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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2004

Floated condos, 10 years afterward

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE REAL ESTATE WRITER
One of the buildings that once stood on the banks of the Maumee offers a sweeping view of Lake Erie and seven islands. One of the buildings that once stood on the banks of the Maumee offers a sweeping view of Lake Erie and seven islands.
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Toledo real-estate developer Phil Cox was wrapped up in one of the strangest projects of his career. And he was nervous.

With deep winter fast approaching, he had precious little time before ice on the Maumee River and southwest Lake Erie stopped him from floating an upscale downtown Toledo condominium complex to its new berth in Lakeside, Ohio, in Ottawa County.

Adding to the developer's anxiety: He hadn't nailed down a barge on which to finish the move.

Ten years ago this week, the mission was accomplished.

Toledo's troubled Commodore Island condominiums were no more. In their place on the downtown Middlegrounds was a vacant lot that soon would be the site for Owen's Corning's ocean-liner-like world headquarters building.

Sailing away with the condos was a failed early attempt to promote downtown living.

It would be four years before resolution of a political scandal that left then-Mayor Carty Finkbeiner red-faced.

The 15-unit project was considered a success. But it was no windfall for developers.

After slapping down $1.2 million to buy eight waterfront acres in Lakeside, $500,000 for the move, and other costs, Mr. Cox and his partners reaped a meager profit.

"We had a hell of a lot of fun, looking back on it," he reflected in an interview last week.

A lot has changed in the decade since.

With the once nonexistent market for housing in downtown Toledo now growing, Mr. Cox quipped: "Everything's cooking downtown. We're getting ready to move them back."

Meanwhile, in Lakeside, the project - again named Commodore Island -has nearly doubled in size to 27 units, housing values have skyrocketed, and owners are pleased with their homes and the units' rich provenance.

"It's pretty exciting," said Margaret James, retired from a career as a teacher in the Columbus suburb of Bexley. "We have a picture of the move on our wall."

She and husband, Leno, purchased the place in 1998 as a vacation home. They have had few problems with the house that might have resulted from the move. "There were some cracks in the walls that we had fixed," Mrs. James said. "The only thing is the sliding glass doors. The screens don't slide right."

Added Linda Price, a retired teacher from Dayton who lives year-round in her unit, "If you tell people where you live, they tell you they watched them come in." She, too, has pictures of the lake crossing.

The units, which ranged from 1,600 to 2,500 square feet, sold for $155,000 to $265,000 once in place in 1995 on the Lakeside property, which includes 370 feet of frontage on Lake Erie, according to Ottawa County records.

Eight of the 15 units, which are in three buildings, are still owned by the original Lakeside buyers.

A smaller unit sold last month for $265,000, or 63 percent more than the $163,000 paid by the last buyer eight years ago, county records show.

The most recent sale before that was in 2002 when a home that fetched $170,000 in 1996 sold for $230,000.

Mr. Cox and new investors built additional units in 1999, 2000, and 2002. One unit from the most recent batch remains unsold, although Mr. Cox is negotiating with a buyer.

"It's just about as complete as it's going to be," the developer said, adding that he has run out of room to expand. Recent improvements include a swimming pool and a sprinkler system.

Today, the project is overseen by a homeowners association, which charges each owner $200 a month for upkeep and maintenance.

Although buyers have done well, the project generated at least two lawsuits between developers and vendors. The disputes were eventually settled.

Mr. Cox's first problem was finding a suitable space to move the project. "I drove all around from Monroe to way past Port Clinton," he recalled. One site was eliminated because it would have required a trip under a bridge that was too low to accommodate the buildings.

Once he settled on the Lakeside site, which overlooks seven Lake Erie islands, Mr. Cox had to find a mover.

For that he hired two companies including AA House Movers, of suburban Cleveland. The firm had performed three previous water jobs, including moving a lakefront home in Bay Village, Ohio that belonged to the father of Dr. Sam Sheppard, who was the subject of a sensational murder trial in the 1950s and was the inspiration for a hit TV show of the 1960s called The Fugitive.

The first two Commodore Island buildings were successfully moved by early December, 1994. However, after procedural matters surfaced with the third building, the move was delayed until late in December. When issues emerged involving the owner of the barge used in the earlier moves, project planners went hunting for another barge. They found it on the Mississippi River.

Despite fears of developers, the move went smoothly on Dec. 21, 1994. "We had mild conditions," recalled Jim Kazak, president of AA Movers. "The photos are amazing. It looks like a summer day."

It was a new beginning for a project that had gone badly in Toledo.

Construction on a planned 350 condo units began on the downtown Middlegrounds in July, 1988.

A year later, amid financial problems and unsold units, developers halted work with less than a fifth of the project completed. Eleven unoccupied units were sold at auction in May, 1992. Among the successful bidders was then-Toledo Councilman Carty Finkbeiner, who snagged a condo for $60,000.

That purchase came back to haunt him two years later when, under then-Mayor Finkbeiner, Toledo struck a deal to buy the condos as a site for a new headquarters for the city's third-largest corporation, Owens Corning, a manufacturer of building products.

When it was revealed that Mr. Finkeinber stood to triple his original investment in the condo, political opponents pounced on his role as a negotiator in the OC deal. The Ohio Ethics Commission investigated.

He ultimately pleaded guilty criminally to a technicality: that he failed to disclose a $10,000 payment made to him - and other condo owners - by Mr. Cox and other buyers as an incentive to move early. Mr. Finkbeiner paid $400 in fines and court costs, but called the incident "an honest mistake."

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


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