Panel picks plan to make Mizpah into Ramada Hotel

Friday, August 19, 2005

By Frederic Pierce, Staff writer

A development group based in the state of Washington was selected by Syracuse officials Thursday to transform downtown's neglected Mizpah Tower into a Ramada Hotel.

Syracuse Bangkok LLC, a team of West Coast builders pulled together by Syracuse's Walton Architectural Group, was named the preferred buyer of the city-owned landmark by Mayor Matt Driscoll.

An advisory committee recommended Bangkok's plan to Driscoll over those of two other developers - both of which have been trying to buy the building for more than two years.

"It was a tough decision," said city Economic Development Director David Michel, a committee member. "We were very impressed by the commitment shown by the partners, who all came to the interview."

The committee was also impressed by the project's financing, the developer's record, the Ramada flag and its agreement to begin winterizing the building as soon as it's sold, Michel said.

The Bangkok team includes Plan B Development LLC, a Washington firm that's managed the construction of several mixed-use projects and hotels, and Rushforth Construction, a Washington company that has built office, residential and commercial buildings as well as major historic renovation projects.

It also includes Cendant, the international travel services conglomerate that owns Ramada.

The team plans to spend $19 million renovating the nearly century- old building into a full-service hotel with a conference center, restaurant and spa, Michel said. It has agreed to restore the building's elaborate church sanctuary and rent it out for a variety of events.

One attraction of the proposal is Bangkok's plan to sell as condominiums about half of the 90 to 100 rooms it hopes to create. The condo owners would then rent them out through the hotel for a cut of the room fee.

By selling units to investors upfront, committee members thought Bangkok had found a realistic financing plan, Michel said.

That plan includes paying the city $27,500 for the structure, which the city acquired for back taxes in 1998 and has been trying to sell ever since.

"That was the value set by an appraiser," Michel said. "In reality, it's probably worth less."

The 91-year-old former church, hotel and restaurant has been vacant for nearly 17 years. During that time, water leaked through the ceiling, damaging walls and woodwork.

The sale to Bangkok must still be approved by the Syracuse Common Council, which is scheduled to vote on it at the council's Sept. 12 meeting.

Alan Isserlis, who proposed partnering with Skelton Development of Atlanta on a $19 million plan to turn the Mizpah into a boutique hotel and "urban resort," said in a statement Thursday that he preferred not to comment until the decision was final.

Officials for the third bidder, Cornerstone Life Development LLC, could not be reached late Thursday.

The group is led by a downtown congregation of the Wesleyan Church that has pushed a more than $10 million plan to return the building to its original use as a church and convert other parts of the building into offices for human service agencies and residences.

Both Isserlis and the church were involved in the city's two previous efforts to put the Mizpah in the hands of a developer.

The city's first effort was botched by a fake bid opening that led to the ouster of two top city officials last year. The second ended when all three interested developers were disqualified.

Walton was the architect for one of those proposals, part of a development group that included Miami investor Eli Hadad. Hadad companies own two adjacent buildings that were incorporated into the original plans.

Hadad has no involvement with the Bangkok proposal, which is limited to the Mizpah building, city officials said.

The Bangkok group agreed to a reverter clause that would return title to the building to the city if the team does not secure the building from the weather within 90 days of closing on it. It must also keep the original stained glass, organ pipes, marble and woodwork.

2005 The Post-Standard.