Chafoulias' legacy is 'more than just buildings'
Visionary developer Gus Chafoulias created many of the most prominent buildings in Rochester, but people close to his say his true legacy is how he helped and mentored others.
Friends and family say Gus Chafoulias ’ legacy is much more than the many buildings he created that changed Rochester’s downtown. They say his greatest legacy is the people he touched and helped.
“People don’t know how many lives he touched ... people from all walks of the life,” said his son Andy Chafoulias. “It was so remarkable, and he did it with such sincerity.”
Longtime Rochester developer Gus Chafoulias, known for his prominent projects like the downtown Centerplace Galleria Mall , the first renovation of the Historic Chateau Theatre and the recent construction of the Hilton Hotel , died on Friday night at the age of 85 from pulmonary fibrosis. He is said to have driven the creation of about 50 Rochester buildings.
Andy Chafoulias, CEO of Titan Development & Investments, stepped into the leading role of the family’s projects in recent years, while working closely with his father. He said working with his father was incredible.
“He was more than my father. He was truly my best friend,” he said.
Many of the personal things Chafoulias did for people were never made public, like the news of his many prominent development projects. There were always quiet stories of him forgiving rent payments until a store could get on its feet, or giving a young entrepreneur free office space to start a business.
Retired restaurateur Jeff Eastman , who managed the Centerplace Galleria mall for 18 years, remembers Chafoulias as more than a boss.
“He actually is the man who saved my life. He and others met with me one day, and he asked, 'Do you know why we’re here?' ” Eastman said. “I said, ‘You probably want me to quit drinking. He said, 'I’m here, because I care.' ”
With Chafoulias’ help, he underwent rehab and recovered. Later, Chafoulias helped Eastman start his first restaurant, Salad Bros. He says he studied at “University of Chafoulias business school.”
“He was quite a guy. He gave a lot of people a break — money, encouragement or a kick in the pants, when they needed it. He was always encouraging you to be successful,” Eastman said.
Joe Powers, owner of the Canadian Honker Restaurant and Powers Ventures, said he was another of Chafoulias’ "students."
“I was fortunate enough to have him as a mentor at age of 20, and at 21, I opened the Honker. I couldn’t have done without him,” he said. “It wasn’t financially — it was his wisdom, his words … that’s how he helped … He helped so many people start businesses in this community.”
Mark Steege, president of Titan, worked with Chafoulias for many years.
“What I will remember most about Gus was not just the buildings, but the caring, sincere person that he was. His heartfelt appreciation and generosity for his many employees and acquaintances over the years exuded great admiration for a great man,” Steege wrote of his friend.
While Chafoulias had a lot of success, everyone agrees that he worked for it, every day. And that work was his great joy.
“He could outwork anybody. He was a hard, hard-working person,” Powers said. “He always said, ‘I might not be able to outthink the other guy, but I can outwork him.’ ”
Eastman said, “He was always the first one in the office, and the last one to leave.”
Much of that work was about driving his vision for Rochester as it grew.
Chafoulias’ vision for Rochester helped shape the city from his first major project — Park Towers on North Broadway — in 1973, to leading the way in the Destination Medical Center initiative with the luxury Hilton hotel at Broadway and Center in 2019.
His son pointed out that creation of Rochester’s now-iconic downtown skyways in the late 1980s was the work of his father.
“I called him the ‘Skyway Renegade,’ " the younger Chafoulias said. “I’m really proud of him to have that kind of vision in a small town, at the time, to create the skyways."
Not every vision of his came to pass. Chafoulias was a proponent of light rail transportation within the city to connect the airport to downtown and downtown to the Saint Marys Hospital area. While that didn’t happen as he hoped, the train tunnel under the parking ramp connected to the Hilton Hotel on First Avenue Southeast looks very similar to the early drawings of his plans from the early 2000s.
He also proposed a very ambitious $200 million plan in 1999-2000 called Time Square to be built at Broadway and First Street Southeast. When city and Mayo Clinic support for the plan was pulled as the development took longer than expected, the project faded away. At the time, Chafoulias called it "the single biggest disappointment of my career."
Broadway Plaza, the tallest building in downtown, was later built on part of the proposed site.
Powers suggests that the city just wasn’t ready for Chafoulias’ plan ... yet.
“His vision was ahead of most in the community. I frankly think his Time Square project was an early DMC, before Destination Medical Center even came to our community,” he said. “His vision was spectacular. He not only had the dream, but he would invest in it, too.”
Andy Chafoulias hopes to be able to continue that legacy, while also working on projects across the country.
“Rochester is very important to our family going back to the 1920s (when Gus' father, Andrew Chafoulias, started building downtown)," he said, "and Rochester will remain very important to our family."