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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Revitalizing Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine, national model in the making (Part 3: making impressive progress)

Kaid Benfield

Posted June 15, 2009

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This was going to be the final installment of my miniseries about Cincinnati's remarkable Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, but I'm on too much of a roll to finish today.  (Or, as my man Van would put it, "it's too late to stop now.")  But this is a nice problem to have, really.  Nothing is more important to urban sustainability than revitalization and I love that this story is so rich with possibility. 

As I wrote in the first post, this distinct and historic quarter adjacent to Cincinnati's downtown is full of character and promise but bears considerable scars from decades of disinvestment.  In the second installment, I reviewed some awesome neighborhood assets that provide a terrific foundation for a vibrant, mixed-income neighborhood-in-the-making.  Today we'll look at some of the impressive, hopeful beginnings. 

        Gateway Arts building, before (courtesy of 3CDC)  Gateway Arts building, after (courtesy of 3CDC) 

Over-the-Rhine may have a long way to go in order to become the model of revitalization that it can be, but one has to be impressed with what's happening there.  Let's start today with the overall vision:  in 2002, the city of Cincinnati published a comprehensive plan for bringing the neighborhood back to life.  If the plan is realized, most of the neighborhood will retain its mixed-use character, but the colors on the map below show some intended differences of emphasis among the district's 362 acres:

  proposed land uses in OTR's comp plan (by: City of Cincinnati) 

The areas shown in red, for example, will have some retail, often with residences and/or offices above; the yellow areas will be mixed but mostly residential; the orange areas will be mixed residential and commercial; and green and blue represent parks and institutional space (e.g., the Music Hall), respectively. Research shows that mixed-use neighborhoods with well-connected streets perform significantly better environmentally than other types (because they promote walking and reduce vehicle emissions), so this looks great from that angle.

Note also that the neighborhood is getting some infrastructure improvements.  The map shows the location of planned tree plantings along many streets around OTR, as well as more significant streetscape upgrades in the areas marked with those large, green-outlined asterisks.

  it's busy in OTR (courtesy of Joe Brinker and Steve Dorst, OTR-the-movie)  Trinity Flats infill in OTR (courtesy of Randy Simes, 

The construction areas are bustling.  Much of the implementation is being carried out by the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), "a private, non-profit corporation whose purpose is to develop Cincinnati's Center City as a regional center of high value employment and real estate, sustained by a diverse mix of housing, culture and entertainment."  3CDC's website notes that its operations are funded privately, through business contributions as well as through support from foundations and other philanthropic sources. 

The Corporation's latest progress report states that, in the past three years, it has invested $70 million in the revitalization of OTR.  Much of that has gone into rehabbing buildings around Washington Park in the south of the neighborhood, now known as The Gateway Quarter.  The largest landowner in the neighborhood, 3CD controls all of the properties shown in color below:

     3CDC's work in OTR (courtesy of 3CDC) 

The parcels shown in yellow represent the first two phases of the Gateway Quarter restoration, and they are now complete.  Gateway III is shown in amber, and Gateway IV in green.  The properties in red are 3CDC holdings that will be part of future projects.

The completed Gateway projects comprise 103 residences, plus 7 commercial and live/work units in Phase I, and an additional 20,000 square feet of commercial space in Phase II.  Thanks to a couple of terrific photographers (as always, move the pointer over the image for the credits) who have been kind enough to allow me to share their work, here is a peek at some of it:

        restoration in the Gateway Q (courtesy of Randy Simes)  colors of OTR (courtesy of Jayson Gomes, 

  restored entrances in the Gateway Q (courtesy of Jayson Gomes,  Vine St through a renovated window (courtesy of Randy Simes)

Count me among the people who would love to live there.

Which leads us, of course, to the elephant in the room: gentrification.  There is no doubt that current residents' fear of displacement is real and, given experience elsewhere, not without basis.  My fervent hope, of course, is that a rising tide in OTR will lift all boats, so to speak, in the neighborhood and that it will flourish as the model of diversity, with mixed incomes and ages, that it deserves to be.

