Saturday, September 29, 2001

Downtown gets push as place to reside

Tour on Sunday showcases dwellings

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Christine Schoonover admits she's an optimist. There's no other way to describe her praise for downtown housing even after April's riots, this month's terrorist attacks and a sluggish economy have conspired to batter the market.

        Virtually every downtown apartment was filled a year ago with apartment and condo shoppers relegated to waiting lists. But vacancies have since surged past 8 percent, according to CB Richard Ellis, a commercial real estate company.

        Ms. Schoonover is one of a few real estate agents and downtown-housing advocates counting on the public's vote of confidence Sunday through a strong turnout at the annual Downtown Tour of Living showcasing urban homes and apartments.

        Mayor Charlie Luken has identified downtown and Over-the-Rhine as two key neighborhoods for his plan to add 1,000 new homes to the city this year. The housing strategy aims to reverse Cincinnati's 9 percent population drop since 1990, a faster decline than all but nine other U.S. cities over the last decade.

        Sunday's tour follows this week's sporadic vandalism in Over-the-Rhine after a judge's acquittal of a white police officer whose fatal shooting of a black man who was fleeing triggered April's riots.

        “People are afraid, and they don't need to be afraid,” Ms. Schoonover said. “People need to walk on the streets and say this is their city. Throwing bricks is not going to solve anything.”

        It was a whirlwind summer for downtown developers and apartment managers, who have battled not only a slowing economy but safety concerns in Over-the-Rhine and downtown.

        Many downtown apartment owners say they've recovered from initial trouble following April's riots.

        But other apartment owners say the market remains substantially weaker than a year ago with lower occupancy rates and fewer inquiries about available units.

        The past year also has seen the emergence of downtown's fledgling condominium market for those who want to own, not rent. About half of the 41 condo units that are planned or under construction have been “pre-sold” with interested buyers committing cash and signing contracts, according to the advocacy group Downtown Cincinnati Inc.

        “It was a long summer, but we had a great August,” said Jim Moll of Urban Sites Properties. “Vacancies are no longer an issue.”

        Urban Sites' 170 units in Over-the-Rhine make it the largest market-rate landlord in a neighborhood dominated by low-income housing. The firm's vacancies have dropped to 1.7 percent from a peak of 9 percent in May.

        Mr. Moll knows more than anyone that security and safety are among the top requirements for urban apartment shoppers.

        He vividly recalls April's riots when frightened tenants felt trapped in their own homes as rioters fanned out across Main Street, shattering windows and assaulting bystanders.

        Immediately following a Hamilton County judge's decision Wednesday in finding Officer Stephen Roach not guilty, Mr. Moll called police. Officers perched atop neighborhood buildings spotted potential trouble and responded quickly.

        Mr. Moll's quick actions were designed to ensure the safety of tenants. He didn't want to see fear dictate another spike in vacancies.

        Even though some vandals shattered bottles and set fires in Over-the-Rhine, the trouble didn't touch Mr. Moll's properties.

        “Police were in communication with me throughout the night,” he said. “It was quite comfortable, particularly at the Emery, where I live.”

        Mr. Moll is so confident in Over-the-Rhine's prospects that his firm bought a neighborhood property this week. Urban Sites plans to develop 40 condos in the troubled neighborhood.

        Other downtown apartment owners aren't so optimistic.

        Towne Properties, the largest downtown landlord, has 351 apartments in four buildings, including the recently completed Shillito Lofts. The firm's downtown vacancy rate is an “unacceptably high” 8 percent, said Arn Bortz, a Towne partner and former Cincinnati mayor.

        “The events of the past year have made it more difficult for all of us to build on the success that we've enjoyed up until now,” he said. “For demand to build, we need some good news.”

        Towne Properties is contemplating a 104-unit condo project atop a parking garage that the city plans to build at Seventh and Vine streets. The condos would be priced from $179,000 to $249,000.

        But Mr. Bortz said it would be difficult to build condos without city assistance.

        DCI's Kathy Schwab, coordinator of the tour, anticipates a large turnout for the 15-property tour. She's sold 500 tickets so far.

        “We want to bring as many people downtown as possible,” she said.


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