By Cliff Radel
The Cincinnati Enquirer
PENDLETON - It was not love at first sight. Not by a long shot.
Every Monday morning for 11 years, Keven Speece gazed at his future home.
There it sat, an old, vacant paint factory, six stories tall, at the edge of Pendleton.
Keven Speece in his finished loft apartment.
(Tony Jones photo)
There he sat, looking out the downtown conference-room window of his workplace, GBBN Architects, and thinking:
"That is the stupidest building. It's so tall and thin and all by itself."
Nobody in their right mind, the 49-year-old architect believed, would live there.
Now, he calls it home. Loves it. And swears he's sane.
"It's been a long journey," Speece said with a satisfied sigh as he sat recently in his sun-splashed top-floor condo.
KEVEN SPEECE FILE
Born: Jan. 20, 1955, Cincinnati.
Title: Principal with Queen City-based GBBN Architects, since 1988.
Education: LaSalle High School, 1973; University of Cincinnati, bachelor of architecture, 1979.
Advice to aspiring rehabbers: "If it's not built, no one's going to dream about it."
His nerves and his bank account, he admitted, took a hit.
Resurrecting a building and changing its function from a factory to five condos - three sold, including his, two to go - are expensive and grueling propositions. It cost $1.25 million and four years of his life.
Despite numerous setbacks, the trials of obtaining $1.25 million in loans, the riots of 2001 and one snapping bat, Speece left his home in Westwood to join the ranks of Cincinnati's urban pioneers.
He belongs to a tight-knit group of small entrepreneurial developers. They're restoring old buildings and moving into the inner-city neighborhoods of Over-the-Rhine, Pendleton and downtown.
Over the last three years, these developers have fueled a $35 million building boom - with $20 million spent in the past 12 months. The boom encompasses remodeling, rehabbing and new construction in the central city.
These pioneers blazed a trail high-stakes developers are following. Al Neyer Inc. is lending its construction might to a $7.6 million condo project next to the planned $12 million Kroger garage on the threshold of Over-the-Rhine.
These developers, large and small, are raising hopes. Downtown's housing doldrums could be coming to an end.
"I'm seeing one of these projects like Keven's every week," said Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken."Things are turning around."
Views of Mount Adams
The building is across from Broadway Commons on Reading Rd.
(Tony Jones photo)
Positioned six stories above the point where Reading Road bends before intersecting with Broadway, Speece's condo gives the impression of being perched over the streetscape. Walls lined with windows afford airy views of Mount Adams, downtown's skyline and Over-the-Rhine.
Speece, a Cincinnati native with roots in Mount Airy, fell in love with the notion of downtown living while working and dwelling in Baltimore, Chicago and Denver.
Returning to his hometown in 1988, he spent 11 fruitless years scouring Cincinnati for a warehouse to rehab and call home. So, in late 1999, that building he'd been making fun of suddenly didn't look so stupid.
"It looked unique," he said. A nondescript sliver from the 20th century "standingamong Italianate buildings from the 19th century."
Speece moved into his dream space on Nov. 22, the Saturday before Thanksgiving. The place he once called "the stupidest building" is now the Rosmur Vue Condominiums in honor of his late parents, Rosalie and Murray.
At night, downtown office towers light up the condo. On chilly mornings, Speece can see "smoke rising from the chimneys atop all those little buildings in Over-the-Rhine. It's like something from a Dickens novel."
The views captivated Speece when he began his "four-year odyssey" with a tour of the building in 1999. The place was vacant and available. The price was right. He bought the building for $132,500 in April 2000.
Factory reminders linger
Speece's new home was built in 1923. For its first 43 years, the building was the Wilson Paints factory.
"That old thing had no architectural details," said Bill Powell, Wilson Paints' last owner. He sold the 91-year-old firm in 1998. "It was strictly a single-purpose factory."
Paints were mixed by a gravity-fed system that flowed from the sixth to the fifth to the fourth floor. The company's lab occupied the third level. The offices were on two.
A paint store occupied the ground floor. Vats of solvents filled the basement.
The factory once sat in a bustling neighborhood of shops, apartments and homes.
Big business thrived across the street. The Eagle-Picher Lead Co. occupied the land currently covered by parking lots across from Speece's condominiums. At one time, Eagle-Picher was the world's largest manufacturer of lead additive for oil-based paints.
