By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
DOWNTOWN - Cincinnati City Council voted Wednesday to give a $13.5 million subsidy to a church-related developer that plans to turn the empty Huntington Meadows apartment complex in Bond Hill into 300 new homes.
The empty Huntington Meadows apartment complex in Bond Hill could become a neighborhood of 300 single-family homes, townhouses and condos under a deal approved by the City Council.|
(Glenn Hartong photo)
The deal ends 50 years of revolving, out-of-town ownership of what was once the city's largest apartment complex, which went bankrupt in 2002. The 58 boarded-up buildings will be bulldozed to make way for homes ranging in price from $125,000 to $250,000. Under the plan, about a third of the units would be townhouses and condominiums. The rest would be single-family homes.
Homebuilders said there's a market for that housing. The Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati expressed an interest Wednesday in turning the site into a Citirama home show in 2005.
Advocates for affordable housing fought to block the development in court Wednesday, saying the development plan backtracks on a 1997 agreement to keep the property as affordable housing and discriminates against the hundreds of families - mostly headed by African-American women - who lost their homes when the apartment complex went bankrupt.
Still, the community councils for Bond Hill and Roselawn supported the project as a way to increase the neighborhood's home ownership and property values. When City Council approved the plan, the 100 church members in attendance applauded.
Tim Phalen, who owns a LaRosa's Pizza franchise in Roselawn, said it was the "right project at the right time for the right price with the right people."
"People say, 'When will the churches ever step up?' " said Marjean P. Young-Fousse of Bond Hill. "Well, we are stepping up. Give us a chance."
The development is a joint venture of Allen Temple AME Church and Tryed Stone Baptist Church, which are teaming with developer North Point Land Co. They will buy the 60-acre site along Seymour Avenue and Langdon Farm Road from current owner RCM Cincinnati Estates with $10 million in city money.
RCM, based in Connecticut, bought the property at sheriff's sale for $2.6 million. But the $10 million price pays for a cleared, clean site.
The city's remaining $3.5 million would go to make street improvements and to market the property once the land is cleared. The total cost of the project is $19 million.
Those numbers led Democrat John Cranley to cast the only vote against the project, which passed 7-1. Republican Pat DeWine, whose law firm represents the developer, abstained.
Cranley said the project would spend a quarter of the $54 million City Council set aside for neighborhood investment when it got a windfall from its health insurer in 2002. He said the selection of the development team was based more on political expediency than qualifications.
"We had no competitive process whatsoever to figure out whether we could have done better," he said. "Having said that, I certainly hope this works out for Bond Hill and Roselawn."
The deal calls for the developer to earn a $522,000 development fee up front - in addition to an estimated profit of more than $1.1 million. Cranley said he's also concerned about a $1.9 million line item for unspecified "soft costs."
The plan does have some safeguards. The city's contribution would be structured as a "forgivable loan," with the city holding the first mortgage. That way, if the developer fails to perform, the city can foreclose and take control of the property.
Even some of the deal's supporters expressed reservations about the plan.
"I don't think there's anybody in this room or in this city who thinks this property is worth that amount," said Democrat David Crowley. "But the owners have us over a barrel."
Crowley said no other neighborhood should think City Councils' approval of the Bond Hill plan sets a precedent about how other projects will be funded.
"There is risk in this deal, but there's risk in just about every financial transaction," said Charterite Christopher Smitherman. "The job of the city is to move forward and manage that risk."
The ambivalence of some council members was palpable. Charterite Jim Tarbell seemed to change his mind in the middle of a speech in which he complained that there wasn't enough private money in the deal and that City Council didn't have enough time to review the numbers. By the end, he said, he could not ignore the overwhelming community support for the project.
That support isn't universal.
Even as City Council approved the project Wednesday, attorneys Jennifer M. Kinsley and Kenneth L. Lawson went to federal court seeking a temporary restraining order to block the development.
They represent four former Huntington Meadows tenants who claim that the city's pressure to turn the property into single-family homes illegally discriminated against the African-American women.
But Chief U.S. District Judge James L. Graham of Columbus denied the immediate relief Wednesday afternoon, saying the plaintiffs "failed to show that they would suffer immediate, irreparable injury." City officials say the lawsuit is frivolous.
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