Monday, January 22, 2001

Luxury downtown condos catching on

Developers say there's a market for more

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Barry Larkin is moving into a penthouse in the exclusive Domaine de la Rive in Covington.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        There's one statistic on which Barry Larkin is sure to top teammate Ken Griffey Jr. this year — the Reds captain will have a flashier, larger riverfront condo. The Cincinnati natives each own a small piece of what city planners envision as a vibrant market of housing along the Ohio River and downtown.

        No ordinary homeowners, the multimillionaire athletes and other celebrities living downtown reinforce an image that city and housing advocates are pushing: Downtown living is hip, glamorous and unique.

        Experts say the timing may be right to build more luxury condominiums downtown, appealing to wealthy buyers and aging baby boomers ready to sell their suburban homes.

        But while developers line up to tap the growing demand for moderately priced rental units, few have been willing to plunk down millions to build larger, upscale condo projects for a mix of downtown and riverfront housing options.

        Of primary concern is the cost that excludes all but the region's wealthiest. Little is available for buyers who can't afford a luxurious penthouse but don't want to risk living in low-income areas near downtown.

View from a balcony at Domaine de la Rive
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        Mr. Larkin's new 6,000-square-foot penthouse being built at Corporex Cos.' exclusive Domaine de la Rive project in Covington will be like no other in Greater Cincinnati when finished by the start of this year's baseball season.

        The project has sweeping riverfront views and a European-style greenhouse shared by the top floors. It will offer the Midwest's most exclusive condos outside Chicago's Lake Shore Drive overlooking Lake Michigan, Corporex Cos. chairman Bill Butler says.

        “I can't tell you I did this because of a huge market study,” says Mr. Butler, who also will take take one of Domaine de la Rive's penthouses. “We wanted to try something new, and Sue (Butler, his wife) and I wanted to live on the riverfront.”

        It is the first high-rise condo project built along the river since Adams Landing opened 79 units in 1992. It's also the most luxurious: The 11 units — before final touches — cost $1.5 million to $2 million and range in size from 4,200 to 6,500 square feet.

        Developers are watching closely to see how quickly the units sell and whether the project will spur other condo projects north of the Ohio River. Homes there could help shore up Cincinnati's dismal home ownership rate of 38 percent, far below the national average of 67 percent.

Adams Landing
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        The condo project at Adams Landing off Pete Rose Way, where Mr. Griffey bought a 2,662-square-foot luxury unit last April, initially struggled, recovered and left a prominent developer hungry to build another batch of units. With most units priced $350,000 and up, these luxury condos are out of reach for most Cincinnatians.

        City and Hamilton County planners also want to shoehorn 750 homes between Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park as part of the Banks downtown development.

        Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken has cited new housing as a critical part of his administration's strategy to turn around a city that lost a larger percentage of its population than all but six U.S. cities since 1990. He has promised to reinvigorate the city and its sagging tax base by building or rehabilitating 1,000 new homes within one year.

        “We all prefer home ownership,” Mr. Luken says. “But I think the growth issues are served by getting renters and owners to move in and improve the housing situation.”

        Mr. Luken didn't specify what types of new homes will be added, but he expects most downtown housing will be rentals. Condos, penthouses and other for-purchase homes are rarely built in downtown Cincinnati because of financial problems at Adams Landing and lackluster success with other condo projects.

        Major renovations of five older buildings — Krippendorf, Power, Shillito Place, Hale-Justis and Emery Center — will add more than 250 new apartments downtown over the next couple of years. Only four, smaller projects will offer homes that people can buy.

        “If we had a (larger) for-sale project, I think it would sell,” says Kathy Schwab, who oversees Downtown Cincinnati Inc.'s housing efforts. "We want to show developers that this is a phenomenon that is really happening.”

        Downtown Cincinnati Inc. plans a study this year to determine how many homes or condos can be added downtown and in Over-the-Rhine. A similar study commissioned by the group showed that Cincinnati can handle 350 to 400 new rental units a year.

        Ms. Schwab says demographics are ripe for condo projects as aging baby boomers with grown children seek a place closer to downtown jobs. Younger professionals, too, covet the culture of art galleries, restaurants and professional sporting events. It doesn't hurt that people like Mr. Larkin and Mr. Griffey are buying condos, adding excitement to downtown living.

Rooms with view

        Mr. Larkin's new digs in particular is the type of place found only in New York City or Chicago.

        Situated at the top level of the Madison Place office building, Mr. Larkin's new window-walled penthouse has a snapshot view of Paul Brown Stadium and his workplace, Cinergy Field.

        Domaine de la Rive will have all the trappings that the wealthy expect like a private elevator, health spa, concierge, room service, catering and even grocery deliveries.

        For Mr. Larkin, the view of Cincinnati's skyline was the closer.

        “Until I stayed in a hotel on the Kentucky side, I didn't realize how pretty the view was,” Mr. Larkin says. “Just sitting there and looking at it, I was in a trance.”

        Mr. Butler says his project is for the “discriminating buyer” and wouldn't work if expanded to 40 or 50 units, because he doesn't think Cincinnati would support that.

        “We plan to set an entirely new standard of living for Cincinnati,” Mr. Butler says.

        Developers of the Banks could include a luxury condo project as part of the planned riverfront neighborhood, says Tim Sharp, interim director of the Port Authority. A private developer ultimately will decide what type of housing should go there.

Others successful

        Most recent downtown condo projects have been smaller and successful.

        A four-unit development at 911 Race St. sold in less than two weeks last year — including one unit to an unidentified member of the band 98`. The developer, JFP Properties, declined to identify any buyers or the average condo price.

        Dorian Development fetched an average price of $330,000 for five homes it's building at Dorsey and Sycamore streets in Mount Auburn.

        Is the city ready for more new homes and condos?

        “The market is absolutely there,” says Pauline van der Haer, who heads Dorian. “But there needs to be more planning by the city. Right now, it's very much a hit or miss.”

        She advocates the city adopt goals to meet the housing needs of everyone from home run kings and pop stars to the working poor. That will ensure low-income people have a place to live — and developers won't face a political fight when seeking approval or financial help for a project.

        Arn Bortz, former Cincinnati mayor and partner with Towne Properties, says a downtown master plan would help hash out details that stall development, such as a lack of parking.

        Towne Properties helped sell the remaining condos at Adams Landing after the initial developer faced financial problems. Towne is negotiating an agreement with the city to take control of adjacent land that could support 500 to 700 units.

        Mr. Bortz envisions both rental and condo units at the site but says he “wouldn't even begin to spend money on that” until the city updates a new housing plan.

        After initial skepticism, the luxury condo concept has caught on in Cincinnati, says Tom Torre, a resident at Adams Landing.

        It took seven years to sell all 79 units at Adams Landing, but over the past year, 24 of those units have resold, indicating growing popularity.

        “The concept is slower to catch on, obviously different than Chicago where the market is booming,” says Mr. Torre, who chose Adams Landing so he can walk to his downtown job, art galleries and other attractions.


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