Thursday, April 19, 2012

Zoning Board of Appeals rules demolition of 309 W Fifth Street okay

Following 90 minutes of deliberation, Cincinnati's Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) ruled this morning that a vacant building in Downtown's West Fourth Street Historic District can be demolished.

The ruling reverses a decision by the Historic Conservation Board (HCB) last December to deny a certificate of appropriateness for the demolition of the vacant building at 309 W Fifth Street to build a private, secured parking lot for Lifetime Financial Growth, which recently spent more than $3 million to renovate its offices at 419 Plum Street.

Lawyers Thomas Tepe Jr. and Barrett Tullis of Keating Muething & Klekamp PLL, representing property owner Shree Kulkarni of 305-309 W Fifth Street LLC, argued that the HCB decision amounted to an illegal taking by the City, as it violated the municipal code provision that HCB must issue a certificate of appropriateness if there is no other alternative that would conform to the City guidelines.

Following two years of legal tangles due to title issues, Kulkarni closed on the properties at 305-309 W Fifth Street for $45,000 with the goal of redeveloping both buildings. But two weeks prior, the City had declared the buildings a public nuisance – something the seller did not disclose.

"I think she just wanted to get rid of the building, however possible," Kulkarni said.

The public nuisance hearing found that the 7,200-square-foot building at 309 W Fifth Street, built in 1914, suffered from rotten framing and damaged masonry caused by water infiltration. The Hamilton County Auditor has assessed the value of the "improved" (building) value at $100 since 1999.

When Kulkarni went before the Historic Conservation Board to argue for the demolition permit, the City seemed to have reversed its position. Urban Conservator Larry Harris testified that the building was not structurally unsafe, was not likely to fall down, and could be boarded up and left to sit under a Vacant Building Maintenance License.

Tepe and Tullis argued that Kulkarni was not going to invest money into a building that the City has said it will tear down. Walks-through with several contractors found the costs to renovate would be astronomical, with residential, retail, and office uses resulting in a fiscal loss.

Banks refused to loan money for any project in the building. So the only option left was to create a nice-looking parking lot that would fit in with the historic district, Kulkarni said.

"Times have changed since I bought the property," he said. "The world was very different then. The best use of this property now is to take this building down."

The future use of 309 W Fifth still is undetermined, though, as ZBA remanded to the HCB consideration of a variance for surface parking on the site.

305 W Fifth Street, found to be too significantly altered to meet historic district guidelines, was razed in January 2011.