As a number of commenters on my previous OTR posts pointed out, we're a long way from displacement at this point, given that nearly if not all of the properties being redeveloped by 3CDC have been vacant and deteriorating, not occupied.  I'm sure that my Cincinnati host, UC's Jim Uber, speaks for many:

"I, and many others, moved here in the hopes of finding a truly racially and economically and socially integrated community . . . Right now the need for funding, for keeping rain and vandals out of beautiful buildings so they are preserved, outstrips the concerns about gentrification. The possibilities and the degree of poverty and vacancy are both so great, that to have any complaints at all about the $100M that has been invested over the last few years can seem like madness."

  the Opening Day (baseball) parade through OTR (courtesy of Joe Brinker and Steve Dorst, OTR-the-movie)  Tucker's, an OTR institution (courtesy of Joe Brinker and Steve Dorst, OTR-the-movie)

A obvious key will be the provision of affordable housing in restored parcels as the recovery advances.  In the meantime, I am encouraged that even while the upwardly mobile are moving to OTR there remain positive signs for the current population (including the diverse clientele at the Findlay Market, as noted last week), and that there are some terrific programs in the neighborhood targeted at helping current residents, such as Power Inspires Progress, which operates a pizzeria on Vine Street while providing training in job skills, and Smart Money Community Services, which works with a credit union to provide basic (and affordable) banking services along with a range of educational programs on financial issues, "empowering families to achieve their financial goals while enhancing the quality of life in our community."  In addition, the 500-member OTR Chamber of Commerce, which provides a wide range of services to the neighborhood and its residents, sponsors a number of programs to help small businesses in OTR.  In many cases the Chamber's assistance has gone to minority-owned enterprises.

And surely both new and longstanding residents can take comfort and pride in the downturn in crime and upward swing in population in central Cincinnati, including Over-the-Rhine:

  a double-digit drop in crime this decade (wikimedia commons)    central Cinci population growth this decade and projected 2011 (by:

Joe Brinker, who commented on my last OTR post, and his business partner Steve Dorst are making a documentary about the rebirth of OTR.  (Some of their evocative photos accompany this post.)  I really like Joe's perspective on the neighborhood, which I'm excerpting here:

"In Over-the-Rhine, my roots go back a century. Henry Schmidt, my great-great uncle, like so many other German immigrants, started my family's Cincinnati story there in the late 1800s (and was soon joined by my grandfather and great uncle). He became a successful masonry contractor, with enough money to build his own house in what is now Norwood. He and his wife were childless, so they sent word back to the village of Klosterholte, Germany for their niece-my grandmother, Elizabeth Schmidt-to come care for them in their old age. Elizabeth married and had three children-one of whom is my father.

Italianate architecture in OTR (courtesy of Randy Simes)"As I grew up in Cincinnati, my first memories of Over-the-Rhine were in the 1970s. I remember the beauty and the decay, the boarded-up facades and the rich smells of Findlay Market. For me, the neighborhood embodied the most authentic strains of Cincinnati culture, from old-world traditions and architecture to African-American sounds and tastes. As I grew older, walking through Over-the-Rhine increasingly left me with feelings of melancholy and loss. It was a bittersweet feeling - one of the most remarkable and unique places in my city, a neighborhood that truly makes Cincinnati both historic and contemporary, was avoided by most and forgotten by many . . .

"But have you walked Over-the-Rhine's streets lately? There's a buzz, an energy: improved safety and security, renovated Italianate facades, new construction, new people, and new businesses. There is a widespread optimism and intent that I have never sensed before . . ."

Joe appears to have a healthy mix of long-term perspective, realism, and optimism, all of which will be needed to make OTR a success.  Read the whole passage here.

