Left: Mayor Luke Ravenstahl speaks on the second floor of Masonic Hall in the Garden Theater Block.

Despite the crumbling plaster, cracked walls and uneven floors on the second floor of the blighted Garden Theater Block’s Masonic Hall, there was a buzz of excitement and relief in the crowd of about 60 Northside leaders and residents who gathered to hear Mayor Luke Ravenstahl speak.

“I can’t believe we’re here, and I can’t believe this is happening,” said Ravenstahl, who thanked the residents of the Northside and people who have worked on the project. Some, he joked, have been involved in the Garden Theater Block longer than he’s been alive.

After years of debates, public meetings, setbacks and waiting periods, work finally began on redeveloping The Garden Theater Block this month, and developers Zukin Realty signed the first lease with Nakama Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar, who will open their second location there.

“It’s about time,” said Central Northside resident Susan Larkin. “Sometimes it seemed like it would never happen.”

“It’s great. It’ll be another nice option,” said another Central Northside resident John Augustine who attended the press conference with his children. “It’ll get other residents in the City to come here and explore.”

The block was acquired by the URA in 2007 for the $17 million revitalization project. When finished, it will include three restaurants, loft-style apartments, store fronts and office spaces.

Nakama is the first restaurant to sign a lease, but Zukin has letters of intent from the owners of Lawrenceville’s Round the Corner Cantina and the Firehouse Lounge, formerly in the Strip District.

While waiting for restaurants to sign leases, developers have begun stabilization work on several buildings on Federal Street.

Zukin President, Wayne Zukin said the work they’re doing is “pretty extensive,” and an important step to the redevelopment.

Zukin said that they hope to have leases signed by the end of the month and start work on the North Avenue buildings in the spring.

“I look forward to two years from now when you’re all calling me about a new issue – tight parking form all the people coming to these wonderful new attractions,” joked city Councilman Dave Lavelle who attended the ceremony along with City Council President Darlene Harris, who once picketed the Garden Theater Block with residents in a call for action.

“It was a wonderful place when I was young. It will be again,” said Harris.