Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Our Commercial Building Quest Continues

Over the weekend we met up with our realtor and toured yet another building that might be the future home of our Period Historic Interior design center, antique shop and gallery. Today's post chronicles my impressions of our 'quest'.

Saturday was warmer than the usual January day. We left the Knox Hill project house and made the quick trip over the viaduct to OTR. I wondered what it was like 138 years ago when the owner of our home made the couple of hours carriage trip across Mill Creek Valley to go into town. The valley was mostly farmland back then. We were a little early so we swung by Findlay first. The North lot was full (as always) but we found a spot in south lot and quickly made our way in to the deli counter. Findlay was packed (as always) with a mix of locals and 'suburbanites' who were showing how "forward thinking" they were to go into "that neighborhood". We picked up a couple of pounds of Pastrami , headed back to the Jeep and off we went to our appointment.

We left the relative "civility " of Findlay Market to go to a part of OTR those suburbanites would not tread (at least not yet). We spotted our realtor's SUV and pulled up behind. We were well aware that our arrival caused some wary glances from the several drug dealers who populate this intersection. The prostitute pretending to wait for the bus was on her cell phone and quickly moving across and down the street.
This is the OTR that suburbia thinks all of OTR is. The business in this business district was the illegal kind. The only 'legitimate business' a corner variety store where the 'street merchants' could buy cigarettes and get a brief respite from the January air. It is a snapshot in time, a' pre riot" street where life goes on much as it did back then. Except there are no more stores. No more wig shops and barbers, and clothing stores. Those building stand silent. Long condemned they sit quietly waiting for one of two fates. The hope that someone ,anyone, will come along and save them or they face the slow eventual death of decay. 18" inch thick brick walls are remarkably resilient, but it's the water that leaks from roofs, that like cancer, slowly destroys them from within.

The arrival of three well dressed white folks is no doubt troubling. Our realtor chats away on the cell phone tracking down the owner of the building who is running late, while we make notes on clipboards and take pictures with the camera of rotted trim, brick that needs tuckpointing, the usual stuff on a 150 yr old building. Our arrival 'could' represent a change. A change the corner drug dealers 'suspect' will eventually happen but probably not this soon. Most people would be afraid to get out of their car in this neighborhood, much less walk around, but I've been here before, in other neighborhoods, in other cities. Our arrival typically spells hope or disaster depending on which side of the law you are on. Oh, I'm no fool, my 38 is in its holster under my jacket. I may be a "urban Pioneer" but I'm not stupid. I know the risks.

Our presence is too much for them and one by one they drift to the block south. The cars still pull up, mostly African Americans but the occasional "emo" college student who is probably already 'spooked' by the neighborhood anyway. They slow down , spot us, and quickly speed off. It would be comical were not for the fact you realize these are desperate people. The drivers quickly realize their "connection" is down the street and you see the cars stop down there. This is the 'other Over-the Rhine" . The OTR that 20 something condo owners in the gateway rarely see anymore as they sit in their protected enclave of high security HGTV style loft land. This is that other OTR that wont show up in promotional brochures. It is vestige of what once was.
Finally the owner arrives with helper in tow, armed with screw guns and a ring of padlock keys to "break open" the heavily secured building. He rambles on about the building, about the "opportunity it is" and he just has "too many other things to do to fix it up". Of course I know the truth, he bought it three years ago and now has it on the market for double what he paid. It was condemned when he bought it and it's still condemned, after years of dodging the city they've caught up with him and it is starting to actually cost him in legal fees to hold the building. He continues to ramble and finally I say "yeah its tough to own a condemned building in OTR'. He shuts up and goes about the business of removing dozens of screws from the doorway and removing the multiple padlocks. Finally, like the Pharaohs Tomb, the door opens.
Old Buildings, like time capsules, are always 20 degrees colder that the outside. the inside is packed with junk, probably from the day it was last occupied 25 years ago. It's the typical mess, cheap drywall and store shelves. This had been 'some kind' of business 25 yrs ago. It looks like they just left most of it. As I make my way through the debris I can see "beyond the rubble' to what it once was. Not 25 yrs ago but 100 yrs ago. This was the center of a once thriving neighborhood business district, Trolley's passed by out front it was a real neighborhood, a place where people worked lived and shopped. Delis, pharmacy's and grocery stores. You have to wonder why it changed what reduced it to what is is now. More importantly, why it still looks this way when other cities, just like Cincinnati have turned around neighborhoods, just like this.
The building 'isn't bad". Well, let me put that in perspective. Yes, the roof leaks but the floors are still there, I can actually walk in the building and not fear that I will fall through the floor. The 2 over 2 windows are still there and restorable. Its a 'doable' building, yes it is overpriced but there is nothing 'structurally wrong' with it. Its condemned because of an outside wooden staircase that while still walkable REALLY needs to come down before it falls down in a few years. Of course I have to 'crunch the numbers', I can see off the top of my head, 3-400,000.00 in expenditures. A new roof, an elevator and an internal staircase. I am not 3CDC, so this money comes out of my pocket, you don't get loans from banks on buildings like this. Banks do not loan money on condemned buildings even if they really shouldn't be condemned.

