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Hamilton West Shopping Center plan stirs debate

Will approval last week of a redevelopment plan for the long-languishing Hamilton West Shopping Center be a positive jolt for development that attracts the type of trendy restaurants and businesses that people in Hamilton and surrounding areas of the county have been craving?

City Manager Joshua Smith believes it will. Rather than being a collection of mostly vacant storefronts and a pothole-pocked parking lot that drives potential developers away from the area, the proposed revamp of the property can attract restaurants like Chick-fil-A, Panera Bread, Starbucks, and Five Guys Burgers & Fries, he said.

Rob Wile, a former Hamilton councilman who owns commercial property across Brookwood Area from the development, said he fears the property will continue to languish. Wile told the planning commission he was concerned that Phase 1 of the proposed five-stage redevelopment plan calls for a complex of mini storage units. Wile fears the site will continue to be a largely abandoned eyesore.

For one thing, Smith said the decision will reopen for development what city officials called rare “green space” on the city’s West Side where there is little land available for development.

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The Hamilton Planning Commission approved the first two phases of the five-stage plan with a 4-1 vote. That approval was the condition that will trigger the sale of the 27.3-acre property to Construction Design Management, based in Bowling Green, Ky.

Officials approved the shopping center’s original development plan in 1965.

The Hamilton West Shopping Center’s development plan first was approved in 1965. (NICK GRAHAM/STAFF)

NEW OWNER SOON

Luke Williams, a co-founder and general partner of Construction Design Management, said he hopes to close the sale as soon as possible, certainly within 90 days. He promised city officials the company will very quickly after taking possession fix or eliminate the sprawling parking lots that have triggered many citizen complaints through the years. Some 80 spaces must be kept, with about 80 percent of the parking vanishing.

Improvements to the remaining parking and boulevards leading to existing stores will be “immediate” — “within 30 days of us taking possession of the property,” Williams said.

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Williams told this media outlet he could not yet announce the agreed-upon sale price.

Among properties at the shopping center are a Dollar Tree, an Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles office, Golden Dragon Restaurant and Hamilton West Barber Shop. Soon to be gone will be the vehicles office and barber shop, which are on short-term leases, he said. Also on the property, but not affected by the redevelopment plan, are a vacant former Pizza Hut, an O’Reilly Auto Parts, a Wendy’s restaurant and CVS Pharmacy.

Wile, a co-owner of the property at 185 N. Brookwood Ave., said he was disappointed the first phase of the development is the mini-storage project.

When a city creates a planned business development, “that has the connotation, at least in our neck of the woods, of retail, vibrancy, and jobs. This brings none of those. And the fact that this (mini-warehouse) causes me grave concern,” Wile said.

If it were a side use to other parts of a development, that would make “absolute sense,” he said. “My fear, quite frankly, is we’ll be looking at that building 15 years from now,” with the rest undeveloped. “If the aspiration is to redevelop the whole site, start with the pieces that add vibrancy…. Start with the pieces that add jobs.”

Referring to the mini-storage project, Wile said: “I think this is Phase 6, not Phase 1….. We need jobs. We need retail. It’s an ideal site.”

Williams later explained that his company is a commercial real-estate developer that focuses on self-storage, the reason it is starting with that part first. But he said he believes the proposed five-stage project will be a success, not just the storage aspect.

Hamilton City Manager Joshua Smith and Planning Director Liz Hayden advocated for the redevelopment plan, saying the Hamilton West Shopping Center can attract desired businesses to that site, as well as others in the West Side. (NICK GRAHAM/STAFF)

COULD SPARK MOVEMENT

Smith strongly differed with Wile’s point of view.

“I truly believe, in talking to the different commercial real-estate companies, developers, that this is the best site left on the West Side of Hamilton,” Smith said. “When you clear this site, you have the best commercial real estate.”

“We have one shot to do this right,” Smith said.

Smith and Planning Director Liz Hayden advocated for the redevelopment plan, saying it can attract desired businesses to that site, as well as others in the West Side.

“I’ve been city manager for eight years, and I’ve sat here, and I’ve watched this property sit idle, and I’ve watched the parking lot deteriorate,” Smith said. “I’ve watched retailers come into Hamilton, look at it and leave. What we need in this area, in my opinion, is investment.”

Smith said residents have expressed during recent visioning processes the desire for new, upscale restaurants and retail. He also noted that big-box stores, while once the big thing, now are closing down as Internet sales take their business.

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“For eight years, I’ve worked with the development group out of Los Angeles that owns this — who, by the way, bought this, sight-unseen, however many years ago, and as you’ve so properly characterized it, put no investment back into it,” Smith said. “That is not the sense I’m getting here tonight” from the Kentucky developers.

