Monday, April 08, 2002

Hamilton deciding fate of 3 buildings

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — The three deteriorating 19th-century Mercantile buildings that sit side by side on High Street once were a vital part of this city's downtown.

        When they opened in the horse-and-buggy era, the one by an alley housed a bank; the next, a dry goods store; and next to that, a 5-and-10-cent store. For more than 100 years, the three-story structures with ornate stone facades remained occupied.

        But for the past two years, the buildings have been vacant, and their first-floor facades have been covered with plywood sporting painted storefronts — blotches on Hamilton's efforts to revitalize its downtown.

        The city, which bought the buildings three years ago for $475,000, is trying to decide if they should be renovated or demolished.

        Sandvick Architects of Cleveland began studying the buildings last week at a cost of $22,800. If the study says the buildings are salvageable, the city will pay $10,000 for further study to determine best uses.

        Hamilton expects to receive the architectural firm's report in two months or less.

        No matter what the report says, Hamilton officials desperately want the space filled with vibrant retail businesses that draw more people downtown.

        “The Mercantile buildings are in a very prominent location on High Street,” said interim city planning director Neal Barille II. “And they are across the street from buildings that have been renovated very


        Hamilton officials and downtown property owners have spent millions of dollars trying to encourage reinvestment in the business district.

        Three years ago, Hamilton gave High Street a $5.6 million face-lift that included sidewalks with brick inlays, new curbs, trees, two small islands in the middle of the street, a new water line and other underground utility work. Downtown property owners contributed about $1.2 million.

A key block to rehab

        Allowing three buildings in the heart of downtown to continue deteriorating runs counter to all the renovation efforts.

        The city bought the Mercantile buildings three years ago because officials feared they would be demolished and a parking lot would occupy the space. They didn't want a large parking lot on downtown's showcase street.

        The Special Improvement District, an organization of downtown property and business owners, has argued against demolishing the buildings unless they're proven to be structurally unsound.

        “This is a key block,” said George Schmidt, president of the Special Improvement District. “Part of bringing in new retail businesses into downtown is developing existing buildings.”

        Demolition would cost the city about $230,000.

        But that money doesn't begin to tell what the loss of the buildings would mean, said Rick Kuhl, Hamilton's preservation planner.

        If the Mercantile buildings are demolished, the city will lose some of its historic flavor, he said.

        “It would change the whole atmosphere of downtown,” Mr. Kuhl said. “You don't easily build three-story buildings like them these days.”

        The building next to the alley was constructed in 1875. The other two were built between 1875 and 1885.

        City Councilman Richard Holzberger believes the city made a big mistake in buying the buildings. He reluctantly joined the rest of council in authorizing the feasibility study.

        “I'm not against historic preservation,” he said. “But I hate to throw good money after bad. Those buildings are an eyesore.”

        All city council members agree that the buildings can't be left vacant and deteriorating.

        “It's a fact that we have to do something with those buildings or they'll fall down,” Councilman Ed Shelton said. “They're a hazard.”


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