History in Progress

City’s conservation board could soon green-light demolition of historic building as downtown development heats up

click to enlarge The Dennison Hotel, at 716 Main St., was designed by noted architect Samuel Hannaford.
The Dennison Hotel, at 716 Main St., was designed by noted architect Samuel Hannaford.

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t’s no secret: Cincinnati’s core neighborhoods are seeing a development boom. But as interest in development of new condos, apartments and retail space in the city’s central business district and neighboring areas heats up, conflicts have emerged over historic architecture long seen as one of the Queen City’s most defining attributes.

The fight can get complicated, but at its core is a simple question: How far should the city expect developers to go to save notable historic buildings? Historic preservation advocates say buildings like the Davis Furniture building in Over-the-Rhine, the Dennison Hotel downtown and others add something irreplaceable to the city’s urban fabric. But developers say that, sometimes, keeping buildings that are a century-and-a-half old is simply not economically feasible.

Added to the fight are feelings among historic preservation advocates that recent additions by Mayor John Cranley’ administration to the city’s Historic Conservation Board — which approves or forbids demolition of historic buildings —  are helping push through an agenda friendlier to developers than to preserving the city’s architectural heritage.

The Dennison, at 716 Main St. downtown, is the latest flashpoint in the ongoing argument. The Dennison was built in 1892 as an ironworks plant for the G.B. Schulte Sons Company, which produced metal parts for carriages. Renowned Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford designed the structure. Hannaford designed a number of significant buildings during that time period, including City Hall and Music Hall.

“It’s a real shame we’re on the verge of losing these buildings at the moment when Cincinnati is becoming a really attractive and desirable place for people to live,” Paul Muller, executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, told The Cincinnati Enquirer last month.

The Dennison sits in the Cincinnati East Manufacturing and Warehouse District, one of 29 historic districts in the city. The National Register of Historic Place district imposes extra steps for developers wishing to tear down a building, including going before the Historic Conservation Board to get what’s known as a certificate of appropriateness, or the board’s stamp of approval for a demolition.

Known for its locally iconic “ghost sign,” which broadcasts its 1930s-era past as a budget hotel, the Dennison’s last iteration was as a so-called single-room-occupancy housing for low-income individuals. After the nearby Metropole building at 609 Walnut St. was converted from low-income apartments into a luxury hotel, the Dennison was briefly the last single-room-occupancy building downtown, charging about $90 a week. More than 20 such single-room-occupancy apartments once dotted downtown.

In 2011, plans by Model Group to convert the building into 63 units of affordable housing for seniors fell through. The building was sold in 2013 to its current owners, Columbia REI, LLC, by an affiliate of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation for about $740,000.

Now Columbia, which is run by prominent automobile dealership owners the Joseph family, is seeking permission from the Historic Conservation Board to demolish the building.

The group has commissioned cost estimates for different redevelopment scenarios — part of the process for requesting a permit to demolish historic buildings — and says there is no way to make redevelopment of the Dennison work financially.

A study completed by Beck Consulting found that renovation of the Dennison into a 60-room hotel would cost $10.5 million; turning it into a 52-unit apartment building would cost $7.9 million; conversion to 35 condos would cost $8.7 million; and changing it to an office building would run about $5 million. Those costs aren’t feasible at the modest scale the redevelopment would take, Columbia attorney Fran Barrett has said.

But opponents of the demolition point out that those projections don’t include potential Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credits that could make renovation more financially feasible. The state has recently given millions in credits to preservation projects, including  $7 million to efforts to redevelop the Baldwin Building and $2 million for the Paramount Building, both in Walnut Hills, and millions for various historic buildings in Over-the-Rhine.

Barrett has represented other developers seeking to raze historic buildings — including an effort to demolish an iconic structure in OTR and the successful effort to tear down the Gamble House in Westwood — often amidst controversy.

Several blocks north of the Dennison, at 1119-1123 Main St., the Davis Furniture building was at the center of a big fight in Nov. 2014 after owners the Stough Group sought permission to tear the 100-year-old structure down.

That led to a pitched battle culminating in a seven-hour fight at a Historic Conservation Board meeting. Following the contentious meeting, the board turned down Stough’s application for demolition.

Historic preservationists have hailed that as a victory, but closer to the Dennison, efforts to keep another historic building standing have dimmer prospects.

The Historic Conservation Board last month granted owners permission to demolish a building across the street from the Dennison at 719 Main St. The building was constructed in 1875 and also sits in the historic district. A cadre of groups including Greiwe Development, Terrex Development and Construction, North American Properties and Sibcy Cline Realtors look to build 60 luxury condos in two 14-story buildings on the site, a $50 million project.

Like with the Dennison, the developers explained that preservation of the neighboring building would present a financial hardship to their efforts, an argument the Historic Conservation Board agreed with. The go-ahead for demolition is contingent on approval of a replacement building, however.

Preservationists argue that the financial hardship argument made by Greiwe and Columbia is bad logic and that just because one developer can’t make the financials on a historic building work, that doesn’t mean the building should come down.

“The applicant may not be able to overcome the [financial] deficit in this case, but that’s not the key legal question,” Danny Klingler, who runs historic preservation nonprofit OTR A.D.O.P.T., said at a Historic Conservation Board meeting about 721 Main St. last month. “It’s whether the building can be reused by someone.”

Beyond the questions around the economics of preservation, politics have also come into play.  Five of the board’s seven members are recent additions, and all donated to Cranley’s campaign. That has led to allegations that Mayor Cranley is stacking the deck in developers’ favor.

One recent appointee, tapped by City Manager Harry Black, is Shree Kulkarni, who has fronted local development companies, sought and received approval to demolish a historic building on Fifth Street, and made public statements supporting the demolition of historic buildings. Kulkarni and his wife donated more than $8,000 to Cranley’s campaign in 2013.

Cranley says his appointees have the city’s best interests in mind and that no political considerations went into their appointments.

“Every administration makes new appointments to boards,” he told media last year. “It’s not surprising there are changes. The people who the city manager has appointed have a balance of historic conservation and economic development.”

As demolition of the buildings across from the Dennison looks more likely, preservation advocates have doubled up on efforts to save the Hannaford-designed structure. The Cincinnati Preservation Collective, a historic architecture advocacy group, has launched a crowdfunding campaign that has raised more than $1,000 toward efforts to save the building.

Those efforts come ahead of an April 18 Historic Conservation Board meeting to decide the fate of the Dennison. ©

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