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Cover Story: Leaping into Buildings in a Single Bound

Northside man can't help himself from helping his community

By Chris Kemp · January 4th, 2006 · Cover Story
  Moline Court
Cameron Knight

Moline Court

A little more than a year ago Brian Mueller took a leap of faith in Northside and, thus far, has failed to come back down. By all accounts, he's still airborne. His friends and family might be forgiven for believing he is lost forever in the clouds, floating high in the thin air somewhere over Hamilton Avenue.

Mueller took his leap of faith on Moline Court, a narrow cobble-stoned street that connects Hamilton Avenue to Langland Street. Those unfamiliar with Moline Court should take a walk there sometime. The word "bijou" surely must have been invented to describe the six brightly colored houses that stand in an orderly row along its length.

But brightly-colored bijou houses come with a price Mueller currently estimates to stand at $368,000 -- an amount that, he says, represents both money well spent and difficult lessons learned. It's an amount that also causes his breath to grow a little short should he accidentally catch sight of it on paper.

But then, what sort of a leap of faith is it if it doesn't shorten the breath?

A triple challenge
So Mueller leaped. Of the six houses on Moline Court, he now owns three: numbers 5, 7 and 11, thin, tall Victorian townhouses painted blue, violet and coral respectively like a discrete and invigorating knot of color in the middle of Northside's otherwise tired-looking business district. He hopes to own a fourth, which he has already painted pistachio green.

"They're 1,200 square feet," he says of the three houses he owns, "or 1,172, to be exact. I think they were all built in the same year: 1890."

Mueller bought them in October 2004 with his brother-in-law and business partner, Michael Wizer, after directly negotiating a deal with the previous owner, who had been renting the houses to low-income tenants.

He has spent the past year steadily renovating the houses and becoming a more active and vocal member of the Northside community, living just a mile or so from the exact location of his blind leap -- the leap from which he still remains aloft or, perhaps more precisely, suspended.

Mueller struggles to find words to describe the condition of the three houses when he purchased them, roughly $368,000 ago.

"I don't know if I have the adjective," he says. "They were really dilapidated. Two were empty -- except the contents of the houses were still there, but it was pretty much trash. The houses were trashed. That's the best word. They needed to be gutted: all new electrical service, we added air conditioning, even the waterlines."

The renovation process took about a year, the 32-year-old computer consultant says, and it began almost immediately after the sale of the houses was finalized.

"There was very little in the houses that was unchanged," he says matter-of-factly before continuing the litany of improvements made, like a calming mantra, "the windows ... the walls ... new plumbing ... everything."

What causes someone to take such a leap? Perhaps it's necessary that the leaper stubbornly fail to notice, at every opportunity, the stomach-churning height from which he's leaping.

Mueller admits he had no experience renovating property before he bought the three houses on Moline Court, nor was he fully aware of what was involved in renovating dilapidated Victorian townhouses. He says simply that he had a vision for the street and that it was a vision shared by more people than just himself and his brother-in-law.

"Would I do it again?" he asks. "I'd do one instead of three."

The mild wheeze Mueller experiences at the thought of the project's total cost is an intermittent symptom; it doesn't last long and is always soothed by his belief that the houses will find buyers soon enough.

"I really feel like we haven't marketed them to their full potential," he says. "They're very appealing houses."

Each house now has two bedrooms and one-and-a-half bathrooms with natural wood floors and is equipped with new appliances, plumbing, electric, doors and windows and a new home security system.

"They weren't really done until October," Mueller says. "On Dec. 6 they passed their final inspections. We had our first open house on Dec. 10."

Everybody loves Northside
Mueller says he's already received firm offers from companies or individuals who want to buy the houses and turn them back into rental units, none of which he has accepted.

"We're pretty adamant that we don't want to do that, because that's where they came from," he says. "We don't need more renters in Northside. We need more homeowners, people invested in the community. I think we took a street that at one time had been an asset to the community and returned it to a state at which it could be an asset again."

Some might argue that it's not streets and buildings that are Northside's biggest assets but rather some of its more committed residents -- people like Mueller, who is a productive member of the community despite his current position, several miles above Hamilton Avenue, which requires him occasionally to dodge flocks of migrating geese.

After buying the houses on Moline Court, he approached the city of Cincinnati about improving the street's condition. Less than a year later it was lined with new curbstones and a fresh stretch of sidewalk. Missing cobblestones, whose absence previously had been patched with asphalt, were replaced with vintage bricks harvested from renovation projects completed elsewhere in the city.

To minimize the possible negative effects of a Walgreen's development nearby in Northside, he has taken his case to the Zoning Appeals Board.

Most recently, Mueller helped a group of local volunteers tidy a litter-strewn alley off Pullan Avenue. Just last month he could be found in Jacob Hoffner Park on Hamilton Avenue helping to hang Christmas lights.

"I will, no matter where I live, become involved in taking care of community spaces," he says. "I got involved with the community council. I got involved in the Northside Business Association. My brother-in-law and I thought, 'Well, we want to live in Northside. Doesn't everybody?'

"I know that's a weird thought. Northside's a community that's easy to fall in love with because it's so diverse. It engenders a lot of neighborhood pride."

Mueller is quiet for a moment.

"I wish I had Bill Gates' money," he says, after a pause. "I'd buy all of Northside." ©



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