Warehouse District thriving, growing after years of effortWritten by Jordan Finney | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“If you don’t think Downtown Toledo has sex appeal, then drive around Levis Commons or Easton and ask yourself, ‘Aren’t they making a pretend Warehouse District?’”
Hugh Grefe, executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, spoke at a May 27 event recognizing May as National Historic Preservation Month. He speaks for a growing Downtown community that has witnessed revitalization in the area’s economic and social life over the past few decades.
The Warehouse District grew out of a 19th-century community called Port Lawrence that was founded near the Maumee River. By 1823, it comprised two log warehouses and a few houses at the corner of Monroe and Summit streets, according to the Toledo Warehouse District Association (TWDA).
Today, it boasts more than 700 residents, 60 new businesses and has become the choice location for the future plans of several local giants, including the Toledo Mud Hens and ProMedica.
The Warehouse District encompasses 44 blocks, with its northern border at Monroe Street. More than 40 of its mostly 19th-century buildings have been renovated into new hotspots thanks to the “heart, blood and tears” of the community, according to TWDA President Diane Keil-Hipp.
“When you walk on the same floors as people did 100 years ago, there’s something really special about it,” Keil-Hipp said.
“We’re part of their legacy and we have an obligation to preserve their heritage. Preserving these buildings is like making a greater statement that there is larger context for people’s lives.”
Keil-Hipp, who works Downtown, said witnessing the renovation of these buildings and the revitalization of business life “has been something really cool to watch.”
“The best thing about the Warehouse District is how it happened one by one as individual investors saw opportunities,” she said. “That’s why it’s so sustainable — people are personally invested in these buildings. It’s not government just coming in and overhauling everything block by block.”
TWDA is an entirely volunteer-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of its approximately 60 members, who have privately invested in the Warehouse District, either as business owners or residents.
“We’re all about resurgence living,” said Kathy Steingraber, former TWDA director.
“We’re sending a strong message to college graduates: You can have it all here in Downtown Toledo, you don’t have to live in New York City.”
TWDA collects dues from its members to pay for promotions and websites, Facebook advertising and some neighborhood events.
It also secured a role in the Overlay document that Toledo City Council passed in January, which requires anyone who wants to renovate a building to “run their plans through the architectural review committee for approval,” Keil-Hipp said.
“You can’t be the suburb of nothing,” said architect Paul Sullivan, a member of that review committee. “We’ve redeveloped Downtown in a methodical, sensitive manner. There’s real power in preservation. It’s crucial to keep our heritage intact for many reasons, not the least of which is the quality of life we share. There’s a meaning to the story we have down here.”
Sullivan also said that historic preservation is about sustainability and choosing the “green option.” Every time a small Downtown building is demolished, it negates the efforts of recycling 1.34 million aluminum cans.
Keil-Hipp said TWDA’s vision since the 1990s for the Warehouse District has in part been to “return to a truly urban neighborhood that encourages a harmonious blend of residential, commercial, retail and service components (and) to create an environment to work, live and visit that is unlike any other.
“When I read that statement today, I think, ‘We’re here. We really did it,’” she said.
When there were seven
Downtown in 1988, there was no Fifth Third Field or St. Clair Village — or much of anything except a host of vacant buildings in disrepair.
That’s when native Toledoan Bob Seyfang bought the Bakery Building, a 1900 construction that his grandfather used to own.
“I came home one day and my wife told me our house was sold and we were moving Downtown. We had 13 weeks,” Seyfang said. “But we saw the potential. It was a risk all right, but we knew what we wanted and we just waded into it.”
Seyfang and his wife were the sixth and seventh of only seven people living in the Warehouse District in 1989.
Seyfang operated his architectural firm from the Bakery Building’s first floor for the next 10 years.
“We had so many economic slowdowns but it didn’t matter because our vision was strong and we knew it would happen,” Seyfang said. “That’s not to say I didn’t lose a few night’s sleep over this, but it’s a slow, evolving thing. When the economy was good, things were good and when it wasn’t, things weren’t. That’s how it goes.”
Renovating the Bakery Building was a seven-year project for the Seyfangs, partly because of its “pretty rough shape” and also because the three-story space boasts eight residential units, five commercial units and indoor parking.
