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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Revitalizing Over-the-Rhine (Part 1: the legacy and the challenge)

Kaid Benfield

Posted June 2, 2009

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     looking north over OTR (by: 3CDC)

Cincinnati's historic and very centrally located Over-the-Rhine neighborhood is poised to become one of America's greatest revitalization stories, in the process creating a national exemplar of green, sustainable development.  But a lot of things will need to happen in the right way for that ambitious vision to be realized, and there is plenty of potential for the opportunity to be missed or, worse, for it to go wrong in the doing. 

I am becoming more fascinated every day by the story and the possibility of OTR, but the fabric for telling is so rich that I can't possibly say what I want to say and show you the images I want to show you in one blog post.  So this will be the first of (probably) three related posts that I will run over the next couple of weeks.  (I also wrote a brief introductory post on OTR in April.)

  looking over OTR's Findlay Market (by: KCgridlock via Skyscaper Page)  a busy street in OTR (by: me) 

If you had asked me several months ago what I knew about Over-the-Rhine, I would have said it's a great musical duo with a strange name.  That would have totally exposed my ignorance of Cincinnati and weakened my credentials as an urbanist, so thanks for not asking, though it would also have displayed my excellent musical taste, if I do say so (more about OTR the band later in this series). 

But that was before I heard from Jim Uber, the energetic prof at the University of Cincinnati who co-directs UC's Sustainable Urban Environments program.  Jim got in touch to invite me to participate in his program's seminar series, which I happily did last month.  I have a feeling that, although I enjoyed the seminar very much, I learned more in my visit than did the UC students I spoke to, because Jim made sure that I became acquainted not just with the classroom but with colleagues in his program and others involved in OTR.  They were fabulous hosts and teachers (in addition to Jim, thanks to Dan, Libby, Debbie, Colleen and John), and now I can't wait to go back, learn more, and see if there's any way NRDC and our smart growth partners can help.

  OTR in red, in between the CBD and the Uiversity (underlying image by Google Earth, markings by me) 

As you can see from the Google Earth image, OTR is immediately north of Cincinnati's central business district, and just south of the uptown neighborhood where the University is located.  As a result, the neighborhood sits right in between the region's two largest concentrations of employment.  It is also right in the heart of the region's lowest per-household driving rates and carbon emissions from driving.  arrow points to OTR location, in low-emissions location (by: CNT, with insertion by me)In the GIS map of per-household carbon emissions at left, the lightest colors have the lowest emissions.  If you live in downtown Cincinnati or OTR (see blue arrow), chances are you don't have to drive very far very often, compared to others in the region, and you may not need a car at all.

This is why I contend that the single best thing we can do with our built environment to help the planet is to revitalize our centrally located neighborhoods.  OTR is an ideal candidate, with tons of character to build upon.  It is Cincinnati's oldest and most historic quarter, and reportedly home to the country's largest collection (943 buildings by one count) of 19th-century Italianate architecture.  The entire, 362-acre neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  It has not been marred much if at all by inappropriate new development.  That's the good news.  

  vacant buildings in OTR (by: Kevin Lemaster via  vacant buildings in OTR (by: Cincinnati Soapbox)

The not-so-good news is that the neighborhood has deteriorated badly over time.  It has a long way to go to achieve long-term sustainability and, 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 challenge will be 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.

  OTR buildings in 1930 (by: Danny Klingler, OTR Foundation)  buildings lost since 1930 (by: Danny Klingler via OTR Foundation)

Above are two images depicting the footprints of buildings in the neighborhood.  On the left are the buildings that existed in 1930, when OTR's population was much higher than today.  On the right are the footprints of buildings that existed in 1930 but no longer do. (At its peak, the neighborhood housed as many as 45,000 residents; in 2004 the population was estimated at just above 8,000.) 

Of the buildings that remain, it is estimated that around 500 are vacant and deteriorating.  The median annual income of the neighborhood's residents was only about $9,000 as of 2004, less than a third of the median for the city as a whole, with 79 percent of OTR's families living below the poverty line.

a doorway on a vacant OTR property (by: me)The Over-the-Rhine Foundation, which has proposed a legal mechanism for placing vacant buildings in receivership until economic conditions allow them to be rehabbed, puts it this way:

"Historic buildings throughout Over-the-Rhine and the West End sit vacant and derelict, deteriorating over years of neglect and sporadically housing vagrants, prostitutes, addicts and drug dealers. Much of our approach to this dilemma has been standardized and reactionary. When the theatre where Buffalo Bill met his wife fell into disrepair, we turned it into a parking lot. When the ornate beer hall that served as the site of an historic confrontation over temperance laws between German immigrants and City Hall started looking shabby, we turned it into a parking lot.

