The downtown Dayton Arcade has been unoccupied for more than twenty years now.
But 52-year-old Daytonian Aquetta Knight remembers a time when it was hopping.
“Everybody I knew was down there,” she says. “They were the good old days.”
Her dad was a shoe repairman in the Arcade, which also housed a fresh meat market, fresh fish, a popcorn store and a grocery. She’s like a lot of residents who want nothing more than to see it open back up.
So she asked WYSO Curious a tough question—what’s gonna happen to the Arcade?
A Quick History
Let’s start by getting familiar with the Arcade. John Gower, the part-time urban design coordinator for the city manager, has been involved with this since 1978, and takes me around the building.
The facade is remarkable—red brick with ornate images of women’s faces, a tall turquoise colored roof.
“It looks a little bit like it ...coulda been perfect for Amsterdam,” says Gower. And inside, he says, “there are horns aplenty, there are rams’ heads.”
This stunning thing is actually just the entryway for a complex of nine building, including the part that’s a long, tall arcade, and the rotunda that still has a circular ceiling made of glass.
This building opened in 1904, a hot time in Dayton’s economic history. It had shops in the open areas, and apartments on the upper floors. The whole complex was reportedly thriving all the way into the 60s. But that’s when suburban sprawl and white flight really took hold, and downtowns started to struggle.
In 1978, the city and a developer decided it was time to revamp the Arcade. They evicted everyone living there and reopened the lower floors in 1980 with lots of fanfare.
John Gower says that didn’t last. The 1985 completion of I-675 to the east of town sent even more development into the suburbs. Meanwhile, Dayton’s population had long since stopped growing—meaning a smaller development pie was getting split a lot more way. Plus, the Arcade redevelopment never raised all the money it needed. The apartments where people had just been evicted stood empty. In 1985, he says, banks took over the property.
“The banks actually punched a hole in the floor of the rotunda, they moved the food court vendors who had been on the first floor into the basement,” Gower recalls.
The whole thing closed for good in 1990.
The Heart Of The City
David Bohardt, the executive director of St. Vincent DePaul, co-chaired the mayor’s Arcade Task Force beginning nearly a year ago. He’s a huge proponent of the Arcade.
“It was the heart, for a long time, of the city,” he says.
But members of the task force agreed to take a thorough look at the building with open minds. They hired two consulting firms to look at the two options: demolition and redevelopment. Demolition, it turns out, would cost more money than the city has on hand—$8 to $12 million dollars depending on how many of the buildings were addressed. Those are just the up-front costs: the site would then have to be secured and maintained.
Redevelopment could cost closer to $60 million, but that at least would involve investors.
The task force didn’t recommend either option.
“Instead we brought them a recommendation that the city needed to act today to get the buildings in stable and dry condition,” says Bohardt. That recommendation went before the commission in early July, and the mayor says the city is already researching how much those fixes would cost. That, at least, would prevent the whole thing from becoming unsaveable following another winter.
A Vision Not Unlike The Original
John Gower with the city is hopeful about the future possibilities—although he says plenty of ideas have been floated in the past, including using the Arcade for a new children’s museum, getting the Dayton Daily News to move in, and the chance that the current owners were going to find new developers. Those owners are now severely in debt to the county, as they stopped so much as paying taxes years ago.
The vision outlined by Sandvick Architects from Cleveland would turn most of the Arcade into apartments, which are in high demand. That would leave just the ground floor for commercial development of around 30,000 square feet as opposed to earlier plans to fill 80,000-90,000 square feet with new commercial activity.
Ironically, much of the Arcade was market-rate apartments before the 1980 redevelopment. The new Arcade, if it is developed according to Sandvick’s proposal, would have more housing than the original, but the mixed-use concept would be similar.
Gower says there are a few advantages to pursuing development today, as opposed to 20 years ago: one is that there are historic tax credits available for projects like this, and the other is that the city is taking a more active role in the project once again.
“There’s a chance in the discussion, in policy, about making sure that our buildings that are key to the core of downtown ...have owners that will be willing partners with both the private and public sector,” says Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.
“It would crush me”
I take all this information back to Aquetta Knight, the questioner, in her cozy apartment in a Fifth Street high rise.
What does she think about demolition?
“It would crush me, it would,” she says. Redevelopment is her dream—even if it does turn out to be mostly apartments. “Even though I’d love to see the Arcade come back up, if they make it for people to live in, people could have somewhere to go live, that would be fine too."
As I’m leaving Aquetta’s building, I start talking to 21-year-old Cae-la Snowden. She’s too young to remember a time when the Arcade was open.
“My grandma used to say that the whole strip right there used to be so fun, and that it’s just dead now,” she says. She thinks anything in the Arcade would help; youth around here don’t have much to do. “Give people something to spend money on, or even just something to look at."
She thinks downtown could make a comeback—but she’s not seeing it yet.
“There’s not much happening down here, because when you come down here you see mostly homeless people and nothing to do.”
The city is expected to move funds to secure the Arcade complex within the month.
WYSO Curious is our series driven by your questions and curiosities about the Miami Valley. Is there something you’ve always wondered about the Miami Valley’s history, people, culture, economy, politics or environment? Send in a question now, and check back to see which questions we’re considering. WYSO Curious is a partner of WBEZ's Curious City, which was founded by Jennifer Brandel and is one of ten Localore productions brought to life by AIR.
Lewis Wallace is WYSO's managing editor, substitute host and economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants _