Developer wants to turn project into apartments, offices

May 25, 2009

A local developer is hoping to convert an unfinished eight-story luxury condo project downtown into a mostly affordable apartment building with its headquarters on the top floor.

The Whitsett Group has agreed to buy the 707 E. North St. building from Beilouny Luxury Properties, but the deal still must be approved by Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank, which has launched foreclosure proceedings on the property.

The exterior of the building is finished, but work on the interior stopped after few condo buyers surfaced between the start of construction in 2006 and when Fifth Third yanked funding in late 2008. The building has parking on the first two levels; the other six floors are a blank slate with only stairwells and elevator shafts.

Whitsett plans to build 40 apartments on the third through seventh floors, with 57-percent affordable and the rest at market rates. The top floor plan calls for company offices, along with community and exercise rooms for apartment tenants.

"I've watched it go up, and I think it's a beautiful building," said Joe Whitsett, who left locally based Pedcor Investments with colleague Tony Knoble to start the company in 2007. "When I heard it was going to be on the market, it piqued our curiosity."

Whitsett has been meeting with neighbors to rally support for the plan—a dramatic change from Beilouny's vision for exclusive condos priced as high as $3 million each.

Beilouny officials could not be reached, and a Fifth Third spokeswoman declined to comment, saying the bank does not yet own the 707 property.

Some neighbors are excited by the prospect of another local owner's taking over the property.

"It'll be wonderful to have that building finished and have more residents living around here," said Elizabeth Garber, who owns The Best Chocolate in Town along Massachusetts Avenue, about a block from the 707 building. "More population builds up more of a customer base and more activity. I felt really good about our spot when I moved in, and now it's just getting better and better."

Beilouny also developed the 757 Mass Ave condo building, a property that fell into foreclosure late last year despite its success in attracting high-profile condo buyers, including Indy Racing League drivers.

The Whitsett roster of projects is less glamorous. The company is redeveloping the former Paul C. Stetson School northeast of Fall Creek Parkway and College Avenue into senior apartments, and has redeveloped the Constitution Gardens complex at 34th Street and Central Avenue and the Jefferson Apartments at Jefferson Avenue and East 10th Street.

The company, which has six employees, is talking to a local bank about financing and also has applied for affordable housing tax credits, Whitsett said. If awarded, the grants would mean the units are locked in as rentals for at least 15 years.

Whitsett would not disclose a purchase price, or name his bank. If the company can pull off the deal, it plans to keep the project's exterior and the 707 name.

"This would be our tallest development by far, and a signature property for us," he said.

The building is around the corner from the site of another development set to be anchored by affordable apartments. That project, by locally based Riley Area Development Corp., calls for 25,000 square feet of first-floor retail space, a basement community center and 75 mostly low-income apartments—to replace a one-story, township-owned structure at 875 Massachusetts Ave.

The developer has secured $11 million in low-income tax credits it hopes to sell for 65 cents to 72 cents on the dollar. Riley is working to line up private financing for the balance of the project cost and hopes to begin demolition in October or November, said Bill Gray, the group's executive director.

Gray applauded the plans for 707 East North.

"If anyone can do a project like that and bring it back from the ashes, it'd be Joe Whitsett," he said of the former Ice Miller partner who has both accounting and law degrees from IU. "He's brilliant."

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