Wilson Paints opened a new factory in Fairmount in 1966.
"The old factory basically stayed empty," Powell noted. "For all intents and purposes, it should have been torn down."
Storefront churches periodically occupied the first floor. "Nothing lasted," Powell added. "They used the upper floors for storage."
Few reminders of the building's previous life exist. A sign painted a half century ago on the western wall has faded with the years. Several concrete beams, however, contain paint-making hieroglyphics.
"8/19/26 Mill White"
"Our low-end white paint," Powell said. "Sold it to factories to put on their walls."
"Clear lacquer. Good stuff. A big seller."
Lead removal a challenge
Something else remained from the building's paint factory days. It was made across the street at Eagle-Picher Lead.
That firm's namesake product has long been banned from paint. But, during the paint factory's heyday, lead was perfectly legal to use. And it spread everywhere.
To reduce the lead levels, Speece had "the place power-washed four times."
Getting the lead out was just one of many obstacles he encountered.
But before work began, Speece struggled to convince bankers to give him a loan.
Jeanne Golliher called it "one of the hardest deals" she has ever negotiated. "It took a long, long time to get the bankers to realize that Keven was serious about rehabbing the building and living there."
Golliher directs the Cincinnati Development Fund. Since it was created in 1988, the consortium of banks and foundations has channeled $132 million into the city's home loan pipeline. Of that figure, $1.07 million went to Speece.
For three years, Speece and Golliher tried to convince lenders his project was worthy.
The bankers were such a hard sell, Golliher believed, because of Speece's inexperience - he's an architect, not a developer - and his slim-to-none profit margin.
"It's hard for someone who is not a developer to get a loan," she said. "He's not going to be making much money, if any, on this building. He's an artist. He wants to live there because he loves the building. Bankers aren't used to loaning money for love.
"So, it was tough to get the bankers to understand: 'Why is he doing this?'"
Bureaucracy an impediment
Jim Tarbell has heard a similar question. The city councilman lives in Pendleton.
Over the years, he's called the police to report problems in his neighborhood. When they respond, officers invariably ask:
"Why are you living here?"
Tarbell explained why they ask the question: "Starting in the 1960s, the federal government turned much of Cincinnati's central city," Over-the-Rhine, Pendleton, etc., "into a warehouse for the urban poor."
This, Tarbell added, "led to Section 8 housing," and created a ghetto where property values sank while crime rates soared.
"With the expiration of the Section 8 contracts, small developers, such as Keven Speece, have come in. They're trying to create market-rate housing."
Few try. Even fewer succeed.
Tarbell blames the city's bureaucracy for discouraging urban pioneers. "Nothing's centralized."
Cincinnati has never had a one-stop shop where potential developers can get information, permits and encouragement. That changed April 26 when the Business Development and Permit Center opened on Central Parkway.
"If everybody experiences what Keven has gone through," Tarbell said, "and they're not as tenacious as he is and don't have his street smarts, it won't work."
Speece feels he has gone through, in a word, "hell." But, he admits, he has also had some lucky breaks along the way.
After buying the old paint factory, Speece spent a year going over numerous design issues with various city entities.
"I'm not complaining," he said. "The city was very helpful.
"But, there's no clear-cut path, no how-to pamphlet given out saying: 'Here's how to go about rehabbing a building in Cincinnati.'"
Dealing with setbacks
Thieves struck as the building was being power-washed. They entered the lobby and heisted the contractor's tools.
Then came the riots of April 2001 and the post-9-11 recession.
"Those events scared off everyone," Speece said. "So, I just closed up shop."
But between the riots and the recession, he landed his first tenant. A bum in a box.
"This guy was sleeping in a big, old refrigerator box," Speece said. "He put it in the weeds alongside the building."
Speece cleared out the weeds and the bum, box and all.
After the eviction, Speece continued his quest for a loan from the Cincinnati Development Fund. He eventually landed $1.07 million - after experiencing a Catch 22.
"I couldn't get financing until I got commitment - selling three units," Speece said.
"But I couldn't get any commitments until construction was going on. And construction couldn't start until I got some financing."
He finally sold three condos - the top-floor model to himself. And learned a lesson.