Next: will the revitalization be green?  That will be the conclusion.  Really.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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Randy SimesJun 15 2009 11:22 AM

The transformations taking place in Over-the-Rhine are truly remarkable. The intersection of 12th and Vine streets used to be one of the worst in the city - now it's one of the best. Residents, business owners and visitors fill the streets and a sense of vibrancy is sweeping the neighborhood.

To top everything off, the City just selected the team that will help plan, design, fund, build and operate Cincinnati's modern streetcar system that will run right through the heart of Over-the-Rhine.

Kaid @ NRDCJun 15 2009 11:26 AM

That's great news that the streetcar is moving along!

patty williamsJun 15 2009 12:07 PM

I could not agree with Randy more. I often invite friends over for cocktails and shopping in the Gateway quarter area. At first they are frightend but once there my friends love it!
My only immediate concern is the loss of buildings in OTR. I know various groups are trying to address the issue, but we probrably need to do more to protect the area from teardowns.

Jim UberJun 15 2009 11:40 PM

It's certainly true that the development in OTR is wonderful - great old buildings and fantastic interior spaces that simply can not be replicated now (isn't that sad, in itself?).

I was talking to a woman I met recently who lives in a "near" suburb - a nice place - who had visited OTR recently and was impressed. At the same time she was apprehensive, and let me know that all of her friends - and I mean ALL of them - thought she was completely nuts for coming anywhere near this place. Crime, fear of crime, fear of being afraid cause it's been so long since you were.

I'm intrigued by the role - and I think a dominant one - that our fear of unknown places and people has played in restricting the pace of development of a place like OTR, and in making it like it is in the first place. I'd like to know what people think they know about those forces at metropolitan and community scales. Seems complicated and important to me.

DanJun 16 2009 08:53 AM

Here's a great short documentary about Over-The-Rhine:

Kaid @ NRDCJun 16 2009 09:11 AM

Jim, I think the perceptions you cite are very big factors, especially for families and for people whose current contexts are suburban. I'm pretty sure my own in-laws were horrified that I had lured their daughter into DC 20 years ago, and they have continued to move farther and farther away from the regional center.

But, anecdotes aside, the bigger trends are very encouraging. Center cities all over the country are growing again, and the share of growth claimed by the suburbs is shrinking. Home values are rising or holding relatively steady in central areas while plummeting on the fringe. Demographic changes (fewer families with school-age children as a portion of all households) portend well for smaller houses and lot sizes. I believe we are beginning very good times for smart growth and revitalzation.

Dan, thanks for the link. I believe that is the same film that I posted back in an April entry on OTR:

Patty, I'm concerned about the loss of buildings, too. Unfortunately, a lot of deterioration has occurred already and some of them probably can't be saved.

Paul WillhamJun 16 2009 10:28 AM

I think you are right about the "Elephant" of gentrification. I have spent 20 plus years working as a historic restoration consultant and have worked in other cities on Urban planning issues that were where OTR is 10-15 yrs ago. It really is unrealistic to think that the wealthy and poor will co-exist peacefully, It just does not happen.

I would like to see the city be proactive, Get an handle on where this population will migrate too and try to convince providers to begin making plans to relocate services. Too many of the service charities are focused on staying and expanding in OTR and history from other cities suggest they are missing the boat and will lose track of their clients when they start leaving. There is always that "tipping point summer" when the homeless and addicted figure out they can't handle the changes, and 'rules' that will occur in OTR when the wealthy move in. The poor leave,often found living under bridges and overpasses. The social service agencies lose contact and no ones interest is served by that happening.

But they need to stop ignoring that reality that the poor will leave OTR,

It isnt "politically correct' to say but the homeless and addicted are the reason it has taken OTR so long to turn around, and they will eventually be forced out. Better to plan ahead.

