Renaissance fueled a downtown revival

The Renaissance Senior Apartments complex, which opened 10 years ago, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Renaissance Senior Apartments complex, which opened 10 years ago, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Downtown Toledo was a much different place 10 years ago when National Church Residences took a $3.4 million gamble and renovated the old Willard Motor Hotel.

The 10th anniversary of the Renaissance Senior Apartments, which will be celebrated Saturday with a barbecue, marks not only a gamble that paid off, but the beginning of a new life for Toledo's core.

There hasn't been a lot of fanfare about the upcoming anniversary as seniors relaxed quietly on benches in front of the 55-unit complex that surrounds the Valentine Theatre. But owners of the complex in the 400 block of North St. Clair Street and their neighbors at Trinity Episcopal Church believe there should be.

“We feel this was the catalyst to all of the [new] things that are downtown now,” said Van Ambrose, the foundation vice president with National Church Residences, based in Columbus. “I think the building has a lot of importance. It was the first step in building renovation downtown.”

Supporters say the apartment renovation provided the impetus to the refurbishing of the Valentine. The Valentine and the hotel were scheduled for the wrecking ball in the 1980s.

“I think [the apartment building] has been a wonderful landmark for Toledo and downtown,” said Valerie Garforth, who sits on the Renaissance's board and is an officer at Trinity Episcopal Church. “I'm not sure if the contribution of the Renaissance [to downtown redevelopment] has ever been recognized. It has played a vital role.”

All the units in the Renaissance, which houses low and moderate-income seniors 62 years old and older, are full. There is a group home on the second floor that can take residents from 54 and up.

Mayor Jack Ford, who was a member of Toledo City Council when the Renaissance project tried to get off the ground, said he recalls the debate over using community development block grant money for the venture.

“That was a real struggle,” Mr. Ford said. “I think it's clearly a symbol of living in downtown Toledo as a viable concept. There was a group of supporters, including [Blade Publisher and Editor-in Chief] John Robinson Block, who really pushed for it. It turned out that he was right about it.”

The Renaissance and the Valentine are both on the National Registry of Historic Buildings. The majestic lobby, which includes large murals depicting characters from Charles Dickens, remains an attraction, Mrs. Garforth said.

But it had to overcome naysayers who said downtown didn't have the amenities - grocery, retail, and parking - to make an apartment building successful. Some questioned that only the elderly could live in the building and it was not open to everyone.

Mr. Ambrose said National Church Residences, which operates 170 apartment complexes in 30 states, believed it could be done. The organization also manages Arlington by the Lake, in south Toledo, and Executive Towers near downtown.

“We were very confident that affordable housing would work there,” said Mr. Ambrose. “The building itself has such a rich history. Now you have things like the baseball stadium that has moved in to the south of downtown. Everything like of started north and move south.”

Mrs. Garforth said Trinity quickly adopted their new neighbors, sharing programs and activities. For the 10th anniversary, the church purchased two benches that will sit permanently outside the front doors.

“They bring in the benches they have now because someone could easily walk off with them,” Mrs. Garforth said. “These benches will remain outside and will be connected [to the sidewalk] in some way.”

The barbecue will run from noon to 5 p.m. giving the residents and supporters an opportunity to share in the success of the building, she said.