Saturday, September 13, 2003

Condo buying booms in OTR

There's even a waiting list for property

By Cliff Radel
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A year from now, there will be 100 new property owners on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, developer Bill Baum predicts.

This year alone, he has sold 40 to 50 new units downtown.

Downtown's itching to be a mini-boomtown. So say the results of a survey compiled for Downtown Cincinnati Inc. The data, comparing statistics from 2002 to the first seven months of 2003, came from condominium and home sales across downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

• Overall sales: 44 percent ahead of 2002. At the current pace, the area will have 160 sales in 2003 versus 105 in 2002.

• Sales of newly constructed properties: 100 percent increase over 2002.

• Condominium sales: 300 percent more than 2002.

• Single-family home sales: Down from seven per month to four.

He has seen a revolution - people are willing to wait to live in rehabbed buildings in downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

Two years ago, he never dreamed of selling every condo in a building before construction ceased.

"Now, it's a buying and selling frenzy," he said.

After decades of false starts and even a derailment from the riots of 2001, the notion of more people with more money moving downtown and into Over-the-Rhine is on track and building a good head of steam, which will be evident during Sunday's fifth annual Downtown Tour of Living.

"Everybody gets it, at last," said Kathy Schwab, the tour's organizer and Downtown Cincinnati Inc.'s residential development adviser.

"It's a quality of life issue," said downtown resident Mayor Charlie Luken. "I spent 45 minutes yesterday trying to go 10 miles on Interstate 75. That makes living downtown even more attractive."

And what's good for downtown is good for Cincinnati.

"Bringing people to live and to shop and to buy things in stores downtown," Schwab declared, "is the fuel that drives a city's engine of economic development."

Seventeen properties will be on view along the tour. Condos and apartments are split 50-50.

"Last year, the tour had just one condo project," Schwab said. "The increase in condos for sale shows just how strong the market is and how deep the desire to live downtown."

The tour's properties range from 19th-century structures on Walnut and Main streets to the 15-story art deco American Building with its spacious penthouse space looming over Central Parkway.

Alan Treece's dream Walnut Street condominium is on the tour's Gibson Lofts stop. The 2,200-square-foot second-floor home he shares with his partner and their dog, Sophie, is exquisitely decorated. As well it should be. Treece is an interior designer. The interior is fit for a high-end space overlooking New York's theater district.

Since moving to Cincinnati from his native North Carolina in 1974, Treece has lived in Covington and Fort Thomas, Montgomery, Mount Auburn and near Eden Park.

He chose downtown "for the excitement and the convenience. I can walk to 10 restaurants and the library in two blocks. I can walk to Saks."

He takes these walks without fear. He sees the riots and their aftermath as "something that happened elsewhere," something that happened in the past, something associated with problems the city is trying to solve.

Treece acknowledged he has been approached by panhandlers. When they ask for spare change, he asks them to leave him alone. And they do.

Moving into his Walnut Street digs took time. Construction consumed eight months. Included in that span was the great light fixture delay.

"It took the city three months," he noted, "to approve our lighting."

But, he's not complaining.

"This," Treece said, as he spread his arms and pointed to his spacious living room " has been worth the wait."

Baum cited the 115-year-old building he rehabbed into condos at 1336 Main in Over-the-Rhine. The four-story Victorian is on the Downtown Living tour. But just for show. Every condo was sold while rehabbing was in progress.

The developer credits three factors: low interest rates, time elapsed since the riots - "they are far enough behind us so we can consider them history" - and an influx of newcomers.

"A lot of people - young professionals - have come here from out of town. They look at downtown and Over-the Rhine differently than those of us from Cincinnati.

"We take it for granted and see the negatives. They come in, compare it to other cities and see the positives."

That description fits Jonathan Lu. He used to rehab buildings in his Rochester, N.Y., hometown.

He moved to Cincinnati in 2002 and works in Blue Ash as a materials engineer for Procter & Gamble. He prefers to live downtown. He bought a condo in the 1336 Main building and he's moving in this weekend.

"I wanted to be close to the center of town," he said. "That's where all of the action is. And I like the prospects of what downtown could be."

Unlike other cities, Cincinnati resisted efforts to level all of its old buildings. In particular, the city did not fall under the spell of a grand urban renewal scheme to flatten Over-the-Rhine.

"I can't tell you how many times I heard people in the past say, 'Let's get rid of all those old, ugly, filthy buildings,' " Baum said.

Over-the-Rhine stands poised to be an authentic 19th-century theme park, diverse 21st-century neighborhood and historic district. It's ripe for becoming Cincinnati's version of New Orleans' French Quarter.

Baum believes that could happen, because "people are just starting to come in."

The impact of these urban pioneers is already being felt at Findlay Market.

Al Silverglade, a market merchant since 1939, said he's "seeing so many new faces, I want to knock out the wall next to me and put in a Mexican grill."

New faces prompted him to ask a local coffee house about opening a Findlay Market annex.

Silverglade knows about expanding a franchise and serving downtown's new residents. With his sons, Mike and Craig, he's the proprietor of two downtown deli-markets. The first opened in 2001 at the Fourth and Plum Apartments. The second, in the Renaissance Apartments at the 100-year-old Power Building, should be open for viewing during Sunday's downtown living tour.

Jeff Gibbs, of Gibbs' Cheese & Sausage, doesn't have an exact count of the new customers he's served at his family's 81-year-old Findlay Market stand.

"I've moved twice in the last year because of construction at the market house," he noted. So, he's still getting acclimated.

Still, he knows he's selling more upscale items.

"I used to sell cheaper stuff to the guy who was buying 5 pounds of ground beef for his big family," Gibbs said. "Now, I'm selling a lot more butter and fudge."


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