Monday, February 2, 2004

Vine Street upgrading to take time, mayor says

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

OVER-THE-RHINE - There's less litter and more construction on Vine Street, two years after Mayor Charlie Luken called it "the most important street in the city" in his 2002 State of the City Address.

A dilapidated building at 15th and Vine is for sale.
(Michael Snyder photo)
But there's also a vacant lot where the Empire Theater used to be, and plans for a $20 million development never materialized.

Despite such setbacks, Luken prefers to see the glass half full.

"We took on an intractable issue that people had ignored for decades," Luken said. "In two years, we've changed the situation from despair to hope."

As the mayor's first priority under a "stronger mayor" system, the Vine Street project took on special significance. Luken highlighted it in his 2002 State of the City Address, which often sets the agenda for the coming year.

In 2001, it was race relations. In 2003, crime was the "No. 1 priority." Luken's 2004 address, which he will deliver today, will urge voters to repeal Article XII of the city charter.

Luken said Vine Street was "a critical test" of the stronger powers invested in the mayor's office.

The first test results were mixed.

Kroger Co. invested $1 million in renovating its Vine Street store. The mayor opened a "Pride Center" - a sort of satellite City Hall - on Vine Street.

The city resolved years of bickering with ReStoc, the Race Street Tenant Organization Cooperative, over the group's stockpile of abandoned buildings. The group is rehabbing five buildings with the city's help, most recently opening 25 low-income units last September.

But there also have been setbacks. Most famously, the developer of the Empire Theater never developed anything, and left town after getting $184,172 in city money. LaShawn Pettus-Brown was arrested by the FBI in New York last month, and will return to Cincinnati to face a charge of wire fraud.

In 2003, after WCPO (Channel 9) ran a report critical of his progress, Luken responded pointedly in his annual address.

"I know, the media loves to do this story...get the camera and notepad, run down to Over-the-Rhine and find someone who says 'nothing has changed' ... and voila! A ready-made story," Luken said last year.

"We all acknowledge we have only begun. But I'm glad that not everyone engages in that kind of journalism," he said. "Some in the media have recognized the simple fact that it took Over-the-Rhine decades to get into this shape, and it won't get better overnight."

In his 2003 speech, Luken also announced that PNC Bank would invest $20 million on or near Vine Street, building 110 housing units. The project would be the "tipping point" for Over-the-Rhine development, he said, and would be under construction by the summer.

By fall, PNC abandoned the project.

Peg Moertl, the city's former community development director who's now senior vice president at the bank, said the bank is exploring other opportunities in Over-the-Rhine.

"It's very tough, the costs of rehabbing a building," Luken said. "I've never had anyone who got into it who didn't say, 'It takes twice the money and three times as much time as I thought it would.' "

Luken said he's "laid the foundation" for redevelopment, and still believes Over-the-Rhine is "critical to the success of the city."

And now, the city plans to build a new parking garage for Kroger's headquarters at the corner of Vine Street and Central Parkway.



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