Monday, July 08, 2002

Cincinnati eyesore getting new life

Former Ford factory bought for renovation

By John Nolan
The Associated Press

        A building where Henry Ford's car company once manufactured Model T's exists today as a vacant, windowless hulk visible daily to thousands of people who drive by on Interstate 71.

        The former factory and thousands like it across the country are eyesores or safety concerns for cities intent on redevelopment and attracting new businesses or enticing visitors.

    Some examples of blighted property restored for other uses:

    • In Lawrence, Mass., the site of a former paper plant near the city's historic district was redeveloped for a public park and new roads in a partnership between the city and the paper plant's neighbor, GenCorp.

    • In the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga, N.Y., the contaminated land where a steel plant shut down in 1980 was cleaned up for redevelopment as a discount shopping center. The developer received tax breaks from Erie County on a hotel the company was building nearby.

    • Wyandotte, Mich., granted tax incentives and obtained state grants to work with the former operator of a chemical manufacturing plant to convert the blighted 84-acre site into a public recreation area and golf course. Emeryville, Calif., obtained federal funding to convert a former oil company tank facility into an Amtrak station.

        State and local governments encourage recycling of the buildings with a variety of enticements, including grants or loan guarantees, forgiving or reducing taxes, and paying for street and other improvements. Once-abandoned buildings and sites have been turned into public plazas, parks, shopping centers or golf courses.

        History provided the means for the saviors-to-be of the 87-year-old Cincinnati building.

        The U.S. Department of the Interior approved tax credits for the building as a historic property, offsetting the project's $10.5 million cost by $2 million, said Steven Bloomfield, one of the investors who bought the building last year.

        The investors have removed trash, broken windows and graffiti from the six-story building. They are marketing it as office space and plan to fully renovate the building when they reach a deal with a tenant.

        “It's a building that's been abandoned, abused and uncared for for probably 10 years,” Mr. Bloomfield said. “But it's a beautiful, sound building that we think is pretty significant to the history of Cincinnati.”

        The Ford Motor Co. opened the factory in 1915 as one of 25 assembly plants away from the company's Detroit-area base. It remained an auto plant until 1932 and was later used by Sears, Roebuck & Co. as a retail center. The building went through a series of owners before being abandoned.

        In 1998, the city took emergency action to erect a fence and remove exterior brick to prevent the material from collapsing onto nearby I-71. William Langevin, director of buildings and inspections, said that although the structure's core is solid, he still worries that rain leaking through the deteriorated roof may cause other bricks to fall.

        Cincinnati last year granted a 10-year, 40 percent reduction of taxes on the building to encourage its re-use.

        Nationally, experts estimate there are at least 500,000 former industrial manufacturing sites that are blighted and often contaminated with hazardous substances. Some of the “brownfield” sites are large tracts; other are former factories sometimes referred to as “vertical brownfields.”

        Many states provide some assurance to redevelopment investors by promising not to file environmental lawsuits if the investors agree to defined cleanup goals.

        Governments that work to reduce a lender's risk or a borrower's cost of financing or that help with financing can be rewarded with tax revenues from a revived property and often additional investment in nearby areas, according to the studies by the Northeast-Midwest Institute, an advocate for brownfield redevelopment.

        But states and municipalities sometimes make tax credits so complicated they aren't of use to many redevelopers, said Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union.

        “Tax credits are never the ideal way to make fiscal policy,” he said. “It might be wiser, for example, to simply consolidate many of these provisions under some new construction tax policy that encourages development across the board of distressed, or old, properties.”

        In Chattanooga, Tenn., a public-private nonprofit development company helped acquire and clean up old industrial land along the Tennessee River for construction of the Tennessee Aquarium and a public plaza.

        The River City Co.'s donation of the land set the stage for construction of the privately funded $45 million aquarium, which opened in 1992.

        “That's a point of pride,” aquarium spokeswoman Kathie Fulgham said of the private funding.

        The construction led to new commercial development nearby and a new ballpark for the city's minor-league baseball team. Chattanooga officials estimate the value of the riverside development at $300 million.

        Chicago spent $370,000 to clean up and regrade an abandoned site in an agreement in which a meatpacking company next door invested $5.2 million to establish a smokehouse on the land and hire 100 new employees there.

        “This project illustrates how carefully targeted public spending can leverage significant private investment,” the Northeast-Midwest Institute wrote in an evaluation of the Chicago project.

        The city of Piqua, about 80 miles north of Cincinnati, is going ahead by itself with plans to clean up and rehabilitate the idle Fort Piqua Hotel, an 1891 building on the downtown square.

        The city is pursuing state funding to help cover the cost and is seeking historic-property tax credits for the building, where Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft once spoke, said Mark Rohr, city manager.

        However, Piqua expects to shoulder the bulk of the $8.3 million expense.

        The hotel would become home to the public library, several businesses and a senior center. With luck, renovation could begin next June and be done in 18 months, Rohr said.

        The city of 22,000 people will benefit by preserving a historic property, making its downtown more attractive and getting tax revenues from businesses that operate there, Rohr said.

        “It would be a terrible thing to lose,” he said of the Romanesque-style stone building, vacant for more than 15 years. “We've tried to get it done through private resources in the past and haven't had much luck. So we've decided to go at it ourselves.”


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