Sunday, October 27, 2002

Owners dig in to keep homes

Neighbors organize against Rookwood plan, despite eminent domain threat

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

NORWOOD - The Rookwood phenomenon has achieved for this city what LeBlond-Makino Inc., General Motors Corp. and other manufacturing companies never could.

A spiffy image.

[photo] At the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Edmondson Road in Norwood, the proximity of businesses and restaurants to residential areas can be seen.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
The glitzy, 50-acre development has brought the city hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue. Building on that success, developers are proposing a $125 million expansion, Rookwood Exchange, with offices, apartments, condos, upscale shops and restaurants on a triangular piece of property bounded by Interstate 71, and Edmondson and Edwards roads.

But standing in the way is a small but determined group of residents and business owners that wants to send a clear message to developers Jeffrey Anderson and Brian Copfer:

This is our property. Enough is enough.

The group, led by Nick Motz and Joe Horney, are among 79 property owners whose houses and businesses would be torn down to make room for Rookwood Exchange. They claim to have 30 property owners on their side.

Opponents know they face an enormous challenge. Their neighbors are being offered above-market prices for their homes, and some have already made deals. Grass-roots efforts to block previous Norwood developments fizzled when residents yielded to big-money offers or the threat of lawsuits by the city.

Still, Mr. Motz is undaunted.

"We own this property; Jeff Anderson doesn't," said Mr. Motz, co-owner with his wife of Wilker Design at Edwards and Edmondson. "We have a right to be here. The very same reason that Jeff Anderson wants this corner is the very same reason that I want it. It's the hottest corner in town."

Angela Helvy, who lives with her husband and two daughters on Dacey Avenue, said, "It'll be the last stand. There's safety in numbers, (and) they don't intimidate me." She said the girls, who are in sixth and ninth grades, don't want to move.

"That's the house that they love and have grown up in," Mrs. Helvy said.

Just one obstinate holdout will place Norwood City Council in an uncomfortable position.

On one side, developers say Rookwood Exchange could bring the cash-strapped city another $3.5 million a year in earnings tax revenue, attracting Greater Cincinnati's first Crate and Barrel store and Cheesecake Factory. On the other, middle-class opponents object to being displaced just so some well-heeled developers can get richer.

Council members have said they'll consider using eminent domain rather than risk losing the development.

"There's no question that it's a tough situation," Councilman Keith Moore said. "I would prefer that the project happen rather than ... not happen. Given the nature of that neighborhood now and all the development that has gone up ... this is not a place to raise a family."

Mr. Anderson of Anderson Real Estate is the key player in the Rookwood Pavilion, Commons and Tower developments. He and Mr. Copfer, of Miller-Valentine Group, want to have signed contracts with half of the property owners by the end of the month and contracts with all by the end of the year. So far, they have 15.

Developers vs. residents

Every weekend, more than 18,000 shoppers visit Rookwood's trendy shops. Tourism officials tout the area as a major attraction.

"The whole idea here is to continue to create a place in the city of Norwood like no other place in the Midwest," Mr. Anderson said. "The bottom line is, this location is a good location to redevelop. Whether it's us or somebody else ... something is going to happen here."

As for the residents who vow to stand their ground: "If we have one person or two people (who hold out), maybe they can be persuaded with fairness and logic," he said.

Extra cash has helped, too. Homeowners are being offered 25 percent more than their houses' appraised values, which range from $130,000 to $175,000.

Mike Maley, 47, of the 2600 block of Edmondson Road has committed to sell his home, appraised at $160,000, for about $210,000. He has lived there for four years.

"It's not the same neighborhood," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, their offer was very fair. Some people want to stay. Some people are just trying to get ridiculous amounts of money."

City Councilman Will DeLuca shares that view.

"You may have some people who are very genuine (and) who want to remain there and some who are digging their heels in the ground for a higher dollar," he said.

"I'm not going to force the eminent domain issue," he added. But Mr. Anderson is "very proven. He's the man who gets things done. (Rookwood) really proved that `if you build it, they will come.'"

