News: Concrete Changes

Uptown projects reaching for new Heights

The Year In Review

It's been a year of lawsuits, openings, resignations and firings for the Clifton Heights Community Urban Renewal Corporation (CHCURC).

All that has slowed — but hasn't stopped — one of the largest series of redevelopment projects in the city, situated on the quarter mile-long strip of land between Calhoun and McMillan streets, directly south of the University of Cincinnati.

"We've got through the hard times," says Matt Bourgeois, CHCURC's new executive director.

But there's much more work to do before most of CHCURC's urban renewal plan is built, piece by piece. That was true even before the organization took on the task of finding a preservation-minded buyer for Old St. George, the 132-year-old church at the corner of Calhoun Street and Jefferson Avenue near UC.

Out and back in
Uncertainty doesn't help build projects, and CHCURC has had its share. Last spring the agency's five-member board asked its executive director, Dan Deering, to resign after having served for five years. CHCURC hired Bourgeois as interim director Sept. 1 and named him permanent director Dec. 21.

Deering says some community council members thought he shouldn't have a paid CHCURC position while owning 20 properties in the UC area.

"That always has been an issue from day one," he says.

But at the time Deering was hired, no one else wanted the job, he says. Deering still is involved with CHCURC, but as a board member — an unpaid position. That's fine with him, he says, because now he can focus on his property management company, Deering Properties.

This year CHCURC also hired a new development team for the $98 million McMillan Park project, a combination of 232 condominiums and 44,000 square feet of retail to be anchored by a neighborhood grocery store, according to Bourgeois.

CHCURC wasn't getting the quality of information and work it wanted from the old team to CHCURC board secretary, Ron Kull, who is also UC's architect. The new team — construction manager Bovis Lend Lease and architects GBBN and RTKL has more experience in housing locally and nationally, and has done a better job of making each dollar count and paying attention to how marketable the project will be, Kull says.

McMillan Park is taking longer than hoped, but Kull says the project's timing is ultimately a CHCURC decision. Delays or not, CHCURC is committed to the project.

"I don't see it not happening," Kull says.

Acquiring all of the properties needed for McMillan Park hasn't been easy. Owners of Acropolis Chili, Inn the Wood tavern and the former Arby's and Hardees restaurants had sued CHCURC over its eminent-domain property takings, backed by the city of Cincinnati. All settled this year except for the Arby's/Hardees owners, Clif-Cor Corp. Inn the Wood and the Acropolis were demolished last summer.

Even a drawn-out case with Clif-Cor won't throw off McMillan Park, Bourgeois says.

"I think we would still be fine," he says.

Construction of McMillan Park design should begin in mid-2006 and end in fall 2008. Financing remains an issue. The Uptown Consortium, a nonprofit organization comprised by Uptown's five largest employers, is investing $33 million into McMillan Park. It hasn't given final approval, but could in the next 90 days, according to Tony Brown, the consortium's president and CEO.

CHCURC expects the remaining $65 million will come from a private bank loan, according to Bourgeois.

Saving St. George
Years of community group meetings, weddings and other events at Old St. George are over. But there's hope the church, built in 1873 and listed on the National Historic Register of Places, will remain standing.

CHCURC began the purchase in early 2005 in an effort to preserve the building. At the time Walgreens had expressed interest in buying it, but that would have led to its demolition. CHCURC expects to close the sale in early 2006, Bourgeois says.

"We certainly didn't want to lose that landmark," says John Schuler, president of the CHCURC board and the Clifton Heights Savings and Loan. Old St. George's architect, Samuel Hannaford, also designed Music Hall and Cincinnati City Hall.

CHCURC hasn't identified ideal uses for Old St. George, which has housed a bookstore and coffee shop and 10 UC students who perform routine maintenance in exchange for reduced rent.

"What (it) ends up being is anybody's guess," Bourgeois says.

Old St. George has also hosted weddings practically every weekend over the past several months and over the years hosted dozens of community groups, such as the Amos Project, Queen City AA, Riley School of Irish Music and the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission.

The future of Old St. George is dim if it ends up only a "project" — a football that's kicked around between private developers who want to do condos or something else, according to Larry Bourgeois, director of Old St. George and the father of Matt Bourgeois.

Larry Bourgeois believes hosting and catering events could be an efficient way to make money in the building. In any case, it's going to take a large number of passionate people working steadily to keep Old St. George preserved and well used, he says.

CHCURC has hired a firm to survey the building. CHCURC plans to fix the leaky roof, clean the spires and work on whatever other problems the building has to prepare it for sale, Matt Bourgeois says. CHCURC doesn't have a time frame for selling it, but the longer it sits empty, the more it costs CHCURC.

The good news this year was that in September CHCURC opened the $65 million University Park Apartments and Calhoun Street Marketplace. That includes 758 beds of apartment-style student housing — 95 percent leased — and 37,000 square feet or retail spare. So far Ben & Jerry's, Fifth Third Bank, Potbelly Sandwich Works and Boloco have signed leases, with more to come. The retail space is about 33 percent leased, Matt Bourgeois says.

CHCURC's work began in 1998 when a steering committee of local residents, business owners and others began working on an urban renewal plan for Clifton Heights.

There are still several more years of hard work left, including the proposed entertainment district at the corner of Calhoun and Jefferson streets, across from Old St. George. Matt Bourgeois says CHCURC will request developer proposals for that piece of the plan in early 2006. The board will also keep an eye on the future of University Plaza, across Jefferson Avenue. Marge Schott's estate owns the plaza and could one day sell it. ©

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