On February 11th, 2014, the Davis Furniture Building was made available for sale at public auction. Several developers showed up to bid, the price climbed steadily, and Stough Development Group eventually won the building with a bid of $125,000. With Stough’s longtime offices directly across from the Davis Building, it seemed like the former furniture store was in good hands and that the future was looking up.
Within two weeks of their successful bid, Stough formally requested that the 13,000 square foot building be demolished.
It was a striking development made even more odd by the track record that Stough has as a developer in Over the Rhine. In addition to their offices on Main St., Stough has invested more than $10 million over the past 30 years in the neighborhood. By almost any measure, Stough has been an important part of Main St.’s revival, and the company has long stood as stewards of historic buildings, development and community in general.
But in continuing to pursue demolition for the past 6 months despite community efforts in opposition, we begin to see a different narrative emerge. A narrative that shows a blatant lack of effort, transparency and honesty when dealing with the city and public.
When historic buildings are proposed to be demolished in Over the Rhine, the case is first presented to the Historic Conservation Board (HCB). The HCB makes a determination whether the demolition is appropriate or not (issuing a Certificate of Appropriateness -COA- in cases where it is appropriate).
The HCB is a 7-person board appointed by the city manager and per their own mandate: “must include at least one professional historic preservationist, one historian, two architects, one attorney, one person engaged in the real estate or development business, and one economist.” The board is led by its Chair, Dr. Judith Spraul-Schmidt, and takes input from the City’s head of the Historic Conservation Office – the Urban Conservator, Larry Harris.
When the issue to demolish Davis came in front of the HCB on February 24th, 2014, their decision was a positive one for historic preservation and called for a 6-month demolition delay to allow all parties to pursue any possible alternatives1:
“The goal of the delay is to allow the applicant and the HCB, represented by the Urban Conservator (UC), 180 days to actively pursue alternatives to the demolition, working also with civic groups, public agencies and interested public citizens.”
In addition to actively pursuing alternatives to demolition, Stough was also required to publicly present their progress once a month in front of the HCB and public for the entire 6-month delay. The Cincinnati Preservation Collective was at each of those 6 meetings and has been part of a larger effort to save this building led by the Over the Rhine Foundation and their legal representative, Tim Mara.
To represent them in their pursuit of demolition, Stough Development hired C. Francis (Fran) Barrett as their attorney. Mr. Barrett is a founding member of Barrett & Weber law firm, sits on the University of Cincinnati board of trustees and is the brother of Western and Southern CEO John Barrett (no friend of preservation). Fran is also the lawyer responsible for the demolition of Christy’s/Goetz House and the demolition of the Gamble House. Hiring one of the best lawyers to pursue demolition makes sense when you are ready for a fight with the community, but exceedingly strange when pursuing alternatives to demolition.
One of the first questions to Stough was an obvious one: “Well, OK, demolition. But then what happens to the property?” A quick answer: we don’t know.
From Michael Stough2:
”Speaking frankly, the future use for the property has not been determined.”
How can you be certain that a building has met its end when you have no idea what to do after it falls?
Even if there were a plan, though, it’s unlikely that a new building would offer the same aesthetic and historic relevance that the current building does. And in an historic district with limits on size and scale of anything built new, it’s hard to imagine that new construction on this exact site could generate as much economic activity as a rehabbed Davis (not to mention the environmental impact of putting a huge building in a landfill and building completely new).
A Building ‘For Sale’
To facilitate possible alternatives, Stough was asked by Mr. Harris to list the building for sale, which they did, but with a few caveats:
- There was 0 signage on the building that listed it was for sale until July (4 months late)
- The only current signage is a 4×4 foot sign in one window which is barely visible and easily blocked by parked cars.
- The listings for the property are not available on any public listing site and I would challenge you to try to find them. The only listings were posted on sites available to real estate agents, have only a single exterior photo and include a meager description. The listing can be seen here.
- In order to view the building or engage in negotiations with Stough to buy the building, a potential buyer is required to sign a confidentiality agreement that, if broken, could result in a $100,000 fine. Again, for a process that was supposed to be public and in the best interest of getting the building sold, this is a strange requirement.
- A price has never been provided publicly for the building and Stough has been aggressive in ensuring that it was not known. The price has repeatedly been described as what is necessary to cover the costs into the building, which are negligible, except for the cost of Fran Barret’s representation. We know that as Fran spends more time on the project, the cost continues to go up.
If you’ve looked around Over the Rhine in the past 5 years, you know that development has been increasing rapidly and that buildings of all sizes and states of disrepair have been brought back to life through rehab. Why, then, couldn’t a developer capable of a $2 million renovation step forward and offer to buy/rehab the building rather than let it get demolished? The answer is simple: they’ve tried.
3CDC, a well-known and successful non-profit development corporation in Cincinnati, and Grandin Properties, a property management firm specializing in Cincinnati’s urban neighborhoods, have tried to buy and rehab the building to no avail. We additionally only know of their interest because of documentation submitted to the city by each party. It’s impossible to know what other potential buyers have tried to work with Stough directly as this information has never been disclosed publicly despite frequent requests.
In 3CDC’s submission to the city opposing the demolition, Vice President of Development Adam Gelter describes his experience dealing with Stough as such3:
“3CDC has accommodated multiple requests from Stough Development in an attempt to successfully negotiate the property’s purchase. Stough Development Corporation has denied multiple purchase offers from 3CDC citing a host of reasons…3CDC was responsive to these requests and applied its best efforts to incorporate them into a purchase contract agreeable to both parties…Despite these efforts, Stough Development did not provide specific terms, choosing instead to respond with several generic requests.”
