If the walls in the home at 3388 Beechwood Ave. in Cleveland Heights could talk, they would probably have a lot to say about the past 82 years. The neighborhood, thick with two-family homes, had in recent years drawn a growing transient population of renters. With the increase in rental units came a slow decay of the 1922 home and some other surrounding properties. The neighborhood lacked the sense of pride and upkeep that comes with homeownership.
"The house had issues," says John Lee, general contractor and partner with HCI/Air-tek in Cleveland. "There were foundation problems and structural problems."
But there was still hope for rejuvenating the old house — and the neighborhood. In September 2003, the First Suburbs Development Council in Cleveland Heights, a nonprofit organization that promotes economic development among its member cities, launched a rehab project to transform the up-and-down duplex into two side-by-side, contemporary townhouses.
The conversion, completed in Nov-ember, is intended to increase homeownership in the neighborhood while preserving the historic nature of the structure. It's hoped the endeavor will reinvigorate the community as a whole and inspire other makeovers.
"It's an area with rental units and at times there's not that pride of ownership and residents are not invested," says Lou Tisler, executive director of the First Suburbs Development Council. "We really wanted to restore the house, as opposed to tear it down, because you're getting a 1922 structure."
Neighborhood residents took notice of the transformation. "They saw a whole house being converted, and it wasn't just that someone painted the house. There was construction going on," says Tisler. "It gave them some pride and they said, OK, let me do something with my property.' "
Mark Schaffer, a carpenter on the Beechwood project, witnessed the community's transformation. "You can see the progress in the neighborhood when people start to take pride," he says. "It's bringing a lot of dignity back to the neighborhood." During construction, Schaffer observed many neighboring residents taking on their own repair projects.
The trend of converting two-family dwellings to single-family homes or townhouses is growing in the inner-ring suburbs. The goal is to keep residents in the neighborhoods rather than having them move to outlying communities. "We wanted to anchor these neighborhoods with homeownership and anchor that vested interest in keeping the neighborhoods up," explains Tisler. "They can move up without having to move out."
Members of the Buckeye Area Devel-opment Corp. began acquiring and converting two family rental properties in the Buckeye neighborhood about six years ago.
"We found two-family homes present management problems and we were managing a lot of tenant conflicts," says John Hopkins, executive director of the BADC. "With detached investors who are absentee and not managing the properties very well and not screening tenants very well, it becomes a potential problem for the community."
Hopkins saw homeownership as a solution. "By converting it, the home will be owner occupied and they are going to take care of it with landscaping and maintenance, and that's better for the neighbors and the surrounding community," he explains. "It's a long-term solution to creating owner-occupants in the area."
Converting a duplex into a single-family home or townhouse isn't always a simple task, however. Costs can be high. "These are older homes and, typically, our formula leads to a whole rehab —
a complete gut and refurbish," says Hopkins. "The biggest challenge is always the cost because you have to convert from two systems to one. So we try to offset that by being strategic in the cost we buy the house for."
Michael Kucera, general manager of Tesco Builders in Cleveland, has worked on conversion projects in the Buckeye neighborhood and other nearby communities. He says he finds the best value in the most dilapidated properties: "The worse the better."
On Beechwood Avenue, HCI/Air-tek's Lee and his team had to jack up the house, dig out the basement and pour a new foundation, install new support beams and literally pull the sagging house upright using cables.
"There's a lot of things they didn't see until we did demolition," Lee recalls. "It was almost like starting over from square one. Everything is new in there. Now, it's like a brand-new house. Actually, it's better than a new house."
Chris Holmes, director of acquisition and construction for the Cleveland Housing Network, sees the added costs of a conversion as a worthwhile investment. "When you make changes to the floor plan, it drives up rehab costs," he says. "Typically, it's $50 to $60 a square foot to rehab. But that's what today's family needs."
Part of rehabilitation and conversion is learning to expect the unexpected. "Most of the obstacles have been not building new from the ground up," says Tisler. "With restoration, you don't know what is behind those walls. It was definitely a challenge in what could go wrong — looking at support beams and drainage. It wasn't an easy in-and-out project."
Despite the costs, conversions are usually a more economical choice than building from bare ground. "It's expensive to tear a house down and it's another expense to construct it," says Hopkins. "In many cases, it's more affordable to rehabilitate."
Planning may be the most important factor in completing a conversion. "Because they are the worst houses, they typically take a lot to refurbish," says Holmes.
Marc Ciccarelli, principal of Studio Techne in Cleveland Heights, the architecture firm that worked on the Beechwood Avenue project, recommends building a team comprising the financers, the builder, the architect and the community-development corporation or owner. All members of the team should be involved from the start.
"Every project is different," says Lee. "They all have their own personalities and you have to deal with the personalities. This [Beechwood Avenue] one, she was an ornery one. But she straightened out."
With the Beechwood home complete, the First Suburbs Development Council is ready to tackle another conversion in another inner-ring city. Ultimately, Tisler says he'd like to find a group of contiguous homes and convert them all into condos. Success of such a project could prompt developers to take the plunge on more conversions.
"What we're hoping to do is have this done by the builders," he says. "What we're really trying to do is build excitement."