Downtown decay being reversed by flurry of commercial development

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A3 (Focus edition)

If you want to understand Toledo’s downtown renaissance, just stand at the corner of Adams and Superior streets.

Picture an intersection of only five years ago, with a symbol of urban decay on each corner: a Macy’s department store that had been empty for more than a decade; the backside of a long-shuttered playhouse known as the Valentine Theatre; a rundown former Woolworth building, and a vacant former flower shop.

On some nights, you could have stood on the corner for hours and not seen a single human being. If you looked east down Adams Street, you would have seen the empty shell of the Portside Festival Marketplace.

All that has changed now.

The Macy’s has become the LaSalle Apartments, a 130-unit high-rise that has been full since it opened. The Valentine underwent a $28 million renovation that has made it a cornerstone of downtown life since it reopened in October.

The owner of the building housing the former flower shop has begun a $1.1 million renovation and plans to turn it into a food court and office space. And just last month, the new owner of the former Woolworth building announced a deal to bring a Doc Watson’s restaurant and bar to the building.

In 1997, Portside became COSI Toledo, the popular children’s science museum, which celebrated its 1 millionth visitor in December.

In the last few years, most of the big action around Toledo has been downtown.

People who a few years ago wouldn’t have thought of going downtown are suddenly finding reasons to, whether it’s catching an opera at the Valentine or visiting friends at the LaSalle.

Downtown was hit hard by the woes of the 1980s. Key businesses like Sheller-Globe Corp., Questor Corp., and First Federal Savings & Loan left downtown. Business parks like Arrowhead Park in Maumee attracted the smaller businesses that decades earlier might have taken an office in the central business district.

Following the lead of cities like Cleveland and Indianapolis, Toledo has been busy remaking downtown into an entertainment and housing spot, particularly for young singles.

This year promises to see even more positive developments downtown. The biggest is expected this fall, when construction is scheduled to begin on a new baseball stadium for the Toledo Mud Hens. The new ballpark will move the team from suburban Maumee to the Warehouse District and, local leaders hope, pump more energy into downtown.

Much of the attention in recent years has focused on the downtown riverfront. The federal office building on Summit Street is scheduled to be razed later this year. The empty space it leaves may become an extension of Promenade Park, site of summer’s popular Rally By The River series.

Government workers getting booted out of the federal building have had to find office space elsewhere downtown, helping lower the city’s high office building vacancy rate.

Next to Promenade Park, the old Edison steam plant will see renovations this spring to turn it into an entertainment complex. The Wisconsin developers who have taken on the project hope to bring in a bookstore, a sports bar, and several restaurants.

Those restaurants could be the mirror image of a development across the Maumee River in East Toledo. The Docks, located in International Park, has become one of Toledo’s busiest spots at night, with two restaurants, a wine bar, and a banquet facility. They’ll be joined in the next few months by two more restaurants and a brewpub.

While most of the diners at downtown restaurants are people from the suburbs, an increasing number are people living downtown. The LaSalle’s opening started the growth of downtown as a residential neighborhood. Last year, the former Commodore Perry Hotel and Hillcrest Hotel – both long empty – were also converted into apartments, and the Toledo Trust building will soon become the Riverside Apartments.

Put the pieces together – entertainment from the Valentine and Mud Hens, dining from the new restaurants, shopping from new retail, and residents from the apartment buildings – and you might just have the solution.