Wednesday, June 21, 2000

Mason-Montgomery Road: 'Can't stop the development'

5 lanes of suburban splendor

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        DEERFIELD TWP. — Bob Carter remembers when most of Mason-Montgomery Road was a quiet, two-lane road surrounded by acres of cornfields and horse pastures.

        That was 44 years ago. Deerfield Township in Warren County was an ideal escape from Cincinnati's urban jungle — the perfect place to buy a home and raise a family, Mr. Carter said.

        “When I moved here, there were quite a few farms around and naturally a lot less people,” said Mr. Carter, 60, a former township trustee who now owns a barber shop in Mason. “There was no interstate. Kings Island hadn't been built yet. You could even drive up and down Mason-Montgomery and never pass more than one or two cars and maybe a wagon loaded with hay.”

        Today, a different kind of hay is being made along Mason-Montgomery Road.

        In the 21/2 miles from the Hamilton County line to Mason, 20,000 cars a day zip along a five-lane road with nary a cornfield in sight. Thanks to $400 million in investments, Mason-Montgomery has become a commercial and retail jewel — home to Governor's Point shopping center and Deerfield Crossing business park.

        It is the future site of what could be two of the premier shopping centers in the Tristate. An open-air retail center and a mall anchored by Nordstrom could arrive by 2003. Together, the two could open more than 1.1 million square feet of retail space.

Coveted demographics
        Duke-Weeks Realty Corp. has been a development powerhouse in Deerfield Township and the driving force behind many of the projects along southern Mason-Montgomery Road. Duke-Weeks senior vice president Ken Schuermann said the demographics of the area and access to Interstate 71 make the corridor extremely attractive — and expensive.

        Land for retail along Mason-Montgomery sells for $200,000 to $500,000 an acre. Land for office use peaks at about $150,000 an acre.

        “That's a high price for land, but it's pretty consistent with what you'll find in other regional trade areas of Greater Cincinnati that are experiencing rapid growth,” said Steve Brandt, president and chief executive officer of Brandt Retail Group Inc.

        Southern Warren County has been one of the fastest-growing areas in Ohio the past 10 years, thanks to developers spending millions to build luxury homes, shopping centers, hotels and such commercial complexes as Procter & Gamble Co.'s research and development center. Deerfield Township, a community of 22,000, features 500 businesses and posts nearly $100 million in new development each year.

        Continental Real Estate in Columbus says the population in Warren County grew 28.2 percent between 1990 and 1998. Those new residents are younger and have disposable income.

(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        For example, in the 5-mile radius from a point near Paramount's Kings Island in Mason, nearly half the population has an annual household income of more than $50,000. In the entire Greater Cincinnati region, that figure is 38 percent.

        In the Mason area, nearly half of the population is between ages 25 and 49. And another 13 percent are ages 14-24, another demographic often coveted by retail chains.

        “The same reason why Nordstrom is coming to Mason-Montgomery is the same reason that we are already here,” said Bob Frey, co-owner of Carrabba's Italian Grill, which will open in July. “We like the growth, visibility and access. And being a high-end casual dining restaurant, we like the affluence of the population.”

Saturation near
        But like nearby Fields Ertel Road, development along Mason-Montgomery is near saturation.

        About 120 acres on the west side of Mason-Montgomery, owned by Duke-Weeks, is the largest chunk of undeveloped land that remains.

        “Once Duke develops that land into the two new malls, that could well bring about the closure to development along Mason-Montgomery Road, at least in the township,” township Zoning Administrator Larry Weis said.

        Resident Nancy Winchester is thrilled to hear that. She thinks too much development has taken place already. The area's recent rapid growth has brought with it the inevitable headaches for some residents, especially lights, noise and traffic. Some wonder if Ma son-Montgomery is becoming another Colerain Avenue or Beechmont Avenue — choked with cars, signs and traffic lights.

        “I think they are building more than the roads can handle,” said Mrs. Winchester, a 46-year township resident. “The roads in that area are already a mess. There are certain times of the day when I won't even drive over there because I don't want to sit in traffic for an hour.”

        Township officials have heard residents' concerns. They knew growth was inevitable; controlling and planning for it are the keys.

        “Realistically, that land, because of its location, is too valuable to be anything but upscale commercial development. It is certainly too valuable to be continued on as a horse pasture,” said Dan Theno, Deerfield's administrator of development and community relations.

        “You can't stop the development; you can only plan for it.”

Benefits seen
        The retail boom has brought numerous benefits, Mr. Theno said. Among them are lower property taxes for residents, hundreds of good-paying jobs, and millions of dollars in road and infrastructure improvements.

        Property values also continue to rise and homes sell quickly because the area is in demand, he said.

        The average selling price for a home in Deerfield Township this year is $200,000 to $220,000, according to the Cincinnati Board of Realtors. That's more than twice the cost of a home 10 years ago.

        Neighboring Mason also has reaped the benefits of development along Mason-Montgomery. Income taxes generated by numerous high-tech firms are reducing residents' tax burden and paying for numerous quality-of-life improvements.

        Though Mason and Deerfield Township officials differ in their philosophies about how Mason-Montgomery should develop — Mason preferring the retail-free, high-tech office approach, while Deerfield pursues a retail/office mix — both know how important the corridor is to their communities.

        “Our focuses may be different, but collectively the types of businesses Mason and Deerfield have make Mason-Montgomery Road a full-service corridor,” said Melissa Koehler, Mason's economic development director.

        “The marriage of those two offers any amenity a body could want for a 3-mile stretch.”

        Anything — except perhaps some peace and quiet.

        “You have to take the good with the bad I guess,” said Mr. Carter.

        “The area's not perfect. But it suits me just fine.”


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