I can see it done in my mind, with a 4 color paint job on the outside a beacon to the neighborhood, the store windows restored, full of high end antiques. Oh, and lots and lots of lighting outside. An elegantly appointed store filled with fine antiques and art. Offices above overlooking a "wasteland". And that is what this building would be. A shining castle in a slum. A very real economic risk on my part, a half million dollar-plus investment in an area everyone else fears to go. I've done it this before. We move in and slowly others come, one by one the homes and buildings get restored, the suburbanites finally get the courage to come and memory fades about how it 'used' to look. The "street merchants" venture elsewhere, as the rules have changed. Too many people, too many eyes, too much light of day. Like gypsies, they will move somewhere else. There is plenty of time, at the rate OTR is being restored right now it will take 90 years to restore all of it. Most of the buildings will have fallen down before then. Historians will look back and say 'see what was lost, shame on you, city officials, for standing in the way of it's recovery.'

I have theory on why OTR and other urban neighborhoods are the way they are. In other cities as Urban neighborhoods get restored Inevitably the "problem' winds up in the burbs. You know where city officials actually live. Cincinnati officials do not what to face the "problem' in their neighborhood. Better to keep it contained in those "Urban neighborhoods" that they quickly drive through on their way to 801 Plum street. Now there's a real 'nuisance property'!

And that's the BIG unknown, just how impossible will the red tape and 'ass kissing' be. In any other city I've worked in, the city government would be throwing us a parade if we bought this building. They would understand the jobs created, the economic benefits of historic restoration. After all we are taking all the financial risk, not them, and in the end, they would look good and local politicians would take the credit for the "turnaround'.
But not the "good ole boy" government of Cincinnati who seems content with keeping the demolition contractors flush with cash. To anyone whose lived anywhere else, you'd understand why OTR is the way it is. It is not for lack of people willing to come in, it's the roadblocks the city throws up. The condemn orders, the VBML's, the Nuisance Hearings, the Inspectors knocking on your door the minute the property is transferred wanting it done NOW, like you are 3CDC sitting on a pot of money and will bring a crew of 50 in. Historic restoration is different, it's a slower, more thoughtful, process. No exposed ductwork in our projects. Real walls with chandeliers and crown moulding and period wallpapers and finished ceilings. It is restoration not HGTV. It takes time and patience. Something, based on my experience, city officials here, do not have.

This building "could" work, assuming the owner will accept a real world offer for it. Assuming city officials can recognize how huge our opening a historic Period Interior Design Center would be and the others businesses that, seeing our investment, might come to the area. Thsi neighborhood, coulc actually start paying taxes again, contributing to the city and economy, a viable place to live and work.
I fear however, it will be an uphill battle, a constant battle. Treated like a criminal because you actually want to "do something". Judged on the lack of action of previous owners(investors) who didn't care and had no intention to do anything. It may be all the RED TAPE that is the deciding factor on if this building and neighborhood, lives or dies a slow painfull death of neglect. It's the lack of that redtape and bureaucratic roadblocks that make Covington and Newport look so attractive. I'd really like to save this building, I really would, I have to figure out if its worth it. Worth the ulcers from dealing with the stress caused by city officials. We will see.

As we returned back to our cars and stood by talking I saw the CPD patrol car parked up the hill
on the next street observing us. He probably wondered where all the drug dealers and prostitutes went. Seeing us, he figured it out, and I saw him pull slowly away.

Who knows when or IF change will come.


D R E W said...

thanks for being the one to step up and tackle all of this renovation vs. city crap. it sounds like you are up for the challenge. hopefully, your efforts will make some good changes to the red tape the city currently has in place!

Paul Wilham said...

Thanks Drew for the support. We are far from a "done deal" lots of things have to happen. But at some point the city has to take a different approach. As it is, we are sending millions of dollars of investment across the river to Covington and Newport and there is NO reason for it!

Joshua said...

Well written piece, though I am confused by the snide comments re: suburbanites that visit Findlay and who will eventually visit other places in OTR. I too have a disdain for the "city hating" suburbanites in the outer loop "neighbourhoods" but I do not think it is productive to sneer at those who are actually willing to visit Findlay, OTR and downtown. We need those people!

Paul Wilham said...

I think its important to understand that I've had suurbanites tell me they go to Findlay BUT only if they can get in the lot. They have actually turned around and went home rather than park on the street around Findlay because the "fear' the neighborhood so. That is a big obstacle for a neighborhood to overcome and indicative of all the hard work ahead.

Trust me, I went through this in Indianapolis in our Old Neighorhood. The very people who thought I was "crazy' to buy in my neighborhood when I did, now live downtown. It was not and easy process to get them to see the possibilities.

Now downtown Indy neighborhoods look like suburbia, (perhaps too much so as almost all the diversity is gone).

But frankly if I had to walk by a Starbucks on every corner in OTR I could deal with that to see the neighborhood saved!

FTLOD said...

Excellent post! I know just what you mean about politicians getting paid off by demo companies. Keep at it, you're doing God's work.