There are still a few developable sites left in Hamilton County, but they come with some baggage
Matt Koesters | WCPO contributor
12:00 PM, Oct 18, 2016
CINCINNATI -- Hamilton County has plenty of things that developers and large companies look for when considering a real estate move: access to multiple modes of transportation, close proximity to several big cities, a thriving business community and a large, talented workforce.
The one thing that Hamilton County lacks is the one thing that no one is making more of: land. There are a few big sites left, but those that remain come with baggage.
"Hamilton County’s a pretty built-out county, so if there is a large site that’s still available, there’s probably some reason why it didn’t develop," said Harry Blanton, vice president of economic development with HCDC. "It might be that there’s topography issues. It might be that there’s no good access. It might be there’s no sewer and water to the site."
Organizations like the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority work to get more large sites ready for development -- the Gibson Greeting Card site in Amberley Village and Cincinnati Gardens will both be ready next year, thanks to the Port -- while HCDC and other economic development agencies work to attract new business development.
But for now, options are limited. Meanwhile, Butler and Warren counties have both enjoyed success in recent years attracting companies with large land needs while Hamilton County’s successes have come on a smaller scale.
So what’s someone who needs a lot of land to do? They might check out one of the top five largest developable sites in Hamilton County.
Landmark Church owns the largest piece of undeveloped land in Hamilton County: more than 160 acres straddling the corporation lines of Glendale and Evendale. But it’s not likely to part with all of it at once, said agent Nick Barela, president and principal of Republic Commercial Real Estate.
"The church has been there for a long time, and they remain committed to the site," Barela said. "Their hope is they sell a portion of what they’re not currently using, but with the proceeds they get from any potential sale, they would most likely buckle down their investment on the site and remain a part of the Evendale and Glendale communities for the foreseeable future."
The property has about 1,200 feet of highway visibility just east of Interstate 75, according to Barela. But the uses for the site would depend upon which municipality a potential development was built in.
On sites larger than 20 acres -- coincidentally, probably the smallest amount the church would consider selling, according to Barela -- Glendale requires 20 percent greenspace and 30 percent residential. The balance can be any combination of commercial, residential and greenspace, which would make it ideal for a mixed-use development.
About 125 acres are still available at the Harrison Commerce Center, one of the largest development-ready sites in the county.
Harrison economic development director Shannon Hamons did not respond to a message seeking comment, but according to the website of developer the Schueler Group, the commerce center offers flexibility. It has full access to all utilities and can accommodate businesses in need of large buildings and heavy industrial zoning. The land available can be divided into sites as small as two acres.
The problem: location. Although it offers immediate access to I-74 and is only three minutes from I-275, it’s quite far from the county’s busier commercial corridors.
“Because it’s not on 71 or 75 -- that’s why it hasn’t developed as quickly as other sites,” Blanton said.
3. Carillon Business Park (Forest Park)
There are as many as 40 acres of land ready for development at Carillon Business Park, and Paul Brehm, the city’s economic development director, said there’s going to be as many as 30 more by sometime in 2017.
“There has been a substantial amount of investment at Carillon just recently in the last two-and-a-half years,” Brehm said.
That includes an ongoing reconfiguration of the campus of Ameritas Life Insurance, the park’s largest office tenant. The company celebrated the completion of $17 million in investment last spring that included construction of a new 70,000-square-foot building and the remodeling of its original 201,000-square-foot building.
That momentum carried over into this year and the company is working on reconfiguring its campus now. Brehm figures that will open up 20 to 30 more acres of ground once that work is finished.
"It really affords a great opportunity for companies looking for land inside of the (275) beltway to really come up with a nice, first-class location," Brehm said.
Sixty acres of available land located along an arterial that sees between 25,000 and 30,000 cars per day. Sounds good, right?
Well, not so fast.
"We’ve not seen anybody present us with a legitimate development proposal yet for that site, or portions thereof," said Adam Goetzman, Green Township’s development director.
There are a few reasons for that. First, there’s the issue of topography. Like most of the township, the site is very hilly, and Goetzman said there would be a good amount of cut-and-fill required to make most development plans work there.
And then there’s the matter of the power lines. Duke Energy has an easement that cuts through the property that’s more than 100 feet wide. That means that even though there are 60 acres available, it’s not very probable that all 60 could be developed.
“Given topography and site constraints, it’s in all likelihood going to be developed with multiple buildings in a cohesive manner,” Goetzman said. “That would be the desire of the community.”
5. 5700 Center Hill Ave. (Winton Hills neighborhood, city of Cincinnati)
Coming in at No. 5 is the site closest to Cincinnati’s urban core: a 60-acre piece of land in the Winton Hills neighborhood. It’s not far at all from I-75, the busiest north-south highway in the country.
All one has to do is dig a little deeper to find out why no one has pounced at the chance to develop the land. Most of it once served as an ash landfill for a nearby incinerator.
The city added about 10 feet of soil to compact the subsurface -- a process called “surcharging” -- but the instability of the land is likely what makes potential buyers queasy.
“We believe it’s buildable, but it’s got some challenges, geotechnically,” said Bill Fischer, manager of economic development for the city of Cincinnati.
Not all of the land has those challenges. There are about 6 acres of land where the incinerator itself once was located that Fischer thinks would make for a good commercial property. Several deep wells on the property used to cool the incinerator were left behind by the city, and Fischer thinks they could be used by companies interested in geothermal and other green technologies.
The city is giving some consideration to consolidating city services on the rest of land, as there are other city-owned properties that are considered much more desirable for development.The city is also operating a methane gas collector on the northern end of the property.
"The city’s always going to have to keep an eye on it and maintain it," Fischer said. "That’s why we decided it may make more sense to have a municipal use on the site."