"Over-the-Rhine is still one of America's most historically significant neighborhoods, but it is at a tipping point. We either need to change policy and start taking historic preservation seriously or concede the loss of one of Cincinnati's most valuable potential assets and one of America's most significant historic neighborhoods."

The Foundation has a great summary of the neighborhood's colorful history.  Settled by German immigrants, OTR's evocative name is said to come from workers who returned to their homes in the evenings by crossing a now-filled canal (nicknamed "the Rhine") that once separated what is now downtown Cincinnati from OTR.

Here are two more images: the bar graph on the left below shows the decline in population in OTR since 1980 (along with a hopeful, modest increase in this decade); more alarmingly, the one on the right shows the increase in the portion of OTR families in poverty between 1970 and 1990.

  OTR population by decade (by City of Cincinnati)  changes in rate of OTR poverty 1970-1990 (by: City of Cincinnati)

The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation ("3CDC") has been initiating much of the new development activity in the district.  In just a few years, it has become the neighborhood's biggest landowner.  One of its goals is economic inclusion, which might provide some comfort to current residents.  But maybe not:  3CDC, a nonprofit community development corporation formed in 2001 and backed with corporate money, is not always trusted in OTR, seen as "white guys in suits," according to Christopher Swope, writing in Preservation magazine.  "A lot of people think we're out to displace folks and knock down buildings," one of 3CDC's leaders told Swope.

So: the potential is immense in Over-the-Rhine, but so is the challenge.  Fortunately, there are some tremendous assets in the neighborhood that give one cause for optimism.  That will be the subject of the next installment.

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


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Steve DavisJun 2 2009 10:14 AM

Hey you know the band, too! Always surprising to hear someone else who loves OTR, as they're a bit under the radar. Rachel and I went to see 'em at the Birchmere just a couple of months ago. They, by the way, love their neighborhood, still live there, and are pretty active in some of the revitalization work, from what I remember hearing.

Russell BozianJun 2 2009 10:42 AM

Kaid, don't know how to email you. You might be interested in my public comment about the bleed-Cincinnati "sprawlternatives" set forth by local politicians and Dept. of Transportation for the needless widening of our downtown Brent Spence bridge. We are about to pay FOURTEEN DOLLARS PER NEW CROSSING for a sprawl-inducing bridge upgrade, with no thought of taxpayer flight, mass transit alternatives, and the natural reduction in traffic in future decades with rising gas prices. Needless to say my voice is a pretty lonely one just now. Local pols only want us to think about the temporary fiesta of $3 billion in "free" taxpayer money.


The Brent Spence bridge's limited traffic capacity forms a natural, sprawl-reducing urban growth boundary of enormous economic value to Cincinnati and Southern Ohio. The current bridge's 4 commuting lanes in each direction are an already-in-place Cincinnati sprawl limiter, that would be politically and practically quite difficult to create artificially. The vast majority of the most globally competitive, attractive, energy-efficient cities in the world are sited on an island, peninsula, coastline, riverbank, valley or other natural growth boundary that discourages the loss of taxpayers to scattered sprawl in all directions. And sprawl limiters do not just benefit large cities. For example, even distant and artificial urban growth boundaries in Portland, Oregon have increased the city's attractiveness, property values and quality of life.