“The market’s going to dictate what goes in,” Smith said. “Everyone would love to put a Panera, a Chick-fil-A, a Starbucks, a Target, a whatever, a new Kroger, in this area, but that’s going to be market-driven. It’s not going to be what we ask.”

“But we have to, in my mind, start cleaning the slate, and start moving it again, in my opinion,” Smith added.

Wile later responded that starting with mini-storage with plans to move to more upscale businesses “is like building a garage and then telling the people next door eventually you’re going to build a house. That’s what this feels like to me. It’s not the right approach to the redevelopment on that site.”

Wile did concede: “Clearing the site would go a long way to making the businesses on the odd-numbered side of the street happy so we don’t have to stare at it.”

Smith said he believes the project will quickly spark other development.

“Some of this has not even been announced yet, but working with commercial Realtors in the last 6-12 months on what I call the Main Street/Brookwood area, there’s going to be two national commercial announcements coming out probably in the next 90 days,” Smith said. “And the one thing I have heard consistently, over and over, is, ‘We do not have any available commercial space.’ They’re willing to do that for us. They’re willing to create a market that currently does not exist.”

Williams said he has promised to attend next year’s International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) convention with Smith to scout for possible retail or restaurant partners. Operators of the proposed Spooky Nook at Champion Mill also plan to attend.

Concerned that the Hamilton West Shopping Center would continue to languish, even with a new developer, Hamilton’s city staff recommended, and the Hamilton Planning Commission approved, 27 conditions, some of them requiring certain things happen before new buildings can be occupied. (NICK GRAHAM/STAFF)

THE LONGER VIEW FOR THE PROJECT

“I truly believe, in my heart of hearts, that if we clean this up, get the parking lot, get the entryways put back into good shape, put a couple of solid, good-looking buildings up, that this property will move incredibly quick,” Smith said.

Here are the proposed five phases of development, only the first two of which were approved on Monday:

  • Phase 1: A mini-warehouses building with 82,950 square feet of floor space, occupying 5.7 acres (unlike most storage facilities, this would be mostly enclosed, with most loadings and unloadings of materials unseen by people outside the building);
  • Phase 2: Clearing of much of the existing strip center (81,600 square feet of buildings with failing roofs and water damage) for future development, and eliminating most of the parking lot, while keeping 80 off-street parking spaces;
  • Phase 3: Two proposed commercial buildings with retail on the ground floor, offices on the second; and potentially condominiums on the third story;
  • Phase 4: A drive-thru restaurant of about 4,100 square feet on 1.2 acres; and
  • Phase 5: A full-service car wash on 0.7 acres.

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Before the planning commission approved the plan, members of the panel wanted to make sure the new owner would have no further involvement with the current one. They were assured there would be no connection after the sale. Dale McAllister, who was serving as chairman of the commission, voted against the plan.

“I’m concerned about the lack of jobs that Phase 1 creates,” McAllister said. “It doesn’t scream employment opportunities for your neighbors and people on the West Side of town.”

Smith said he believes that future jobs will be created in Hamilton’s downtown area, industrial parks and other technology parks. But he said there needs to be more employable people living in Hamilton to take available jobs. To attract those residents, the city needs a good mix of job availability, retail and restaurants, he said.

Board member Mike Samoviski said when he was city manager he had met with the current ownership group (Joseph Romani and Hamilton West Shopping Center LLC), which he said made promises to him, although, “all they have done is create a blight on our community.”

The proposed development “certainly is going to change the character of that whole area and make it an attractive site for other developers to come in,” Samoviski said.

Before the vote, Tracy Banks, a district manager with O’Reilly Auto Parts, asked the planning commission to require that access to his store, which is leased, and nearby parking areas be cleared of potholes as a requirement of the redevelopment.

“We’re getting numerous complaints from our customers, and they’re blaming us for damages to their car, and it’s not our property,” Banks said. “It’s reflecting on us and our business.”

“We very much respect that they’ve been living in a war zone,” Williams told the planning commission about O’Reilly and other tenants. He later said: “It’s the worst parking lot I’ve seen in my life…. As fast as possible, we will address that.”

After the meeting, Doug Burbrink of Mason, who was parked in the sprawling lot after his wife’s Honda Odyssey minivan had lurched up and down over the potholes, said: “That’d be nice, if they got all these potholes fixed. That’s for sure.”

The Hamilton West Shopping Center, whose development plan first was approved in 1965, had a new plan for its redevelopment approved Monday by the Hamilton Planning Commission. People agree the property is important to development in the city, but disagreed about whether the plan in play is the most helpful for the area.

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