WHEELING - Don't look now, but there are some who would like to see downtown Wheeling's buildings head in a new direction by trading in brass nameplates for welcome mats.
An effort is taking shape to promote residential living in what was decades ago a bustling commercial district in a city of more than 60,000. Today, the area is home to comparatively few mainstays, separated by ever-widening gulfs of empty and deteriorating space in a city home to less than half that number.
City leaders in 2002 enacted a zoning rule that forbade landlords from renting out space on the ground floors of their buildings as apartments through much of downtown, an expanse covering essentially everything between the Fort Henry Bridge and 16th Street and Main and Eoff streets. At that time, it likely made a great deal of sense - after all, the dictionary definition of "downtown" is "of, pertaining to, or situated in the main business section of a city."
With the elimination of a restrictive zoning measure, Wheeling officials are trying a different strategy when it comes to putting tenants in downtown buildings.
Photo by Ian Hicks
But conventional wisdom has thus far done little to fill the empty buildings, so City Council struck down the rule in January. After years of waiting for lost retail and commerce to return to those structures, the idea, proponents say, is to get tenants into these buildings to generate income for their owners and prevent them from deteriorating further.
Having more people living downtown could then, in turn, lead to more businesses returning to serve those residents.
St. Clairsville developer Heather Slack, who is rehabilitating rental properties in East Wheeling and Center Wheeling, pressed city officials to make the change. Taller buildings cost too much to renovate, she told them, but smaller buildings also prove to be unwise investments when developers are forced to leave the ground floor vacant in hopes of a commercial tenant moving in.
Another person who wants to find a way to make downtown living work in Wheeling is Jeremy Morris, executive director of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. and a member of the city's Historic Landmarks Commission.
"We have all of these empty upper floors that could be used for housing," said Morris.
But even with the relaxed zoning, he said, there's a major financial challenge to overcome. Rent income from residential tenants in a lot of cases won't be able to equal the massive initial outlay of cash for mortgage and renovation costs required to take on such a project.
"It will take a concerted effort - from banks, foundations - to help people who are interested bridge the market gap," Morris said.
The Historic Landmarks Commission had considered asking the city to allocate federal Community Development Block Grant money for that purpose, but city Economic and Community Development Director Nancy Prager said doing so would bring U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development limits on rent into play, possibly discouraging developers. Furthermore, she said, the city's entitlement amount has seen a steady decline, and she couldn't guarantee how much money the city would have available.
It also remains to be seen what will be done with the roughly 50,000 square feet of open space created by the demolition of much of the 1100 block of Main and Market streets. City leaders hope to eventually attract a variety of development to the block, but the new flexibility with regard to downtown housing could be a plus for those looking to build there.
Wheeling Jesuit University is one entity that is interested in doing something downtown, as President Richard Beyer has said it could make sense to locate professional students and possibly a business school there. Several locations are being considered, Beyer has said.
West Liberty University President Robin Capehart also said his school is considering a downtown campus to give West Liberty more of a presence in the community.
He did not provide a timetable for the project or exactly where it would be located, if built.
The higher education community is adding some life to downtown through the expansion of West Virginia Northern Community College's campus into the former Straub properties. Among other things, the new location will house a book store and a coffee shop.