The sprawl-limiting Brent Spence bridge keeps Ohio workers living and paying taxes in Ohio. The lane limits save Ohio taxpayers millions of dollars per year, by discouraging Ohio workers from living, shopping, dining and paying their property taxes in Kentucky. The bridge's limitation of Southern Ohio's traffic, pollution, and expensive oil dependency are to be envied by other cities, and preserved for the benefit of Ohio taxpayers. It is doubly financially absurd to spend hundreds of millions of Ohio tax dollars to destroy a taxpayer-preserving sprawl-limiter, when that boundary destruction will by the study's own figures then drain Southern Ohio's tax base of tens of thousands of familes by 2035. Increasing the daily traffic over the bridge invites further environmental damage to the OH/KY/Indiana region already beset with smog alerts. Taking $3 billion dollars, $700,000 per day, from taxpayers, making them pay $14 per new crossing, to encourage workers to move to Northern Kentucky, will encourage Southern Ohio drivers to adopt a lifestyle that will be especially vulnerable to the inevitable rising oil prices that the current Brent Spence Bridge study hides from its analyses. The build "Sprawlternatives" needlessly soak up state transportation money sorely needed for in-State road and bridge maintenance, directly and irreversibly damaging and draining the Southern Ohio economy and its neighborhoods for decades to come.

The study's description of the benefits of the no-build alternative, and the tax and economic losses of paying $700,000 per day to subsidize the flight of Ohio homeowners and shoppers to Kentucky, are incomplete. The economic damage to Southern Ohio, caused by using taxpayer money to make it even easier for Ohio workers to move their property and taxes to Kentucky, has not been well studied or admitted in the current Brent Spence Bridge project documents. Nor does the study explain why Kentucky-to-Ohio commuting traffic will inevitably grow over the next 30 years, when oil prices are rising as we speak. The study talks a lot about the long run, but in the long run American cities will, in the face of $5 per gallon gasoline, turn to mass transit to keep business and living costs down and attractive to new industries.

My name is Russell Bozian, I have been a Cincinnati resident for 45 years. On behalf of all Ohio and Indiana residents, who do not want to see our property taxes rise as homeowners leave our state's tax base, spending $28 per day of our newly weakened economy's tax dollars, per new Kentucky commuter, and on behalf of our Kentucky colleagues that value a strong Tri-State central business and entertainment district, and do not wish to make our region more unattractive, polluted, noisy and gas-price dependent, I ask that the Brent Spence Bridge buildout's "image of inevitability" be stopped. I ask that the alternatives documents be withdrawn and resubmitted to the public at a later date. Come back to us after you have spent real money studying a full and honest accounting of the losses by driving Ohio homeowner-taxpayers to Northern Kentucky. Spend 10% of the money you've spent studying the build sprawlternatives, and show us the total economic, tax base, environmental and transit system opportunity losses they will impose on Ohioans. Thank you.

Bernie CullenJun 2 2009 11:19 AM

Interesting discussion.
Two points: First, revitalizing any community requires in situ jobs which ultimately have to be private sector jobs. Any revitalization program without such a job base will simply lead to gentrification. What can be done to create this viable long-term local job base?
Second, with regards to the expanded bridge, if the economics of the bridge are as you say, then it seems to me that one policy is to insist that the private not the public sector build the bridge. An absence of public sector subsidies will require a full economic toll for this bridge. If the numbers are as you say, then potential bondholders will recognize that the bridge is not economically viable.

Kaid @ NRDCJun 2 2009 02:16 PM

Thanks for reading and commenting. Bill, I'm sure Cincinnati residents can fill in these blanks better than I can, but my impression is that Over-the-Rhine is in an area where the jobs/housing ratio is very out of balance and favorable to jobs. So new residents would not necessarily need new jobs. That said, I believe the neighborhood is, in fact, attracting new small businesses.

I'll let others more knowledgeable than I respond to the points about the bridge.

Randy SimesJun 2 2009 08:19 PM

I'm really sorry I could not meet up with you and Mr. Uber while you were in town. The transformations occurring in Over-the-Rhine are truly incredible and should be watched closely.

There are very few urban neighborhoods of this density, caliber and importance in the United States. If successfully revitalized, OTR will not only become a jewel for Cincinnati and the Midwest, but a jewel for the United States.

If you would like to see some photographs I took over this past weekend of a bunch of the new renovation projects in OTR you can view them here:,19285.0.html

JohnJun 3 2009 03:40 AM

...don't get me wrong, i'm all for revitalizing over the rhine - and i'm from cinci.

but - what no one is addressing is where exactly the people who live in this community, the ones who currently call it home - the ones who make 9,000 usd a year will go - once the area is 'revitalized'/'gentrified' by young singles and the like...

the people don't change - they just get pushed somewhere else.

and that's the sad part.

but as long as we have back 'our' Italianate architecture (freshly painted in bright and pretty colors), 'we're' happy.