And if residents succeed in scuttling these developers' plans, Mr. DeLuca said, more are sure to come.

A boost for Norwood

For a city scarred by the loss of manufacturing jobs - at one point in the 1990s, officials could barely afford to repair city police cruisers - Rookwood is the goose that continues to lay golden eggs.

Last year, the Rookwood properties generated $940,000 in earnings tax revenues for the city. That's less than 10 percent of the overall $10.7 million the city reaped in earnings taxes, but what pleases council members even more is how Rookwood has helped the city shake its blue-collar, downtrodden image.

"I just got back from Seattle," Mr. DeLuca said. The shops that could be coming "are the same type of retailers that are in these five-star cities."

Still, such development comes with a price. Residents living near Rookwood have complained about traffic and parking. So far, the city has lost 38 homes and businesses as the development has grown.

This time, with twice that many properties involved, the stakes have grown considerably.

If City Council ultimately pursues eminent domain, a Hamilton County Common Pleas Court jury would decide how much money the city should pay residents for their homes. Jury members would weigh the market values provided by the residents against the market values provided by an independent appraiser hired by the city.

Rookwood's threat to homes here has caught the eye of the Sierra Club, which often speaks out against sprawling development in Greater Cincinnati's outerbelt communities and beyond.

Glen Brand, Sierra's Midwest regional spokesman, says "sprawl" in Norwood is equally ominous.

"Community redevelopment within the city should not come at the expense of ruining our neighborhoods," said Mr. Brand. "It's in everyone's interest that we balance commercial interests with keeping our neighborhoods vibrant and vital. This seems to be a destructive project, not a positive one."

Positive or not, city leaders don't appear inclined to halt the spread of commercial development; some said that other areas of the city also need redevelopment.

Some take it in stride

Among the tidy homes on Edmondson Road and Dacey, Garland and Atlantic avenues - where bulldozers could be rumbling next summer - opinions of Mr. Anderson's plans vary from one porch to the next.

Walter and Winnie Sims have lived on Edmondson for 31 years. Mr. Sims isn't interested in selling, no matter the price. He's bothered by rumors that different prices are being offered on different streets.

"Anderson's got Norwood tied up so bad. He's got a whirl of tricks up his sleeve," he said. "I just hate to see homes go just because someone wants to get richer."

But Sylvia Holland, who has lived on Atlantic Avenue for 24 years, said she'd consider an offer she thought was fair.

"You should receive a blessing when it comes along," she said. "I've watched this area grow, and it's just not residential any more."

She's not thrilled by Mr. Horney, a St. Bernard resident who owns rental property in the targeted neighborhood. At a September forum on the issue, the entire audience booed when he criticized developers.

"He's just a thorn in our side. He's on his own little crusade," Ms. Holland said.

A losing battle?

Mr. Horney has organized neighborhood meetings, called attorneys and voiced his opinions at council sessions. He wants others to know that they can refuse the developers' offers. If enough of them say no, then maybe council is more likely to side with them.

Wielding eminent domain, Mr. Horney said, is the wrong tactic and has "instilled fear in people."

"What they're doing to these homeowners is not right. They've thrown the city into an uproar. They've upset residents. They've disturbed the peace," he said.

Still, it's a strategy that city officials have used successfully in the past, without having to go to court.

When one resident refused to sell his property to make room for Rookwood Commons, the city started eminent domain proceedings. The property owner ultimately sold.

Ruth Rosskopf, who lives in Pleasant Ridge, also relented when the developers behind Cornerstone of Norwood, a $30 million office development project, seemed ready to ask for council's help.

She remembers being equally passionate as she fought Cornerstone developers. She hired a lawyer and tried to find strength in numbers. But what started as a group effort ended with Mrs. Rosskopf standing alone.

She shares her tale, laughing heartily at times.

"You have to laugh at it or you're going to cry," she said. "We tried everything. When we first started talking about it, no one sold. In a very short period of time, everybody was going to sell.

"There's not a whole lot you can do. You might as well sell it rather than have them get it by eminent domain. It's stupid to fight because you're not going to win."


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