CINCINNATI — Kenny Martin teaches high school students about urban blight in Mesquite,Texas. He experienced the topic first-hand in Cincinnati this month when he passed Convention Place Mall on his way to Duke Energy Convention Center.
“We were walking past going to lunch the other day and you could hear the fire alarm going off inside,” said Martin. “It makes me wonder what the heck is going on in there and why isn’t anybody doing anything about this?”
Here’s the short answer to that question: The city of Cincinnati has been trying since 2010 to force improvements to the site, but its efforts have been stymied by a slow-moving court case, a City Hall corruption probe and shifting priorities for a newly defined convention district on the western edge of downtown.
A longer answer could be revealed in federal court this month, as former Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld defends himself against a six-count indictment. The June 21 trial is expected to last up to four weeks. Former Cincinnati Bengal Chinedum Ndukwe will be a key witness in the case, as prosecutors allege Ndukwe worked with the FBI to bribe Sittenfeld as Ndukwe sought control of Convention Place Mall.
The eight-story office building with an attached retail center is so central to the case that Sittenfeld’s attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Douglas Cole to let the jury tour the property at 435 Elm Street.
“It is crucial that the jury see it for themselves,” attorney Charles Rittgers wrote. His motion was denied.
The building’s current owner, the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, denied WCPO’s request to enter the building this month, saying it’s unsafe. But video taken from the street showed extensive water damage, a leaking roof and exposed insulation, still dripping from storms that rolled through downtown one day earlier.
“Looks like at one time it might have been a cool space to be in but now every year that I come here it looks more and more dilapidated,” Martin said. “It just looks like nobody cares about it anymore.”
June 2017 a pivotal month for Convention Place
WCPO has extensively reported on the building’s slow demise. The story includes a 2016 foreclosure case in which the city forced out developer Ronald Goldschmidt, who acquired the Convention Place office building in 1990 and retail center in 1999. Goldschmidt owned the buildings but leased the city-owned land beneath them. City records show Goldschmidt faced tax delinquencies on the property starting in 2010. When U.S. Bank sued to foreclose on its $1.3 million mortgage for the office building in 2016, the city intervened – eventually winning a court order terminating Goldschmidt’s leases in December 2016.
Ndukwe entered the picture six months later – with a purchase that complicated the redevelopment prospects of Convention Place, ruffled feathers at City Hall and laid the groundwork for an FBI sting that ensnared Cincinnati’s mayoral frontrunner, Alexander “P.G.” Sittenfeld.
“On June 5, 2017, plaintiff acquired the leasehold mortgage and related documents/interests from US Bank,” Ndukwe wrote in 2021 affidavit that lays out his claim for ownership rights at Convention Place.
The claim is based on the 2016 ruling by former Hamilton County Magistrate Michael Bachman, who terminated Goldschmidt’s lease, “subject to certain rights retained by US Bank to cure (Goldschmidt’s) monetary defaults and execute a new lease with the city.”
Ndukwe asserted those rights to city officials two days after he bought US Bank’s mortgage.
“The purchase of the leasehold mortgage gives (Ndukwe’s development company) Kingsley an ability, which no other developer has, to influence and control what happens at the site,” Ndukwe wrote to city officials on July 7, 2017. “Because no other developer could possibly move forward on a project at 435 Elm Street without the consent of Kingsley, we believe it is appropriate for the city to enter into an MOU with Kingsley at this time.”
In the five years that followed, Ndukwe kept asking city officials, the Port and the courts to see things his way, according to state and federal court records. But he never got the deal he wanted before city officials transferred the property to the Port in 2019. And the Port has been unable to extinguish Ndukwe’s claimed property rights at Convention Place.
“There is nothing in the record to indicate that (Ndukwe’s company) 435 Elm Investment LLC has ever been given the terms and amount of the cure,” Hamilton County Magistrate Thomas Beridon concluded on Feb. 8, 2022. “The amount of any monetary cure remains an unresolved issue of fact.”
May 2021 affidavit sheds new light on Convention Place
Ndukwe’s affidavit represents his most detailed public comments about Convention Place and sheds new light on his behind-the-scenes efforts to gain control of the project. It also helps to explain why the FBI built its case around the project: From the beginning, Ndukwe needed political solutions to achieve his objectives.
