At a Glance
More than 800
Residential and commercial real estate development and management
Ask Neil Bortz to explain the success of Towne Properties, and he’ll tell you it has little to do with being a development company. “I’ve always believed that Towne wasn’t primarily a development or construction or real estate company—but rather a marketing company,” he says. “If we can identify the right market, find out where people want to be, what they want in terms of space and amenities, and what they are able and willing to pay, we can successfully design, finance, and construct the right product.”
For Towne, the right market has been the Cincinnati area, and its best-selling amenity has been a “sense of community.” The firm got its start in Mt. Adams—a hilltop neighborhood with views of the city, the Ohio River, and surrounding hills—which was first inhabited in the 1850s but by 1960 had been drained of people and promise thanks to post-World War II urban flight. “My dream was to lead the renaissance of Mt. Adams,” Bortz says. “[When I was] a single man in my late 20s, despite its decline, Mt. Adams looked like a great San Francisco-type of place to live.”
In 1960 Bortz acquired an 80-year-old building, gutted it, and redesigned it into a state-of-the-art four-family apartment structure. He and partners Marvin Rosenberg and Bert Agin then formed Towne Properties in 1961 and picked up the pace with more apartment conversions. They also opened the city’s first basement bistro—the still popular Blind Lemon—to serve as the village pub. Residents, including Johnny Bench and other members of the Cincinnati Reds and Bengal’s teams, began returning to Mt. Adams. And Bortz not only invested his time and money in the neighborhood but raised his family there, too, in Cincinnati’s first condominium, and he eventually located his business in a renovated hilltop monastery originally built in the 1850s.
“Mt. Adams has become a very desirable, vital, mixed-use village with small shops, bars, restaurants, offices, iconic churches, and everything from renovated shotgun houses on 25-foot-wide lots to new multimillion-dollar homes with river views,” Bortz says.
From Mt. Adams, Towne developed other award-winning residential communities in Cincinnati; Dayton, Ohio; and Lexington, Kentucky. Today the company still owns and manages most of the projects it has developed. “In every case, these projects were the best in class when built—and we’ve kept them that way ever since,” Bortz says. “We don’t build complexes; we build communities.”
Towne Properties has not been immune to the boom and bust cycles in real estate, but down periods have brought opportunities to diversify. “There were times when new apartments just didn’t pencil out,” Bortz says. “We had to look for other products to keep us going.” In the mid 1970s, the firm was managing for third parties and land development. In the 1980s it worked on suburban office parks and the Kenwood Towne Center, the region’s foremost fashion mall. In the early 1990s, it tackled low-income rental housing. Towne returned to Class A apartments in the late 1990s and developed condominiums in the 2000s.
“We’ve always been passionate about downtown Cincinnati, too,” Bortz says. The firm has developed and renovated office buildings; mixed-use developments such as the Backstage Entertainment District; Fountain Place, a new office and retail building on Fountain Square; and the Garfield Collection, two new and two renovated apartment buildings in Piatt Park. Bortz currently serves on the board of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, a public-private effort to promote further improvements such as the construction of a streetcar line and the redevelopment of Fountain Square and the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.
Towne Properties’s newest project—and Bortz’s current passion—is University Square, a $68 million mixed-use project bordering the campus of the University of Cincinnati. Four years in the making, it will include apartments, offices, restaurants, and a hotel when completed in the fall of 2012. “University Square is one of the most exciting things we’ve ever been involved with,” Bortz says. “It will anchor the campus and bring new life to the surrounding neighborhood.”
More than 50 years after beginning his Mt. Adams dream, the founder of Towne Properties is still marketing “community.” ABQ