Friday, February 23, 2001

Home's sweet in Norwood

Floral Ave. Victorians beckon to young moderns

By Walt Schaefer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NORWOOD — An urban renaissance is unfolding in this city's historic Floral Avenue corridor, a neighborhood of graceful Victorian homes and tree-lined streets that has become one of the hottest housing markets in the Tristate.

        Drawn by the popular Rookwood shopping area, the proliferation of office towers and the area's easy access to downtown, young professionals are zeroing in on the abundant — and affordable — century-old homes nearby.

[photo] A two-family on Ashland Avenue attracted Mark and Stephanie Losh to Norwood. They're within walking distance of the Rookwood shopping developments.
(Dick Swaim photo)
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        The results: a dramatic increase in home sales and property values over the past decade, and an improving image for a city once thought of as gritty and blue-collar.

        Mark Losh, who bought his home on Ashland Avenue in 1997, likens activity here to “an army of human worker ants out there cutting grass, painting window trim and shutters, doing any number of fix-up projects.”

        “People drive by looking at the houses and looking to see if any are for sale. It wasn't much like that five years ago,” he said.

        Realtors attest to the neighborhood's growing popularity.

        “That area is really hot,” said Carol Case, a Norwood resident and agent for Jordan Realtors who specializes in Norwood properties. “Young adults, newly married, getting established, are moving here. They want to live in Hyde Park or Oakley but can't afford $200,000 to $300,000 homes. The same house, the same builder, is half the price in that area of Norwood.

        “I've always told young home buyers Norwood is the best-kept secret in Hamilton County. Now the secret is getting out,” she said.

        An Enquirer analysis of home sales in the neighborhood, bounded by Smith Road and Interstate 71 on the east and Montgomery Road on the west, bears out that assessment.

        In 1990, 36 homes were sold at an average price of $57,200, according to First American Real Estate Solutions, a company that gathers real estate sales information for the Enquirer and others. Last year, 68 homes changed hands at an average of $106,500 — a jump in price of more than 86 percent.

        Those increases surpass even popular beltway communities such as West Chester and Loveland, where prices rose by 34 percent and 31 percent, respectively, during the '90s. In Hamilton County overall, prices went up 52 percent.

Rookwood gave spark
        Rookwood Commons and the older Rookwood Pavilion zeroed in on the east Norwood site because of its location, and the buying power of residents who live in upscale Cincinnati neighborhoods a short drive away, said Tom Hoffman, chief financial officer of Rookwood developer Jeffery R. Anderson Real Estate.

        “The main reason we went to Norwood was demographics — the density of people and the high-end shoppers living in the immediate area. That includes Hyde Park, Oakley, Mount Lookout,” he said.

        Those numbers are impressive: More than 300,000 people live within five miles of Rookwood. Twenty-eight percent of those households earn more than $50,000 annually. In 1998, more than $3 billion was generated in retail sales within a five-mile radius of Rookwood.

        “Rookwood has certainly changed the dynamics of retailing in the area,” said George Flynn, general manager of North Ridge Realty Group, a real estate brokerage, property management and development company. Mr. Flynn has studied retail development in Greater Cincinnati since the mid-1980s.

        “High-end shoppers have traditionally gone to Kenwood (Towne Center). Rookwood, particularly the newer Rookwood Commons, has several one-of-a-kind upscale stores (in the Greater Cincinnati market). It is giving (Kenwood) shoppers an alternative,” Mr. Flynn said.

        And Rookwood's success has helped drive the housing market nearby.

        “Retail is a very vital amenity to the desirability and valuation of real estate,” said Stan Eichelbaum, president of Marketing Developments Inc., a Cincinnati-based retail consulting firm. Developers and planners are realizing that locating “residential next to retail is servicing a lot of people” who prefer the convenience of close-by shopping, he said.

Location, location ...

        To the people moving here, the historic homes; the proximity to restaurants, shopping and social activities; and a relatively short commute downtown are powerful lures.