“Our preference was to work with the city and Port to build a ground up development,” Ndukwe said in the affidavit, describing a May 2019 meeting with Port CEO Laura Brunner. “I said our plan was to bring the Port in to cure the outstanding taxes and bring a partner in after we had secured our development agreement. Laura acknowledged that made sense.”
The WCPO 9 I-Team compared Ndukwe’s affidavit to other public records to compile a detailed chronology that shows how the Convention Place saga intertwined with the FBI investigation and City Hall dysfunction – including the “Gang of Five” texting scandal on city council. Among other things, court records show Ndukwe became an FBI informant in March 2018, the same month that former Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley asked City Manager Harry Black to resign. That led to Sittenfeld and Councilman Chris Seelbach speculating via text that the FBI would investigate Cranley.
The Convention Place chronology also shows how the FBI got creative in its sting operation – allegedly getting Sittenfeld to accept checks from an undercover agent in Columbus who said he wanted to establish sports betting at Convention Place. Sittenfeld allegedly told the agent he could encourage “a controlled environment” by using the city’s zoning code to allow sports betting only in that location. As it turned out, Hamilton County’s sports betting locations were defined by statute and there’s no evidence that a sports book was ever part of Ndukwe’s development proposal to city officials.
What’s next at Convention Place?
One of the ironies of the FBI investigation is that Ndukwe never gained control of the building and Convention Place continued its demise despite bribes allegedly paid to Sittenfeld and former Cincinnati Councilman Jeff Pastor. Prosecutors insist that doesn’t matter because the crime lies in receiving a thing of value in exchange for promising official actions.
But Ndukwe still has a glimmer of hope in his Hamilton County court case, thanks to the February ruling by Magistrate Beridon, who rejected the Port’s request for summary judgment. Beridon’s ruling is subject to approval by Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Alan Triggs, who received a 15-page argument from Port attorneys last week asking him to end Ndukwe’s claim once and for all.
“This is a foreclosure action; nothing more, nothing less,” they wrote. “Contrary to plaintiff’s assertions otherwise, there is nothing left to foreclose upon because the lease upon which plaintiff seeks to foreclose was terminated by the city of Cincinnati on October 4, 2016.”
If the Port wins its argument, appeals could follow delaying redevelopment by months or years. In the meantime, there is no firm plan for what how that redevelopment should look.
“The site will be incorporated into convention center expansion,” Hamilton County’s land bank told state officials in a Jan. 28 application for a $1.7 million demolition grant. “This building is literally across the street from the main entrance to the Duke Energy Convention Center and the site will be an important part of the expansion.”
The Port declined to be interviewed but released a statement:
“As you know, 3CDC has been asked to develop a master plan for the convention center district. They will likely consider all options for the redevelopment of 435 Elm, which could include a multi-family, commercial and/or a business property. Once the plan has been finalized, we will move forward with demolition and then, ultimately, redevelopment.”
3CDC, also known as the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., also declined to comment.
But CEO Steve Leeper briefed Hamilton County commissioners in May on its master plan. He said a new convention “headquarters” hotel and a $100 million renovation of the Duke Energy Convention Center are the top priorities. The 800-room hotel would be built on a parking lot west of Convention Place. Leeper said he isn’t sure what will be built at Convention Place or when.
“It could be another hospitality or mixed-use development,” Leeper said. “I would assume that we would not want to be pursuing another hospitality (use) there until we get the convention center up and operating, so that they know that we are not in any way cannibalizing” the new headquarters hotel.
Those answers do not impress the geography teachers who visited Cincinnati in early June.
“This is prime real estate, right? You would think they would renovate and want to use it for something,” said Jessica Jensen of Salt Lake City, Utah. “I mean, let’s put some housing up top and some fun stuff in the bottom. I think the city could get taxes off the residential use. I mean, it could be really beneficial to the people here.”
Martin said anything would be better than the blight he’s observed in every Cincinnati visit since 2014.
“Restaurant, retail, something useful, something that would make people want to spend some time here, spend some money, have fun,” Martin said. “Why not make this into something that’s good for convention goers?”
Both teachers visit Cincinnati every year to grade Advance Placement essays for students hoping to get college credits in human geography. They love coming to Cincinnati because of it’s walkable downtown and a host of attractions, including the Cincinnati Reds and Findlay Market. But they give our town low marks for blight removal at Convention Place.
“You get an F,” Jensen said. “It’s a do-nothing building, I don’t know what to say, sorry.”
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