The banner hanging on the side of the Bank One Annex building on East Congress says all you need to know about the renewed residential project planned for that empty downtown lot.
“Move up, Downtown,” the sign says. “Condo lofts with urban flair.”
When the banner went up, years ago in downtown’s Dark Ages, the idea of living in the central city actually was cutting edge. But as with the blanched colors on the banner, the edginess of that idea has faded. Now living downtown is a pretty common phenomenon and, for a developer, a safer bet.
Don Bourn announced his new plan for the vacant lot known as the Thrifty Block on Wednesday at the Rio Nuevo Board meeting. The empty lot is bookended by the Chase Bank building at Stone and East Congress and the Indian Village Trading Post at Scott and East Congress.
At the meeting, Bourn also defended himself from years of criticism for taking a sweetheart deal from the city in 2004 — $100 for the property — then producing nothing.
“I’m a big believer there’s a pendulum,” Bourn told my colleague Darren DaRonco. “We’ve all had a lot of negative publicity about this. If we start showing some good things, then we’re going to have a lot of positive publicity.”
The passage of time suggests that may be wishful thinking.
The preliminary design is somewhat similar in appearance to the original plan, but instead of containing condominiums, the building will have rental units, with retail on the first floor. Also, the only parking will be in a surface lot aside the building.
“We’ve always seen this as a critical project for downtown,” Bourn told me Thursday. “This project’s seen a lot of negative publicity. It’s going to be a real shot in the arm for downtown and for the community.”
Bourn’s comment hit me like a sheet of snail mail from February 2003. That’s when I first wrote about the Thrifty Block and the five development groups who were vying to develop it, including Bourn’s triumphant entry. Any one of the groups’ ideas, had they come to fruition in that era, would likely have served as a catalyst — a “shot in the arm” — to downtown redevelopment.
But over the years, others have catalyzed downtown without The Post, as Bourn’s project has been known.
On Thursday I asked Don Semro, part of one of the other development groups who bid on the block, what he thought of the latest development.
“He’s not doing anything more than what’s already been done downtown,” Semro said. “What he’s putting on it isn’t going to change the direction of downtown, but it’s going to remove an empty lot and create a place to live and some places to eat.”
To be fair to Bourn, the delay wasn’t completely his fault. The original condo-centered proposal he offered in 2004 was nixed because of complexities to do with attempts to build a parking structure where the One East Broadway midrise structure is going up now, at the corner of Broadway and Stone.
Bourn’s company produced a new plan, a 13- to 14-story tower, in 2006, then quickly backtracked to the original plan, telling the City Council in March 2006: “There is a significant premium on speed and getting this done.”
But the project kept changing, and in 2008 the city told Bourn it was time to move on, and he agreed to move forward on construction within 60 days.
It was, of course, an empty promise, felled by the collapsing economy.
The city learned from the Bourn experience to put some conditions on development agreements when it comes to downtown. So now Bourn is under a four-year time limit to do the new project or forfeit the property. I asked Bourn what he would do differently if he could do it over again.
“There are a lot of things we’d do differently,” he said, noting his company has a lot of “stranded capital” in the project — referring to the $5.5 million in costs that it has not begun to recoup. Rio Nuevo, he acknowledged, also has stranded capital in the project, too, having performed $500,000 in demolition at the site.
But he didn’t point to anything specific he’d have done differently.
“A lot of times when you’re a pioneer, it’s tougher,” he said.
The thing is, he’s no longer a pioneer. If the city were to put the property up for sale today, it could get quite a bit more than the $100 Bourn paid for it.
So it’s time for him to live up to his commitment, accept the criticism and take advantage of the great deal he got nine years ago. The resulting compliments may not be so loud as the critiques, but at least the hole will be filled.