CINCINNATI – As some of the region's most influential business leaders fight to preserve two of the city's most iconic historic structures, a quieter battle is underway to save a vacant storefront in Over-the-Rhine.
In August, Cincinnati's Historic Conservation Board will be asked to decide whether the old Davis Furniture property on Main Street – made up of two, connected buildings – can be demolished.
It's tough to compare the cavernous old store to Union Terminal and Music Hall – the two historic structures that business titans have rallied to support. But preservation advocates argue demolition of the Davis Furniture building at 1119 and 1123 Main St. would destroy an important gateway from the central business district to historic Over-the-Rhine.
"I don't think anybody would argue that the Davis Furniture building itself is an architectural wonder," said Tim Mara, a lawyer representing the Over-the-Rhine Foundation , which wants the structure saved. "The bottom line here is what makes Cincinnati what it is, in large respect, is its old buildings. The Davis Furniture building is important because it's part of a set of buildings – as opposed to Union Terminal and Music Hall, which are important unto themselves."
The owners of the building agree, said Scott Stough, marketing director of The Stough Group , which bought the property at sheriff's auction last year.
"If someone could redo the building in a reasonable amount of time, we encourage it," Stough said. "We want to work with the community and give the building a fair chance of being saved."
But like so many issues in historic Over-the-Rhine, it's complicated.
Owners: Building Was 'Becoming A Blight'
The Davis Furniture Co. near the corner of Central Parkway and Main Street closed a decade ago after more than 100 years in business. A temporary employment agency owned the building for a while, but the property fell into foreclosure and went up for sale at a sheriff's auction last year.
The Stough Group bought the property for $125,000, Stough said, and intended to redevelop it. The company also owns the Hanke Building at 1130 Main St. and four other buildings on that same side of Main, right across the street from the Davis Furniture property.
The company had been watching the Davis Furniture building deteriorate for years, and the decay was making it more difficult to lease spaces across the street, Stough said.
"It was becoming a blight," he said. "It was to the point where it was really hurting the property values for us, and it was a detriment to the progress we had made."
Once the company got control of the property, it sent contractors and structural engineers inside to check out the buildings' condition, he said.
"We got in there, and it was obvious to us that it was not economically feasible to fix," Stough said. "In our opinion, it was in danger of collapse. The building moves around. It could collapse at any point."
The Stough Group asked city officials for a permit to demolish the building as an emergency, he said, but city officials denied it.
The company then applied for a "certificate of appropriateness" to demolish the buildings, which the city requires because the property is in the Over-the-Rhine historic district.
Instead of voting on the matter right away, the city's Historic Conservation Board dusted off a seldom-used provision in the city's historic preservation laws. The board delayed its vote for 180 days to give city officials and the property owner time to find a way to save the building.
The Clock Is Ticking
That 180 days ends in August, and it's unclear whether any progress has been made.
The Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., the well-funded developer known as 3CDC , has tried to buy the property.
3CDC made a written offer for the building, but Francis Barrett, the Stough Group's lawyer, told the organization that the offer wasn't enough, said Anastasia Mileham, vice president of communications for 3CDC.
"So we sent another letter with another offer committing to renovating the building or – if we couldn’t – turning it over to the city," Mileham said. "We got a response back that it wasn't enough and that the language wasn't what they were looking for."
Mileham said 3CDC asked the Stough Group to give an acceptable price for the building and explain what terms were necessary to reach a deal.
At that point, she said, 3CDC was told to negotiate with David Cawdrey , the company's listing agent. Mileham said 3CDC executives are trying to do that now.
Stough declined to say much about the interactions with 3CDC, saying he didn't want to negotiate a sale in public but added, "Just because they made an offer doesn't mean they meant to redo the building in any timely manner."
The Stough Group doesn't want 3CDC – or anyone else – to buy the building and then do nothing with it for years, Stough said.
"There was no commitment (by 3CDC) to do it in a timely manner," he said.
Is System Flawed?
All the back and forth leads preservation advocates to "doubt the
sincerity" of the owners' efforts to sell the buildings, Mara said.
"Our concern is they may be creating impossible conditions for a buyer and indirectly chasing away potential buyers," Mara said.
Stough said that isn't the point at all.
The Stough Group hasn't been willing to publicize a selling price because the costs to keep the building increase every day, he said.
Stough estimated that the company already has spent more than $100,000 stabilizing the structures and doing the repairs necessary to keep them safe.
The 180-day delay has made the whole thing all the more expensive, Barrett said.
"It's certainly costing our clients money," he said. "It's very expensive to keep the property insured and maintained."
The city's laws make preservation a priority.
The Historic Conservation Board is supposed to grant a request to demolish a historic building only under specific circumstances, said Sean Suder, a former city lawyer who is now managing director of Graydon Land Use, a land use consulting company started by the Graydon Head law firm.
The board could determine the building is "noncontributing," meaning that it isn't deemed an important part of the historic district, Suder said.
The more common strategy, though, is for the building owner to argue that there is no "economically viable use" for the property, he said.
That standard is designed to be "extraordinarily high," said Michael Morgan, a local lawyer who was chairman of a task force to review the city's historic preservation laws in 2012.
The task force's work was aimed at clarifying the city's historic preservation laws, he said. But Morgan worries that the Historic Conservation Board has interpreted those changes as a weakening of the law, he said.
"It's a flawed system," Morgan said.
The way the city's laws are being interpreted leaves it up to preservationists, who have no access to the building, to argue that it can be saved, he said.
Barrett argued, however, that the law places the burden on property owners to prove that it's not economically possible to save a property.
Either way, something must happen with the property soon, said Edward Cunningham, manager of the city's property maintenance code enforcement division.
"It's in bad shape. It's been condemned and declared a public nuisance," he said of the buildings. "But we've seen far worse. And we've seen them saved."
That's what preservation advocates hope will happen with the Davis Furniture building.
"Once we lose that building, it's part of the layers of history that we can't get back," said Diana Tisue, co-founder of the new Cincinnati Preservation Collective. "Some people see that building as a very simple structure. But I tend to see it as simply beautiful."
For information about purchasing the Davis Furniture building, contact Cawdrey Commercial Real Estate .
For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.