Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
Historic buildings can be beautiful, a link to the past and a reminder of where we’ve come from. But the challenges of maintaining, rehabilitating, and reusing structures pose incredible challenges for those tasked with overseeing their continued use. Enter Dominick Brook.
Brook is Ohio University’s director of real estate, and in the role he’s held since 2019, his purview is wide. His portfolio lies on land granted to Athens, Ohio’s townships in 1797, paperwork signed by one George Washington, countersigned by Thomas Jefferson.
“Two-hundred and twenty-odd years later, the university continues to own thousands of acres of land, and millions of square feet of historic buildings, including the Ridges,” says Brook, an English immigrant who initially came to the States to study.
The Ridges redevelopment involves the creation of new attainable housing (including senior housing), artisan live-work studios, and retail and restaurant space in and around the historic building whose past is as interesting as its future.
The Ridges was originally built 150 years ago as the Athens Lunatic Asylum. The main building is immediately recognizable as a Kirkbride Plan whose dozens of designs throughout the United States featured natural light, prominent air circulation, and a “bat wing” style floor plan that contained numerous wings emerging from the center building.
To get an idea of the kind of aesthetic challenges faced by Brook and his team, consider his office. His office walls are two feet thick, and much of the architecture and aesthetic remain similar to how they were before the university acquired the property. But ever since the university took ownership, the main building and other buildings on the property have been refurbished and turned into offices, flexspace for employees, and the OHIO Museum Complex and Kennedy Museum of Art.
“There is a lot of history here, and this place is fascinating,” Brook says. “What we’re trying to do is essentially rehabilitate and reuse the space. It might be cheaper to knock down those two-foot walls and make these rooms bigger, but in almost anything we do, there are a multitude of considerations we have to consider when implementing our plan.”
“The revitalization of the Ridges site and its multiple historic buildings require vision and commitment,” says Chasity Schmelzenbach, executive director at Buckeye Hills Regional Council. “The professional skills to negotiate the investment elements of the project and the interpersonal skills to navigate stakeholder engagement are a rare combination, and Dominick has it.”
The stakeholders for the Ridges development plan are extensive. Brook calls it “a public-public-public-private partnership” because the rehabilitation plan includes Ohio University, a state entity; the City of Athens, Ohio; the aforementioned Buckeye Hills Regional Council; and Community Building Partners, a local developer well-versed in nonprofit and community-based work.
“I have to commend Joe Recchie at Community Builder Partners (CBP) for a truly incredible partnership,” Brook says. “We showed the Ridges to 20 different developers and they all said no, it was too risky and didn’t make sense for them. Community Building Partners are very community focused. They will see a return but also see the greater opportunity for the local community here.”
CBP has helped finance the Ridges redevelopment in part by creating a New Community Authority, a public-private partnership that has broad statutory powers to implement community redevelopment programs.
In addition, approximately 77 percent of the 700-plus acres at the Ridges will be placed under a conservation easement with less than 25 total acres being transferred for development.
The sheer number of stakeholders, internal and external factors, and careful planning may seem like an impossible task, but Brook is well-versed in the relationship creation and maintenance involved in such a complex project.
“I do love the challenge of these things,” Brook says. “I know these projects have worked in other places, and that instills confidence in me to know we can get it done. We’re doing it our own unique way, we’re preserving history, and we’re recycling space that can be used for good.”
Brook describes himself as only a small part of a much larger effort. He also calls out the large team at Ohio University, including Shawna Wolfe, one of the architects of the Ridges Development Plan, as well as the Ridges Advisory Committee, whose longstanding collaborations and contributions have helped guide the future of the Ridges, among many others.
Brook’s background includes 10 years at Ernst & Young where Brook
he led its sustainability tax practice in the US. His practice included providing financial analyses, strategic advice, and consulting services for incentives related to LEED-certified buildings, energy efficiency improvements, renewable energy investments, and low-carbon manufacturing.
The Ohio University alum didn’t think he’d be returning to his alma mater, but sometimes life has other plans. Brook’s wife had already overcome one cancer diagnosis at the beginning of their relationship. When she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of triple-negative cancer, Brook knew working 80 hours a week and flying all over the country was simply no longer in the cards.
“Ohio University had this job open and were willing to let me come back,” Brook says. “We had our first child, and I just knew I needed to change the way I was living. I’m grateful it worked out like this.”
Brook’s wife beat cancer for a second time, and their family has since welcomed a second child. He may not be working 80 hours a week at work anymore, but with a three- and six-year-old, the real estate director remains busy spending time with his family.
Buckeye Hills Regional Council is a council of governments dedicated to improving the lives of residents in Southeast Ohio. Working collaboratively with elected officials across Athens, Hocking, Meigs, Monroe, Morgan, Noble, Perry, and Washington counties, Buckeye Hills connects communities with local, state, and federal resources through its Aging & Health, Home Care, Community Development, and Planning divisions. Buckeye Hills Regional Council deeply values its longstanding partnership with Ohio University and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service and is proud to work alongside the University, the Athens community, and Dominick Brook on the redevelopment of The Ridges.