In the beginning, SCA had lots of ideas but no money. One of their first decisions was to go into personal debt for the
project, whatever it turned out to be. They maxed out their credit cards and then some (they now carry $1 million in business debt, collectively). They took out options to buy the Buick dealership and an adjoining property, began investigating the sites' environmental problems, commissioned some preliminary architectural drawings that incorporated housing and retail, and worked on funding. Then Gardner suggested they contact Richard Baron, a 1964 Oberlin graduate whose St. Louis-based firm, McCormack Baron & Associates, has spent millions of dollars building affordable housing in neglected urban neighborhoods throughout the country. SCA wrote him a letter describing the project. He called a few weeks later.
"We had been reading about him," says Ben, who remembers stumbling out of bed to take the call. "We worshipped him as a minor deity."
Baron suggested a conference call, so the three of them borrowed a friend's office and circled the phone to wait for his call, passing around a bottle of Pepto-Bismol as if it were a fifth of hooch. Baron invited them to St. Louis to tour his developments, meet his staff, and talk over the issues they were getting into. An SCA booster bought plane tickets, and they were off.
Baron is one of the few developers in the country who focuses on combining affordable and market-rate housing. His developments mix retail, services, and residences in architecturally stunning buildings. The market-priced units are indistinguishable from those set aside for low-income tenants—making them both affordable and free from stigma. Baron knows the ins and outs of financing these projects, none of which can be produced through ordinary, market-driven real estate channels.
"You can't do this kind of development without subsidies from foundations, local and state governments, or even the federal government," Baron says. "The construction costs for these developments are no less than the costs for something you'd build out in the suburbs—the costs might even be higher because you often have to take on brownfields (environmental contamination). At the same time, the return on your investment is going to be lower. You have to find a way to make up the difference between the construction costs and what the property will bring in."
Baron's tutelage helped SCA move forward with its original vision: to do something good for the community. Even before meeting Baron, the group had begun to realize that erecting luxury condos and bringing in Starbucks or the Gap would be much easier than creating affordable housing and retail space for local entrepreneurs. Talking to Baron helped them realize that ease didn't have to circumscribe their idealism.
"Richard taught us to plan the financials around the project rather than the other way around," says Naomi. "He told us to let our purpose and the integrity of the project drive it, not whatever was the simplest thing to do. It was never about cashing out for us, anyway, but about doing the best project, something that improves people's lives.
"None of us really cared about real estate development in the beginning," she adds. "But as the project emerged, so did our understanding that economic and racial integration, community revitalization, land-use policies, economic development, green buildings, and the financial stability of individuals are inextricably linked. At the end of the day a building will stand on East College Street that tries to speak to the persistent social issues facing Oberlin not as isolated trends, but as interrelated problems."
Once Baron became their mentor, the project moved forward at an even faster clip. Mainly, he pointed out possibilities, cheered them on, and accompanied them to the occasional meeting when an older face was required to soothe the nerves of frightened lenders. SCA is now in the midst of gaining city approvals, working with architects and lawyers, and advertising the apartments. Groundbreaking is expected this fall.
"None of this stuff is taught in any school that I know of," says John Picken '56, a doctor who retired to Oberlin. "These young alumni now know all about federal, state, and local funding; banking and lending intricacies; environmental remediation; you name it. They have been infinitely indomitable."
Not only that, they've provided a lesson for other young people—a model of what can be accomplished. "We think education happens in the classroom with a blackboard and seats bolted to the floor," says David Orr, chair of Oberlin's Environmental Studies Program and one of SCA's staunchest boosters. "But what these kids have done is create a laboratory of the world of possibilities. It began with thinking you didn't have to be 50 and financially
set to do something important—you can be 23 and full of ideas and enthusiasm and stick-to-it-iveness. If that's not educational, I don't know what is."
And that's what Josh, Naomi, and Ben want others to take away from their story. As students, they were accustomed to hearing that things would change once they were out in the world. They would lose their idealism, people said. But they didn't. Over the course of their project, the young alums have become more idealistic, not less.
"I'd like to think that this project and the story behind it can serve as a hopeful symbol for people who have been told their ideas were too ‘out there' or unrealistic," Josh says. "That when people are in meetings and their ideas are snickered at, they remember the story of this project and keep on pushing. That in some way, when we break ground, they will feel like they have broken ground also."
For more information, including ECSP project updates, visit www.sustainableca.com.
Kris Ohlson is a freelance writer in Cleveland Heights and a frequent OAM contributor.