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Published: Saturday, 9/4/2004

Downtown restoration spreads

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE REAL ESTATE WRITER

Two years after the opening of Toledo's minor-league baseball park helped reignite interest in downtown's vacant storefronts and warehouses, the roar of construction equipment continues.

Although major condominium projects like Riverwest Townhomes and the Ottawa have grabbed the spotlight, lower-profile restoration of smaller structures also is under way.

Mayoral deputies overseeing Toledo's building inspection and economic development departments were unable last week to provide information about the number of outstanding building permits downtown or such projects receiving financial assistance from the city.

But Peter Gozza, president of the nonprofit Downtown Toledo Inc. said: "Things are starting to pick up."

A number of developments has helped increase momentum, he said, including rental of the restored Woolworth's and Osterman's buildings at Superior and Adams and St. Clair and Adams streets, respectively; sidewalk and street improvements undertaken by municipal officials; and selection of a developer for the long dormant steam plant on the riverfront.

Commercial projects under way in downtown's Warehouse District include restoration of the former Walt's Auto Glass at Washington and Superior streets by the owners of Tony Packo's Cafe and another business.

Phil Browarsky and his wife, Linda Jones, are beginning work on the former Bassett Nut building at South Huron Street and Washington, which they plan to use for their legal offices and for investment housing.

Including the price they paid for the structure in May, they expect to sink nearly $1 million into the building. That will be offset somewhat by federal tax credits they will receive for restoring a building that is considered a historic landmark, as well as a possible grant from a municipal program to promote restoration of downtown building facades.

Mr. Browarsky, a general practitioner, and his wife, who specializes in Social Security and disability law, will use most of the first floor for offices. The second story will be split into two loft-style apartments of about 1,800 square feet each.

Initial work has included removal of bricks sealing window openings and a badly buckled concrete floor on the first story.

Although the couple had toyed with the idea of repairing the existing floor, they were glad they replaced it instead when they saw what was underneath: a sizable sink hole caused by a defective rainwater drainage system.

"Our experts told us that if we hadn't removed the floor, the building might have cracked," Mr. Browarsky said.

The building has architectural features they plan to preserve, such as vintage livery doors that will be removed for restoration and then re-hung.

Now, they are awaiting the arrival of new windows, which had to be custom-made because of the unusual sizes. The couple hope to be in the building by November.

Most of the surrounding buildings, in an area known as Huron Street Village, have been rehabilitated.

They include the Emporium, a restaurant and night club at 25 South Huron that has been attracting large weekend crowds since opening in the spring.

The building attained some notoriety during renovations last November, when an exterior wall collapsed in a windstorm. "It saved me a lot of money actually, because it was going to be torn down anyway," said owner John Bates, Jr., 26.

Sales have been strong and the establishment is already profitable, he added.

The owner estimates he has invested $1.5 million into the project. He now plans to begin work on the second floor, which is to include a VIP section and a separate apartment for the owner.

Other projects include the 87-year-old Home Furniture building, 23 North Summit St. Windows have been replaced, the mechanical system has been updated, and the first floor has been converted to a hall known as the Event Center that can accommodate 500.

Lead investor Gary Jacob, a longtime restaurateur, bills it as the only freestanding banquet hall with a good view of the Maumee River. He said he hopes to lease the three remaining floors as offices or loft apartments.

So far, investors have pumped $800,000 into the building. The banquet hall has been the site of about 50 events, and Mr. Jacob said he hopes to attract more. "Everything's a struggle," he conceded. "People don't know we're here yet."

At least one project has stalled. Developers, including real estate executive Joe Swolsky, suspended work about a month ago on 3 and 9 North St. Clair St. while negotiations continue with a prospective tenant that had indicated it would share office space with Mr. Swolsky's Park West Realty.

Mr. Swolsky said late last week he is unsure when work will resume, but that Park West is going ahead with the other major downtown project in which it is involved: conversion of the Bartley Building, on Washington Street at Ontario, into 55 loft condominiums. Developers there expect to have a model ready soon to show to prospective buyers, Mr. Swolsky said.

Jeff Kimble, an owner of downtown advertising agency Communica, 31 North Erie St., is pleased to see continued re-development of buildings in the Warehouse District and larger downtown area.

He purchased the original home of Grumpy's Deli - which moved to the Huron Street Village - and is converting it into living space.

The project is about 50 to 60 percent complete, he said. Most of the work in the building, on North Michigan Street at Washington, involves modification of room layouts and floor plans because the prior owner completed significant restoration.

He is doing the work himself and hopes to have it completed by the end of the year.

Mr. Gozza, of Downtown Toledo Inc., has been watching the activity with excitement. "There were all these incredible old warehouses just sitting there," he said. "They were opportunities waiting to happen."

Contact Gary Pakulski at: gpakulski@theblade.com or 419-724-6082.



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