SOLON, Ohio – City officials have high hopes for the community reinvestment area that has been established in the city’s central retail district.
“That’s a really great economic development tool for the city,” Angee Shaker, the city’s economic development director, told the Solon Charter Review Commission Tuesday (June 8). “It will help attract new developers.
“We have aging buildings and some aging core shopping centers in Solon. So (through the CRA), if a property owner wants to renovate, they can get a tax exemption.”
There are minimum requirements for those exemptions, but it could be up to 100 percent for 15 years, Shaker said.
City Council passed an ordinance establishing and defining the boundaries of the CRA Monday (June 7).
The central retail district is bounded on the north by U.S. Route 422 and on the south by the Aurora Road vicinity, on the east by the SOM Center Road vicinity and on the west by the Solon Road-Aurora Road and Bainbridge Road-Kruse Drive intersections.
“We want it to be an active site with a lot of new business activity and a place where people can actually live,” Shaker said. “We do need more multi-family (housing), but we also don’t have a lot of high-end options for younger professionals and a cool place to go that’s walkable.”
Shaker, a Solon resident, was invited to speak to the commission to provide an update on the city’s business community, said Dennis Tidmore, chairman of the commission.
Any recommendations for amendments to the city charter that the commission makes must be approved by City Council before going to the electorate.
City Law Director Thomas Lobe told the commission at its first meeting in April that its deadline for making recommendations to council would be June 21, to allow enough time to get them placed on the November ballot.
So Tidmore reminded the commission that its next meeting – at 7 p.m. Tuesday (June 15) at City Hall – may be its last opportunity to finalize any recommendations and vote on them before the deadline.
Mixed-use planning district
Shaker said the zoning within the CRA is mostly commercial, along with some industrial, and includes a mixed-use planning district (MPD-A) around the former Liberty Ford site on Aurora Road, near Solon Road.
The MPD-A was established when voters approved Issue 65 – the rezoning of 21.76 acres of the former Liberty Ford site and adjacent properties – in November 2019. This zoning district could include restaurants, retail, multi-family housing and office space.
“We want it to be walkable and bikeable,” Shaker said. “It’s all part of the Solon Connects plan (a project aimed at improving bicycle and pedestrian connectivity for city residents and employees).
“With that plan, we are really focusing on the central retail district, as some of our aging shopping centers think about the tax abatements that are available (through the CRA).”
Residents often leave Solon to shop at mixed-use districts such as Pinecrest in Orange or the Van Aken District in Shaker Heights, Shaker said.
“We just don’t have a walkable area to go shopping and stop and have a cocktail or breakfast or something like that,” she said. “We really want to make it more of an experience; people enjoy that.”
When Issue 65 passed in November 2019, Solon-based Industrial Commercial Properties had a purchase agreement on the six-acre former Liberty Ford property and would have been the developer of a mixed-use project there.
But in December 2019, ICP withdrew from the deal, citing an undetermined level of ground contamination.
Other developers have expressed interest in the site, but the coronavirus pandemic “kind of shut conversations down,” Shaker said.
Commission member Lee-Ann Spacek asked Shaker if environmental issues are a barrier to redevelopment of the site.
“More studies need to be done, but there’s definitely something there,” Shaker said. “There was a car wash and a dry cleaner there, and it’s going to need cleanup, but we don’t know the extent of it.”
That could be an obstacle for potential investors, Shaker said.
“We’ve got to find a developer who’s going to move forward, do the environmental studies, and then we as a city can work with them,” she said. “There are grants out there that can help with the cleanup.”
Incentive for industrial area
Shaker said the city also has a financial incentive available for the industrial area called the Growth and Revitalization Incentive Program (GRIP).
“There’s a minimum investment they can make, and there are grants available,” she said. “Right now we only have a 2 percent vacancy rate in our industrial area, so our challenge right now is in this central retail district.”
The 2 percent vacancy rate in the industrial area is “quite remarkable at any time,” Shaker said.
“Our vacancy rates overall are pretty much lower in every category (compared to) when you look at the county and the state,” she said. “So Solon’s doing pretty well, but there is a concern about the office vacancy rate.”
Shaker said the pandemic has taken a toll on the city in terms of its office vacancy rate, which has increased 3.6 percent from last year to this year and now stands at 11.1 percent.
“I think it’s because a lot of folks are choosing to work remotely,” she said.
The city’s retail vacancy rate of 8.1 percent is 3.2 percent higher than a year ago, which is “not bad at all,” Shaker said.
“I think things will start swinging back, as more people are coming to work, and it’s going to get better,” she said.
Language for law director job
In other action, the commission unanimously approved a recommendation to update the language in the charter regarding the requirements for the city’s law director position.
Currently, the only qualification cited for the job in the charter states, “No person shall act as director of law unless duly admitted to practice law in the state of Ohio.”
The commission voted to remove that sentence and replace it with this one: “The director of law shall be admitted to practice law in the state of Ohio, hold an active license in good standing to practice law in the state of Ohio, have held such license in good standing for five years, and have experience in municipal or governmental law.”
The language for this recommendation came out of the committee’s administrative subcommittee, led by Vice Chair Michael Cullers, a lawyer.
That subcommittee and a zoning subcommittee are both working on other recommendations that they plan to bring to the commission at its next meeting.
Tidmore said he would present the commission’s recommendations to council at its June 21 meeting, which starts at 7:30 p.m.