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Vision alternatives for downtown riverfront continues to weigh options for former Legends site

Potential development will likely require partnership with private developer who shares city vision for land.

Former Legends Bar
The former Legends Bar building on Monday, May 16, 2022, along the South Fork of the Zumbro River in downtown Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — The future of the former Red Owl and Time Theater buildings continue to be discussed as potential visions for 2.5 acres of city-owned property west of the Zumbro River emerge.

The buildings that have been slated for demolition in the past are now being considered for reuse under one of two possible options presented to the Rochester City Council on Monday.

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“This would be an all-season space unlike anything that exists in Rochester,” city consultant David Gamble, a principal of Boston-based Gamble Associates, told the council as he related an option that would keep the portions of the buildings facing Fourth Street Southeast in place.

The proposal would remove rear sections of the combined building that most recently housed Legends Bar and Grill and expose the current basement level to create a potential sunken indoor garden and entertainment venue along the river.

The indoor section of the remaining building could then be adapted for use by small businesses in a variety of ways.

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While the plan would allow improved engagement with local small businesses by renting space to small vendors or other users, Gamble said it would limit public access to the river, since the trail between the existing building and the riverfront is narrow.

As an option to improve access to the river, the city’s consultants presented a proposed multi-level overlook that would connect the riverfront to existing skyways and provide greater access for people with mobility challenges.

Gamble said the removal of the former Red Owl and Time Theater buildings would also allow the city to better embrace the site’s earlier heritage, which is connected to mill operations that once existed along the river. Historic structures connected to milling have been covered by existing uses.

However, he said private commercial use at the site would be limited with the option, since it would be more costly to build new space.

“The development potential on the site for the Red Owl and Time Theater is fairly compromised due to being squeezed between alley and river,” he said. “It would be very expensive to build new.”

Council members said they want to keep the city’s options open, but a majority voiced support for maintaining a portion of the former grocery store and movie theater.

“I was one of the ones that originally voted to demolish this building, but I’m really pleased with how this process turned out with working with the community to identify middle ground that keeps some construction waste out of our landfill, as well as keep some of the connection to our history through our spaces,” Council President Brooke Carlson said.

Council member Mark Bransford said he feels the option to save portions of the buildings also has the greatest potential for community activity. While a river overlook might draw people, he said it would be limited.

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He said reusing the space for an entertainment venue and a potential covered garden could generate continued activity.

“It is a fun place to go that would bring people back again and again,” he said.

Gamble said the one challenge for either option would likely be finding partners to share the vision with the city.

“There are unknowns still to work through,” he said.

A small-area plan doesn’t seek to outline specifically what will be built on the site, but it defines options for development based on a defined vision.

In the case of the city-owned land west of the Zumbro River, the council has more direct control on what it is likely to be built, since a sale for development will require its approval.

“The city has a great deal of control here, because this is prime real estate,” Gamble said, noting the area around the Legends site could be developed with land north of it for a mix of public and private uses.

That control could be heightened by looking for a single private developer to partner with efforts to create public and private space on the west side of the river, as well as on three acres of city property currently dominated by parking across the river to the south of Mayo Park.

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Gamble said that property between the river and Fourth Street Southeast would likely attract developers interested in commercial uses on the street side of the development while maintaining public access to the riverfront at the north.

He said it all comes together to create options as the small-area plan is developed with the intention for adoption by the end of June.

“The city is in the driver’s seat here,” Gamble said, pointing to growing development interest and the potential for public-private partnerships to find uses for the city-owned properties.


What happened: The Rochester City Council received an update on the development of a small-area plan for city-owned property west of the Zumbro River, between Second and Fourth streets.

Why does this matter: A small-area plan creates a vision for what could be developed in a defined area, so the city would likely seek a development partner that would use some space for private development while also creating public amenities.

What's next: The council expects to review the final plan by early July.


Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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