By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer
NORWOOD - Her home is her sanctuary. A hairdresser and former model, Norma Nelson has dripped sweat, developed calluses and toiled well beyond sundown to convert her Atlantic Avenue residence into the perfect haven.
She always figured the four-bedroom brick home would be the place where she died. So, she decorated the interior with Asian accents and had an arbor, gazebo, outdoor shower and pond for goldfish constructed in her back yard.
But the elaborate after-work projects have stopped. Nelson refuses to invest another cent while her home's fate hangs in the balance.
Anderson Real Estate and Miller-Valentine Group want to raze her home, along with 72 other structures, so that they can build Rookwood Exchange, a $125 million multiuse complex of offices, condos, apartments, shops, restaurants and a parking garage. Homes along Dacey Avenue are no longer desired for their initial plans.
"I want new carpet on the stairs. But I'm not doing it now. What's the point? Why should I put another penny into it?" asked Nelson, who has invested more than $100,000 in her home since she moved in 13 years ago.
Nelson is one of 11 property owners who keep shrugging off developers' monetary offers, but city council members might adopt a document that says her home is in a deteriorating area and can be taken by eminent domain proceedings.
No matter how vociferous her protests, Norwood's general populace - along with Nelson's own neighbors and some council members - are urging her to accept the developers' offer. They want Norwood to reap the benefits of Rookwood Exchange, which include millions in tax revenues and a reputation for being the place to live, work and shop.
Sallie Conyers' heart goes out to the homeowners who put their hearts and souls into their properties after living in the neighborhood for decades.
"I understand their sentiment and their desire not to leave. They've been there for so long (and) you can't put a price on their family growing up in their house," said Conyers, an attorney who moved into a stately Victorian home along Floral Avenue almost four years ago.
"But to think about what those developments are doing for Norwood. When you mention you live in Norwood now, people know where you're talking about. People ... see it as the community growing and developing and keeping up with the times."
She and her husband, John, have spent more than $25,000 to spruce up their seven-bedroom home, which they bought for $140,000.
John, who uses home-improvement projects as an outlet from work, was even more succinct.
"I'd take the money and run," he said.
This past week, Cincinnati-based Kinzelman Kline Gossman introduced the urban renewal study that could determine the fate of the working-class neighborhood that so many are talking about.
Just north of the already-successful Rookwood Commons, the neighborhood is bounded by Interstate 71 and Edwards and Edmondson roads.
The study indicates that the 73 coveted properties are in an aging, deteriorating neighborhood. Traffic congestion, the properties' ages and the odd design of the streets are identified as the most damaging signs of blight. The parcels average six blight factors apiece.
Consultants have acknowledged that, on an individual basis, no home is blighted, deteriorated or in a slum. Instead, taken as a whole, the neighborhood is obviously leaving its residential character, they said.
Council will hold an Aug. 12 hearing to get feedback on the study, which planning commissioners are advising them to approve.
"We're not studying individual homes. The study was performed on a designated area," said Brian Copfer of Miller-Valentine. "There were no surprises to me or our group on the study."
Harsh feelings have developed between those who want to sell to developers and the few who refuse.
Will DeLuca, chairman of the council's community development committee, has been working to understand the hold-out residents. But, with Rookwood Exchange, he says, "Norwood is going to be one dynamite town."
In debates, he and other council members have returned to "what's best for the city of Norwood."
"If I had property there, it would be under contract. I don't think it's suffering from blight, but it is blighting," he said. "What's really the best for the city is to take advantage of an opportunity that we've been confronted with.
"What I can do is make sure that a class-A development is built and the city of Norwood is going to stand out from Cincinnati and these other communities."
Tim Burke, the city's special legal counsel, hears about the home improvements taking place in the targeted neighborhood and points out that homeowners will get due compensation.
"If their homes are taken by eminent domain, then they will be paid for the value of their homes, including the improvements," he said.
Roger McGathey lives in a historic Victorian home on Ashland Avenue. He and his partner, Mark Spear, have spent hundreds of hours removing carpet, refinishing floors and completely overhauling their kitchen, which, he jokes, now has plenty of high-tech "Beam me up, Scotty" lighting.
But McGathey has little sympathy for the hold-out property owners. Rookwood Exchange would put Norwood one step closer to becoming a great city, he said.
"I wouldn't really want to live over there," he said. "Not because of what's going on, but just because there's a lot of congestion over there."
Being one of a few residents in a fight against well-heeled developers and her city's elected officials isn't easy for Nelson.
She's confident that her home would sell for $330,000 if it were in Hyde Park or Oakley. Yet, in Norwood, it could be deemed to be in a blighted area.
She can't find the energy to power-wash her drive, and she's uprooted her hostas, azaleas and rhododendrons so that they can be replanted at her Tennessee property.
It's the sense of inevitability that's wearing her down. Norwood is a draw for development. If Rookwood Exchange doesn't happen, some other development will.
"It's going to happen," she said. "Anderson's just trying to get in before anyone else can."
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