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King of Kenwood: Will election controversy leave a mark on Sycamore Township?

'People were ready for a change'
Posted: 5:00 AM, Dec 23, 2019
Updated: 2019-12-23 21:51:19-05

Sycamore Township Trustee Tom Weidman wasn’t on the ballot in November, but that didn’t keep Tom James from campaigning against him.

“I ran on him not being in charge anymore,” James said. “I think people were just ready for a change.”

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Tom James was elected Sycamore Township Trustee on Nov. 5, 2019

James defeated incumbent Republican Dennis Connor on Nov. 5. Many viewed the race as a referendum on Weidman’s approach to economic development in the blocks surrounding Kenwood Towne Centre.

“He is the King of Kenwood,” said Trustee Jim LaBarbara, who also was elected in 2017 by challenging Weidman’s approach. “People are afraid of the man. If Tom says something everybody’s on board.”

One measure of that clout came two days after the election when the lame-duck Connor voted with Weidman to approve a $15 million tax-increment financing plan for the Gallery at Kenwood, a $130 million mixed-use development that its neighbors vehemently opposed. The project is expected to break ground next month.

“When 20 people come in and complain about something, I have to always remember there’s a balance here,” Weidman said. “I can meet the needs of those 20 people but I also have to meet the needs of the 20,000 that live in Sycamore Township and what’s good for everybody. I’ve been that way all along. I’ll always be that way.”

‘We have a real gem’

The I-Team has been studying this year’s political developments in Sycamore Township because of its potential impact on one of the region’s biggest economic drivers: Kenwood Towne Centre.

Not only is it a big generator of sales-tax revenue for Hamilton County, it’s also a job magnet because of how it attracts retail, hotel and office projects to the center of the region.

“We have a real gem here,” Weidman said. “And it’s important that we continue to bring people to that mall and keep it thriving like it is.”

But an ever-shifting retail landscape is making malls an endangered species in America. Department store closures, a 40-year trend toward discount retail and the rise of digital juggernauts like Amazon have produced an unforgiving market for all shopping centers, said Nick Egelanian, president of SiteWorks, a Baltimore, Md. -based consulting firm that advises mall developers.

“If you look at other cities, Kansas City has one mall left,” Egelanian said. “And that mall is losing its Nordstrom to an open-air center called The Plaza. There may be no malls in Kansas City when it’s all said and done.”

Egelanian said Butler County’s Liberty Center is another example of how turbulent the market has become. Six years after its opening, it’s now owned by its lender, Apollo Real Estate Finance Inc., and managed by a third-party operator.

“It’s going to have to be repurposed in some way,” Egelanian said. “Will it stay a shopping center? Most likely. Will it function at the high end as it was intended to? Probably not.”

Such a fate is not likely for Kenwood, Egelanian said. But he thinks it is possible if new investments aren’t made in the mall and around it.

“You’re seeing densification around the best malls in cities from Los Angeles to Washington, from Miami to Seattle,” he said. “Kenwood is ideally situated for that. There is very little undeveloped land around it. It is the center of retail commerce on the discretionary end.”

Every Christmas shopper knows the blocks surrounding Kenwood Towne Centre are getting more crowded, as developers scour the landscape for new retail, office, housing and hotel opportunities.

Capital Investment Group discovered what might be the best site in 2012. It hopes to break ground next month on the Gallery at Kenwood, which would bring 248 luxury apartment units, a 130-room hotel and a five-story office building to an 8-acre site on Kenwood Road across from the mall.

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View of Gallery at Kenwood from the corner of Kenwood Road and Happiness Way

“We believe this is really a transformational development,” said Gregg Fusaro, a partner with Capital Investment Group, a residential developer based in Downtown Cincinnati. “We’re bringing jobs into the township. We’re bringing shoppers and we’re bringing revenue into the township. So, we really feel it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Revisiting the Gallery

Wendell Vaughn doesn’t see it that way. The 82-year-old Deer Park resident was forced out of his Festive Court apartment building after Capital Investment Group bought the property in 2017.

“I would go back in a minute,” said Vaughn, who paid $725 per month to rent what he described as “good, affordable housing” that was convenient and well-maintained. Vaughn’s former home – and 21 other small apartment buildings along Kenwood Road – will be demolished next month.

“I think it’s bad when you relocate senior people in communities,” he said. “It’s only done for one purpose. That’s to make money.”

Weidman said the apartments, built in the 1960s, are no longer the best use for the site.

