06/15/2009 09:24 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Village Green: Revitalizing Cincinnati's Historic Over-the-Rhine (Part 3 - exciting progress portends a national model)

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. 


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:


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.


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:


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:



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."


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:


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.

"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 occasional 'Village Green" commentary on HuffPo and (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment on NRDC's Switchboard site.  For daily posts, see his Switchboard blog's home page.