural Team (TAT), which has partnered with WinnDevelopment on the giant deal since Winn bought the building in 2009.

Binette says he isn’t at liberty to give details on the new potential residential construction, but, even without it, 350,000 square feet of housing has been built at the old department store, which at one time was the biggest store in the United States between Macy’s in New York and Marshall Field’s in Chicago. The third housing unit, the Lofts at Sibley, opened in August of 2020 and is now fully leased up.

“They really turned out extraordinarily well,” Binette says of the apartments, which have affordability at nearly every income range across the three phases.

The property has a long history (see separate story), and in a historical footnote, part of the land the Sibley Building was built on was once owned by abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

With the food court, the housing, a University of Rochester technology incubator called NextCorps, offices and a huge amount of retail space, the Sibley Building is a project where the frequently heard description of “a city within a city” isn’t an exaggeration. The first phase of construction alone was estimated at $100 million by local media, with a total estimated development cost around $200 million.

The building also contains the only grocery store in downtown Rochester.

Binette says the Sibley was the biggest single-building project Boston-based TAT has worked on. It required a lot of innovative thinking on the financing (hugely complicated) and the lawyering (such as the multiple condominiums established for the different phases, with two separate condos just for the last housing completion).

“We’re close to finished,” he says. The food court (called Mercantile on Main, opened in September 2021) is “a resounding success” and has been anointed by local media as “a cool place to be.”

Meade Curtis, vice president at WinnDevelopment, says about 100,000 square feet remain to be leased at the property, with most of the ground-floor retail spaces leased.

“WinnDevelopment takes pride in taking on challenging, complex development properties that are critical for communities,” he says, noting that for Winn, too, this is the biggest single-building project the developer has taken on.

Limiting the Seating
“It’s successful even in the midst of COVID,” Binette says, “which is really what is remarkable.” Mercantile on Main has limited the amount of seating open to the public during the pandemic to 20 percent. It includes kiosks, a “central production” kitchen, five restaurants, a market bar and a “performance” kitchen for local chefs “to show off their work while they’re working.”

“It’s operating in many ways like a public market,” Binette says. “You have a variety of guys opening up their shops in their own little box.”

“By structuring the building as separate condominiums, we were able to bifurcate the project into separately financeable components,” notes Curtis.

Overall, with its big assortment of interior offerings, the Sibley Building “really does lend itself to quarantining in style,” Binette says. Its function as an ad-hoc “Everything Building” mirrors what the old department store used to be.

“There’s nothing you couldn’t get there,” says Binette. “A clean shave, a malted milk, anything.” He marvels that the central kitchen serving all the food venues in the department building comes to 20,000 square feet. In addition to the store itself, many professional people had offices in the Tower unit, which has now been transformed into housing.

Curtis also notes the “everything” features of the building and says since the inception of the pandemic Winn has been “very focused on the health and safety of residents.” With all the developments there, a resident “can live upstairs, have a good job and have a good time” without ever leaving the building.

All the original entrances to the department store have been kept, so each housing component has its own identity, and the elevator banks from the original building have been similarly kept to serve the various parts of the building.

At 12,000 square feet, the food court is an impressive space with a six-floor atrium and Art Deco-detailed escalators that go all the way to the top floor, a nod to the design of old-time department stores (Macy’s in New York still features escalators like this).

NextCorps, the University of Rochester incubator, “has a variety of different startups they nurture and help grow,” says Binette. A second college had space in the building but has since departed.

Continuity of Execution
Binette says WinnDevelopment, based in Boston on City Hall Plaza, is a longtime partner of TAT’s. “We’re joined at the hip,” he says. “There’s been a lot of continuity on how to execute each of the pieces within the whole and stay in compliance with National Park Service standards.”

Adam Stein, executive vice president at WinnDevelopment, briefed members of the National Housing & Rehabilitation Association on the progress of the now-completed 104-unit Lofts at Sibley at an annual meeting of the NH&RA. (Fifty-three of the units are LIHTC and 51 workforce.)

He says total development costs on just that one component came to $30.4 million. Not only did the housing require a separate condominium as the food court did, it actually had two since it was designed for two separate kinds of housing (all the condominium arrangements, a total of ten, at the Sibley Building had to be approved by the state Attorney General).

Stein told NH&RA $15.8 million went to the Low Income Housing Tax Credit deal, while $14.6 million constructed the workforce housing. While the area median incomes differed on the LIHTC and the workforce units, they were “equitably dispersed” in the completed project.

The Lofts at Sibley, on the third to fifth floors of the building join two previous housing developments within the building, Spectra, 104 units of market-rate housing, and Landmark, 72 units of affordable senior housing. Those two took up the “tower” space on the seventh through 12th floors.

“It’s a building for everyone,” says Curtis. “The residential phases include housing affordable at every income level from the 55+ seniors’ affordable phase, to the workforce housing in Lofts to market rate and 80 percent Area Median Income (AMI) restricted housing in Spectra. I think that truly makes it a unique project in the country.”

The Lofts were financed with four percent LIHTCs, Historic Tax Credits, City of Rochester funds, money from the state-funded Restore New York and New York Housing Finance Agency subordinate financing, he says.

Bank of America was the sole investor on the tax credits, both LIHTCs and HTCs. PNC was also a lender on the overall project, says Curtis. Other financing sources include Opportunity Zone investment, New Markets Tax Credits, Empire State Development Corp., Rochester Gas & Electric and the city of Rochester.

Store of the Century
The Sibley Building in Rochester, NY wasn’t always 1.1 million square feet. According to the, when it was started in 1868 by Rufus A. Sibley, Alexander M. Lindsay and John Curr, it was a modest 4,000 square feet. But it grew quickly.

By 1869, the store had doubled in size, with both wholesale (upper floors) and retail units (lower floors). It expanded to a neighboring building in 1880 and built a new building in 1890. In 1893, a large “Granite Building” was opened that contained 195,000 square feet of selling space.

Eventually the store took over an entire block of Downtown Rochester. It suffered a setback in 1904 with an extensive fire but was rebuilt and added to again in 1911 and 1926.

For its centennial, the store was named (possibly by itself) as “Upstate New York’s Store of the Century.”

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.