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Published: 6/10/2010

Southwyck site still in limbo

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

From Reynolds Road in South Toledo, it appears as a gaping expanse of open space between languishing strip malls and near-vacant office complexes.

Acres of crumbling parking lot are sprouting forests of weeds. At the property's center, where a Y-shaped shopping mall stood for 36 years, there is now a grassy field.

Nature has overtaken commerce these days at the site of the former Southwyck Shopping Center, a dominant retail force of the 1970s and '80s that gradually spiraled into decline until the lights went out in late June, 2008.

Piece by piece last year the structure came down at a cost of $2.6 million, shared by property owners and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Two years since the curtain closed and its carousel stopped, Southwyck is an empty footprint looming large on the city landscape and causing much angst in its south-end neighborhood. What happens next to 2040 South Reynolds Rd. is felt to have crucial implications for the area's future.

"When we moved here [in 1984], this was kind of the happening place," said Chad Gilligan, pastor of Calvary Assembly of God on Glendale Avenue near the mall. "But at a certain point, that became less of a milestone and more of a stigma."

Local officials and developers share predictions that someday, in some form, something will rise from Southwyck's ashes because the location is just too high-traffic and valuable. Yet so far, no one has stepped forward with definite plans and solid financing.

And not everyone agrees on what should go up on the property, whose ownership is divided among three out-of-town entities.

Developer Larry Dillin sees potential for a mixed-used development of retail, office, and resi-dential space similar to the Levis Commons he built in Perrysburg.

Southwyck "is ready for development. It's just that the marketplace isn't ready yet, but it will come back," Mr. Dillin said last week.

For some residents, anything from parkland to community gardens is welcome at Southwyck - except for more retail.

"We've got to think about something else other than shopping," Southwyck neighbor Veronica Devilbiss, 56, said. "The way the economy is, people can't afford to go out and spend anymore."

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) has suggested building an arena there for competitive horse shows, capitalizing on the close proximity to the Ohio Turnpike and, by extension, the region's farming communities.

The Southwyck neighborhood is to be a discussion topic at today's meeting of the Toledo Plan Commission. Commissioners are to vote on an update to the Toledo 20/20 Land Use Plan that would cover the mall site and its surrounding neighborhood.

City planners ask that the Southwyck property, which is zoned regional commercial and covers more than 68 acres, be recommended for "urban village" uses. While that designation wouldn't preclude the site from becoming other things, like a park or Miss Kaptur's horse show arena, it would serve as a guide during the zoning approval process for future development.

"Southwyck is the most important piece of real estate for the future of Toledo," said Toledo City Councilman D. Michael Collins, the district's representative. "It's located at the front door to the city; 67,000 cars pass Southwyck on a daily basis."

The former mall was once a crown jewel in northwest Ohio. It had 103 stores during its late 1970s heyday in addition to three retail anchors, the "Old Towne" minimall wing, a video game arcade, and one of the first seven-theater movie venues in the world.

Yet the crowds thinned as Southwyck faced increased competition from strips malls and the Westfield Franklin Park shopping mall, which underwent a series of expansions and renovations while Southwyck stayed much the same.

Southwyck also had a perception of crime or danger that it never fully shook. "They had too many youngsters in there acting ugly," said Shirley Rayford, 65, of nearby Glenridge Drive.

Neighbors say the pace of decay in their area has picked up in recent years, its effects evident in the string of vacant storefronts and hotels in the mall's vicinity, and the parade of "for lease" signs outside the office duplexes ringing Southwyck Boulevard.

"This is urban plight at its finest," said Jeff Rozek, owner of South End Sports Bar and Grille, on Glendale near the boulevard's intersection. "It's become harder and harder to do business here."

The mall's managing partner is Tom Morgan of MD Management in Kansas City, Mo., a firm formerly known as Dreiseszun & Morgan. Various trusts of the Morgan and Dreiseszun families own about half of Southwyck through a firm called S-S-C Co.

The rest is owned by Dillard's Inc. of Little Rock, with the exception of the former Dillard's store site, which is owned by the M.G. Herring Group of Dallas. Representatives for MD Management and Dillard's did not return messages seeking comment.

Mr. Dillin said he maintains good relations with the principals of the property, though he is not under contract with them. The plan is to wait for the economy to rebound and see what the local market calls for.

"We all agree that now is just not the right environment," Mr. Dillin said. "If we did something today, it would have to be of such low quality that I wouldn't want to be involved in it. We need to wait for a better environment so we can do something special like that area deserves."

Jennifer Sorgenfrei, spokesman for Mayor Mike Bell, said the city recently had discussions with a developer who is thinking of an office complex on the property. She declined to identify the developer, but said it was not Mr. Dillin.

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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