“In the ’20s and ’30s, Downtown was run by numerous CEOs of locally owned businesses. They were benevolent dictators in a lot of ways,” Seyfang said. “They loved the city, put roots down here with their families, and could raise $15 million amongst themselves for a project no problem. That’s all gone now.”
Seyfang stressed the importance of “thinking ahead” if local residents want Toledo’s Warehouse District to continue growing.
“Remember what we had in the past, but move forward with it,” Seyfang said. “That’s what young people are doing. Hopefully every one of them will have the same happy story that we do.”
He said Downtown will need to maintain a strong business retention network, encourage its young people to start investing money in the area and consider new construction projects, not just renovation of older buildings.
“We also need to start thinking beyond the Warehouse District because we can’t grow this neighborhood forever,” Seyfang said. “But we can help other districts by sharing our story. We can also tell them that we’ve created something unique for Toledo — and they should come and enjoy it.”
Today there are more than 700 people living in the Warehouse District and the number continues to grow. TWDA member Richard Rideout moved to South St. Clair Street nearly 12 years ago and said he is proud to be part of the growing Downtown population.
“People ask me about moving to the suburbs and I break out in hives. Not really, but you know what I mean,” Rideout said. “To me it offered a blank slate, an opportunity to do something different. I like the concept of living close to work. I don’t want to waste time commuting every day.”
When Rideout bought his building, the entire third floor — where he now resides — was totally vacant except for a “collection of dirt, odds and ends, and windows totally covered in plywood.” But he doesn’t regret the decision at all.
“I love my home and I feel much safer walking around Downtown than Franklin Park Mall,” Rideout said. “Keep looking for the Warehouse District to grow at a much more rapid pace than what it’s done in the last 10 years. In fact, I’m going to guess our residency will double in the next five to 10 years.”
Valerie Garforth said she remembers exactly what the “wasteland” of the Warehouse District was like when she and her husband came to Toledo in 1998.
“Every year since, something wonderful has happened Downtown,” she said.
Garforth does not live in the Warehouse District, but owns two apartment units Downtown where she rents about 50 spaces.
“We bought these as investments and they lost value with the economic downturn,” Garforth said. “However, they’re picking up again and we manage to rent them continuously without vacancies.”
A native of Brussels, Garforth said she hopes to see the Warehouse District “take off” the way downtowns in Europe have.
“Brussels is very middle class, a smaller version of Paris really. The apartments are there, restaurants around the corner, supermarkets, parks, an exercise circuit — just everything,” Garforth said. “I’m used to the idea that people can live in a close urban environment quite happily together.”
Garforth said “a real turnaround” for Downtown would be if the retail stores came back to the area and people with disposable income could shop and have a place to wander around.
“We used to live in Minneapolis where there’s a thriving downtown and department stores connected with skyways,” Garforth said. “People leave their office buildings for lunch and its like being in a greenhouse. That’s my dream for Toledo.”
In less than three decades, the Warehouse District has welcomed 60 new businesses and seen a 111 percent spike in real estate value compared to an average 5 percent increase in real estate value in Lucas County.
Ron Novak, owner of Downtown Latté for four years and a resident of the Warehouse District for eight years, said he really enjoys living and working in the area.
“The biggest difference I’ve noticed from working Downtown is the diversity of people,” Novak said. “I see businesspeople, retirees, families and artists. You don’t get that anywhere else in Toledo.”
Like Novak, Audrey Ackerman was really impressed by the growth of the Downtown area. Ackerman, who recently opened Floral Pursuit, Downtown’s only flower shop, nixed her plans to work from home when she saw a vacant space in St. Clair Village.
“You can definitely see the city opening up and it’s crazy to be part of all these people trying to make it grow,” Ackerman said. “I’ve met so many people who are showing that there are things to do here in Toledo. You just have to explore, go out and not be afraid to walk around.”
Steingraber, a landlord at St. Clair Village, said she thinks younger people like Novak and Ackerman are the future of the Warehouse District.
“I love all the young people coming in. I try to give them as much support as I possibly can,” Steingraber said.
