It has been more than three years since Columbus-based developer Frank Kass and city officials unveiled a sweeping plan for a $175 million retail and commercial project on the east bank of the Maumee River, an ambitious reclamation of an ugly stretch of riverfront that would bring new life to an area which overnight became known as the Marina District.
Now, 38 months after that grand announcement, City Hall's attempt to jump-start the project could jeopardize the entire development.
At the heart of the matter is the Ford administration's call a few months ago for new development proposals, apparently in the mistaken belief that Mr. Kass has lost interest in the project. The city solicited new plans for its development, a process known as Request for Proposals, or RFP.
The RFP went to scores of companies and individuals around the country, but only five responded, and we think we know why. As City Councilmen Robert McCloskey and Betty Shultz noted the other day at a press conference, the RFP's negativity - including references to the absence of financial support from Lucas County for a new sports arena on the East Side - may have discouraged some developers from applying.
Of the five proposals that did come in, it now appears that the Marina District Project Review Committee is leaning toward a plan submitted by local developer Bruce Douglas. If, as some believe, the process is greased for the politically connected Mr. Douglas, that is a mistake.
Mr. Douglas certainly has enriched himself over the years in development and construction, but his projects are not generally associated with the kind of quality that is absolutely essential for the Marina District.
Take a look at Savage Hall, home of the University of Toledo Rockets' men's and women's basketball teams. Constructed in the mid-1970s, it was known originally as Centennial Hall. Mr. Douglas was president of MacKinnon-Parker, Inc., when that firm was hired as coordinating consultant for the project.
When concerns about costs arose, the building design was altered and scaled back. Instead of a more elegant oval design, Centennial ended up a rectangular box, built as cheaply as possible. Since then it has been falling apart. Its roof developed so many leaks it had to be replaced last year. Designing on a budget and designing “cheap” are not the same.
Mr. Kass, on the other hand, develops first-class projects. His signature project in Pittsburgh is the hugely successful “The Waterfront,” a more than $300 million shopping/office/residential development on the site of U.S. Steel's former Homestead Works along the Monongahela River, across from the city's Squirrel Hill neighborhood. It has a vibrant night life and draws city and suburban shoppers.
We strongly believe that the calls for reopening the RFP process are justified. Moreover, a project outline should be drafted that speaks to the marvelous opportunity at hand.
If an applicant comes along whose plan retains the original thrust of the project - a quality development combining commercial, retail, and residential elements, plus an East Side arena - the City will have a new option to consider. In the meantime Mr. Kass and his original proposal should remain in play.
To those who say too much time has elapsed already, what's the rush? No construction can occur until the site cleanup, a slow task still in progress, is completed.
The Marina District is prime public property, 125 riverfront acres between the King Bridge and the spectacular new I-280 bridge. Toledo will get only one chance to do it right. The administration can take the time to ensure a quality development, or it can, in its impatience, rush into something done on the cheap that it will forever regret.