Jeff RaserJun 16 2009 11:39 AM

Thanks for your overview of Over-the-Rhine. I’m looking forward to the next installment.
My first architectural commission in OTR was in 1992. It was a coffee shop / bookstore named Kaldi's (unfortunately it recently closed). At that time there was a bubble of renaissance activity. However, most buildings that were renovated at that time were done so in an uncoordinated manner, and with only 4 to 10+- residential units per effort. Many passionate people did many good things - but with little, broad impact.
OTR's biggest boost came about 6 years ago with the formation of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC). Here's their website:
3CDC brought finances, knowledge, passion and a concentrated effort to redeveloping OTR. Because 3CDC has focused their efforts we now have a critical mass of development that will lead to a sustained renaissance. It is a model that other inner cities would be wise to emulate.
Now their efforts are bearing fruit. Not only is rehabilitation activity robust (despite the bad economy) but we even have new construction in the heart of OTR - unthinkable only a few years ago. Trinity Flats will have 34 condominium units in both newly constructed and renovated buildings (go to my firm's web site to see the project: Nearly half of the project is now built.
My hope is that the movement continues northbound to the Brewery District – an area full of large manufacturing buildings, some of which still hold small manufacturing businesses. A couple of years ago we were successful in creating a new zoning district that will allow the manufacturing businesses to remain while also allowing multi-family residential and office uses. To my knowledge, it is one of the few places in the country where it is legal to literally live on the same block as the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker.

Kaid @ NRDCJun 16 2009 12:14 PM

Thanks for adding that perspective, Jeff. For readers, Trinity Flats, mentioned in Jeff's comment, is the project under construction in the image next to the "hard hat" photo above.

Jay ThackerJun 16 2009 01:28 PM

Looks like Jeff's link had a couple extra characters in it. Fix:

Karyl CunninghamJun 18 2009 09:59 AM


It is unfortunate that Emanuel Community Center, a 138 year old organization founded by Rev. Wilhelm Nast in 1871 - was not mentioned in your piece - but it just goes to show me that my board of directors and me have much work to do in telling the new mission and vision story of Emanuel Community Center. Our new mission is that Emanuel is a resource for a cohesive community that provides education and share neighbohood experiences that connect all residents of OTR. We began to implement the strategic direction around this mission in early 2008. As with any business, as your customer and community base changes - you must take action to heed to those changes in staying on top of your game. The changes in OTR are important and necessary - they will bring economic stability, health and vitality to this historic community that is an important artery to the central business district.

Our mission statement was for the most part crafted on the social capital research of Harvard professor, Dr. Robert Putnam. His work takes that important step in articulating the importance of bringing people together in communities by bridging the gap through a series of opportunities that connect neighbors.

OTR has had over 80 million dollars invested in brick and mortar - but at the end of the day, if we really want a healthy, diverse, mixed-income and sustainable community - it will be the people that will make that investment of 80+ million worth its weight in gold.

Depite our differences in socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender and background - there are things that are common to all of us - like a great jazz set, a cooking workshop, jazzercise, salsa classes, bookclubs, movie in the park - just to name a few.

According to Dr. Putnam - when you are able to find those common ways to connect community - you will build trust among neighbors, neighbors will get know each on a first name basis and over time - this well-intention practice in community connection will lead to a safer neighborhood, increased retention and recruitment, stronger economic stability, business growth.

Emanuel Community Center has positioned itself to be the conduit for this community connection - by initiating the type of programming critical to the research of social capital. We will also put measures in place that will monitor and evaluate the success of this work.

I am hoping that at some point, the businesses and residential base of OTR will be able to shift their paradigm about what this organization can do in being the value-add to all the great initiatives taking place in thie great historic neighborhood through the power of our mission.

Finally, low income, middle-income and high-income of all ethnicities can come together and under one roof to connect - I saw it take place when Emanuel Community Center and SmartMoney Community Services presented award-winning, financial columnist to the Washington Post, Michelle Singletary in coming to Cincinnati. It was held at Memorial Hall in OTR - and it was one powerful sight to see!

Kaid @ NRDCJun 18 2009 10:08 AM

Karyl, thanks for adding to the record. It sounds like you are doing wonderful work.

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