“Our firemen, there was one place that they didn’t want to go into because there were so many bedbugs,” he said. “Something was going to happen on that property whether it was this developer or another developer.”

Fusaro said the project will improve the viability of Kenwood Towne Centre by bringing more residents and office workers within walking distance of the mall.

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Gregg Fusaro, regional partner, Capital Investment Group

“This adds 400 to 500 new shoppers just from the apartments,” Fusaro said. “It adds 400-plus office workers that are going to go there and shop and eat lunch and go to the restaurants and other entertainment options after work.”

Fusaro was looking for development sites near Blue Ash when Sycamore Township urged him to consider the Kenwood Road site in 2012. He spent more than five years acquiring 7.2 acres of land before the project’s March, 2018 debut at an open house for neighbors in the Holiday Acres subdivision.

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Sycamore Township resident Tracy Hughes opposed the Gallery at Kenwood project

“Most people did not like it and were very upset by it,” said Holiday Acres homeowner Tracy Hughes. “I thought it was too dense.”

In a series of public meetings, residents cited concerns about increased traffic, displacement of existing residents, the loss of old-growth trees and the sheer size of the 5-story buildings planned on the site. They convinced the township’s zoning commission to reject the project in July, 2018. But township trustees had the final say. In November, 2018 Weidman and Connor voted to approve a downsized version of the original project.

Here’s how Capital Investment Group summarized the changes:

  • Reduced the number of apartment units from 276 to 248.
  • Reduced the number of parking spaces from 1,363 to 896.
  • Reduced building heights and eliminated balconies in apartment buildings closest to the Holiday Acres subdivision.
  • Increased buffer space between the buildings and neighborhood to accommodate a 10-foot perimeter fence with trees on both sides.

“The county made us do an exhaustive traffic study to ensure that our project was not going to have a negative impact on the traffic situation on Kenwood Road,” Fusaro said. “They came out with several recommendations for us. We agreed to every one of those.”

Weidman thinks the system worked as intended.

“I think I went way the heck out of my way to mitigate some of the issues from residents, to make this that fine line of co-existence between the two,” Weidman said. “I worked very hard to do that. And I have no apologies for any of that.”

Examining the process

But Hughes, James and LaBarbara said the project exposed problems in how Sycamore Township handles development. For one thing, they say it shouldn’t have taken six years for residents to get their first look at the developer’s plans.

“In the past things have just happened or popped up suddenly on the zoning commission agenda and nobody knows about it,” James said. “Before anyone can even have any input it's already approved or it’s so far along they don’t feel like they don’t have any input. So, I want to make sure we do have that input. We do have those processes.”

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This shot from Chopper 9 shows the Gallery at Kenwood site across from Kenwood Towne Centre.

“There could be more collaboration,” Hughes said. “There’s not a lot of dialogue. Instead you get, ‘This is what’s going to happen. The developers think this’ll be great. We agree. Let’s do it.’”

Hughes was further disturbed by campaign contributions Weidman received from Capital Investment Group, including a $10,000 donation from a limited liability company called Carriage Encore 2. The gift was disclosed in a post-election campaign-finance report filed 30 days after Weidman’s last election. Although Weidman’s report included the name of Capital Investment Group’s Maryland-based co-founder Kathleen Bergen and the company’s Cincinnati address, some accused Weidman of trying to conceal the donation and asked him to recuse himself from voting on the Gallery at Kenwood.

“The $10,000 to me doesn’t pass the smell test,” LaBarbara said. “And I have the feeling a lot of the residents feel the same way.”

Weidman said he sought an opinion from the Ohio Ethics Commission and was told he had no conflict of interest.

“If everybody who got a campaign contribution had to recuse themselves we would have no business done in this country,” Weidman said. “It’s a good project for all the residents of Sycamore Township.”

Connor, who received $5,250 from Capital Investment Group in 2019, said in an email that the donations came months after he announced his support for the project with a November 2018 vote. Thus, they were not a factor in his decision.

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Sycamore Township Trustee Dennis Connor explains his vote on the Gallery at Kenwood project in November 2018 public meeting

“I believed then, and still believe today, that it is good for Sycamore Township, its residents, schools and business community,” Connor said.

“We make political contributions to the people that we think can do the best job,” Fusaro said. “If you look what (Weidman) and the other trustees have accomplished it’s pretty impressive.”

Campaign coffers

The I-Team reviewed the campaign filings of five candidates who ran for Sycamore Township Trustee since 2017. Our analysis showed Weidman led all candidates in money contributed by real estate developers with $34,600, or 70.5 percent of the money he raised in 2017. Connor had the second-highest total, with $19,750, nearly 38 percent of his 2019 campaign coffers.

