Friday, Sep 21, 2018
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Tom Troy

Kiely housing a constant in Vistula

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    935 N Superior Street, seen here after it was approved for historical preservation tax credits in 2015, was one of 41 Vistula Heritage Village buildings that benefited from the projet..

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    Toledo favorite Mickey Finn’s Landmark Pub and Restaurant in the historic Vistula area.

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Twenty-seven years ago, when I first came to Toledo, I was taken by a colleague at the time to hear the Griswolds blues band play at Theos Taverna on North Summit Street.

The place was jammed, and I had the strong impression that this Vistula neighborhood was undergoing an urban revitalization.

Another of my new colleagues was so enamored of Vistula that he bought a house on North Huron Street, lived in it for a while, and then rented it out.

Later on, retired Toledo firefighter Mickey Finn bought the old Bouton’s Cafe neighborhood bar at Huron and Lagrange streets, renovated it to look like a real Irish pub, and started bringing in bands, at which he enjoyed great success for a while.

Vistula looked like a place that was coming back.

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The revitalization stalled as enthusiasm for downtown revitalization shifted to the Docks on the east side, the Warehouse District, and UpTown.

Theos was abandoned and then demolished. Mickey Finn’s stands empty today. And my former late colleague quit his real estate career after a succession of tenants who skipped out on the rent.

The North Toledo enclave has become one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in Toledo.

One of the few functioning businesses is the Summit Diner, run by owner Hassan Awada since 2002.

He said his windows have been broken so many times he’s ready to pack it in. He said windows are broken into three or four times a year and he keeps spare glass to replace the broken glass. He said his front door was broken several times in the last year. The copper tubing on his refrigeration compressor was stolen so he enclosed it in a steel cage.

The bright and well-kept diner has regulars — workers from downtown and retired folks from outside the neighborhood. His neighborhood visitors tend to be the ones who leave drug paraphernalia in the bathroom.

A constant throughout all of this has been the Vistula Management Co., which started redeveloping the historic houses and mansions of Vistula around 1980 under business partners Bill Hirt and John Kiely. Mr. Hirt died in 2015 at the age of 72.

Mr. Kiely is still going strong, having just completed a $33 million renovation of the Heritage Village Apartments, which includes 250 units in 41 buildings sprinkled throughout Vistula. The oval Vistula house number signs are ubiquitous.

The renovations were made possible by $17 million worth of low-income tax credits and $2 million in historic tax credits. Mr. Kiely’s company received and by a $9 million loan guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The renovations were new roofs, windows, and kitchens, and many other improvements, including some roof solar panels.

The project provides housing for around 600 people. All are subsidized by Section 8, under which the resident pays 30 percent of his or her income, whatever it might be. The rest of the rent is paid by the taxpayer. To qualify for Section 8, the renter’s income typically has to be lower than 50 percent of the median income in the county.

At a ribbon-cutting this week, Mr. Kiely celebrated Vistula as one of Toledo’s oldest neighborhoods. Vistula was the name of one of Toledo’s original townships. It was merged with Port Lawrence Township to make the city of Toledo in 1837.

Mr. Kiely deserves credit for keeping those buildings sound and occupied, and for pursuing the federal tax credits and Section 8 certificates that made it possible.

Some believe Vistula Management Co. has gone into overkill with its emphasis on Section 8 low-income housing, that, if not for Mr. Kiely and Mr. Hirt, the neighborhood would have developed with a more varied mix of incomes, such as in the Old West End.

Mr. Hirt’s son, Nick, once defended his father, saying no one else was stepping up to save those historic buildings.

“They would have been burnt down or abandoned,” Nick said.

Mickey Finn, who still lives in the neighborhood, also admires Mr. Kiely’s preservation and business success.

“John Kiely’s done a beautiful job. I couldn’t fault him for getting government money to put back into the project,” Mr. Finn said, noting that most housing projects are a group of buildings or a single building concentrated in one place, while Vistula Management has succeeded with historic buildings scattered throughout the neighborhood.

He said many projects are in the works in Vistula that will blossom soon.

Kevin and Ambrea Mikolajczyk, owners of a construction company, are redeveloping the former Continental Baking Co. building on North Summit into 24 market-rate loft apartments and commercial office space.

The city of Toledo, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, and some other partners are developing the Nautical Mile, a walk-bike path that will follow Summit Street from downtown to the Craig Memorial Bridge and over to the Marina District.

So once again, Vistula enjoys a buzz of revitalization. The latest infusion of investment into Vistula Heritage Apartments means that for the time being at least, decent housing will be provided and historic buildings maintained.

Contact Tom Troy at tomtroy@theblade.com419-724-6058, or on Twitter @TomFTroy.

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