17 December 2008

Broken Windows and Incremental Repair

[Where: 1810 Elm Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202]

Last summer, this building was fully occupied. It was built in the 1880s, occupied as rental housing with a storefront for 80 years, then rehabbed under the project-based Rental Rehab program in the 1970s by Tom Denhart. During the 1970s rehab, it was sandblasted, and gutted. Much of its historic character was removed. The storefront was converted to housing. Smaller aluminum windows were installed in the bigger brick openings.

When I first came to OTR, I thought that the biggest problem was getting the vacant buildings rehabbed. But since I've stuck around long enough, I now see that is not enough. It is not enough because many buildings that were completely rehabbed in the 70s, 80s and 90s are now vacant again...

I think it is worth pondering what the difference is between a building that is continually occupied vs. one that is periodically vacant. It is the difference between incremental repair and major construction, the difference between ownership and absentee landlords, the difference between salvage and gutting.

See, the building above is owned by a corporation, Hart Realty. The owner is old and supposedly bankrupt. But the remnants of the corporation still litter the city. And these windows will stay broken and will attract more stones, probably for years, until someone comes up with a very large mortgage to completely rehab it again. And if it is done by a another corporation, who just sees this building as a way to make money, it will probably be vacant again in 30 years.

(And by the way, I don't know about every one else, but standing there looking at these broken windows, with stones laying at my feet, I was tempted to break some glass too. Now I would never do that, but it is interesting that these tendencies are so strong. )

But, if the building were to be bought by someone who could give it some love and care, it could really blossom. The front still has remnants of its former beauty, and structurally it is solid. Part of the problem in OTR is that many of the buildings are too big for small time owners. It is one thing to buy a single family rowhouse in Newport or Northside and do all the work yourself, but it is quite another to take on a 5-unit building with a commercial space in OTR.

But it is possible...


Quimbob said...

You are probably not going to be able to do much with the building if you are limited to renting at a rock bottom rate, either - even if the building is continuously occupied.

Paul Wilham said...

I feel your sense of frustration. Its hard to find people with both 'vision' and money. I looked at OTR quite a bit before we bought where we did. So many of the "good" properties are "held" by 3cdc with no timetable for restoration that if you did buy you might have a vacant building next door to you for years. I think eventually the 'numbers' will make sense on many of these buildings as people get tired of their long commute an move back downtown.