From Grandin President Peg Wyant4:
- “In my judgment, it [Davis] should not be torn down but successfully renovated into office spaces, condominiums, or apartments.”
- “Grandin is willing to buy the property “as is.”
- “Grandin is deeply involved in historic preservation and will commit to rehabilitation along the lines dictated by City and historic guidelines as well as the State of Ohio.”
In addition to the explicit offers to buy the building as listed above, the following groups are formally opposed to the demolition:
- Over the Rhine Foundation
- Over the Rhine Community Council
- Pendleton Neighborhood Council
- Over the Rhine Brewery District
- Merchants on Main
- Cincinnati Preservation Collective
- OTR ADOPT
- Believe in Cincinnati
- ACME Hardware
Two of the most successful developers in Over the Rhine couldn’t come to terms with Stough on buying the building; we turn to Stough directly to understand why.
Regarding the offers made by 3CDC, Stough explains:5
(Bullets and emphasis added for clarity):
“…we made it clear to 3CDC what our intentions and desires were with respect to the property:
- we wanted a firm commitment that the purchaser would undertake and complete the historic restoration of this building [they did, repeatedly];
- we wanted the historic restoration to be substantially complete within a period of one year [a comically short period of time to complete a building of this scale. Stough’s own development of a similar size on Main St., for example, took 6 years];
- the purchase price would be based upon what amount would be necessary to cover all of our expenses which were continuing to be incurred [the only continuing costs of significance are those required to have Fran Barrett as legal representation in pursuit of demolition. By Stough’s own admission, costs into the building itself do not exceed $50,000 and 3CDC offered to pay those costs as part of their purchase];
- …and that the purchaser must have the financial wherewithal to undertake and complete this project. With respect to 3CDC, we were not concerned about the fourth element.”
Regarding the offers made by Grandin Properties, Stough explains5:
“Ms. Wyant [president of Grandin] proceeded to argue the merits of her position with you [Larry Harris] as Urban Conservator rather than negotiate properly with the seller. In fact, we learned that Ms. Wyant communicated with you…that the selling price is ‘beyond something reasonable.’ This response [response to Grandin from Stough, effectively ending negotiations] became necessary because of the actions taken by Ms. Wyant outside the realm of reasonable real estate negotiations.”
So what do you do when minor aspects of a public process become public? You end negotiations immediately, take your bag and go home.
Another interesting piece to this puzzle is that a Streetcar stop is planned directly in front of the Davis Furniture Building. Instead of viewing this as an opportunity, Stough has indicated themselves that they want the platform moved and a source told us:
“The owners [Stough] are still trying to convince the city to move the streetcar stop that will be located on Main in front of the Davis Furniture building [presumably because it would interfere with access to a new parking lot]. They have threatened litigation if the city does not comply with their request.
Additionally, Councilman Smitherman is continuing to campaign against the streetcar and has just threatened to put the project on the ballot again if it goes a single penny over budget. Therefore, introducing any sort of complication at the last minute, like relocating a stop, could put the project in danger yet again.”
Where we are now
To anybody paying close attention over the past 6 months, it’s become apparent that there is no intent to sell the building and that the sole motive in purchasing it was demolition. That two of the most successful developers in this city could not work with Stough to buy the building further exacerbates this point and leaves us all incredibly frustrated having wasted 8 months in the process.
CPC for our part has reached out directly to 3 other developers, has engaged with a commercial real estate agent to work with his clients and has marketed publicly on at least 5 occasions that the building was for sale while providing the contact information of the real estate agent. The feedback we’ve gotten on nearly all of these occasions centers around a general frustration with the process as it has unfolded and with the lack of transparency on behalf of the Stoughs.
A simple solution would have been to list the building aggressively, to offer a fair purchase price and to go from there. If no party met that price, then we could be supportive towards the demolition as a financial hardship for Stough. Instead, here we are 8 months later with no purchase price and working through emails and submitted documents to find any truth. It didn’t have to be this way.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Join us on Monday for the first step in demolition: the Historic Conservation Board
- Like our facebook page to keep up with events as they unfold
- Join our email list for updates and next steps
- Share this article, comment below and learn as much as you can about the issues at hand
Together we can ensure a fair and transparent process and save 300 years of Cincinnati history.
1Page 2 – “Agenda – Historic Conservation Board Regular Meeting November 3rd, 2014” – Larry Harris, November 3, 2014. http://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/planning/historic-conservation/historic-conservation-board/nov-3-2014-packet/
2Page 22 – “Submissions Supporting Davis Furniture Demo COA Revised” – Michael Stough, January 5, 2014. http://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/planning/historic-conservation/historic-conservation-board/bankers-choice-stough-group-submissions-supporting-davis-furniture-demo-coa-revised/
3Page 4 – “MEMO – Davis Furniture Building – 1119-1123 Main St” – Adam Gelter, September 5, 2014. http://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/planning/historic-conservation/historic-conservation-board/submissions-opposing-davis-furniture-demo-coa/
4Page 44 – “Submissions Opposing Davis Furniture Demo COA” – Peg Wyant, October 8, 2014. http://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/planning/historic-conservation/historic-conservation-board/submissions-opposing-davis-furniture-demo-coa/
5Page 1, Page 2 – “Letter to the Urban Conservator” – Michael Stough, October 28, 2014. http://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/planning/historic-conservation/historic-conservation-board/letter-to-urban-conservator-10-28-14/
Edit: 9:20am – A previous version listed Larry Harris as the head of the Historic Conservation Board. He is the head of the Historic Conservation Office for the City of Cincinnati and provides input to the HCB. The HCB is led by their own board chair.