"In Cincinnati, people are somewhat skeptical about moving downtown," he said. "They've got to see almost the finished product before they'll commit to buying."
Speece received an $18,000 loan from the city for environmental testing and the power washings. City Hall also loaned him $165,000 for construction. The city loans will be forgiven as owner/occupants buy the condos.
The $183,000 in city funds Speece received approach the money Cincinnati's City Council voted to hand over to another developer, LaShawn Pettus-Brown. The former professional basketball player was arrested after he allegedly swindled $184,172 from the city to finance his failed plan to turn the abandoned Empire Theater into an Over-the-Rhine nightclub.
"That Empire Theater thing blew me away," Speece said. "This guy came in and got thousands with basically no questions asked. I had to come in showing drawings of what I was going to do and proof that I owned the building."
A 'linchpin' building
In fall 2001, Speece called on his lifelong friend, Bernie Suer. They grew up in Mount Airy and went to the same high school - LaSalle - and college - the University of Cincinnati. Suer is a senior vice-president at high-powered Messer Construction in Bond Hill.
Their friendship paid off. Messer became the general contractor responsible for turning an old paint factory into condominiums.
ABOUT THE BUILDING
Name: Rosmur Vue Condominiums.
Address: 410 Reading Road, Pendleton.
Units: Five (one occupied by architect/rehabber Keven Speece, two others sold, two available); 1,500 square feet per unit.
Costs: $132,500 to buy building; $1.25 million to rehab; $239,000 and $249,000 for the last available condos.
Loans: $183,000 from the City of Cincinnati (for general construction and lead removal, soil testing, etc. - loan forgiven as units are sold to owner/occupants); $1.07 million from the Cincinnati Development Fund.
History: Built in 1923 to house the Wilson Paints Co. factory. The factory moved in 1966. Building essentially unoccupied for 37 years.
In terms of its size and cost, "this building was not another Cincinnati State or Aronoff Center," Suer said. Nevertheless, Messer got involved, "because Over-the-Rhine - and the surrounding area - is a key component of the city of Cincinnati coming back."
Construction started in February 2003. Delays occurred. But the work progressed.
"We were supposed to have finished demolition in February," said Kristina Dewberry, the manager of the project for Messer. "But we were still removing old cracked concrete in August."
Dewberry has no complaints about the city's involvement.
"The city was very, very helpful," she said. "They realized it's a big-deal project.
"Keven knows everybody. GBBN does work all over the city. And this building is the linchpin on this block.
"When work started on Keven's building, other rehabbers followed," she added. "Now, the whole block's being developed."
Two buildings next to Speece's have been fused and turned into 12 condos. Two other sites that were single-family dwellings in the 19th century are being restored to their former status. The price tag on these chain-reaction projects: $2.8 million.
Dewberry's biggest challenge on Speece's job came from residential contractors. She termed their workmanship "amazing." But their safety awareness was "the pits."
Too often, workers showed up dressed as what building tradesmen call gym-shoe bandits. When they wore sneakers and shorts, Dewberry sent them home for a time-delaying wardrobe change.
"I told them to come back dressed safely for work," she said. "I didn't want anyone to lose a finger or fall and get killed. I wanted everybody to go home every night to be with their family."
Ironically, Dewberry showed more concern for her workers than for herself. In late July 2003, just before lunch, she noticed a bat flying in the lobby.
She outlined her plan to capture the unwanted guest. "Get a ladder. Grab the bat. Get it out of the building. Have lunch - a Wendy's char-grilled chicken sandwich."
The bat must have been hungry. It took three bites out of Dewberry's hand.
"What was I thinking?" she said. "I'm the Safety Queen. But I grabbed a bat without wearing gloves."
Dewberry's pre-lunch encounter with the flying mammal earned her another nickname, Batwoman. That stayed with her until the day she handed the keys to Speece.
Since then, Speece has been busy. Every day, he wakes up to Cincinnati's skyline, welcomes new neighbors and counts his blessings.
His dream has come true.
Keven Speece spent four years drawing plans, raising money and recruiting workers to transform an abandoned paint factory into five condos. For the past 12 months, the Enquirer's Cliff Radel and Tony Jones charted the Pendleton project's progress.
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