Friday, February 6, 2004

Have faith, but audit new project


Cincinnati Council's $13.5 million grant to a faith-based homebuilding project in Bond Hill needs to be followed up with more than just faith.

If Huntington Meadows' 60 acres can be redeveloped for 300 new homeowners, it will help boost the city's 38 percent homeownership rate, reverse population loss, cut crime and stabilize the neighborhood. But given council's special handling of this deal and past city-funded development flops, the city needs to monitor the developers' performance to high heaven.

Two African-American churches - Allen Temple AME Church and Tryed Stone Baptist Church - are joint-venturing with Northpointe, a for-profit developer. Northpointe's Rick Kimbler has built homes and commercial properties, and also is developing the city-funded Kroger garage downtown.

Council voted 7-1 Wednesday for the deal, without competitive bidding or grant guidelines, which many members demanded after the city's rancorous downtown development deal with Convergys. The Bond Hill churches hold an option from the owner for the site. Finance Chairman John Cranley voted against the Bond Hill deal, and Pat DeWine abstained because his law firm represents the developer. The "Villages of Daybreak" project will spend a quarter of the $54 million the city got when health insurer Anthem converted to a for-profit company in 2002. The previous council pledged that since Anthem dollars were a one-time windfall, it should be used to leverage mostly private dollar in deals where the city isn't the major funder. Yet for Daybreak, the city is putting $13.5 million into a deal totalling $19 million projected costs. Council again is bypassing some of its own guidelines.

The new market-rate homes will be priced from $125,000 to $250,000. One hopeful sign: The Home Builders of Greater Cincinnati are interested in part of the site for a Citirama home show in 2005.

About $10 million of the city's money will go to buy and clear the site of 58 now-abandoned apartment buildings. They housed 1,100 low-income units and were a magnet for crime. Originally called Swifton Village, that's where New York developer Donald Trump got his start. As recently as 1997, the city sank $4 million into Huntington Meadows, and the federal government, another $17.5 million. Current owner, RCM Cincinnati Estates, bought it at foreclosure in 2003 for $2.6 million. The appraised value was $3.9 million. RCM will be responsible for delivering a cleared, clean site, free of asbestos and other hazards. The city hopes to cover some of its risk by holding a first lien mortgage on the property until at least 150 lots are sold.

Four former tenants claiming they were illegally evicted from the bankrupt apartments have sued in federal court to stop the Daybreak project. U.S. District Judge James Graham of Columbus wisely refused to issue a temporary restraining order.

The best thing that can happen to that site, after 50 years of going downhill, is to start over. But it will be up to city officials to make sure Daybreak not only starts OK but finishes OK.

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