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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Cincinnati re-opens spectacular park in revitalizing historic district

Kaid Benfield

Posted July 12, 2012

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  Cincinnati's Washington Park (by: Sara Bedinghaus, Over-the-Rhine Blog)

Last week, Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory and a bevy of festive accomplices re-opened beautiful, 150-year-old Washington Park, in the heart of the city’s revitalizing Over-the-Rhine district.  It had been closed for 20 months’ worth of renovations and, judging by the spectacular photos, it has been worth the wait.  Wow.

Longtime readers may know that Over-the-Rhine is one of my favorite city neighborhoods.  (I wrote a series about it three years ago.)  It has a very troubled recent past, at one time being saddled with the dubious distinction of being called the most crime-ridden neighborhood in the country.  High rates of building vacancy, poverty, and crime have indeed been alarming.

  Over-the-Rhine (courtesy of Randy Simes)

But that's changing, due to an impressive set of assets as Cincinnati, like other American cities, is rediscovering downtown neighborhoods.  Over-the-Rhine has the country’s largest intact collection of 19th-century Italianate architecture (nearly a thousand properties), is home to the wonderful, baroque Cincinnati Music Hall, hosts the thriving Findlay Market (Ohio’s oldest), and is within easy walking distance of downtown.  It is also getting a new streetcar.  It is now revitalizing fast, in no small measure due to the ambition of the Central City Cincinnati Development Corporation (or 3CDC), a nonprofit that has acquired abandoned properties and has been leading their rehabilitation. The entire, 362-acre neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It does still have a long way to go.  As I wrote three years ago, Over-the-Rhine’s (there’s a colorful history behind the name) social, cultural, and physical stock deteriorated badly over time.  In 2006, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named OTR one of its "eleven most endangered" historic sites because of a combination of "deterioration, neglect, and poor public policy."  The ongoing challenge is to find enough capital, along with sensitive planners and builders, not just to do revitalization, but to do it in an inclusive way that respects the current residents, maintains affordability, respects the historic character of the building stock, and takes maximum advantage of green development practices.  The neighborhood does seem to be on its way.

  kids at the park's grand re-opening (courtesy of 3CDC)

  Cincinnati's Washington Park (by: James Jenkins, Over-the-Rhine Blog)

The new Washington Park should help tremendously.  The green space has been expanded from six to eight acres, and the amenities include a dog park, interactive water fountains, refreshed public restrooms, a concession building, a “civic lawn” that will host concerts and events, shade from the summer sun, and a kids’ section, according to friends at the Over-the-Rhine blog, which is also the source of the new photos accompanying this post (as always, move your cursor over them for more specific credits).

As Stephen Leeper, president of 3CDC said to Lisa Bernhard-Kuhn of the Cincinnati Enquirer, “every neighborhood needs a center – a civic space where its residents and visitors can come together, enjoy well-maintained amenities and feel safe.”  That’s the same point that I have been making in various ways lately:  cities and neighborhoods with great public spaces are the ones we enjoy and remember most, the ones that foster community.  That the refurbished Washington Park in its first week of renewal hosted both something called the World Choir Games and at least one marriage proposal is a very encouraging sign.

  Cincinnati's Washington Park (by: Christy Samad, Over-the-Rhine Blog)

  Cincinnati's Washington Park (courtesy of 3CDC)

For many more great photos, start here.

Related posts:

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channel. 

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Ned HamsonJul 12 2012 09:07 AM

Great park and used to be one of the few places in Cincinnati where homeless people could chill out and relax without being told to move along. But now most homeless and poor are actively displaced from the neighborhood, asked to move on and one woman was killed last year when a police car drove over the blanked she was sleeping under. Sometimes, it helps to find out what the real cost is of making a downtown park "new again." No poor people anymore but a dog park for rich folks has been included.

Randy A. SimesJul 12 2012 10:37 AM

@Ned: I think you're presenting an oversimplified version of what has happened, and what is taking place. Yes, there is a dog park for the hundreds of new residents that have moved into the surrounding area that have dogs. There are also public bathrooms, lawn space, public fountains, a playground and the same historic features of the park that everyone has grown to love over the years.

