Forest Fair redevelopment on hold as talks continue

Property is in two cities, two counties and three school districts.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

The city of Forest Park is taking its time with what would be a transformational project for a property that’s struggled for decades in both Hamilton and Butler counties.

The latest effort for redeveloping the former Forest Fair Village, which had been rebranded several times since it was first Forest Fair Mall in the late 1980s and 1990s, is being attempted by Cincinnati-based Vandercar. The plan is to redevelop 46.5 acres of the property in Forest Park in order to construct three industrial buildings.

Forest Park City Council was presented with a second reading of the rezoning request, which also includes a request for a preliminary development plan. Both sides are not quite in total agreement on the development plan, which would include incentives.

“We’re pretty close,” said Forest Park City Manager Don Jones on Monday night.

Vandercar CEO Rob Smyjunas said the discussions both in person and over the phone with the city manager have been productive as they were “passing back different points of interest, and I think we’re in agreement with terms of conditions of a development agreement.”

The project is proposing three industrial buildings ― which would be 301,804 and 336,560 and 248,640 square feet, respectively ― on the Forest Park side of the property. Nearly 71 acres of the 90-plus-acre site is in Forest Park with the balance being in the city of Fairfield.

The property is a logistical challenge beyond splitting two cities. It is also in two counties and falls within three school district boundaries, but according to the zoning request from Vandercar, the planned business park zone would have buildings “meticulously designed to cater to the requirements of modern retailers, service providers and restaurants.”

Plans and documents submitted to Forest Park indicate the “institutional quality” buildings are suitable for single or multiple tenants and could be used in a variety of ways, including light industrial, manufacturing, high-tech and medium-tech manufacturing, warehousing and distribution.

Two retail spots on the plan, which face Winton Road, would be up to 50,000 and 120,000 square feet, respectively, with permitted outdoor sales at the larger of the two spaces. Two proposed out parcels, which are near Interstate 275, are 1.5 and 1.7 acres, respectively.

Vandercar’s plans submitted to Forest Park show the Fairfield side of the property being a planned mixed-use redevelopment. However, Fairfield has not yet received any plans on its side of the property, according to city officials.

Jones said the city and Vandercar will continue to discuss the development agreement and when Forest Park City Council acts “depends on how quickly (the agreement) could be drawn up.”

The city manager hopes he can present something for his City Council to discuss at a Monday work session, which would lead to a potential July 15 vote. But if a work session discussion cannot happen on Monday, there could be a couple of different scenarios, including an executive session prior to a possible July 15 vote or a discussion on July 15 and vote at the scheduled Aug. 5 council meeting. A special meeting could also be called to vote on the rezoning and development agreement.

Though there is “still a lot of negotiating to do,” Jones said. “We’re comfortable of where we’re at. We’re working with the developer, we’re talking every day, and I think we’ve got a pathway to success.”

Jones has also been talking with the Butler County Land Bank, which is the holder of a $7.9 million demolition grant from the state for the Forest Fair Village redevelopment project. Demolition of the site would cost between $10 million and $20 million. The state grant was initially for the proposal presented by Hillwood Construction Services, which presented a similar project but had pulled out.

The demolition grant is valid through the end of 2025.

Development of this site is important, said Seth Geisler, executive director of the Butler County Land Bank, as evident by the approval of the previous project by the Butler County Land Bank Board of Directors in February 2022. This was done with the expectation of job creation and the removal of blight, including the parking garage that sits almost exclusively in the city of Fairfield.

Geisler said a potential new sub-recipient of the state grant would likely have the same expectations from a new developer and new site plan.

“Our objective is to remove blighted properties that will improve the quality and safety of communities, increase land values, return properties to the tax rolls and to support opportunities to develop property that will help spur economic development and create jobs,” he said.

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