By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer
NORWOOD - A majority of City Council members say they'll support two ordinances tonight that will clear the way for a $152 million expansion of the popular Rookwood shopping complex.
"This project is incredible," Ward 1 Councilman Keith Moore said. "We're talking about increasing the city's earnings tax revenue by 20 percent with this one project."
Rookwood Exchange is the latest development to be proposed in the far southeast corner of Norwood, on a wedge of land that lies between Hyde Park and Interstate 71. It would be next to Rookwood Commons, an outdoor shopping center that opened in 2000 as Greater Cincinnati's first "lifestyle center."
Shopping and dining choices such as the Z Gallerie and Buca di Beppo have made the area a regional draw. The new addition, the Rookwood Exchange, would include an additional 200,000 square feet of restaurants and retail. It also would add to Rookwood Commons' office space and introduce 200 condos to the mix, according to Brian Copfer, an official with developer Miller-Valentine Group.
The proposed development has been controversial because it requires razing a neighborhood of older homes.
"I'm not against development, I'm against the city of Norwood granting itself and then using eminent domain for a private use," said Joe Horney, co-leader of Citizens Against Eminent Domain Abuse. "This is not a highway; it is not a hospital; it is not a school. It is a shopping center."
Horney, a St. Bernard resident, has refused to sell a two-family building he owns in the proposed development area. However, owners of all but six of the 79 properties that developers need have signed contracts to sell.
"I want to get it done and get out of here," said Ralston Jones, 83, who is looking forward to selling his house so he can move closer to his daughter in Mount Orab after 39 years on Garland Avenue.
Tonight, council is expected to adopt an urban renewal plan that found signs of blight in his neighborhood. While the homes and businesses are mostly well-kept, the study - paid for by developers - cited the odd street layout, the age of buildings and limited parking as signs the neighborhood is going downhill.
Declaring that the area is becoming blighted gives the city the right to take the holdout properties through eminent domain, if necessary. That's where a government buys land against the owner's will at a price set by the court.
Council also will vote tonight on a redevelopment agreement, which starts the clock on a 30-day deadline for the city to reach agreement with the holdouts. The city will then have until Oct. 1 to actually file eminent domain actions, said Tim Burke, Norwood's special counsel.
Five of the nine voting council members - Moore, Michael Fulmer, John Fenton, Cassandra Brown and Will DeLuca - said they expect to vote for both ordinances. Mayor Victor Schneider said he would not veto them. Fenton predicted that council's votes - like the April vote authorizing the urban renewal study - will be unanimous.
Homes in the neighborhood are already interspersed with businesses such as Jiffy Lube and Wilker Design, and more piecemeal development is inevitable if Rookwood Exchange falls through, council members said. The majority of residents across the city support the project, they said - especially now that most property owners have struck deals.
"Except for the people who stand up at the council meetings, nobody comes up to me and says they're against it," said Brown, whose ward includes the targeted neighborhood.
Rovenia Rose, 69, who lives in southwest Norwood, isn't crazy about the plan being pushed by Anderson Real Estate and Miller-Valentine Group.
"Those stores over at Rookwood, they're all too expensive for me to shop in," she said.
However, Lou Etta Clark, 62, on Norwood's north side, said the development will help the whole city.
"I think they should go ahead and make it happen because it would give the city of Norwood more taxes," she said.
Officials estimate the city would take in an extra $3.5 million annually in earnings taxes, and the schools would get an extra $400,000 in annual property taxes. It could help ease the sting of losing some Convergys jobs to Cincinnati.
"I cannot bring back General Motors," said Councilman Tom Williams, who would not reveal his vote but said he supports the Rookwood Exchange development. "You either change or go under. (The economy) is just changing, and this city has to change with it."
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