The problem with Washington Park prior to this renovation and expansion was that it was in bad shape. Public improvements throughout the city are not biased to income levels. Those improvements benefit everyone. The fact that the drug traffic has been cleaned up in Over-the-Rhine benefits low-income residents just as it does middle and high-income residents. The improvements made to Washington Park are improvements that will add value to everyone who uses the park.

Bremen@14thJul 12 2012 11:46 AM

@Ned: I've used the dog park every day since it has opened. Thanks! I've never been called rich before. I guess I'm so rich b/c I need to work two jobs for a total of 60 hours per week so I can pay my bills. But yes.... I'm just some rich person using the park.

Jim ├╝berJul 12 2012 01:02 PM

@ned. Wow how could such negativity come through after a visit to this incredible urban asset. I've lived in and near OTR for 10 years, and only in this new park do I finally see the healthy mix of race, age, and income (only perceived, I admit) one expects in a healthy city neighborhood. The city's largest homeless shelter is on the corner by the park! Right besides the new K-12 school for creative and performing arts! And all coexist peacefully. Quite contrary to what you suggest, this park and the development around it is the reason why OTR is now on a path to provide sustainable housing for all income levels. Without these improvements OTR would cease to be a home for anybody.

Jake MecklenborgJul 12 2012 04:29 PM

Kaid you missed in your article that a central motivation of this project was construction of a 600 car underground parking garge where a 1950's-era modernist school stood until 2007 or 2008. The enormous expense of this garage was responsible for 90% or so of the overall project cost.

The school tragically blocked the view of Music Hall's spectacular east facade and disrupted the 19th century character of the area. Along with the buildings south of Music Hall on the park's west side, the entire north and east sides are lined by an unbroken wall of 19th century apartments. Unfortunately the new School for Creative and Performing Arts faces away from the park -- a huge missed opportunity.

Kaid @ NRDCJul 12 2012 05:01 PM

The former school land is where the additional 2 acres came from, right? I remember being unimpressed with the building (though it always pains me when a school building, functional or not, is lost). The new vistas sound fantastic. Not as sure about the parking garage.

I agree about the performing arts school,

Peter HarnikJul 12 2012 05:24 PM

The Center for City Park Excellence has been studying urban park systems for more than a decade, and Cincinnati consistently shows up towards the top of the list. The parks of New York, Chicago and Minneapolis get more attention, but I think of Cincinnati as a hidden jewel in the city parks world -- from the hilltops to the Ohio Riverfront. Renewing Washington Park is doubly exciting because it has the potential of renewing the terrific Over the Rhine neighborhood. Cincinnati has been losing population for decades -- there is plenty of room for infill and redevelopment.

SethJul 12 2012 06:51 PM

Thanks for the covering this fantastic addition to OTR, Kaid. Ned couldn't be more wrong. The park is a wonderful, diverse public space where everyone is welcome. This video report from WCPO shows that locals love the park:

I run the Over-the-Rhine blog and appreciate you sharing the photos I posted.

Kaid @ NRDCJul 12 2012 07:12 PM

Thanks so much, everyone. Seth, the photos are fabulous. Keep up the great work on the blog.

Robert BellJul 13 2012 10:28 AM

Interesting how everyone jumps on Ned. The park looks great. can't wait to visit it. Why can't we acknowledge it is a great park and also understand there are some negative aspects. A functioning elementary school was displaced, and some users of the park were displaced.

Jason LogginsJul 16 2012 02:38 PM

@Robert Bell: I don't think the scrutiny of Ned's comments was undeserved.

Personally, I am tired of these kinds of reactions to the revitalization of a public park or facility. Why is the first reaction: "But what about the homeless?".

It's important to show concern for those without adequate shelter or affordable housing. But doing that as well as fixing up a public facility that is dilapidated and/or unsafe are not mutually exclusive.

Businesses and residents in the area pay for this public area, and live near it. They should be the first (of many) priorities.

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