Lonnie Homan lives just a block west of the historic St. James Hotel and would love to see the old building come back to life.
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As a property owner who has rehabilitated several houses in the Vistula Historic District, Mr. Homan has seen too many structures in his neighborhood torn down -- many that were neglected for so long that demolition became inevitable.
"I really do not want that building demolished," Mr. Homan said. "I would love to see somebody fix it up. My theory was to do commercial on the first and second floors and then [the top floors] would be apartments or condos -- market rate. That would be the ultimate. I would love to see it."
His "theory" is not far from what United North, a community development corporation in North Toledo, has proposed for the St. James -- a four-story brick structure at the corner of Summit and Lagrange streets that for many years featured a well-known French restaurant in its basement level. United North's $4 million renovation plan for the St. James is on hold for now, though, unless the funding comes together to resuscitate it.
A deal was in the works to move the project forward until the administration of Mayor Mike Bell and Toledo City Council scuttled it last month.
The problems date back some 15 years ago when the American Maritime Officers Building Corp. of Ohio, which owns the St. James, got a $2.5 million urban development action grant from the federal government to build One Maritime Plaza. The grant's terms required the maritime officers' union to pay back the money over 35 years to United North's predecessor, North River Development Corp., for reinvestment in the neighborhood.
But the union, stating that it never made any profit from One Maritime Plaza, has never paid North River a dime.
Terry Glazer, director of United North, said that as partial compensation, the two parties worked out an agreement whereby United North would be given the St. James, the adjacent lots, and $100,000, but it soon became apparent that deal was not feasible.
With a $35,000 grant from the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, United North hired an architect to draw up plans and cost estimates for restoring the St. James into a combination of commercial and residential space. The cost came back at $4 million.
Mr. Glazer said that after figuring in potential historic tax credits, bank loans, and grants, United North still was between $400,000 and $1 million short of being able to get the project done.
"If we took it, we wouldn't have resources to do what needs to be done," he said.
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Last month, Toledo City Council agreed to take possession of One Maritime Plaza and transfer ownership to the port authority, a tenant, in return for $143,000 and the port authority's commitment to spend $757,000 to upgrade the building. As part of the deal, council had talked about transferring the hotel, parking lots, and cash to United North to help compensate it for the urban development action grant, but that proposal ultimately was deleted.
Mr. Glazer said last week that the Bell administration was negotiating with United North to give the neighborhood group money from the One Maritime Plaza sale for the St. James Hotel renovations while simultaneously holding secret talks with the port authority.
"What the city should have done is protect the interests of taxpayers," Mr. Glazer told The Blade. "Taxpayer money, $2.5 million, is not going to be paid back to the North Toledo neighborhood, and it's so unjust. What the city did was offer the building to the port authority for whatever the port authority wanted to pay."
Jen Sorgenfrei, a spokesman for the Bell administration, did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.
Councilman Paula Hicks-Hudson, who cast the lone dissent in council's 9-1 vote approving the port authority sale, said she wasn't sure whether United North got a fair shake in the negotiations.
She said she voted no because more research was needed to determine whether the city could end up being responsible for repaying the federal grant, although the administration assured council that was not an issue.
"I wanted more than just a verbal conversation or an email or whatever," she said Saturday. "I wanted to make sure the city is not on the hook."
Deputy Mayor Tom Crothers said that after the real estate closing on One Maritime Plaza, the city plans to keep the $143,000 in a Community Development Block Grant fund. It will be up to council to present legislation authorizing use of that money, he said, explaining that the money could be paid to United North or used to fund other development efforts or organizations in that part of the city.
"It will be sitting there unless and until somebody moves it out of there for some purpose," he said.
"We want to save the building," Mr. Glazer said. "That building is critical because it's near another building we renovated, it's right by the streetscape that was done, the whole idea of the riverfront and being adjacent to downtown -- for so many reasons it made great sense. We still haven't given up."
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Ups and downs
Built in 1881 by Swiss immigrant and Toledo grocer Alex Weber, the St. James originally was called the Lagrange Hotel.
The 56-room Italianate structure, designed by Toledo architect Alex S. Young, "was fitted up throughout with hot-air heating apparatus, gas, water, and all the latest modern improvements," according to an article in Manufacturing & Mercantile Resources of Toledo, South Toledo, and Perrysburg, published in 1882.
The hotel occupied the upper three floors, and Mr. Weber ran his wholesale and retail "grocery, provision and liquor house" on the ground floor.
Mr. Weber's sons took over the business when he retired in 1898 and kept it going until 1917. The Morgan Oil Refining Co. purchased the building next, and some accounts say its reputation foundered as the years passed.
In his 1942 book, My Memoirs of the Gay 90s, Louis R. Effler wrote that Mr. Weber's "once-famous hotel, which used to house 'royalty' " had "now degenerated into a 'Men's Rooming House!' " just as many of the once-grand homes in the neighborhood had decayed and, in many cases, become rooming houses as well.
The hotel was remodeled in the 1970s and took on a new life as a dormitory for the ship officers union's Great Lakes training center. A popular French restaurant, the Wine Cellar, opened in the basement in 1978, attracting diners looking for a special night out until it closed in 1989.
Nancy Lehman, vice president at CBRE/Reichle Klein, said the St. James has been for sale for the past decade. She said she's shown it to numerous prospective buyers over the years, but no purchase offer has ever panned out.
For a time last year, Peter Hatas, a homeless engineer, had an option to buy the St. James and an adjacent building with plans to create a multipurpose facility that would include both affordable housing for military veterans and a soup kitchen. His option expired before he could raise the agreed-upon $75,000 purchase price.
The building and two nearby vacant lots for parking are listed at $345,000 and remain under the ownership of the American Maritime Officers Building Corp. of Ohio, which has maintained the St. James despite its vacant rooms.
Toni Battle Gaines, who owns the Scarlett Secor Mansion at Bush and Summit streets, said she was wowed by the St. James when she looked at it as a prospective buyer several years ago.
"It's beautiful. It's got one of those spiral staircases that goes all the way up, I think, to the third floor," she said. "It's a wonderful building inside."
In the Vistula Historic District -- Toledo's oldest neighborhood -- where dozens and dozens of houses and apartment buildings have been lost to demolition by neglect, that's a plus.
Richard Martinez, chairman of the Vistula Historic Commission, said United North's plan to turn the building into commercial and residential space "would be a very good outcome" for the St. James.
"If you come down Summit Street, which is important in downtown Toledo, it's a very prominent building," he said. "It's a handsome building architecturally."
United North's Mr. Glazer says he hopes his agency's vision for the building is still possible.
Meanwhile, it is up to United North to negotiate with the ship officers' union if it wants the St. James Hotel, he said. No further negotiations between United North and the city have been scheduled, Mr. Crothers said.
While Mr. Glazer said he would be glad to see someone in the private sector step up and renovate the St. James, he's not counting United North out on the project.
"We haven't given up at all. We're in a battle now," he said. "Our goal was to do that building, but we didn't expect to get what we got."
Staff writer Claudia Boyd-Barrett contributed to this report.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.