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Eastman House wants another shot at vets club


A proposed apartment complex and a lingering dispute may keep the Eastman House from getting land the house director says is necessary for future expansion of the national historic landmark — one of two in the City of Rochester. (The other is the Susan B. Anthony house).

Morgan Management has a contract with Monroe Voiture 111, a veterans' organization, to purchase 933 University Avenue to build an apartment complex. Monroe Voiture owns the club, but several community groups use it as a meeting place.

Morgan originally proposed building a four story, 110-unit apartment complex with a 118-space first-floor parking garage and a 3,400 square foot veterans' clubhouse for Monroe Voiture. Morgan is revising the plans, however, after complaints by neighbors and neighborhood groups about the size, design, and other aspects of the project.

"It's kind of too early to talk about, but we feel that the project will fit much better with the revisions that we're making," says Kevin Morgan, vice president with Morgan Management.

The property is adjacent to the Eastman House and house director Bruce Barnes says the proposed apartment complex would damage the aesthetic of the Eastman property and hurt its value.

"It would very, very dramatically affect what people would see," he says. "It's only 20 feet from the property line, there are a number of trees they'd have to cut down. I think any apartment building that you would put there would be very jarring [and] would be a problem for us, frankly."

"The most important thing to us is that we don't want someone to ruin the view from our national historic landmark property," Barnes says.

But Kevin Morgan says the real reason Eastman officials are upset is because they failed to acquire the Monroe Voiture property when they had the chance.

"From what the Eastman House has told us, they want the property for themselves regardless of what we do," Morgan says. "They've admitted that they were sleeping at the switch. Unfortunately, now we're caught in the middle of that. They're going to oppose anything we do."

The Eastman properties and Monroe Voiture 111 are in the East Avenue Preservation District, which means the Morgan proposal has to get the approval of the city's Preservation Board. The board had one fact-finding meeting on the proposal in January. Kevin Morgan says revised plans will likely be in front of the Preservation Board in March.

Barnes says the Eastman House came close to a deal with Monroe Voiture about three years ago, but it didn't come together.

"We let it slip away," he says. "We didn't handle the situation quite the way we should have."

Major expansion on Eastman's current property would most likely be prohibited, Barnes says, because of the historic status of Eastman's house and grounds. So it's logical, he says, to look to the Monroe Voiture property as potential growth space. Eastman could use the property for classrooms, a small dorm, storage, laboratories, or other purposes, Barnes says.

"We're going to need more space soon," he says. "We're close to out of space."

Morgan's purchase of 933 University is contingent on getting the required approvals from the city for the apartment project. If the project doesn't go through, Morgan can walk away. If that happens, Barnes says the Eastman House would like to step in.

"I am optimistic that, in the event the deal with Morgan Management is terminated, the Monroe Voiture and George Eastman House would be able to reach a mutual acceptable arrangement under which the Monroe Voiture property would be transferred to George Eastman House, which would assure that the clubhouse would be well-maintained into the future," wrote Barnes in a follow-up e-mail.

But that might not be easy. Rene Vanmulem, club manager of Monroe Voiture 111, says Eastman officials wanted to "lock up" the Monroe Voiture property for 20 years in case they decided they wanted to use it, Vanmulem says, while offering Monroe Voiture little in return. The offer was an "insult," he says, and quite different than what club members expected based on its discussions with Eastman officials.

"Needless to say, our board of directors was not born yesterday and told them we were not in the least bit interested," Vanmulem says. "There's been no further discussion with the Eastman House since that time as far as them purchasing the property."

Barnes, who was not with the Eastman House when the discussions with Monroe Voiture took place, says the club was offered long-term maintenance of its clubhouse as part of the deal, but the duration was unsatisfactory to Monroe Voiture's board.

If the Morgan project is approved, Monroe Voiture will get a new clubhouse out of the deal. That's important, Vanmulem says, because the current building is old and maintenance is difficult for the membership.

"It's above and beyond our means," he says. "So when the [Morgan] opportunity came along, it was too good for us to pass up."

Vanmulem says he agrees that Morgan's initial designs were "pretty bland" and the project would have not provided a good backdrop to the Eastman property, "but given some time and the proper rendering, I think they can make the project work."

If the Morgan deal falls through, Monroe Voiture might consider discussions with the Eastman House, Vanmulem says, but it's by no means a done deal.

"They would very honestly be coming to us on our terms, not on theirs," he says. "We're going to be in the driver's seat, so to speak."

Those terms haven't been discussed, Vanmulem says, but they would be "substantial" and would likely include cash and repairs to the Monroe Voiture building.

And there might be options beyond Morgan Management or the Eastman House, he says. Since the Morgan proposal was made public, other organizations have come forward with interest in the Monroe Voiture property, Vanmulem says.

"There could be other choices at this point," he says.