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Old neighborhoods emerge from ashes as hip centers of growth

Tony Packo's at the Park, Toledo, Ohio. Photos | Ben French and Scott Beseler
Tony Packo's at the Park, Toledo, Ohio. Photos | Ben French and Scott Beseler

Tony Packo's Cafe, a Toledo fixture made famous by the TV show "M*A*S*H," had long wanted to open a location closer to the city's downtown. A Hungarian hot dog success on the city's east side for more than 70 years, Packo's felt another location nearer the heart of the city made good business sense.

But years went by as Packo's passed on one location after another until its owners looked at one site that, until recently, had been a stretch of abandoned warehouses.

"We had been close to settling on a couple of locations, but they just weren't right," explains Packo's chief operating officer Robin Horvath. "But we saw the Warehouse District as the perfect spot."

The Warehouse District is among a bundle of Ohio neighborhoods finding a second or third life as hip, new attractions for businesses, families and young professionals. Drawing on a combination of historic preservation and interest in urban living, and tapping into corporate investment and state aid, more than a dozen such neighborhoods have risen from the ashes.

In the case of Packo's at the Park, that formula included its location across the street from the Toledo Mudhens' Fifth Third Field -- and strong business returns. The restaurant opened in 2006 as a veritable shrine to the Mudhens. A block away is the new Lucas County Arena, which houses the concerts and the city's minor league hockey team. All around are homes, specialty retail spots and restaurants a vibrant new life, and a steady stream of customers.

The neighborhood is its own draw, which is what urban planners are hoping for throughout the state. How they pursue that goal is as varied as the neighborhoods themselves.

The pioneer of Ohio neighborhood revitalization was, arguably, Columbus's Short North. Once dilapidated and crime-ridden, the tree-lined section of High Street just north of Columbus' central downtown district is now a Bohemian Valhalla, bustling with arts, building-sized murals, entertainment and residential life.

Local activists and city leaders began efforts to clean up the Short North in the 1980s. Artists and art galleries followed, leading to an influx of young professionals and families, which begat businesses tailored to appeal to them. By 1987, the neighborhood earned All-American City honors from the National Civic League.

In Cleveland, the East Fourth Street district -- designed to offer the right balance between residential and commercial use -- stands in stark contrast to other attempts, like the Flats, where night-life was the main focus.

Along the stretch of East Fourth Street a block from the Indians' Progressive Field and the Cavs' Quicken Loans Arena, restaurants, bars, coffee shops and theaters occupy the first floor of nearly every building. Above sit apartments and condos. During the summer, traffic is restricted to encourage sidewalk cafes.

Spurred by the completion of the sports venues and the success of both teams the $110-million East Fourth project began under the guidance of the Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corp. and developers Rick and Ari Maron, owners of MRN Limited, who had to first negotiate with more than 250 property owners to free the space.

"It took some time," explains Thomas Yablonski, executive director of the Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corp. "New businesses really had to fit the feel of the neighborhood. Ultimately, it became this intimate canyon of places that appeal to a younger demographic. People are attracted to the energy of it."

Not only people. Rosetta, the nation's largest independent digital agency, recently announced it is setting up nearby, signing a 10-year lease and promising to bring 400 high-tech jobs to the area. The company's CEO, citing his largely under-35 workforce, said the proximity of East Fourth was the deal-clincher, Yablonski says.

Cross-state, another Ohio gateway looked to government historic preservation funding and corporations to lead the way. The result: Young professionals and new money are flocking to the Gateway Quarter at the southern edge of Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

Once notorious for crime and race riots, the neighborhood has been transformed by tapping into a local corporate community that features nine Fortune 500 companies, helping form non-profit agencies to acquire and rehab entire blocks at a time.

The largest non-profit player remains the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, more commonly known as 3CDC, started in 2003 by a city-led economic task force and the business community. To date, 3CDC has invested upwards of $100 million in saving more than 150 buildings in the area.

Kelly Leon, 3CDC's vice president for communications and community relations, says the partnership worked because it was "pivotal for the success of downtown Cincinnati."

Three-quarters of new condos up for sale in the Gateway have sold, with the new residents overwhelmingly under the age of 35.

Meanwhile, the local arts community has embraced the neighborhood, with the venerable Art Academy of Cincinnati relocating there in 2004, a $3-million renovation of the 100-year-old Emery Theatre planned for completion by next year, and the new School for the Creative and Performing Arts opening its doors there this spring.

As revitalized neighborhoods get their legs, nearby urban areas often follow, civic leaders say.

For example, Columbus's newest "boom properties," a stone's throw from the Short North, are centered on Nationwide Arena, home of the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets. The $540-million Arena District, which little more than a decade ago was occupied by the Ohio Penitentiary, began to take shape around 2000. The 75-acre site, now the city's most lucrative tourist destination, features restaurants, entertainment spots, an indoor ice rink and the Arena Grand Theatre. Last year, it added Huntington Park, the new home of minor league baseball's Columbus Clippers.

And in Toledo, success of the Warehouse District has bled into the adjoining UpTown neighborhood, where efforts focus on residential development and historic preservation.

"For a long time, urban neighborhoods saw all the development money flow out to the suburbs, and the neighborhoods suffered," says J.P. Smith, a former cop and current UpTown Association president. "Now, that money's coming back to the city, and urban neighborhoods are coming back."

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