Developer making final push for embattled Uptown project

July 28, 2010

Developer Leif Hinterberger has spent five years and most of his life savings trying to build a $19 million mixed-use project along College Avenue between 49th and 50th streets.

But the project—which would have been a tough deal even for a much-larger and richer developer—could be in trouble if Hinterberger doesn't land city support, and soon.

The owner of locally based Carreau Design Corp. has refused to give up on his vision for The Uptown despite repeated setbacks, including numerous design changes in a chase to capture government grants, a growing sense of frustration among neighbors tired of looking at vacant buildings, and a lousy economic and lending environment.

Hinterberger has defaulted on loans he took out to buy three duplexes he needs for the project, and the lenders are negotiating a potential short sale to buyers unaffiliated with the development group. The sales haven't closed, but Hinterberger said if he loses control of the properties, there's a good chance the project will "blow up."

In a bid to keep the development on track, Hinterberger has launched a lobbying effort to win government support to reinvest in a neighborhood that for years has contributed more in tax dollars than it has received back. The project, he argues, would help stabilize neighborhoods and a tax base within a 5-mile area that has lost more than 100,000 residents in the last 20 years.

He has gathered more than 400 signatures on a petition and has encouraged neighborhood groups, including the College Avenue Neighborhood Development Organization, Harmoni Inc. and the Meridian-Kessler Neighborhood Association to promote the project on their own websites.

Hinterberger shared an update on The Uptown project during a presentation late Tuesday for the land-use arm of the Meridian-Kessler Neighborhood Association.

He wants the city to set up a tax-increment-finance district, or TIF, to support his and other neighborhood projects. The idea is to level the playing field, making it as economically feasible to build infill projects in neighborhoods already served by streets and sewers as it is to build in cornfields in the suburbs.

For The Uptown, existing buildings must be demolished and contaminated soil cleaned up before the new building can go vertical.

"I can't keep writing checks," said Hinterberger, who already has put up his "primary residence, office and family's booty" as collateral. "We've got an impact project ready to go. We can't keep delaying. Now it's up to the city to do the right thing."

The goal is to secure roughly $1.5 million in grants each from the city, state and federal government—investments Hinterberger said the project would more than pay back over 25 years with increased tax revenue and the creation of 109 jobs. He also plans to seek tax credits for developing low-income housing.

The current annual tax bill of $13,000 for the properties would rise to an estimated $180,000 once the project is built.

He said he's making good progress in talks with the city and suggested that funds raised from the transfer of the city's water and sewer utilities to Citizens Energy Group could help push The Uptown toward a groundbreaking.

The latest plans call for 46 apartment units over first-floor retail, varying from one-story along 49th Street to two- and three-story portions along College Avenue. All of the units would be classified as affordable, with eligible renters earning less than $36,000. Parking would be behind the building.

The total project would be 65,000 square feet, down from an earlier proposal for 180,000 square feet. Hinterberger had sought $4 million from a TIF district for the earlier version.

His company to date has paid $3.8 million to acquire the property and develop the plans, and also spent $1.2 million renovating the historic building at the southwest corner of 49th Street and College Avenue into the Uptown Business Center. The Uptown project itself would cost about $15 million to build, he said.

Neighbors are tired of waiting for the much-hyped project that today looks more like an overgrown and neglected eyesore. Roofs on the buildings have caved. People dump trash on the site.

"You talk about blight," said neighbor Eric Iverson, who has looked out on the proposed redevelopment site for 17 years. "Right now you own the blight."

Bill Blue, an architect and land-use board member of the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood group, told Hinterberger he could have "endeared" himself to the neighborhood by investing something in the properties while he pursued his vision. Instead, the homes have remained vacant.

Hinterberger implored the neighbors to support what he sees as a transformational development that would reduce blight, add to the area's population and employ numerous green features.

Developing in a sustainable fashion is much more difficult than throwing up a strip center, he said.

If he can get the project moving, plenty of tenants are interested. Hinterberger has collected letters of intent for 94 percent of the proposed retail space. One of them, Pizzology owner and veteran restaurateur Neal Brown, was on hand Tuesday to hear the update.


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