DECISIONS ON HOLD FOR FORMER ST. JAMES HOTEL

Summit St. building owners to evaluate long-term plans

In meantime, renovations to interior well under way

7/9/2013
BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ehab Jabri of Sylvania, left, and Basem Kareem of Toledo walk down the staircase of the former St. James Hotel. The two purchased the property this year with plans to restore the building.
Ehab Jabri of Sylvania, left, and Basem Kareem of Toledo walk down the staircase of the former St. James Hotel. The two purchased the property this year with plans to restore the building.

The former St. James Hotel — one of the most historically significant buildings in Toledo’s oldest neighborhood — is under new ownership.

Basem Kareem, 48, of Toledo and Ehab “Ed” Jabri, 46, of Sylvania said they don’t know yet what they’ll do with the structure, how long the renovation will take, or how much it’ll cost.

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They said they are making improvements to the property and holding on to it as an investment, in hopes the Summit Street business corridor will rebound if Chinese investors follow through with developing the highly anticipated Marina District project directly across from the St. James on the Maumee River’s opposite shoreline.

But the two men — both immigrants from Jordan who have lived and worked in the Toledo area since the 1980s — said they are committed to restoring and eventually reopening the St. James without substantially changing its character or charm, which traces back to Swiss owners during the 19th century.

One of its best features is a wide, spiral staircase with a thick, walnut banister.

“We’re not the fix-and-sell type. We’re the fix-and-hold type,” said Mr. Jabri, NSK Corp.’s senior director of supply chain.

Mr. Jabri said he immigrated to the United States in 1984. NSK Corp. is a global company based in Japan that specializes in automotive bearings and steering systems. He works in its Ann Arbor facility.

“In a perfect world, we would like to take it back to its original use as a hotel-restaurant. Right now, we’re in the evaluation mode,” Mr. Jabri said.

The only way they see it becoming a hotel-restaurant again is if the Marina District project flourishes.

The new owners said they have made more than 10 trips to the building after midnight in a little more than a month because of suspected break-in attempts.
The new owners said they have made more than 10 trips to the building after midnight in a little more than a month because of suspected break-in attempts.

Toledo already has trouble supporting downtown hotels, Mr. Jabri said, though he noted it doesn’t have one in a building as historic as the St. James. The economy also needs to get better to open another restaurant on that part of Summit, they said.

Other options could be converting the St. James into apartments or into a senior center, they said.

“We are not going to take it fast. We are going to move slow,” Mr. Jabri said. “We will eat the operating cost for a while until we know what we’re doing.”

Those costs include nearly $18,000 in annual taxes, plus insurance, utilities, cleaning, and repair.

During a site tour Monday, Mr. Kareem and Mr. Jabri showed off sump pumps and other improvements they have made. Carpeting damaged by flooding has been removed. A contractor arrived to discuss installing a sprinkler system.

The St. James is in a rough part of town. Many buildings, including the hotel, have been vandalized and scavenged for copper.

Mr. Kareem and Mr. Jabri said they have made more than 10 trips to the building after midnight in a little more than a month because of suspected break-in attempts. They said they have recently installed 16 security cameras and an alarm system to help button down the building.

The two said they want to dispel rumors that the building might be converted into a warehouse for auto parts or scrap products.

Mr. Kareem, who came to the United States in 1989 to attend the University of Toledo, owns two scrapyards — Liberty Wholesale Auto Parts, 1463 N. Michigan St., and Nationwide Auto Parts & Recycling Inc., 3901 South Ave.

Both businesses, he said, have nothing to do with Horizon Investment Group, a limited liability corporation Mr. Kareem and Mr. Jabri own. It has an “A” rating from the Better Business Bureau and specializes in commercial and residential properties.

The two have formed an offshoot limited-liability company to manage the St. James, called Toledo Summit LLC, Mr. Kareem said.

The two purchased the St. James for $15,000 cash, plus a parking lot and grassy area across from it on Summit Street for another $15,000.

The sale price infuriated Peter Hatas, who owns a building attached to the south side of the St. James and thought he had a deal worked out with the hotel’s former owners, the American Maritime Officers union of Dania Beach, Fla., to buy the St. James for $75,000 in 2011.

Mr. Hatas wanted to develop the St. James into a multipurpose facility that would have included 35 low-income apartments for military veterans, a soup kitchen large enough to serve 400 people, a corner market, thrift shop, and jobs kiosk.

The new owners said they have made more than 10 trips to the building after midnight in a little more than a month because of suspected break-in attempts.
The new owners said they have made more than 10 trips to the building after midnight in a little more than a month because of suspected break-in attempts.

His project had the support of former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), and Toledo philanthropist Ford Cauffiel. But the deal fell through, even though the St. James was listed for sale that year for $345,000

The future of the St. James has been in limbo for years, boarded up as North Toledo property values plunged.

Built in the 1800s when Summit Street was paved in brick and horses were used for transportation, the hotel is much bigger than it appears from the outside.

The building, which has four floors and a basement, encompasses 21,000 square feet. That’s more interior space than 10 large houses.

But what’s more impressive about it than its size is its iconic place in Toledo’s history.

The St. James sits in the heart of the Vistula Historic District. The district got its name from the tiny Ohio village called Vistula that was established in 1833, four years before Toledo itself was created. Toledo was founded in 1837, partly from the merger between Vistula and another village, Port Lawrence.

City planners see the hotel as an important link to an overlay district they hope the city can someday beautify with better landscaping, street lights, and sidewalks.

Although the Vistula Historic District and the rest of North Toledo is economically stagnant today, officials have not forgotten their long-term vision.

Jennifer Sorgenfrei, Mayor Mike Bell’s spokesman, said any major modification to the St. James exterior would have to be reviewed by the Vistula Historic Commission, and major interior changes would require a special-use permit or zoning change. No such requests have been made, she said.

The hotel’s regional-commercial zoning classification allows it to be used for restaurants, retail, and residential uses, similar to parts of the UpTown district on Adams Street, Ms. Sorgenfrei said. She said the new owners are well-regarded by city officials, aware of the restrictions, and have “maintained a pretty consistent dialog with [the city plan] commission staff.”

United North, a community-development agency active in the Vistula district and other parts of North Toledo, had its eyes on the St. James for years.

It ultimately gave up its chance to acquire the site because it could not afford the nearly $4 million it estimated as the cost for converting it into the type of facility it had envisioned.

Terry Glazer, United North’s chief executive officer, said United North took a $393,000 cash settlement in 2012 to end litigation over the site.

The group did not have enough money to redevelop the St. James and the Ohio Theatre on Lagrange Street, which itself is about a $5 million project. United North already had invested more than $1 million into the theater when it had its chance for the St. James, Mr. Glazer said.

The litigation centered around a complicated deal in which United North had claimed it was entitled to compensation from the city of Toledo and others, including a subsidiary of the American Maritime Officers, for the 2012 sale of One Maritime Plaza.

United North had argued that one of its predecessors was supposed to get $2.5 million from the union for a federal Urban Development Action Grant that was used to finance the construction of One Maritime Plaza in the early 1980s. But One Maritime Plaza never generated enough money to help the union repay the loan.

The St. James is “a critical building to the redevelopment of Summit Street,” Mr. Glazer said.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.