This former ‘drug palace’ has plans for new life along South Hamilton Crossing

Neighbors hope a longtime troublesome apartment building will become a more productive part of Hamilton’s Jefferson neighborhood, thanks partly to the South Hamilton Crossing project that improved Grand Boulevard.

From January of 2015 through July 2019, the now-vacant, 2.5-story building at 1301 Grand Blvd. — a block west of Ohio 4 — was the site of 213 emergency dispatch calls, including for two reports of possible deaths, 18 calls about arguments, eight complaints about drugs, 16 incidents about drug overdoses, 14 theft issues, and five trespassing reports. Police also made 11 attempts to serve criminal warrants.

There also were insect infestations, people living in the building when it was without utilities, garbage and other issues.

The property’s new owner wants to return the building to its original use from years ago, storefronts facing Grand Boulevard, plus apartments, the Hamilton Planning Commission was told Thursday. Only this time, it will have only four apartments, and the storefronts will likely house an office and either a one- or two-person salon, or a small convenience store for the neighborhood.

“Anything’s better than what it was,” Robert “Bobby J” Johnson, who owns the Talking Bull Saloon and other houses in the block, said afterward. “It was a drug palace.”

He appreciates that the city has beautified Grand Boulevard and raised the value of his properties.

South Hamilton Crossing, which opened in December, 2018, after more than 100 years of discussion, better connects Ohio 4 with much of the Lindenwald area, Miami University’s Hamilton campus and the city’s West Side. Along with a proposed “Five Points” intersection, traffic is expected to increase in coming years.

Before it was owned by Generate Investments Group LLC of Hamilton, the building had six apartments, including two in the basement that were illegal under city ordinances. The new owner plans four apartments, three on the second level, and one behind the storefronts on the first.

Because the building had been vacant for so long, the new owner required a conditional-use permit from Hamilton, which the planning recommended the city council approve.

Steven Gebhart of Community Design Alliance, the architecture firm representing the owner, told the planning board he believes creation of a storefront with apartments “is in alignment with the future development of this street, as well as a nod to the historic use of the building.”

It will feature lighting of the storefront signs and improve security to the neighborhood, with larger windows typical of a storefront returned to the building’s face. The plan is to place “thin brick” on most of the building’s exterior walls, with a thin-stone facade near the base.

“This was such a nuisance property for us,” city Planning Director Liz Hayden told the planning commission, “and actually, we at one point expected to demolish it … It is a high-profile property that everybody in the city is aware of, and has concern about.

“But it’s a new ownership, and it’s an opportunity for somebody to do something different with it.”

The Rev. Shaquila Mathews, a member of the planning commission, said she wants to ensure “everything is done the way it needs to be done, and it’s not more of the same, and it just changed hands, just to have the same situations happen again.

“Because that community, that neighborhood, they don’t need that. They’re trying to move forward in a positive direction.

“I remember how it used to be. Rough.”

Because of concerns about illegal apartments returning, city officials plan to require that basement walls be removed and replaced with mesh netting to separate basement storage areas. As another precaution, the city also plans to require that if all health, building, public-safety and fire-code regulations are not met and resolved in a timely matter, the building’s conditional use permit can be revoked.

Tom Vanderhorst, Hamilton’s executive director of external services, said he would prefer that instead of thin brick with stone panels, the owners would consider actual stone and brick, on the grounds that the higher-quality materials used, the more likely they would be to take care of the investment. But Gebhart and others said it’s possible the building would not be able to support such a heavy exterior, so the planning commission suggested that the owners explore the possibility and discuss it with city staff.

After the meeting, Jasmine Hudson of the ownership group said the city plans to have a commercial corridor, “almost like Main Street.”

Granite counter-tops and nice interior finishes are planned, she said: “So we’re hoping it’s a nice place where maybe students or city employees who want to be close to work that can bike here and there, and live in an urban space, not far from grocery store and different entertainment here in Hamilton.”

Because city officials knew Grand would have more traffic with South Hamilton Crossing and the roundabout in the Five Points area, officials placed a special focus on the city’s Plan Hamilton vision for the future, Hayden said: “And the vision is basically just expecting it to become more commercial over the next 10-15 years.”

And that made the commercial part of the building at 1301 Grand “really important,” she said.

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