Wednesday, July 11, 2012

ON THE AVENUES REWOUND: River View's sweet dreams are not enough.

ON THE AVENUES: River View's sweet dreams are not enough.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Yesterday, the Redevelopment Commission voted to rescind a River View option extension for Mainland Properties, and in light of this, I believe this column bears repeating. It originally was published here on January 23, 2012.


At a lazily advertised work session last Thursday evening, New Albany’s city council learned that the River View waterfront development project would no longer be coming to town as originally conceived.

That is, if it comes to town at all.

I couldn’t have been the only onlooker catching an unmistakable whiff of airborne desperation, because far from making the River View dream more palpable by openly addressing past concerns and doing pleasant touch-up work to the architectural renderings, Mainland Properties’ most recent presentation instead revealed a slew of major fundamental alterations.

These changes muddy the project’s conceptual basis, and cry out for intensified scrutiny on the part of city officials, who must yet toss a parking garage into the collection plate before the first pitch is thrown.

Mainland has now gone on record, implicitly or explicitly, as conceding virtually every objection previously voiced about River View. By doing so, it has rendered null and void the alleged toxicity of previous questioners, an obfuscation used to justify the England administration’s persistent inability to be truthful in answering queries about the development.

Improbably, the latest, revised River View build-out raises even more questions than the original version, although predictably, the city council chose to ask none of them at Thursday’s work session. I choose to believe that council members were stupefied by sheer incredulity in the face of the fantasies they were being asked to embrace, and I trust they will recover their senses when River View returns to their inboxes.


Critically, the revised three-phase plan for River View 2.0 utterly contradicts Jack Bobo’s oft-stated goal for his project, as stressed time and again from inception: It will enable a bold, game-changing caste of condominium owners in downtown New Albany, whose very presence will “trickle back” myriad benefits to the remainder of the community.

Doubtful in the best of times, but for the sake of argument, I’ll temporarily accept that up-market condominium occupants are capable of single-handedly shifting downtown paradigms, and ask this question:

Given the altered three-phase development plan, what is the chance of these transformational condos ever being built?

In answering, let’s first dispense with the fallacious number “three” in reference to River View’s supposedly escalating phases, each one proceeding from the presumed success of the one before.

Of course, there is a fourth phase, actually the very first phase, and without it, not one other domino can so much as consider falling into place: The city of New Albany’s essential “TIF Tithe” for the construction of a 500-unit parking garage.

Both literally and figuratively, River View is to be built atop this commitment.

We must soberly recognize that no matter the continued expediency of River View’s evolution, the city of New Albany’s founding stake cannot ever change. Without the TIF-enabled parking garage, there is nothing, because Mainland has no capital without it. The city’s opening phase is a fait accompli, and so the city must play its hand cautiously as steadily worsening odds suggest another question:

What is the chance that even with a functional parking garage, River View is ever completed as proposed?


Before Thursday’s River View remix, New Albany was to have been promptly rewarded for providing Mainland with the necessary parking garage collateral, in the sense that the vital condominium occupancies would be animated right out of the gate.

Now, with Mainland at long last acknowledging prevailing banking, investment, economic and cultural realities, and admitting to errors in creating so many lofty and unlikely expectations, River View’s entire reason for being – its game-changing condominiums – is being pushed all the way to project’s end, and slated to come last, if at all.

In the interim, before the condos are ever close to coming on line, there are to be rental housing units – perhaps useful to Mainland as cash-flow mechanisms, but to repeat, quite contradictory to every previous stated aim of River View as helping to create a residential ownership society downtown.

Besides, do we really need to strengthen the anti-ordinance enforcement bloc, one traditionally dominated by rental property owners, by adding another bloc of rental properties?

And yet for all of Mainland’s lofty, messianic housing aims, Version 2.0 of River View as now described hinges not on residential occupancy, but retail proliferation. Frankly, that’s a risky proposition, and as a cure, it might be worse than the malady.

Realtor and primary Mainland sales appendage Mike Kopp openly divulged to the council on Thursday that the recent merger of his Blue Sun real estate startup with Remax was for the express purpose of tapping into the latter’s commercial strengths, so as to locate a prime retail anchor tenant for River View. These usual code words reek of chain retail covetousness on Mainland’s part; what are the chances of such a retail anchor tenant being an independent local business?

Worse (better?), what are the chances that any of the coveted, cookie-cutter retail chains will occupy space in downtown New Albany prior to the proximity of new condos, their free-spending owners, and the anticipated ripple effect of their presence? Kopp surely is good at his job. At the same time, he’s no miracle worker.

Furthermore, if the “first” phase of River View (to follow the required parking garage) is about retail occupancy, and if no retail anchor tenant can be found, chain or independent, why would banks and investors mandating the phased-in approach still agree to finance the next rental and condo phases?

And, if River View stalls, how exactly does Mainland “pay” for the necessary parking garage?


Let’s review.

River View was supposed to benefit the community by creating a residential ownership society, which would “trickle back” benefits to downtown, justifying a $15 million publicly financed parking garage.

Now, in order to approach this goal, Mainland must create not condos, but retail, and on a scale unseen in downtown New Albany since the 1960’s.

Next, it must build on the retail upsurge by adding rental apartment housing, which already inundates the city.

Then, and only then, Mainland will be able to proceed with the condo ownership society, which from the very beginning was the confidently predicted benefit to the community, one worth a $15 million publicly financed parking garage to achieve.

To some, this revised plan for River View will appear sensible. It is difficult to see how. Speaking personally, I’ve nothing against any of the project’s originators or its acolytes, but I’m as yet unconvinced. It’s sad, because it’s such a nice dream, but River View has no clothes. Wishing won’t make it otherwise, and its time for the city to move on by addressing existing infrastructure needs downtown.

(In 2011 at NACHighlights & Lowlights: Picking and rewarding the River View winners)

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