“To me that means that developers make contributions to an official and they expect to get their projects approved,” Hughes said.

Connor and Weidman disagree.

“There’s no quid pro quo for anything with me,” Weidman said. “They know it. And I tell them, if you think you’re going to get something from me, don’t make a contribution. I’m good with that. I’m totally fine with that.”

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Sycamore Township Trustee Jim LaBarbara

Critics of Sycamore Township’s development practices have also emerged as donors in trustee campaigns. James received $4,895 in cash and in-kind contributions from people who opposed the Gallery at Kenwood and another controversial project on Kugler Mill Road. Those contributions accounted for 25 percent of the 2019 fundraising total for James.

LaBarbara received $1,500 in cash and $4,605 in in-kind contributions from Dr. Paul Sohi, who owns real estate in Kenwood and has sued the township over zoning and other issues. Sohi’s gifts represented 68 percent of LaBarbara’s fundraising total in 2017. And they prompted Weidman to accuse LaBarbara of having a conflict of interest on the Gallery at Kenwood project.

“LaBarbara preaches transparency for others but when it comes to him, transparency doesn’t apply,” Weidman said in a trustee workshop meeting this month. “I encourage you all to look at the actual facts of this pay-to-play situation, which Mr. LaBarbara does not want you to see.”

Weidman provided WCPO with a copy of a sketch he received in September 2018 from a developer he declined to name. It shows a retail and hotel project on a Kenwood Road site that includes two parcels owned by Sohi. He claims LaBarbara voted against the Gallery at Kenwood in November 2018 because it would have competed with Sohi’s planned hotel.

“This is the first I’ve ever seen this,” LaBarbara said of the rendering. “If it ever came on record, I never voted on it. We never talked about it.”

Weidman said the project never came to a vote and he was the only trustee who saw the rendering in 2018. But he’s convinced LaBarbara was aware of Sohi’s hotel plans.

“They’re buddies,” he said. “They talk all the time. Can I prove that? No. But my gut tells me that’s a fact.”

Looking ahead

Despite the verbal sparring, all three trustees said they hope to work together to increase transparency and keep the township in growth mode.

“Since the election, he’s been my new best friend,” James said of Weidman. “He’s a very political guy. He knows how to follow where the wind is going and when he sees a parade, how to jump in front of it. I think we’ll be able to work well on the surface. Maybe under the surface too.”

Developers continue to be active in the Kenwood area, with new office buildings proposed near the FBI building on Ronald Reagan Drive and a Trihealth Medical Center that opened on Northcreek Drive in 2015.

James and LaBarbara want to invite developers to make proposals on an 8-acre site that the township has been assembling for more than a decade along Mongtomery Road south of Kenwood. The Morelia Group offered $10.8 million for the land in October for an office and retail project it wants to build.

Weidman said the offer was rejected because the land was acquired for road improvements that could reduce congestion at the Kenwood/Montgomery intersection. The township invited bids from civil engineering firms this month to offer ideas on how to use the site to improve traffic flow with new roads that could be funded by the redevelopment of the site.

“We know that after we’re done with the access management part of this we’ll develop the rest,” Weidman said. “I get calls from developers constantly about that site. You know, everybody from Chick-fil-A to Kroger. I mean, over the years I’ve fielded them all.”

Capital Investment Group is finalizing its financing details for the Gallery at Kenwood and lining up partners for its office and hotel components. Fusaro said the Davis and Kubicki families, both already active in the Kenwood office market, are likely to be partners in his project. He also said rising construction costs and modifications aimed at satisfying neighbors have increased the total cost of the Gallery at Kenwood by more than $30 million. But he still expects it to yield satisfactory returns when all phases open in 2021.

Hughes said the developer made a new concession to the Holiday Acres subdivision on Dec. 12 by offering $115,000 toward a neighborhood improvement fund that could pay for new sidewalks or traffic controls. She still thinks the project is too big but appreciates that the developer is trying to be more collaborative. As the project gets closer to groundbreaking, James said, he’s hearing fewer requests from residents to halt the deal by voting to undo the TIF financing plan that Weidman and Connor approved in November.

“I think it’s going to be a net plus to the community in the end because it’s not as big as was originally proposed,” James said. “They have made some reasonable changes. I know not everybody is happy even with those. But it’s certainly a better project than it was in the beginning.”