Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sedamsville fighting for another church; New business plan proposes 'New Sedamsville'

Saddened by the October loss of St. Martin's German Evangelical Church and the pending redevelopment of much of its historic district, the Sedamsville Civic Association on March 11 voted 17-0, with two absetentions, to support saving Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, 637 Steiner Avenue.

These sentiments were affirmed during a public nuisance hearing on March 13.

"If the city has available funds to demolish buildings, these same funds should be used to preserve buildings, at a lesser cost, while Sedamsville-like communities wait for redevelopment opportunities and alternative uses for signature buildings," says Susan Feldman, president of the Sedamsville Civic Association.

In a letter to director of Division of Building and Inspections Ed Cunningham, Feldman requested stabilization funds to save the remaining "landmark of Sedamsville", which she says could be used for office space, a restaurant, or a bed and breakfast.

"The Sedamsville Civic Association recognizes that this once magnificent Gothic Revival, red-bricked church is in a state of disrepair and should be declared a nuisance in the community," she said. "However, we also know that this Church still looms over western Cincinnati with a commanding presence of its spire that tops 170 feet."

New Sedamsville

In 1995, John Klosterman purchased Our Lady of Perpetual Help from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, fearing that his 20-year vision for a "New Sedamsville" would be lost.

Now, Bold Face Properties LLC, a for-profit real estate company founded in 2008 by Klosterman and Jim Grawe to redevelop the neighborhood, has issued a 42-page business plan that it hopes will spur City investment in infrastructure and streetscape improvements, overlay zoning, and gap financing.

The company hopes to put recommendations from the 2003 neighborhood plan into action, creating a mixed-use "village in the city" that combines quality new construction and design with the sensitive restoration of existing historic structures.

"Fortunately, Sedamsville has never experienced the major mistakes of the sixties and seventies as there has never been a redevelopment effort of scale," the developers say in the business plan. "So the historic fabric of the neighborhood is basically intact – the infrastructure mirroring the footprint of modern urban planning. The redevelopment approach then is to not to change the theme or configuration but to enhance and expand on what is already there."

According to the business plan, now is a good time to capitalize in the current economic problems, the costs of transportation, environmental concerns, and the "back to the city" trend.

"Sedamsville never experienced any serious redevelopment efforts so the neighborhood's historic fabric remains intact and property values are undervalued, making for a profit motive incentive for proper redevelopment," the developers say.

"Share the vision. Leave a legacy. Sedamsville…retro reborn."

The business plan outlines five core areas: marketing and redevelopment, to be handled by Grawe; and acquisition, property management, and finance, to be handled by Klosterman.

Goals include:

  • Creating an order of place, and creating a marketing message that conveys Sedamsville as a unique and authentic place where people choose to live
  • Encouraging outdoor space design to maximize human interaction
  • Encouraging walkable commercial development
  • Providing pedestrian connections between parks and other parts of the neighborhood
  • Supporting mixed-use development and small business
  • Supporting new housing with a broader range of price points
  • Encouraging job creation for neighborhood residents
  • Preserving the neighborhood's architectural integrity
Currently, 20 properties and 60 percent of the neighborhood's vacant lots are controlled by Bold Face Properties or other people who share Klosterman's vision.

Many of the lots are contiguous, and contain institutional buildings, commercial properties and highly-visible buildings on corner lots.

Bold Face Properties is looking to find financial partners who can help them assemble 65 buildings and vacant lots that are currently for sale, representing about $1.7 million.

"No business plan can guarantee the success of our challenged neighborhoods and the risk factor is always greater compared to the alternative choices," the developers say. "But perhaps therein is Sedamsville's appeal to a select group. 'The greater the risk the greater the reward' law of economics can work in Sedamsville's favor in satisfying the economic objective – attracting those who can afford to lose or those who have a higher risk threshold."

Without such control, the developers say that the vision could be lost.

"Also at risk is the quality of the new construction that will inevitably come some day," they say. "A rule of real estate development is that the total cost of a project should not exceed four to five times the cost of the lot. And traditionally new development in existing communities is scaled back to meet, not exceed current home values. Also, inflation in the cost of labor and materials makes new construction a sub standard product when compared to the quality of construction of years past. For these reasons, and because values are so low, any new development by those who do not share the vision of a New Sedamsville is likely to be earmarked to accommodate the poor."

Hard times

Of the 149 houses in the core area of Sedamsville, 65 are for sale, in foreclosure, or condemned.

Eighty percent of the occupied units are rentals, and the majority of the residents live below the poverty line.

"What now remains is an eyesore of vacant lots, many overgrown – missing teeth in a once charming streetscape, an opportunity to bring it “ back to life” forever lost. It is a sad lesson that this “urban renewal” strategy has failed us – not attracting desirable and meaningful redevelopment. It is even a sadder commentary that a complaint based reactive approach to economic development is still the city’s strategy of choice."

According to the business plan, there is plenty of blame to go around for Sedamsville's predicament.

"In Sedamsville, the churches didn't leave because the priests and nuns are not caring people, believing that the residents were not worthy of their ministry," the developers say. "The schools didn't close voluntarily because our educators thought the residents wanted another vacant building in their neighborhood. Our elected officials didn’t ignore Sedamsville purposely because they thought the city coffers didn’t need the tax revenue that is generated by reinvestment. The residents didn't purposely neglect their homes to spite the clergy, educators and government officials for abandoning their neighborhood. And the landlords do not take pride in being 'slumlords', purposely not trying to attract the best tenants the image of the neighborhood will allow."

The Sedamsville plan is based on a "proper balance" foundation, it says.

"The key to restoring economic viability to a decimated urban community is attracting and retaining capable neighbor-leaders," the plan quotes from Dr. Robert D. Lupton's book Return Flight. "The romantic notion of 'helping the poor to help themselves' is appealing but largely ineffective. The major reason why poverty has become so stubbornly entrenched in urban neighborhoods is the withdrawal of the middle class and the persistent hemorrhage of indigenous leadership."

But any plan to redevelop Sedamsville must also be broad-based in nature, taking other factors into account.

"If the collective dynamics of outside forces is the root cause for a neighborhood's decline, then they can also be an agent to create and maintain healthy communities," the developers say.

Photo credits: Our Lady of Perpetual Help by Sherman Cahal, Abandoned Online. Sedamsville photos by Chris Cousins, Urban Ohio

Previous reading on BC:
St. Martin's German Evangelical Church, 1892-2008
Demolition begins on historic Sedamsville church (10/2/08)
Centerpiece of historic Sedamsville threatened (8/22/08)
City has little say in Sedamsville demolitions (5/14/08)
Sedamsville wants demo delay on possible condo project (4/17/08)