|Rainy day view of North Fort Thomas Avenue near Highland Avenue. (FTM file)|
By Robin Gee, Council Beat Editor
The Fort Thomas Comprehensive Community Plan is hot off the press, and with it comes a host of ideas for discussion among city residents and the business community.
Cincinnati-based developer Greiwe Development Group sent out materials exploring the possibilities for the Central Business District outlined in the plan that resulted in speculation and concern by community members. It was not long before rumors flew on social media. Yet, according to the developer, city officials and businesses in the area that are housed in some of the proposed properties, there is no project that is imminent or close to being done.
"Right now there has been no ask. No one has approached the city with any plans," explained City Administrator Ron Dill. "Until a developer presents a project, there is nothing the city can comment on. The first step would be to make an application to the Planning Commission before any project would be considered."
After an application and submission to the Planning Commission, the project would move to the Design Review Board and, once it passes that, it would be presented to City Council, said Dill. There would be many opportunities for public input as the process unfolded.
Here’s what's behind the story that led to rumors
Fort Thomas native Dan Gorman is the founder of the United Property Group. He is also on the city’s Planning Commission and very active on the Comprehensive Plan’s large Land Use and Zoning Committee. He owns several properties in town and in the CBD including 15 and 19 North Fort Thomas Avenue held through LLC holding companies. Those two properties, along with 3 N. Fort Thomas Avenue and 9 Highland Avenue, which are still privately owned, comprise the area where the development is being considered.
After reviewing the input given by residents in the year-long process to develop the Fort Thomas Community Plan, he shared the plan with nine different property developers hoping to drum up interest in plans to revitalize the Central Business District on the footprint of those four properties.
"One of the recommendations from our consultants of the Fort Thomas Community Plan is the redevelopment of our CBD with mixed use buildings," he said."I own a couple pieces of real estate in town and reached out to a number of developers to see if anyone would be interested in working on a mixed-use project in Fort Thomas."
Several of the developers he approached said he should talk with Greiwe.
"Because of his success in Mariemont and Hyde Park, most of them recommended that I speak with Rick Greiwe. He was interested enough to put out a marketing flyer to test the waters, but at this point it's still really speculative. There hasn't been a story yet because it's just too early in the process," he added.
After Gorman shared the plan with Greiwe, the Cincinnati-based developer realized that what was needed in the Central Business District would require the inclusion of retail space on the first-floor level of any condo or residential development in that stretch.
"We wanted to create something that would meet the goals of the community and the condo buyers…We are in the exploratory phase for the property at North Fort Thomas and Highland avenues that would include commercial as outlined in the Comprehensive Plan," he said.
Greiwe said the company did not have much experience in commercial property development, but he decided to explore whether a mixed-use project would fit his business model and be attractive to both condo owners and retail businesses. The question before going any further with the idea was would people be interested in such a project?
"This is new for us, we primarily build condos and we did not want to go in with a proposal to the city that we could not execute." He added that he found current rents in the business district are about $14 to $16 per square foot, but newly constructed retail space would usually run much higher. He wanted to see if $24 per square foot would be viable in Fort Thomas.
He decided to work with commercial property investment giant CBRE to explore the market. In turn CBRE floated some information in an article on the commercial real estate website Loopnet that included a speculative brochure.
At the point of contacting CBRE, Greiwe did not have any plans or designs for the development. He sent photos and floor plans of properties he'd developed for a Mariemont project, because according to him, CBRE recommended using placeholder renderings. At this point, it's unclear why CBRE added a date available of September 2020 not knowing whether or not the project is doable, viable or both.
If the company's market research pans out, and all the properties could be obtained, the next step would be to create a design schematic to present to the Planning Commission. That, said Greiwe, is months down the road at this point.
Promoting development in Fort Thomas
Development of the Central Business District has been a point of discussion for many years. The Comprehensive Plan allowed a space for the entire community to look at options and create a vision of what that development could look like.
Gorman said CBD development had long been a point of discussion between himself and his colleague David Meyer. Out of that discussion and others, Gorman decided to purchase properties in the district including one that became home to the Fort Thomas Public House.
Meyer and his wife Jenny are the proprietors of the restaurant, located at 15 North Thomas Avenue. They lease space and knew in doing so that a potential development could occur, but they were unsure of the timeline or whether or not the development would come to fruition.
"We have not been approached by anyone with details on the new retail spaces if this development goes through. I suspect menu prices would need to increase to pay the lease rate on a new building but we would certainly consider it," said Meyer.
"When all is said and done, we hope to break even. We just wanted to get a vacant property back open to have a place in the center of town to gather with friends. It’s a lot of work and stress for something that might break even, but we do enjoy seeing so many from the community enjoying the space."
Gorman said he wants to support development options for the business district, but he wants to find a solution that would be affordable for businesses such as the Public House and other small businesses in town.
"Not a lot of national chains, but businesses that fit in our town…I know that can be tricky for brand new space, but all this is very speculative at this point. It’s really very early to speak of specific developments, but I want something that will allow our smaller local businesses to survive and thrive."
Nothing at the city yet
While the city has seen no proposals or plans from anyone looking to develop property in the Central Business District, Dill said he would welcome opportunities to explore options. He said he is proud of the more than year-long process that led to the discussions about careful and planned growth and development across the city.
"The city has gone through an extensive process to update the Comprehensive Plan, and we would welcome opportunities from property owners, developers and others in agreement with what is outlined in the Comprehensive Plan. As a community, we should embrace new opportunities but we would not move on anything that is not in the community’s best interest."