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Renovation or Gentrification?

Washington Park's makeover reignites old debate in OTR

By Adam Sievering · July 21st, 2010 · News

Humidity is nothing new in Cincinnati. At this time of year, a short stroll down the street can feel like a sweat lodge cleansing ritual and the threat of global warming seems a little bit more real.

While some people can take shelter in their air-conditioned strongholds for the summer, many others — especially children — turn to Cincinnati’s public swimming pools as a place to play outdoors and survive the stifling heat.

Due to budget constraints, however, the Cincinnati Recreation Commission (CRC) decided not to open a few city pools this summer, including the pool in the soon-to-be-renovated Washington Park. The park, located in Over-the-Rhine near Music Hall, is the latest development site for the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC).

Although homeless advocates have said Washington Park’s swimming pool was the only deepwater pool in the historic, low-income neighborhood, there's also one at the Over-the-Rhine Recreation Center and another in Ziegler Park on Sycamore Street, located about seven blocks away. That one, however, is smaller, less deep and isn’t suitable for swim team meets or anyone who wants to learn how to swim.

For these reasons, some neighborhood residents are angry and frustrated with CRC’s decision to permanently close Washington Park’s pool, prompting the latest round of controversy as 3CDC plans to begin the renovation process next month.

“The pool was structurally at the end of its life, participation levels had been low for the last several years and there was less money in our budget for pools this year,” says Norman C. Merrifield, CRC’s director. “All of these factors entered into our decision not to reopen the pool and with renovation coming on, I think it makes good sense to move in this direction.”

Over-the-Rhine,which covers 360 acres, is one of Cincinnati’s poorest neighborhoods. It had a population of 7,638 people in 2000, including more than 2,000 children. At one time, more than 50,000 people lived there, but its population began a dramatic decline in the 1950s.

In the past 30 years, as the neighborhood’s population grew poorer, some activists like the late Buddy Gray envisioned the neighborhood as providing a “haven” of affordable housing for low-income people. In 1985, Gray successfully lobbied for a plan at City Hall that called for reserving “a minimum of 5,520 units” for low-income housing, out of Over-the-Rhine’s 11,000 possible units. Under the plan, public money couldn’t be spent on developing other types of housing until the low-income goal was met.

In 1992, Housing Opportunities Made Equal, an advocacy group, criticized Over-the-Rhine as becoming a “permanent low-income, one-race ghetto — a stagnant, decaying ‘reservation’ for the poor at the doorstep to downtown.” The next year, city officials abolished affordable housing as the neighborhood’s top goal.

Nevertheless, its demographics remained roughly the same and riots erupted there after a police shooting in April 2001.

After the uprising, city officials became more focused on redeveloping Over-the-Rhine and helped create 3CDC.

According to 3CDC’s plans, Washington Park’s renovation will cost $47 million — a decent chunk of dough by most standards but not relative to the $114 million that will be invested in its other upcoming projects like 21c Museum Hotel (at the site of the former Metropole Apartments) and Mercer Commons (a mixed-use commercial space, formerly reserved for the construction of a new Washington Park School in 2005).

Even those future investments, though, pale in comparison to the $197 million that 3CDC pooled for redevelopment projects that have already been completed in downtown and Over-the-Rhine including the Gateway Quarter district along Vine Street, Bootsy’s (a restaurant involving funkmeister Bootsy Collins), Parvis Lofts apartments, Westfalen Lofts apartments and Fountain Square.

For the last four-and-a-half years, 3CDC has been busy redeveloping blighted properties and, while doing so, leaving what some critics consider footprints of gentrification throughout Over-the-Rhine and parts of the central business district.

During that time, 3CDC’s projects have included up to $18 million in city-funded investments and some of the projects — like Metropole — have resulted in the displacement of low-income and disabled residents, some of whom consulted the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless for help.

Josh Spring, the coalition’s executive director, meets with displaced residents on a daily basis. Now that 3CDC has targeted Washington Park — what he describes as the only green oasis in the neighborhood — Spring fears that the pool’s closing and the park’s renovation will leave many people in the neighborhood without a place to cool off during the hottest months of the year.

Spring says that he and other attendees presented an alternative renovation plan for the park at a meeting held by 3CDC that included a deepwater pool and a basketball court.

Despite significant interest in both of these features, 3CDC denied the requests.

“They call public meetings but they don’t listen or act upon what they hear,” Spring says. “3CDC could easily put some time and energy and money into the park and fix it up for what people in this neighborhood — homeless and housed — really need and want. That would be great and no one would fight them. But they have not done that.”

Although 3CDC has no plans to build a new pool or basketball court, renovation plans include the construction of a state-of-the-art playground with an interactive water feature, play castle, climbing hill, swing set, dog park, interactive stream and sand pit with water sources nearby.

With this taken into consideration, the renovated Washington Park will offer a number of facilities for people to cool themselves down if needed, according to the commission.

“I think it’ll be a fine improvement to the entire city,” Merrifield says.

The plan also includes a fence around the perimeter of the park and a two-level underground parking garage that will create an estimated 920 construction jobs.

In addition, Washington Park will gain two acres by incorporating the former Washington Park School site, where an open-air stage and massive civic lawn will replace what is now empty space and debris.

Construction will begin on the north end of Washington Park in August, according to Kelly Leon, a 3CDC spokeswoman. The south end will remain open (with portable bathroom facilities) until construction is complete, at which point the north end will open and the south will undergo renovation. All construction is slated to be wrapped up in November 2011.

The decision to close the pool wasn’t 3CDC’s, Leon adds.

“It was the CRC that decided to close the pool,” she says. “They closed several pools in the city and that was one of them.”

Like some others, Spring still expresses frustration with the way 3CDC has done its business.

“Their overarching plan to gentrify the central business district and OTR will increase homelessness and poverty, which hurts us all,” he says. “Their plan does not take everybody into account.”

The coalition has organized a neighborhood gathering in Washington Park from 2-4 p.m. July 24 to oppose the trend of having publicly owned spaces turned private. The free event will feature live music and local activists including Dan LaBotz, Michael Earl Patton and Vanessa Sparks.



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