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Published: Sunday, 2/1/2004

Downtown housing shows signs of life

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The spacious River West Townhomes on South St. Clair Street, modeled after a Chicago rowhouse project, have attached garages and, for the party-minded, rooftop decks. The spacious River West Townhomes on South St. Clair Street, modeled after a Chicago rowhouse project, have attached garages and, for the party-minded, rooftop decks.
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When Mac McCarthy converted a downtown Toledo warehouse into a 27-unit condominium development 18 months ago, some people thought he was crazy.

But Mr. McCarthy, a veteran builder in his first downtown project, sold all of his units in less than a year and other developers took notice.

Several blocks away, on South St. Clair Street, the first phase of a 40-unit townhome complex built by a Bowling Green developer is nearly complete. Seven have been sold.

Across Summit, on Ottawa Drive, near the Owens Corning building, Mr. McCarthy has completed another condo project. Fifteen of The Ottawa s 22 units have sold.

Mr. McCarthy said he soon will close on a third downtown building that he will convert to condos. He declined to name the location.

With the units costing from $125,000 to more than $300,000, downtown Toledo - specifically the Warehouse District - is attracting the sort of residents previously thought more likely to buy condos and townhomes in the suburbs: professional singles and couples.

“It s pretty exciting, isn t it?” said Kathy Steingraber, executive director of the Toledo Warehouse District Association.

“We were asked in 1997 if we would really get people to live down here. It s working. It s just wonderful to see people out and walking in this neighborhood. It s extremely rewarding. People are coming home to downtown.”

For the past 20 years, there have been assorted attempts to get people to live downtown as part of an urban revival. Developers planned a 350-unit condo complex on the Maumee River at the Middlegrounds, but a downtown retail development program that included Portside Festival Marketplace fizzled and only 15 units were built. The condos were later sold at auction and transported by water to Catawba Island to clear the site for the Owens Corning headquarters.

The downtown revitalization movement resurfaced a decade ago when developers, with city backing, renovated downtown landmarks such as the Hillcrest, Commodore Perry, LaSalle, and Toledo Trust buildings. Coupled with other rental projects, such as New Cheney Flats and Uptown Arts, more than 2,500 residents moved downtown.

But critics argued that more than two-thirds of those residents were renters living in taxpayer-subsidized housing. For example, the city has had to pay up to $500,000 a year to subsidize the Commodore project, which has been only a moderate success.

Without more market-rate housing and resident-owned housing, the skeptics said, downtown would not prosper as a socially and economically diverse neighborhood that retailers would consider viable enough to set up shop.

Enter Mr. McCarthy, who previously had only built suburban developments. He said the LaSalle, Hillcrest, and Commodore projects inspired him to launch his condo development on South Huron at Lafayette Street. Though pleased he sold all 27 units within 12 months - a few of which have been resold for more money - he said marketing homes downtown presents a challenge.

“There are only two kinds of people: the ones that want to live downtown and the ones where it never enters their mind. The amount of downtown lookers is small compared to suburban lookers,” he said.

Nathan Fitzgerald fits the stereotype of the downtown looker. The single, 28-year-old network engineer recently bought a four-story townhome in the River West Townhomes development on South St. Clair. Mr. Fitzgerald works downtown, has friends who live downtown, has season tickets to the Toledo Mud Hen games at neighboring Fifth Third Field, and enjoys the district s growing nightclub and restaurant life.

“I like the environment; it s a lot of fun,” he said. “Downtown living in any city is [especially attractive] to the 20 and 30-year-old age group - people with a go-getter, adventure mentality. There s just a great community feeling here.”

At the same time, Mr. Fitzgerald said he also enjoys the fact that downtown is not busy all the time.

“It s really cool at night during the week,” he said.

“It s very quiet. Weekend days are also quiet. In the suburbs it s a traffic jam all day long.”

The genesis for the River West development came from Michelle and Steve Green, who developed the 14-unit, market-rate Sunflower Building on Lafayette in 2002.

Mecca Management of Bowling Green, jointly operated by Mr. Green and his sister, Michelle Remeis, joined their father, Al Green, of A.A. Green Realty, Inc., to develop the River West project.

“We felt like there was a market here, a need for residential housing that was different from what everyone else had,” said Mark Remeis, Michelle s husband and lead sales agent on the River West project.

Modeled after a similar row house development in downtown Chicago, River West features brick and block exteriors and spacious, open-air interiors. Each unit has an attached garage and a private, roof-top deck for party-minded tenants, such as Mr. Fitzgerald.

Like Mr. McCarthy, Mr. Remeis said downtown buyers are set apart.

“We ve had some people who have lived in bigger cities and when they come here they instantly fall in love with it.

“They understand it, and there s no comparison between the prices here and those [in the bigger cities],” he said.

Mr. McCarthy s success on South Huron led him last year to develop The Ottawa, which features larger units than the South Huron complex and has indoor parking rather than a detached garage.

The Ottawa, River West, and the South Huron projects are not without taxpayer help.

A state-backed tax-abatement program will save some owners as much as $3,500 in property taxes for up to 15 years.

“That was the number two reason for me buying downtown,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.

Not everything has gone swimmingly for the developers, who turn over the operation of their complexes to the homeowner associations after 75 percent of the units are sold.

Mr. McCarthy was sued in May by the South Huron complex association after the building s only elevator was shut down by state inspectors.

He declined to comment on the court case. Resident Bren Blaine loves downtown living but said that the elevator issue is causing serious problems for South Huron s upper-floor residents.

Mr. McCarthy has plenty to say about the future of market rate housing downtown, and what needs to be done to keep it going.

“We have a long way to go if we want to continue developing downtown Toledo. Fifty-three condo sales in a three-year period is not a good [sales] rate,” he said.

“If we get a [new] sports arena next to the SeaGate Centre, we ll get a thousand people living down here two years after that.”

Mr. Fitzgerald said downtown would become more attractive to would-be retailers and existing retailers would benefit from more owner-owned housing.

“All of us who live downtown are committed to support businesses that are [here],” he said.



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