Jim UberJun 3 2009 09:33 AM

Kaid thanks for an interesting post on OTRs opportunities and challenges.

I have lived in downtown Cinci for 10 years, and OTR for the last 1. I am the poster child for gentrification; the beneficiary of the "white men in suits."

Yet I, and many others, moved here in the hopes of finding a truly racially and economically and socially integrated community. We're looking for "like-mindedness" in that regard, and nearly as important, we're happy to be living a lifestyle that doesn't require a car and encourages walking and meeting and talking. I agree with Kaid that a primary question about OTR is how the redevelopment will be done, in this regard. 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.

But the time question the "how" of redevelopment will come, once the money flows easier and redevelopment seems inevitable. I'm curious about how this has been done successfully elsewhere. And I admit this is the only part of OTR that makes me pessimistic about its future.

But I also don't think we'll make meaninful progress by regretting that wonderful buildings are "freshly painted in bright and pretty colors." After all, they were originally painted thus, and regretting that people once again are caring for their community is unproductive. I think that what John is truly saying is that these buildings are "freshly painted in bright and pretty colors for people of means" whereas OTR was historically a working class neighborhood. On a metropolitan scale, we are so segregated in many places by economics and by race; this is a problem much bigger than OTR. I frankly don't see how this problem can be solved for our cities while income disparity continues to rise. But I guess that's just the symptom...

I wonder about innovative programs that are being tried elsewhere. How can we leverage the interests by many to live a certain lifestyle amongst a wonderful variety of people, in order to generate funds that will help to produce exactly what they want? (If OTR ever starts to feel like an economically and otherwise homogeneous place, I'll probably move, and make a nice profit in the process. Maybe some of those profits should feed back to encourage a different result.) And I mean more than the first-order leverage that is commonly expressed through developers and their banks. If I can have a neighborhood whose redevelopment will fund massive infrastructure projects through tax increment financing, why can't TIF funds be funnelled back in ways that specifically encourage a meaningfully diverse culture at a local level?

Kaid @ NRDCJun 3 2009 10:41 AM

Thanks so much for the latest comments.

Randy, your photos and website are great, and I hope to use one or two of your photos (with credit) later in the series.

John, I think Jim responded to you better than I can but if revitalization pushes people out, it will be a failure in my opinion. I don't think that need be the case in OTR, where there are so many vacant properties. New people and businesses, I hope including working-class folks and people of color, can be among the newcomers, but I think a mixed-income community would be the healthiest and most sustainable over the long run.

Ideally, the newcomers can occupy the now-vacant properties, properly rehabbed, and help can be found for current residents to rehab their current residents as well. There need be no displacement.

Jim, well said. Keep up the great work.

david thompsonJun 9 2009 12:37 PM

I am 59 years old and a former resident of Prospect Hill, (Mt Auburn). After graduation from UC and working for Shillito's I bought my first home for $18,500 on Milton St. I and many others were totally behind the restoration of Cincinnati's historic properties. The city government did everything they could to discourage this trend. Tearing down buildings, raising taxes, paving cobbled alleys, etc. As a result and total frustration, we left for the burbs. Now thirty years later, the city is offering tax abatement for us to come back. What a shame to have missed out on all this energy and enthusiam. Now we live in Charleston, SC. A city that understood historic preservation.

Philip DenningJun 9 2009 12:49 PM


Thanks for your focus on the neighborhood.

In response to your reference about OTR attracting new businesses, you are absolutely correct.(note

As a student at the University, I had a brief opportunity to work with the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce. One of the many beneficial programs which the Chamber runs is called the Business First Grant Program, designed to attract new businesses to Over-the-Rhine. If I recall correctly, more than half of the recipients of the grant have been minority-owned businesses, truly reflecting the diversity of the neighborhood.

In addition, the Chamber's Safe & Clean program has facilitated double-digit declines in crime over the past few years, a fact that benefits not just would-be gentrifiers, but rich and poor residents alike.

Randy said it correctly: In the entire country, there are few neighborhoods as unique as Over-the-Rhine.

Kaid @ NRDCJun 9 2009 12:54 PM

David, thanks for that insight. You are absolutely right about the missed opportunity, though Cincinnati is hardly the only example of getting it wrong for so long.

