When Calvin Ruthven’s controversial — and what some viewed as counter-intuitive — plan was unveiled to save a long-vacant building on one of the Geneva’s most dynamic streets by ripping a good portion of it down, lots of merchants came to bat for the real estate professional.
They said his plan to tear down the second floor of the building at 29 Linden St. as part of a redevelopment project to create two drinking establishments was the last, best hope for the building, which had been vacant for three decades.
They also were impressed by Ruthven’s plan to invest more than $200,000 in the project, seeing it as another win for trendy Linden Street, which has evolved into an avenue of restaurants and drinking establishments — and outdoor street gatherings in the warmer months.
However, not all merchants were convinced that Ruthven could pull it off, including Sophie Paillard-Elkin of the Linden Street events venue Left Bank. She said the building needed to be preserved as is and claimed that she had a group willing to buy it and “put a vibrant business in there.”
However, the city Planning Board, which at one point also was skeptical of Ruthven’s redevelopment pitch, ultimately gave its blessing, paving the way for him to schedule the demo work as the first phase of his redevelopment plans.
He never delivered.
The damaged second floor was removed, but little else, despite Ruthven claiming in November of last year in the Finger Lakes Times that his project was still on track.
Fast-forward two months, and there was Ruthven before City Council, telling them that no contractor would touch the project, explaining that a full demo, not redevelopment, was his only option.
While Ruthven deserves a good portion of blame for this debacle, it’s not all on him.
Excited about the prospect of a long-vacant building being revitalized and hearing merchants go to bat for him, the city didn’t press Ruthven hard on his qualifications for such a project, his financial backing, or whether he had a contractor commitment.
The fact that he told the city nearly two years later — and after the building was already ripped apart — that “no contractor would touch it” suggests he had no business tackling such a difficult project.
The prospects for a happy ending to this episode are dim. It appears the best we can hope for is that the building’s facade be saved, and Ruthven is apparently open to that idea.
Developer Dave Linger said Linden Street merchants and building owners, of which he is one, were duped by Ruthven. “We got sold a bill of goods,” Linger told City Council.
The city may have been as well.
The government has encouraged entrepreneurial risk-takers, and they are the driving force behind the growing energy — and investment — in downtown Geneva.
But that risk-taking requires some good old-fashioned due diligence as well.
Opponents of another ambitious project, the redevelopment of Trinity Episcopal Church on South Main Street into an events center, restaurant and inn, claim that the city has failed to do such due diligence for that project, which would have possibly greater implications, given its scope.
For Trinity, there’s still time for the city to get it right. That means making a decision to approve or deny the rezoning request needed to make the project a reality after asking all the hard questions.
Because once you get started, it’s pretty hard to go back.
Just look at 29 Linden St.