Wednesday, September 30, 2009

College Hill residents reject senior housing

The residents of College Hill rejected a proposal for low-income senior housing near a prominent corner by a vote of 88-65 last night.

The College Hill Forum convened the special meeting at the College Hill Recreation Center to gauge public opinion on a proposal by Episcopal Retirement Homes (ERH) to build Cary Court, a $5.5 million, 40-unit independent living facility at 1630 North Bend Road
Owned by the City of Cincinnati and known as the Masonic Eastern Star site for the nursing home that once occupied the 3.4-acre property, the land was cleared earlier this year during the City's Neighborhood Enhancement Program.

The motion to approve ERH's application for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was rejected, with the majority of opponents looking at the proposal as a "settlement" that wouldn't be good for the neighborhood's future.

Strict requirements

ERH said that it plans to run Cary Court as a non-profit ministry through the HUD's Section 202 program, meaning that residents would be required to be at least 62 years of age and to earn between $25,000 and $27,000 per year.

Residents would pay 30 percent of their incomes, minus medical expenses, for rent. The balance would be subsidized by HUD.

They would be pre-screened and would be subject to strict visitation policies.

At prior public meetings, ERH representatives cited College Hill's demographics for its decision to pursue the site: Twenty percent of the neighborhood's residents are elderly, and more than 1,400 nursing home beds are located in close proximity, meaning that those who require nursing care could relocate from Cary Court and still stay in the neighborhood – although
HUD regulations prohibit ERH from discriminating against non-neighborhood applicants.

Consisting of 42 one-bedroom units in two four-story buildings, the project would also include an exercise center and community meeting space.

Ten percent if the units would be accessible to people with disabilities.

ERH is also seeking LEED certification, with a budgeted consultant and promises of federal HOME, Community Development Block Grant, and City capital funds.

The project would be only the second LEED-certified affordable housing project in the state.

Since 1951, ERH has operated three similar facilities: St. Paul Village in Madisonville, Canterbury Court in West Carrollton, and Cambridge Heights in Cambridge, Ohio.

'This is a start'

The Masonic Eastern Star site was added to the Linden Park development plan, a project that was scheduled to include condominiums, retail, and townhomes on the site of an abandoned Kroger store and the former site of Shuller's Wigwam at Hamilton Avenue and North Bend Road.

In late 2008, preferred developer Al. Neyer, Inc. backed out of the project, citing poor condominium pre-sales and Midland Retail's inability to pre-lease the commercial spaces.

Following that loss, discussions with Bloomfield, Schon + Partners revealed that lending for condominium projects would be all but impossible.

Since then, the development site has been ignored by developers, and a market feasibility study completed earlier this year recommended redevelopment of the mid-business district and the redevelopment of vacant land as soon as possible.

But ERH approached the City about possible development sites – a promising site in Hartwell was eventually dismissed.

"If there's new investment and new growth, it shows vitality," ERH vice president of affordable housing and in-home services Kathy Ison said. "The market feasibility study recommended revitalization of the business corridor. This is a start."

A bet on the future, or last deal out there?

Further complicating matters, Kroger holds a lease on its vacant store on the northwest corner of Hamilton Avenue and North Bend Road through 2011, and there is speculation that it will renew its lease to keep a competing grocery from taking over the corner.

And with Cincinnati's budget woes, many in the community fear that the City could sell its Masonic Eastern Star site – and possibly the Shuller's site as well – to generate needed revenue.

One resident pointed out that Linden Park was in development while a blighted nursing home still stood on the site.

But others raised questions about the loss of prime, developable land and the low amount of income tax that the development would bring – possibly dropping neighborhood property values.

And several worried that a long, drawn-out process could result in the loss of City Council allies as Council members are turned over due to elections and term limits.

If the sale of the property is approved by the City today, Ison says that ERH is here to stay.

The non-profit has entered new 30-year agreements for all of its Ohio sites.

"We want to be here to serve our seniors," she said. "That's where our hearts are."

Down to the wire

Time is running out for ERH, which has until November 1 to apply for federal and state funding for the project – meaning that it's required to have control of the site and City approvals within the next month.

Meanwhile, ERH will be applying for the only HUD Section 202 selection that will be granted to the Greater Cincinnati area, even though it's not clear of Cary Court will be selected.

The application process is expected to last approximately six months.

A second phase of between 40 and 42 units would be applied for following HUD acceptance of the first phase.

Previous reading on BC:
Neyer backs out of Linden Park (8/29/08)
Linden Park reception to kick off sales center opening (3/6/08)
City to sell land, provide loan for Linden Park (2/1/08)
New rendering, townhome developer for Linden Park (9/24/07)
Community support of Linden Park decisive (9/6/07)