Neighbors seek answers on Marina District future

2 years have passed since sale to Chinese

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    The Martin Luther King, Jr., Bridge spans the Mau-mee River just south of the site of the proposed Marina District in East Toledo.

    The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
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  • The Martin Luther King, Jr., Bridge spans the Mau-mee River just south of the site of the proposed Marina District in East Toledo.
    The Martin Luther King, Jr., Bridge spans the Mau-mee River just south of the site of the proposed Marina District in East Toledo.

    John Debolt lives in a century-old home along the waterfront.

    He can peek over his front fence, watch the sun set, and spot motorboats, yachts, and huge freighters.

    Although the property sounds opulent, Mr. Debolt’s east side home is modest — valued at $32,700 according to Lucas County records — and he is behind on his property taxes.

    Depending on what blocks his view, losing sight of the Maumee River just beyond the Marina District in East Toledo could actually boost his property’s value.

    But Mr. Debolt said he isn’t convinced that will happen anytime soon.

    “They keep talking about it,” Mr. Debolt said pointing out across Front Street to the water and just north to three smokestacks — all that remains of the decommissioned, and now demolished, Toledo Edison Acme power plant.

    “They can fit three malls in there,” he said.

    “It would definitely up the economy.”

    More than a dozen years and $43 million from taxpayers for cleanup and infrastructure costs had gone into the Marina District when Mayor Mike Bell announced in April, 2011, that the city had a deal to sell much of the land.

    Dashing Pacific Group Ltd., a Chinese investor-owned firm that had already purchased the nearby Docks restaurant complex, paid $3.8 million for nearly 69 acres of the once-polluted property.

    Friday marked that sale’s two-year anniversary, and while Mr. Bell and others close to the investors are certain the property will one day become a vibrant development, others like Mr. Debolt and East Side Councilman Mike Craig are less confident.

    Mayor Bell thinks the smokestacks of the former Acme plant should be preserved.
    Mayor Bell thinks the smokestacks of the former Acme plant should be preserved.

    “Disappointed? Yes, I am,” Mr. Craig said. “I think that something could happen, even on a much smaller scale. It doesn't mean you have to start with the biggest part.”

    Mr. Craig said when Dashing Pacific investors Wu Kin Hung and Tina Yuan attended a July 2, 2011, ceremony at the Marina District — that included the dedication of a large rock — he was sure two years would be enough.

    “I thought by today, there would be some sort of development there and there would be people living, working, and shopping there,” he said. “I thought there would be some kind of activity. But I know there is every bit of potential now as there was two years ago, and I still hold out hope that we get something down over there.”

    Mr. Wu and Ms. Yuan declined interview requests from The Blade.

    Bill Rudolph, chairman of Rudolph/​Libbe Cos. — which in 2011 announced it had an agreement with Dashing Pacific to be the contractor on the $200 million to $300 million development project — said the investors are still very much committed.

    “Ms. Yuan was in town in early June to meet with us to discuss the project and we offered her some thoughts on approaches to address planning,” Mr. Rudolph said.

    “Clearly, they are on their own timetable and we certainly support that they need to be clear on their objectives,” he said.

    “There are a lot of ideas floating around on the property. It would be premature to put them in the public domain right now, and a lot are pretty fluid.”

    MXD Development Strategists Ltd., a Canadian real-estate consulting company, conducted an extensive marketing study for Dashing Pacific last year. Mr. Rudolph told The Blade at the time that the study highlighted the Marina District’s advantages, such as an extensive waterfront, bridges to the central business district, and view of the downtown skyline.

    But it also highlighted Toledo’s slow population growth, indicating an older population age than the national average, with the exception of student-aged young adults.

    Overall, the report recommended a mixed-use design for the district, including office, retail, residential, hospitality, educational, and entertainment on and around the site.

    Last week, Mr. Rudolph acknowledged that the local real-estate market has improved since July, 2011, but said it is still challenged.

    Toledo has gotten national media attention from Mayor Bell’s attempts to attract Chinese investors with his trips to the country and sale of riverfront land, which was followed by the private sale of the Park Inn Hotel downtown.

    The city’s Chinese investment connections were recently featured in a Forbes magazine article and have also been a topic for the New York Times.

    Ben Carlos Thypin, director of market analysis at Real Capital Analytics Inc., a research firm with offices in New York, said two years ago Chinese investors were edging into smaller markets like Toledo and Milwaukee, not just larger cities like New York and Chicago.

    But last week he said that may have been an anomaly, because lately Chinese investors seemed to have turned their attention back toward the big cities.

    “There haven’t been really any other middle American purchases,” Mr. Thypin said.

    “Everything else has been in a major city.”

    It’s also unusual for Chinese investors to sit on land for a long time, he said.

    “It is hard to generalize across all [Chinese investors], but generally speaking they are not in the business of land banking,” Mr. Thypin said. “They want to develop the land. I am looking at other development sites they have already started working on, and this does seem to be an anomaly.”

    He questioned if the developers are trying to secure some kind of incentive deal from the city.

    Mayor Bell said Dashing Pacific officials have asked for nothing — neither a tax abatement nor a job-creation tax credit — unlike other past developers who presented Marina District plans that crumbled.

    “Dashing Pacific is reorganizing itself to be able to move forward and figure out exactly what they want to do with that particular piece of property, which I think is going to be very positive for the city of Toledo,” the mayor said. “If I hadn't done what I did, that land would be just sitting over there.”

    In its agreement with the city, Dashing Pacific gave the city “a conditional repurchase option” five years after the sale if the property has not been developed. The agreement also gives the company an option to buy the former power plant site, which lies north of the 69 acres sold.

    Mayor Bell said the plant’s smokestacks could be saved and incorporated into a new development.

    Another developer — whom the mayor would not identify — suggested a plan last week for that property.

    Mr. Bell declined to elaborate, other than to say it would include sitting down with that person and Dashing Pacific officials.

    “I think [the smokestacks] should be preserved,” Mr. Bell said.

    “The plan that was presented last week by one person, who may be a potential developer, talked about how to incorporate the smokestacks into the projects ... I look at it as a piece of art and our intention is not to tear them down unless there is a stability problem.”

    Jim Miller, a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Oregon, suggested turning one of the old smokestacks into a lighthouse replica, similar to the one in Marblehead, Ohio.

    “Once they are torn down, then they are gone,” Mr. Miller said.

    “This is not going to be a slam dunk, easy project, and they are going to have to spend engineering time.”

    Deputy Mayor Paul Syring said the lighthouse idea was intriguing.

    “I thought they could be lit in a way that complements the main spire of the Veterans' Glass City Skyway bridge,” Mr. Syring said.

    “I am sure the mayor will inquire if Dashing Pacific has a desire, and I am sure we will solicit input."

    Contact Ignazio Messina at: or 419-724-6171.