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Cincinnati's urban moment and the decade of its making

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/16/15 @ 4:00pm

I joined a group of urban bloggers last week in Cincinnati where a decade of planning for a more diverse, inclusive city is starting to pay off.

<br />Washington Park in the Over The Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati. Image: 3CDC.<br />The Cincinnati streetcar being delivered in November, 2015.<br />Over The Rhine in Cincinnati. Image: Timberland photo shoot. Instagram.

Kathleen Norris energetically explains how the street we find ourselves on was considered the most dangerous in Cincinnati in 2007, but is now the epicenter of its urban renaissance.

Principal of development firm, UrbanFastForward, Norris points to the Kroger office tower on the block. When the company threatened to leave because it worried about parking, it led to the formation of economic development group, 3CDC, who convinced young entrepreneurs to open a French restaurant and wine bar on the ground floor—before the hipsters could be convinced to live in apartments above. Kroger built a small garage (fronted by a mixed-use building), but it was the two-block investment from the ground up that helped convince the company to stay.

Evidently, the Oughties were a fertile time in Cincy. The city is making hay at a moment that started ten years ago when mayor, Roxanne Qualls, a self-proclaimed New Urbanist, allied herself with a grassroots movement of mostly white, well-educated Millennials who wanted to live in the city. The corporate community backed her plan. Moments like the Kroger story have brought money flowing back in.

But it was a grassroots movement that brought it all together, with young leaders like Randy Simes, founder of Urban Cincy who emerged to lead a modern streetcar through the rocky shoals of politics and funding. Together, they have fueled a historic renovation of a city that has a wealth of 19th century buildings unrivaled outside of Savannah.

While Qualls and her successor, Mark Mallory were replaced by the Cranley Administration which has taken a more conservative approach to the streetcar and bike lanes (it opposes both), Cincinnati’s urban revitalization has momentum.

From the hundreds of apartment units going up near the professional sports stadia on the Banks of the Ohio River to Over-The-Rhine (OTR) a 500-acre, 19th century settlement of gorgeous Greek Italianate buildings that, like its residents, barely survived terrible disinvestment, the reurbanization shift, as Norris calls it, has stemmed the tide of outmigration. For the first time in decades, Cincy’s population has stabilized near 300,000.

John Yung, who works with Norris, tells of a recent meeting where 100 people who are not real estate titans were paired with developers to navigate the tricky process of renovating one of the ornate, red brick walk ups in OTR. They’re returning to find that their forefathers left behind the challenges of disinvestment—like collapsing roofs and a minority population who weren’t given the same access to resources—but they seem undaunted.

The strategy of bringing in retail ahead of the “rooftops” (aka households with income) is bold, considering plenty of the structures didn’t even have roofs.

While civic leaders and the city work to promote more owner occupancy, a new generation of philanthropists at the Haile/U.S Bank Foundation is focusing on a place-based strategy. Senior Program Manager, Eric Avner, explains how their project, People’s Liberty, came to renovate a seven-years vacant storefront and offices above the streetcar’s terminus (currently, in OTR) across from the green grocer/specialty foods outpost, Findlay Market.

Like D-Hive in Detroit or Spur in San Francisco, Avner says, People’s Liberty is a $15 million, five-year commitment to seeding social capital. They provide work space and two, annual $100,000 fellowships that include small homes developer, Bradley Cooper, in its first class. Cooper recently broke ground on two tiny homes of 280 sq. ft. on vacant lots in OTR. The incubator space also hosts a rotating cast of 21 makers who win a $10,000 placemaking grant. They are hatching things like an iPad app & apparatus to display real-time transit data in vacant storefronts.

“We wanted to be in the neighborhood and possibly keep people here when we help them launch,” Avner explains.

The foundation chose their satellite location and then surrounded it with investments—like the shared-use Kitchen at Findlay Market where food start ups rent affordable prep space and incubate at the market. They even went out on a limb, Avner says, by stepping into the political fray and publicly supporting the streetcar.

Over the Rhine, so far, has thread the needle as a gentrifying area where patrons of upscale restaurants, like a seafood place expatriated from New York City, and lifelong minority residents share the same sidewalk and splash park. Where a Red Bike bike share station is busy at all times in the spruced up Washington Park built above a subsurface parking garage across from the 19th century, gothic Music Hall, home to the Cincinnati Symphony. The park is also in sight of the new 3.6 mile streetcar line. The track and overhead catenary wire are in—despite the current mayor threatening to pull the plug—and service will start to connect OTR with downtown and the Banks in September 2016.

We take Red Bike to Pendleton, an area of Teutonic churches, narrow streets and 19th century buildings just east of OTR to meet a young developer with the firm Model Group is taking a calculated risk investing capital in Broadway Square, a $26 million redevelopment project with 40 market rate apartment units above 12,000 sq. ft. of ground floor retail.

A question pops up about the population base versus recent influx. OTR houses 5,000 residents, but only a fraction of the recent influx are minority or not reasonably well off. Thus far, rents hover at a reasonable $1 per square foot. There are still a lot of empty buildings. But, OTR is pushing development costs of $2 per sq. ft. and $400,000 condos top the range. When the streetcar starts operating next year, will it quicken the pace and raise the rents?

In an adjacent neighborhood, Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation executive director Kevin Wright notes, “calling us the next Over-The-Rhine is too simple.” More likely vacant spaces between the historic buildings speak to the uphill challenge. But, Wright, a 2011 graduate of University of Cincinnati’s Community Development program, says they are up to the task. Their approach is to combine placemaking—i.e. a pop up street festival where five alleys come together—with Brick and Mortar. That is three young African-American professionals providing support to start up businesses and pop up shops in OTR and Walnut Hills. He also points to an African-American owned barbecue restaurant anchoring a redevelopment project and a “jobs bank” program where unemployed residents are matched to hyper local jobs and workforce housing.

We finish our tour at the gleaming, $11 million streetcar maintenance facility within stein’s throw of local brewer, Rhinegeist (named after OTR’s German settlers who brought a bounty of breweries and church steeples). It houses 25 full-time employees who will keep five, $2.9 million (each) streetcars running smoothly to 18 stations every 12 minutes on American-made steel rails. The train is testament to the perseverance of the city’s urbanists who battled well organized opposition, including those who swept in Cranley, the greatest threat (he wanted to return the federal money).

“The huge cadre of people are moving into the city and launching businesses behind this,” Avner at People’s Liberty proclaims. “We can’t stop it or destroy the momentum of the makers or those who believe in what’s possible.”

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5 years ago

Thank you for your comment, and history on the preservation of Over-the-Rhine. Please feel free to add the names of those who were instrumental in the effort.

Mary Ann Olding
5 years ago

You need to look back more than 30 years when neighborhood activists and historic preservationists fought the city, business leaders, developers, and the press to keep the historic buildings, especially in Over-the-Rhine, from ruthless, wasteful, and misguided demolition.

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