Is Avondale Parking Lot a Wasted Opportunity for the City?

Which would be more valuable for South Avondale: a city-owned undeveloped lot or a privately owned employee parking lot? Cincinnati City Council has made its choice, but at least one Avondale com

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Columbian School, before it became a parking lot.

Which would be more valuable for South Avondale: a city-owned undeveloped lot or a privately owned employee parking lot?

Cincinnati City Council has made its choice, but at least one Avondale community leader says residents weren't even asked.

"We're not being notified," says Tom Jones, president of the Avondale Community Council. "There's no communication here."

By a 5-4 vote, city council has decided not to exercise an option to buy 1.7 acres near Reading Road and Martin Luther King Drive, the former site of Columbian School.

Former Councilman Todd Portune proposed exploring a repurchase of the property, which the city sold to Jewish Hospital in 1993. The sale contract allows the city to buy back the property if "the redeveloper does not develop or use the property other than for off-street private parking" within five to 10 years after buying it.

Built in 1892 and named for Christopher Columbus, Columbian School was expanded in 1897 and 1929 but closed after white flight shrank enrollment from 850 students in 1940 to 330 in 1979. Realizing the building's potential, in 1982 the city bought the building from the Cincinnati Board of Education, using $308,000 in federal Community Development Block Grants.

Plans for developing the site never came to fruition, according to senior City Planner Dan Young.

"At this point the real estate market was pretty weak," Young says.

The project never came together because of "a lot of bad timing," he says.

At least two public bidding processes in the 1980s failed to produce a feasible plan to renovate the building, even though the city and the Ohio Historic Preservation Office found it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

After those failed attempts, the city sold the land to Jewish Hospital for $112,000 and a rectangle of empty land at Martin Luther King Drive and Reading Road. In 1997, two years after joining the Health Alliance of Greater Cincinnati network of hospitals, Jewish Hospital moved to an expanding Blue Ash site and the Health Alliance began using the building for administration.

The school building is now gone, and the site provides parking for 1,500 administrative employees of Health Alliance.

Jones said the lot doesn't seem always fully occupied by cars.

"It does seem like it's a waste of land," he says.

Health Alliance spokesperson Pat Samson says parking is the only planned use for the land.

But Portune sees possibilities beyond parking.

"It's an important piece of property in Avondale," Portune says. "I think we are passing on a tremendous opportunity to spur some tremendous economic development."

Repurchasing the property would cost about $929,000, including reimbursement for razing the school and building the parking lot. The city administration recommended not buying the property, and council voted Nov. 29 not to pursue it.

"We don't need to own no more (property) as a city," said Councilman Charles Winburn, who was joined by Mayor Charlie Luken and councilmen Pat DeWine, Jim Tarbell and Phil Heimlich.

Tarbell agrees the property should be developed but not through buying it back against the will of the owners.

"I think we ought to be trying to work with them on another way to use that space," Tarbell says. "I don't think there's anything to be gained by buying it now. It's being used."

City Manager John Shirey says he doesn't know why the repurchase clause was included in the sale contract, but suggested community leaders might have worried the property wouldn't be used. That, however, is not the case.

"It's being used by the 1,500 employees ... that work there," Shirey says.

Beth Sullebarger, executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, wishes she could turn back the clock.

"It's a shame that an outstanding historic building was torn down for parking by an institution that left this neighborhood," Sullebarger says.

Parking might not be the best of all possible uses for the property, according to Antoinette Selvey-Maddox, acting director of the city's economic development department. But she advised against buying the lot.

"The reality of it is the property is used," Selvey-Maddox says.

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.

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