Steingraber helped develop Erie Street Market and Libbey Glass before turning to a section of St. Clair Street.
“We’ve been 100 percent leased 98 percent of the time. Let me tell you, Downtown Toledo is thriving,” Steingraber said.
In addition to the emergent economic recovery story, Downtown businesses have the added advantage of being part of a tight-knit community that has members who invest in each other.
Jules Webster, owner of The Art Supply Dep?, said the Warehouse District has always been a community, but “it’s growing leaps and bounds.”
“We refer our customers to a lot of businesses close by and they do the same for us,” she said. “There’s still a lot of available spaces and room for growth. We’re all looking forward to see where this goes.”
Webster said that the character of her renovated building on South St. Clair Street draws people from around the area to her art store.
“We appreciate the old architecture and tradition instead of the newer construction and strip malls that don’t have an inspiring style,” Webster said. “I would definitely say it adds to the business. People who come are often willing to travel more than 30 or 45 minutes. They’re enchanted by the development of these older buildings.”
Mud Hens President and General Manager Joe Napoli said with the flurry of commercial activity, payroll in the Warehouse District averaged about $12 million last year, “up from virtually nothing.”
“We’re headed in the right direction. Your community gets measured by a lot of aspects, including its urban core,” Napoli said. “We’re close to that tipping point where this is going to become a very special place to live and work.”
The Mud Hens’ Downtown development project, Hensville, and the relocation of ProMedica’s corporate offices to Downtown are “catalyst projects” that will spark a “wildfire of new growth” in the Warehouse District, Steingraber said.
The Mud Hens plan to transform two or three 19th-century buildings on South St. Clair Street that have been vacant for more than 30 years into an entertainment district called Hensville.
“We’ll do street festivals, food, music concerts, arts — whatever the community would support,” Napoli said. “Hensville’s an $18 million to $21 million investment that’s part of the entire dynamic of living and working Downtown.”
Napoli said Downtown Toledo already attracts 800,000 people to its streets annually and he expects to see an extra 100,000 to 125,000 people visit Downtown once Hensville is fully operational.
“It would be easier and less expensive to knock the buildings down, but Joe [Napoli] is dedicated to preserving the fabric of the neighborhood,” said architect Tom Porter, who is working on the Hensville project. “I think too many people just come in and knock buildings down. There are some things you just can’t duplicate.”
ProMedica agrees with the Mud Hens’ philosophy for urban development.
The company is “very serious” about relocating its corporate offices for 700 employees to the old steam plant adjacent to the Key Bank building on Summit Street across from Promenade Park, said Robin Whitney, ProMedica vice president of property acquisition and development.
“The steam building is a historic brick, beautiful structure and we are committed to making this move work,” she said. “Anything we can do to promote more people coming Downtown is a great win for our city.”
ProMedica’s spike in its number of employees over the past few years has forced it to buy and lease several buildings in Toledo, scattering its corporate offices throughout the city.
“We don’t feel like it’s efficient to be so spread out,” Whitney said. “We want to consolidate everyone into one space because if you’re working closer to people, then you’re more collaborative. Toledo is our community and it’s important to have a vibrant Downtown. We want to be part of the revitalization.”
ProMedica has not established an official timeline for the move because it depends on its ability to receive historic and new market tax credits. However, its “optimistic timeline” would be to break ground next summer and complete the renovation project in 2016.
“What we’re doing is helping revitalize that office component,” Whitney said. “Maybe our moving Downtown will spark interest for other companies to want to move their office spaces. Once that happens, Toledo will have all the components of a revitalized Downtown: residential, dining and entertainment, and office and business. That will be a picture of real success.”
Tags: architect Paul Sullivan, Bakery Building, Bob Seyfang, Brussels, Diane Keil-Hipp, Downtown Toledo, Easton, Europe, Fifth Third Field, Franklin Park Mall, general manager Joe Napoli, Hensville, Hugh Grefe, Jules Webster, Kathy Steingraber, Key Bank, Levis Commons, Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Maumee River, National Historic Preservation Month, ProMedica, Richard Rideout, The Art Supply Depo, Toledo Mud Hens, Toledo Warehouse District Association, TWDA, Warehouse District