Development of downtown going slowly

Grace Dobush

In two years, downtown Kent could have a bustling new hub. A complex including hip retailers, restaurants and luxury apartments may replace an entire block.

But property acquisitions for the project are taking longer than anticipated, and that delays financing for the $32 million development, which in turn delays the groundbreaking. The developer hopes to be able to have a grand opening in the summer of 2007.

The project, called Kent Village, is part of the Campus Link development and would completely rebuild the block of downtown framed by South Water and South Depeyster streets between Erie Street and Haymaker Parkway. Kent Village is planned to include 49 condominiums, retail stores and a two-level parking garage.

The developer heading up the project, Right Dimensions, is a Southern California-based company with ties to the area. Andrew Lombardo, senior project manager and company president, has family in the area. Downtown development was brought up at a family reunion around this time last year, and a few weeks later Lombar do was in Kent.

Lombardo said he faced a lot of opposition and skepticism at first. People thought the development wouldn’t happen.

“Not in Kent, this is the city that can’t,” he said. “It took us showing the commitment over time.”

Lombardo was surprised the city hasn’t already developed, considering it’s home to the second largest university in Ohio.

“The city needs it. It’s starving for it,” he said.

The first step – moving downtown veteran Kent Hardware from its current building on South Water Street to the old Commercial Press building on South Depeyster Street – is set to happen next month. Lombardo expects the groundbreaking to begin in five or six months and said Right Dimensions is in “final negotiations” with landowners and attorneys.

Lombardo said he has options or agreements with seven of the eight property owners on the block.

Three city officials and Lombardo said the only holdout is Josephine and Rosario Ricciardi, the siblings who own the Screwy Louie’s property. A woman from the Ricciardi household declined comment.

Tim Harrod, a resident of Kent, owns three properties on the block, which have 10 rental units, some of which are occupied. The city’s been after the block for quite a long time, he said.

“They want to buy. If it’s in my best interest, I’ll sell,” he said. “It sounds like great ideas. Wouldn’t be bad, I suppose.”

Kent State owns property on the southwest corner of the block, transferred by a donor to the university in 2004. Tom Clapper, the university’s general manager of transportation services, has authorization to conclude negotiations and enter into an agreement with Right Dimensions. When there is an option to purchase (he declined to specify a price), Right Dimensions has three months to make its decision, with the option of a three-month extension at an extra cost.

The city of Kent also owns some of the properties on the block, acquired a few years ago for $400,000 for a project that didn’t go anywhere, said Charley Bowman, director of community development.

Construction for the project could bring in a one-time tax collection of $300,000, Bowman said. The city may do tax increment financing for the partially underground parking deck, which accounts for $7 million of the project’s cost. Using tax increment financing would mean the additional property taxes collected from the increase in the property’s value would be used toward paying for the parking deck so the city didn’t have to put up its own money.

“No one’s asked for any money,” Councilman Garret Ferrara said of Right Dimensions.

But the city’s contributions may include the property it owns, installation of water, sidewalks or sewers, tax increment financing or tax abatement.

Right Dimensions’ Memorandum of Understanding with the city – which allows the city to enter into an agreement with the company – was approved in March and expires in the coming months. City Manager Dave Ruller said as long as Right Dimensions can demonstrate to City Council that property acquisition is complete, renewal of the memorandum should be OK.

The Memorandum of Understanding includes two “clawback” provisions recommended by City Council, Bowman said. Clawback is a guarantee that if the city provides a benefit and the project falls through, the city gets that benefit back at no cost, for example the properties the city owns, he said.

Another stipulation in the Memorandum of Understanding is that Kent also receives the right of first refusal. If the plan falls through, Kent has first dibs on buying the property up to try to sell it to a new developer, Bowman said.

City Council also has the option to exercise eminent domain. Council agreed that if there is one last piece of property necessary for the development and all forms of negotiation have failed, eminent domain could be used.

But, “I don’t think it will come to that,” Ferrara said.

Even if the Kent Village project doesn’t work out – “half of development ideas don’t materialize,” Ruller said – there’s no reason to be discouraged.

Ruller said Right Dimensions’ involvement has already brought in one new investor to downtown. The two prospective buyers for the Kent Hotel were introduced to the city by Right Dimensions.

“Someone outside the community thinks we’re worthy of investment,” a sentiment that isn’t always shared by people born and raised here, Ruller said. “That’s good news.”

Contact public affairs reporter Grace Dobush at [email protected].