Friday, August 22, 2008

Centerpiece of historic Sedamsville threatened

The weathered St. Martin's German Evangelical Church stands as a proud reminder of Sedamsville's heyday, when the neighborhood bustled with German and Irish immigrants and a thriving business district.

But the High Victorian Gothic-style church, designed by Emil Baude and built in 1892, will soon face the wrecking ball.

Developer Arlon (Ray) Brown of Collins Riverside Development LLC had applied for a demolition permit to tear down the landmark to make way for his proposed $50 million Harbor Lights condominium project.

Since mid-2007, Brown has been purchasing property between 2500 and 2900 River Road under both his name and under the name of Collins Riverside Development LLC, often for much more than the properties are worth.

Harbor Lights would require the demolition of up to 30 Sedamsville properties - 12 in the initial phases.

In April, Susan Feldman, co-chair of the Sedamsville Historic Committee, asked City Council to delay demolitions in the subject area until a historic district proposal could be reviewed by the Ohio Historic Site Preservation Advisory Board as part of a process to have it placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In a May report to City Council, City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. said that there's little the City can do to stop the demolitions.

Because the properties in the redevelopment area are not located within a local historic district, demolitions will not have to be reviewed by the City's Historic Conservation Office during the permit process.

"If demolition permits are filed, the City would be obligated to consider the applications without regard to historical significance," Dohoney wrote.

However, listing on the National Register could make future work on Harbor Lights ineligible for federal funds.

"The city's really hungry for development," Feldman says. "But there are vacant buildings everywhere. What's wrong with preserving the structures that are already on the hillside?"

'It would be like losing a family member'

The stately St. Martin's is widely considered the centerpiece of the proposed Sedamsville River Road Historic District, which includes 58 properties on the northwest side of River Road and southwest of Ansonia Avenue.

The two-story, central-aisle red brick church is capped with a 125-foot steeple and, above an eight light wheel window, a sandstone plaque reads "DEUTCHE VER. EV. PROT. MARTINI KIRCHE A.D. 1892."

Built for just $24,000, it could seat 375 people.

The church has been vacant for nearly three decades and, until Brown purchased it, had been on sale since April 2005.

Feldman can't imagine what its loss would mean to the community.

"It would be like losing a family member," she says. "Like losing an icon. The loss of the landmark would be incredibly significant."

And she says that it's part of a well-orchestrated plan laid out by people who don't live in Sedamsville, and don't care about the community.

"None of the human factor enters into this with the developers," she says. "There are a lot of people all around Cincinnati that have roots that trace back here. And the church itself...peoples' babies were baptized here, people were married here."

Now that the historic district is well on its way to making the National Register, Feldman firmly believes that the demolition is being done out of spite.

"I believe he's trying to beat the clock before the historic district is finalized," she says. "We're only three weeks out from the state hearing, and he's already taken out a demolition permit."

Feldman adds that the demolition permit is viewed by historians and residents as "becoming uglier and more depressing with the impression that the developer will rapidly progress with demolition to foil the listing".

State agrees its historic

On July 21, the City's Historic Conservation Board recommended approval of the Sedamsville River Road Historic District.

On August 1, the Ohio Historic Site Preservation Advisory Board met in Columbus on August 1 to the district and 15 other properties and districts from throughout the state.

To the Sedamsville representatives' surprise, Brown appeared at the hearing with Cincinnati City Councilmember John Cranley - ostensibly one of his development partners.

Feldman questions why Cranley was there as a representative of the City, since the Historic Conservation Board had already given de facto City approval by recommending the nomination.

"I just thought...we're you're contituents, not the developer," she says. "You're supposed to be there to represent us."

While most of the 16 items on the state's agenda were discussed and passed within 10 minutes, discussion of the Sedamsville district lasted more than an hour and a half.

Feldman says that Brown and Cranley wanted to table the historic district proposal until Harbor Lights was approved.

"The board was wonderful at getting back to the subject at hand," she says. "Cranley appeared to know very little about the nomination or its process. The Chair and several members of the board stated that their role was to decide whether the district met the criteria for listing in the National Register. Their role was not to decide whether a developer has plans to demolish or construct new buildings."

Feldman sent letters regarding Cranley's behavior at the hearing both to Mayor Mark Mallory and to Vice Mayor David Crowley.

In his response, Crowley says that it's his understanding that Cranley was representing himself as a private citizen, and therefore "has the privilege of expressing his opinions".

Mayor Mallory has yet to respond.

The state board eventually voted 8-1 to recommend the district for nomination to the National Register.

Gearing up

Barbara Powers, department head of inventory & registration for the Ohio Historical Society Historic Preservation Office, presented the proposal and has promised that the Sedamsville proposal will be the first one she picks up after her return from vacation.

"She did a walking tour with us in March, and we made her aware of the Brown factor," Feldman says. "Both the City and state have recommended that we shorten the district. We're all geared up for whatever changes need to be made."

After the changes are made, it will be sent on to the Secretary of the Interior, who will forward it to the Keeper of the National Register.

Meanwhile, Brown is now approaching people on the 2400 block of River Road and offering them more than their properties are worth, plus signing bonuses.

And so far, he has torn down four structures.

Feldman says that she and other concerned neighbors will continue to watch and make sure that too many structures aren't torn down.

"It smells of Norwood," she says. "I call this a 'kept' secret, because I hate to use the word 'best'. No one has seen the plans. They've gobbled up our whole neighborhood, and they did it very secretly."

Feldman disputes Brown's claims to the state board that the whole neighborhood is behind him.

"The Sedamsville Civic Association has voted to send a letter of approval to the City once they saw the development plans," she says. "So far, that hasn't happened."

In the meantime, Feldman will continue to do whatever it takes to fight for her community.

"We're going to stay optimistic," she says. "We can't leave any stone unturned at this point."

Despite all of the emotionally-draining work, Feldman continues to enjoy life on the hillside.

"I can't tell you what a wonderful life it's provided us," she says. "I've never felt like I needed more."

Photo credit: Urban Ohio

Previous reading on BC:
City has little say in Sedamsville demolitions (5/14/08)
Sedamsville wants demo delay on possible condo project (4/17/08)