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Published: Wednesday, 7/19/2006

Riverfront project gets new leader; developer Dillin created Levis Commons complex

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo has a new $150 million plan and a new leader to guide development of the 125-acre Marina District and surrounding area.

The new vision includes housing, an amphitheater, ice rink complex, and future entertainment district that would link with International Park on the other side of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Bridge.

The idea, this time, is to build quality waterfront housing and a marina with boat slips that would later attract retailers and boaters, large and small, from Toledo and surrounding Great Lakes communities.

"We want young people to see Toledo as a place where downtown can be a lot of fun and entertainment," said Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, who announced the different direction yesterday for the 6-year-old project. "And people off the Great Lakes can come here and enjoy themselves immensely during the warm weather months."

The plan for the East Toledo waterfront, across the Maumee River from downtown, marks the return to the project of Larry Dillin, who was announced yesterday as its master developer - the fifth since the Marina District proposal was announced in 2000.

He first was involved in 2003, under previous Mayor Jack Ford, as part of a development team called River East Joint Venture led by Bruce Douglas.

The Marina District sits on the east bank of the Maumee River. The large structure at center right is the Sports Arena.
The Marina District sits on the east bank of the Maumee River. The large structure at center right is the Sports Arena.
Enlarge

That team left the project in 2004 after a disagreement with the Ford administration about how new property taxes generated from the project would be spent.

Since then, Mr. Dillin and his Dillin Corp. have gained acclaim for the successful Town Center at Levis Commons in Perrysburg and ambitious plans to renovate the Southwyck Shopping Center in South Toledo. His specialty has become designing and building neighborhoods that mix in retail and entertainment venues.

Mr. Dillin's role this time would be more guide than actual builder. He would oversee the project in exchange for fees and right of first refusal to develop some of the waterfront land where the Toledo Sports Arena now sits. Toledo City Council still must approve his involvement and the contract.

The new Marina District project would begin with the construction of 50 housing units by Rowhouse Environment LLC by spring. The new units would be built behind International Park, which includes The Docks restaurant complex.

A new ice rink facility, with two sheets of ice, would be up and running near the former Acme Power Plant by September, 2007.

As part of the proposed arrangement, Mr. Dillin and Dillin Corp. would receive $65,000 for design work, $8,500 a month as master developer, and 4 percent of land sales to builders and other developers.

Mr. Dillin said yesterday that some previous plans for the district lacked an overarching vision for not just the 125 acres but also the surrounding East Toledo neighborhood, which has been economically depressed for years.

"What hasn't come together yet is that overall vision," he said. "We only get one chance to get it right. What happens in the Marina District now is going to define Toledo for several decades to come."

For six years, through fits and starts and various failed attempts, the former industrial land, now cleaned using millions in state grants, has held the promise of new contemporary development and the money such development would bring.

Political fortunes have risen and fallen on what has become a third rail of Toledo local politics - the stalled Marina District and lackluster economic development efforts, in general.

The new plan and Mr. Dillin's involvement represent the best new chance for the East Toledo waterfront, Mr. Finkbeiner said.

But much of it is still a passel of ideas. The actual placement of the various pieces, such as the amphitheater, is yet to be decided. And some of the developers for various aspects have yet to be identified.

But the general vision emphasizes housing, public projects, and a bike-and-walking path along the river's edge. It also includes razing the Sports Arena, which sits at the foot of the MLK bridge, and connecting the areas on the north and south sides of the bridge in what Mr. Dillin and others hope would slowly become an entertainment district.

As a result, residents and visitors could walk from the Marina District, go under the MLK bridge, and exit at International Park and The Docks. There would be other restaurants and shops situated along the riverside walking path.

The arena land is too valuable to be a "box surrounded by a parking lot," Mr. Dillin said. Plans for a new sports arena on the other side of the river - in downtown - are under way, Mayor Finkbeiner said.

Mr. Dillin's taking over of the Marina District project marks a new chapter in the story of the snake-bitten development that was first announced in August, 2000, near the end of Mr. Finkbeiner's second term.

The project became a major failing for Mayor Ford, during his only term from 2002 to this year, and it has taxed Mr. Finkbeiner in his current term. He tried and failed earlier this year to attract major retailer Bass Pro Shops as an anchor for new development on the fallow land.

Since then, the mayor and his development team, which meets every Friday morning to strategize about the project, consulted with Mr. Dillin as they worked on the public aspects of the project.

Those include building a road that would connect Front Street to the marina and boat slips, securing legislative funding for the amphitheater predicted to have 4,000 to 6,000 seats, and building a passenger terminal in an attempt to attract Great Lakes cruise ship business.

Under the Dillin plan, the major emphasis switches from attracting retail to building homes that would raise the value of the housing stock in East Toledo. After housing, the retail should follow, the mayor and Mr. Dillin said.

"This is, in my judgment, as valuable a piece of property as we have in the city of Toledo, at the moment, to offer to our own people and everybody who has a boat on the Great Lakes or who just wants come to a great water-related restaurant or night spot," Mr. Finkbeiner said yesterday.

"We've got one of the great spots on the Great Lakes."

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick

at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6077.



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