Saturday, August 19, 2000

Light will shine from old church

Hip housewares chain could herald Clifton Heights renewal

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When fast-food restaurants and drug stores offered to buy and raze the Third Protestant Memorial Church in Clifton Heights, Dale McGirr knew it was time to act.

[photo] Tony Hamburg of the Clifton Heights Urban Redevelopment Corp. stands in the parking garage of the old Prime Time nightclub at Calhoun and Vine streets.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        Mr. McGirr and Calhoun Street business leaders had a plan to remake the neighborhood south of the University of Cincinnati, and it didn't center on burgers or Benedryl. So they persuaded church leaders to resist offers of quick cash and instead sell to a developer planning something truly unique.

        The result? The new look of an old neighborhood will include Urban Outfitters, a national retail and housewares chain that is converting the Great Depression-era church into its first Greater Cincinnati store.

        The victory was as symbolic as it was tangible. They succeeded in luring a strong national retailer to a district dominated by independents that have been just as likely to fail as succeed.

        “It's just ridiculous we don't have a thriving community this close to the city,” said Dan Deering of Deering Properties. “We want to form a magnet regionally. A place where people say, "You can only get this in Clifton Heights.'”

        Leaders expect other national retailers to follow Urban Outfitters into Clifton Heights, as well as new residential and office space and even a hotel — all part of a $150 million revitalization plan developed out of self interest.

        UC, frustrated by concerns of safety and blight on the fringes of campus, wants to create a safe, livable place for students and faculty. Business owners, represented by the Clifton Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corp., want to improve the neighborhood to ensure their doors will stay open.

        “The thing about this area is that is doesn't look as nice as other college towns, like Miami (University),” said Karen Blatt, a former UC student who owns Cody's Cafe on Calhoun Street. “I think the university wants to change things here. Everybody pretty much supports it.”

        UC plans to spend millions on the neighborhood, said Mr. McGirr, the university's vice president for finance. Already, UC loaned $3 million to Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters so the retailer could remodel the church for a fall opening.

        Plans call for a UC-funded, six-deck parking garage at Dennis Street and the north side of Calhoun. The private, economic develop group would be responsible for signing up retailers and housing developers to build on top of the garage.

        The owners of the smaller, independent stores that dominate the college neighborhood are excited about the master plan even though some could be encouraged to move as a result.

        Tony Hamburg, president of the Clifton Heights Economic Development Corp., another private economic development group pushing the plan, said the area needs to pursue further change if it's going to survive. That means adding a good mix of homes and offices to buoy retailers, both national and independents.

        “If we don't do something in this neighborhood, we're going to lose dollars,” said Mr. Hamburg, who owns Baba Budan's coffee house on Calhoun. “There are other developments that are going on in the area.”

        Although the plan hasn't been approved by city officials, the Clifton Heights economic group already is working to make it reality. The group recently purchased the shuttered Prime Time nightclub for $440,000 from neighboring Corryville Economic Development Corp.

        The building at the neighborhood's eastern gateway of Calhoun and Vine streets is an example of what business leaders want to get rid of over the next few years. Its shattered glass, cluttered interior and nondescript exterior is a barrier to attracting new money to the neighborhood.

        “There's not much you can do with that building,” said Cindy Schrader, economic development officer for Cincinnati. “Except blow it up.”

        That's what plans call for after the Clifton Heights economic group acquires and clears a McDonald's next door and the rest of the block controlled by the Ossenbecks, a family interested in redeveloping the land. McDonald's and a handful of other fast-food chains along Calhoun and McMillan Street would be clustered into a single “food-court” area.

        “We want to make effective use of the land,” said Steven Ossenbeck, owner of Magna Properties, which controls nine area apartment buildings. "'To have seven or eight of those things (fast food restaurants) scattered is just a waste. ... The land here is valuable.”

        That's what Mr. Ossenbeck and others have to convince investors, that Clifton Heights is a better place to spend their money than the suburbs.

        The optimism already has caught on among Mrs. Blatt and other smaller retailers. It's hard to walk down the street without bumping into a construction worker or smelling fresh paint; these business owners are investing in the neighborhood. Mrs. Blatt is so confident of the district's prospects that she just obtained a liquor license and is converting a vacant storefront next to her Internet cafe into a bar.

        “Everybody is really excited about this, especially us,” she said.


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