        And, as buyers are finding out, they need to move quickly.

        During their search, Mr. Losh and his wife, Stephanie, missed out on a handsome Victorian that had just been put up for sale. Driving down Ashland Avenue, he saw an agent planting a “For Sale” sign at another home. He called his agent immediately, and soon after the Loshes had purchased the three-story, two-family for $119,000.

        Last year it was appraised for $159,000, “and we think it's worth even more since then,” he said.

        When it comes to shopping, “we don't go to Kenwood Towne Center as much anymore. We did our Christmas shopping at Rookwood,” said Mrs. Losh, a marketing sales manager for a national hotel chain. “It's a mile from home. We walk our dog up there to the Starbucks. They know us by name.”

        Last May, Polly Sexton, 47, a flight attendant, and lawyer Curtis Cornett, 38, moved from Mount Adams into a corner lot Victorian at Jefferson and Forest avenues. They paid $172,000.

        “It was too hard to pass up,” Ms. Sexton said. “It has four fireplaces, the original woodworking, hardwood floors, beautiful staircases, a finished fourth floor, modern kitchen and baths, old-world charm. It's just one solid, tidy, nice home and we're just minutes from everything.”

        Longtime residents John and Arlene Conlon own four Norwood homes. Mr. Conlon said an example of property value increase is with the three-story Floral Avenue home where the couple's children Sean and Colleen live. “We paid $42,000 for it 14 years ago, put $70,000 toward improvements and now it's appraised at $180,000,” he said.

        The activity at Rookwood and along the Floral Avenue corridor is evidence of the city's continued transformation. Once economically bound to the General Motors assembly plant that closed in 1987, Norwood is thriving with tax revenues generated by new developments, and the arrival of more affluent residents.

        Since the GM plant closed, 650,000 square feet of office space has been added, and even more office development is on the horizon, officials said.

        Rick Dettmer, community development director, said the leap in property values is related to the changing image of Norwood.

        “Our resurgence is largely due to our location and a (redevelopment) vision” after the closing of the GM plant, he said.

        The influx of affluent professionals and the growth in office jobs also helped boost the city's earnings taxes by 6.2 percent last year, city Treasurer Tim Molony said.

        The growth and changes haven't come without a few bumps. Traffic congestion is a problem along the Madison Road corridor near Rookwood, but Cincinnati has planned a new traffic signal system to ease that. It should be in place later this year, officials said.

        Overcoming the traffic issue is important, because successful residential, retail and office development are interdependent, said Dick Starr, vice president of Chicago-based Economics Research Associates, who worked with the city during the dark days after GM's pullout.

        “It seems it does not matter so much which one is successful first, the others will follow. That, I think, is what is happening” in Norwood.

Signs of pride
        That co-dependence has also rekindled civic pride. From the talk on the street to the subtle language of real estate agents, the message is clear: Norwood is coming back.

        For years, Realtors advertised properties in south and east Norwood as “Hyde Park near” and many people driving through the area assumed they were cruising Hyde Park or Oakley.

        That's starting to change as the Floral Avenue corridor's reputation spreads.

        Norwood proudly claims the Rookwood shopping area, and last year three signs were erected by the developer identifying Rook wood Commons as being in the city. Earlier, the city installed three wooden post signs welcoming visitors to Rookwood Pavilion. Rookwood “has returned the Norwood identity to the area,” Ms. Case said.

        People like the Loshes are keenly aware of that point, and are happy to tell others.

        “I'll hear people say: "My, isn't it wonderful what the city of Cincinnati has done with this area of Hyde Park?'” Mr. Losh said.

        “I'm proud of Norwood. And, yes, I've stopped and told them, nicely: "I'm glad you appreciate this area, but this is Norwood, not Cincinnati and not Hyde Park.'”
       Rookwood Commons and the new Rookwood Pavilion behind it have proved a magnet for shoppers. Demographic studies show 300,000 people live within a 5-mile radius.


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