Philip, that's great to hear about minority businesses. I plan to focus on the community's progress, including the downturn in crime, in my last installment.

Chris SJun 9 2009 01:50 PM

A most excellent piece with some very interesting analysis. The one key thing to consider with the revitalization of OTR is that the vacancy rate is so high right now that gentrification is not a viable fear until the revitalization starts to really raise rents and property values across the entire neighborhood. Could this happen, sure. Is it a near term fear? No. What is a near term fear is some of the most fantastic architecture and history in our region vanishing.

This is what many of us are committed to preserving and bringing back. I think that there are several projects ongoing that have real potential if we can get them off the ground. The ongoing work that 3cdc does, the potential streetcar system, the ongoing streetscape projects, and many other initiatives.

I look forward to seeing further outside perspective on this area and what it could become!

DJun 9 2009 03:16 PM

3CDC as stated that no one is being displaced as a result of their revitalization efforts. The homes / buildings in which are targeted for redevelopment have been vacant. Displacement at this time is not an issue.

JasonJun 9 2009 04:49 PM

To the author, thank you for your interest and positive comments about Over the Rhine. I have lived in the neighborhood for over a year now and know the area very well from having grown up in Cincinnati. My wife and I feel very strongly in support of the efforts being made to bring OTR back to life. We both love living down here and plan on staying as long as things go in the right direction. We really hope to see the streetcar project come to life as we believe that it will be essential in ensuring the neighborhoods success and stability long term.
My feelings are that the revitalization is something the city should make a priority as it is our most important historic place and to lose it would be a disservice to the people that built it and the future generations of Cincinnatians who would never know its importance.
As pointed out above, the neighborhood faces great challenges in becoming a stable and viable place that we can all be proud of. Crime is a huge issue to many people in surrounding neighborhoods. In my opinion the best thing we can do to combat this is to repopulate the area. Crime runs rampant because police have no help. More eyes on the street means fewer criminals get away.

Another very important issue that has not really been addressed here yet is that of the centralization of social service agencies in the neighborhood.
For many years OTR has been a "dumping ground" of sorts for all of the regions homeless, ex-convicts, addicts, and mentally ill. There are huge numbers of homeless shelters, rehab centers, soup kitchens, etc, etc. I live right next to a building being rehabbed for use by Tender Mercies (a local housing organization for mentally ill I believe).
I think this issue needs to be addressed now also. Centralizing all of these services into one neighborhood creates a sort of stagnant lifestyle that simply perpetuates a life of substance abuse as well as crime. Washington Park, which sits right in front of Music Hall is full of drunks, crack/coke addicts, prostitutes, gangsters and large numbers of homeless. These people are all regular users of the local social service agencies and for the most part they don't change. They aren't forced to. They can just continue to live homeless downtown with all the free services provided to them, they have quick and ready access to all the drugs and cheap alcohol they need because of where they are located and the same viscious lifestyle just continues year after year.
Though I don't feel it would be correct to simply push them out of the neighborhood, I do feel that these organizations need to be decentralized and changed in a way that would produce results with placing homeless in permanent housing and work or training programs and also forcing alcoholics and drug addicts to change their lives.
This is an issue that keeps a lot of people away from OTR in my opinion.
I'd be very interested to hear others suggestions and ideas about what works and doesn't work etc.

DanJun 10 2009 09:33 AM

Here's a great video on Over-The-Rhine. It really captures the heart of the neighborhood.

Joseph BrinkerJun 11 2009 11:45 AM

Dear Kaid,

I am extremely excited that you have written these observations and that they have been published nationally in the Daily Kos and the Huffington Post.

I am the co-producer of a documentary called Rebirth of Over-the-Rhine, a project we started in April of 2007. Since then we have been convinced that the story has a special blend of a uniquely quirky, beautiful and historic backdrop, which gives it a compelling sense of place, and a challenge that touches on at least half a dozen issues that resonate, not only nationally, but internationally. Not surprisingly then, it is satisfying to see the story receiving national coverage.

Equally, your own personal take on OTR matches ours in many ways. It is a complex, layered place that is sometimes difficult to fully capture, but somehow your vision tracks closely with ours in some respects.

Please visit our website and get in touch with us.

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