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Kid Gloves 

Give three recent college grads a $17.1 million development project? Only in Oberlin.

Ben Ezinga, Naomi Sabel, and Josh Rosen are learning that in the real world, taxpayers want to know how you're spending their money. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Ben Ezinga, Naomi Sabel, and Josh Rosen are learning that in the real world, taxpayers want to know how you're spending their money.
The students were restless. For four years, Ben Ezinga, Josh Rosen, and Naomi Sabel had listened as their professors droned on about economic "theories" and sociological "hypotheticals." Why, they wondered, was everyone always studying change, but not enacting it? No city ever got built by reading.

The three friends vowed to be different. After graduation, they'd stay in Oberlin and do something great for the city. All they needed was . . . um . . . a project.

They found it in spring 2001, when a for-sale sign went up downtown in front of a former Buick dealership. Since the late 1980s, the deserted plot -- contaminated by dry-cleaning chemicals that had seeped into the soil -- was a no-man's land, an eyesore separating an Oberlin dormitory and the public library. Over coffee at the college snack shop, the three vowed to take on the responsibility.

"We thought, great, now how do we get other people to pay for this?" recalls Sabel, an environmental-studies major. "Then we realized no one else would. We'd have to do it all ourselves."

The young developers, friends since Sabel's freshman year, still look like college students. They show up for business meetings in the sort of outfits favored by sleep-deprived juniors: rumpled zip-up sweatshirts, unpressed slacks, and knit caps. Their "office" is a popular natural-foods eatery. Before this project came up, they weren't even thinking about real-estate development as a career.

"People often think we're very ambitious, but it was actually our lack of plan and our lack of ambition that led us all together," says Rosen.

In the summer of 2001, the trio formed Sustainable Community Associates, a limited-liability development corporation. They consulted with city experts, who told them that the city's downtown was suffering from a lack of affordable housing and commercial space. So after meeting with a nationally renowned builder, the students drew up plans to build a three-level, Crocker Park-style complex, with shops on the first floor and residential suites above -- about 25 percent of which would be set aside for low-income housing. This being Oberlin, the complex would run partly on solar energy.

When most people dream up such grandiose projects, all they have to show for it are the scraps of paper on which they scribbled their fantasies. But these kids managed to get big names to open their wallets. The City of Oberlin, Oberlin College, and a community-development organization each chipped in $50,000. The federal government ponied up a $200,000 grant; the state gave $300,000. A local housing lender agreed to provide $6 million in tax credits. And the city tentatively agreed to grant them $1.6 million in tax assistance and construction help. Other public and private investments brought the total to $17.1 million.

"They have shown through a dogged -- at times annoying -- persistence, that they are going to make this work," says Daniel Gardner, chair of Oberlin City Council, which in July voted 4-2 to grant the plan financial assistance.

But recently, the students stumbled over a major roadblock: reality.

On the southwest edge of the city, developers have built about 60 new single-family homes in the past eight years. In order to obtain residential permits, they needed to dole out fees for sewer-and-water line hookups, sidewalks and curbs, and stop signs. Now those developers are asking why the city would give tax assistance for such items to a bunch of kids with no construction experience.

"I know this has created some discomfort among local developers," says Sharon Soucy, a member of Oberlin City Council and the swing vote in the city's decision to grant monetary help. "I understand it. Part of me does not believe that the city should be involved in funding private development."

To get an outsider's opinion on the project, Scene asked Michael Cantrello, the head of Cleveland-based New Creation Builders, to look at the construction plans. When Cantrello learned what the three twentysomething developers plan to do, he laughed.

"I've been doing this for 10 years, and I'm barely qualified to handle a project like that," Cantrello said. "I won't even hire a construction worker who went to trade school unless he's had on-the-job experience. And you're talking about a $17.1 million project with developers who've never done this before."

The kids' track record gives further reason for doubt. In 2001, the trio agreed to purchase the vacant Buick dealership for $310,000. But the owner of the dealership claimed that they failed to close on the deal on time. Litigation ensued. To settle, Sabel's father had to cut a personal check. "The truth is that all of our parents helped us out," snaps Sabel. "It was a mortgage, not a gift."

Even city leaders are starting to have second thoughts. Though construction is slated to begin this fall, the engineering plans for the project haven't been completed. Oberlin officials have repeatedly asked the developers to submit an independent financial analysis of the costs as well as concrete architectural plans, but they have received neither yet. Every few months, the projected number of residential units changes.

"I'm concerned," says Sal Talarico, the city auditor. "If the project should collapse, it's the city who's responsible for the debt."

The Oberlin grads would prefer that the officials keep their worries to themselves. Sitting in a café, their fists clench and their faces tense when questions about the project are brought up.

"This is a question of ageism!" Rosen spits, jabbing his index finger at a reporter's face. "People can't stand the fact that three people our age are doing something like this.

"Are they willing to put in the money and time we are? No," he continues. "We're working for the salary of janitors."

"Nonunion janitors," Ezinga adds.

The developers claim that the architectural drawings will be completed by March and that engineering plans are being worked on as they speak. They say they've already submitted an independent assessment of the construction cost, though they refuse to provide the name of the analyst. Construction, they insist, will begin as scheduled.

Others, however, aren't so certain. "God bless them, I hope this works," Councilwoman Soucy says. "But I would not bet my life on it. Especially considering their level of personal maturity."

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