New housing inside Toledo has believers

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 1

Don Monroe is trying to prove a point.

Home builders tell him they can’t make money building in Toledo. The real money is out in the suburbs, they say, where green pastures have been giving way to backyards for decades.

He’s not buying it.

“You can make just as much money developing this city as you can out in the middle of some field,” said Mr. Monroe, the executive director of River East Economic Development Corp.

Two years ago, Mr. Monroe and leaders from two other community groups, Housing East Redevelopment Corp. and Neighborhood Housing Services of Toledo, decided to try to prove their point by building homes and condominiums along the Maumee River.

They would build the first new subdivision in East Toledo in 35 years, and without any government subsidies. They would call their $6.5 million project Starboard Side.

They’ve run into a host of problems, and they’re years behind schedule. But they still believe they can pull it off and show the area life exists within city limits. “We’re going to build houses like what you’d see in Perrysburg Township or Monclova Township,” said Bill Farnsel, executive director of Neighborhood Housing.

When the project began, none of the three partner organizations in the Starboard Side Limited Liability Corp. had been involved in a housing project of this scope. Housing East and Neighborhood Housing deal with housing issues, but not in the startup of subdivisions. And River East spends its time attracting companies to East Toledo, not homeowners.

The idea was to buy roughly 10 acres of city-owned, riverfront land and build about 20 condos right on the water, with a beautiful view of the downtown skyline framed by the Anthony Wayne Bridge and a large wooded area across the river.

Behind them, across Miami Street, would be a similar number of single-family homes.

The homes would sell for $110,000 to $140,000. Condos would start at $160,000 and shoot up to $325,000 for those with a hankering for all-marble bathrooms and other luxuries.

Two banks, National City and Key, have expressed interest in financing the $6.5 million project, Mr. Monroe said.

He said banks feel comfortable dealing with the three, long-established community development groups that are involved in Starboard Side.

The three groups’ goal for the homes is to keep growing middle-class families living in East Toledo, the kind that yearns for a big yard and an extra bedroom, from moving to the suburbs.

“There are so many people leaving for the suburbs because they can’t find the housing they want and need in Toledo,” said Tom Bowlus, Housing East’s executive director. “We’re packed in, and it’s tough to find a space for those homes in the established neighborhoods.”

Mr. Monroe said the homes would promise large yards, spacious lots, and “a suburban feel.”

With the booming housing market in places like Monclova, Perrysburg, and Springfield townships, many developers have left places like East Toledo behind. The last subdivision built there was a 16-house addition on Lott Court in 1963.

“What we’re trying to do is prove you can come into the city and build, and still make a lot of money,” Mr. Monroe said. To prove their point, they’ve refused to take any subsidies available to developers building low-income housing. “We are showing that anybody can do it, even without a dime from the government,” he said.

When Mr. Monroe and the others first proposed Starboard Side in June, 1996, they said the condos and houses could be on the market in a year’s time. Obviously, that hasn’t happened.

The latest problem developed when an old grain elevator on the property had to be removed. Truckloads of dirt were taken in to fill the elevator’s foundation. Later tests showed that the imported dirt was contaminated with PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which have been shown to cause cancer.

Developers were faced with trucking away the dirt at significant expense at a time when most of their predevelopment money had been spent. But Mr. Monroe said EPA guidelines say the levels of PCBs are low enough – 9.5 parts per million – to allow developers simply to dump a foot of soil on top of the contaminated dirt.

But that solution still leaves what has been the biggest stumbling block so far: acquiring a 50-foot swath of land on the development’s eastern edge. The land is owned by Conrail and is the site of an abandoned rail line.

Starboard Side developers didn’t think they’d need the Conrail land at first. But when they drew up plans for the subdivision, they realized that they could build only 14 single-family homes without the added land. They can build 20 homes, on larger lots, with it.

For two years, Conrail, city officials, and developers have been trying to figure out the best way to give control of the land over to the project. The process has been made even more difficult by the fact that two competitors, CSX and Norfolk Southern, are splitting up Conrail – and all its rail assets – in a deal valued at up to $20 billion.

The Conrail difficulty leaves a battery of bureaucratic barriers that could delay any significant construction for years.

First, to begin building, developers must have a site plan approved by the Toledo plan commission.

But to have that plan approved, they must own all the land on the site. So they’ve got to get control of the Conrail land.

To get that, they’ve got to get eminent domain proceedings started.

And for that to happen, according to city officials, will take months.

“Hopefully, in the spring we’ll be able to get things filed,” said Rick May, the city’s real estate manager. “It’s a very complicated thing, appropriating railroad land.”

Conrail officials said it usually takes three to six months to transfer a parcel of land once eminent domain proceedings begin. Then, with the added time plan-commission approval takes, it could be fall, 1999, before infrastructure work could begin and 2000 before anyone could call Starboard Side home. The railroad and developers seek ways to speed the process.

The delays apparently haven’t frustrated leaders of the three nonprofits. All three men say they have been distracted by their own jobs with their own nonprofits. And none has extensive experience in the nuances of subdivision development.

Their belief in the project’s purpose – revitalizing East Toledo, putting a dent in suburban sprawl, and showing builders it can be done – has kept their spirits up, they say. “This is the first time any of us have tried doing anything like this,” Mr. Farnsel said. “But this could be the way we show others how to keep people in the city and in East Toledo. It’s a terrific project.”

Blade staff writer Jeffrey Cohan contributed to this report.