“Look at all the asphalt,” says Myra Greenberg, as her fingers graze a map of Pendleton and Over-the-Rhine. She points out the surface parking lots, which riddle the downtown landscape.
Greenberg, a resident of the Pendleton neighborhood since 1996 and board member of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation, has grown weary of asphalt. She’s seen enough parking lots and concrete slabs. And now, her bit of earthy solace, the three acres of greenspace she sees every day from her front window surrounding the old School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) building, is facing serious threats of extinction.
Greenberg has been part of a coalition of downtown residents fighting to preserve that parcel of greenery, commonly known as Cutter Playground, for more than 10 years. For her, it’s about something greater than the picture outside her window — it’s about preserving the fabric of an entire neighborhood.
The old SCPA building, considered an architectural beacon for its artfully crafted Neo-Renaissance stylistics, is a cornerstone of the Pendleton neighborhood and holds a spot on the National Register of Historic Places — but it’s wilting. The grand exterior hides a slew of interior problems that make it no longer operable in its current state.
In November 2012, Indianapolis-based Core Redevelopment purchased the historic SCPA building and the plot surrounding it for $1.3 million in an online auction headed up by Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS), which had intentions to vacate dating back to 1997. Now, the 235,000-square-foot, five-story Renaissance Revival building, built in 1907, is abandoning its educational incarnation for the first time in its history. Since 1977, it’s held the SCPA, which moved to the new Erich Kunzel Center for Arts and Education on Central Parkway in 2010.
In a community meeting on Jan. 9 at the downtown public library, Core Redevelopment CEO John Watson publicly announced Core’s intentions to convert the building into 160 to 170 market-rate apartments, preserving historic details such as classroom blackboards and marble arches.
The restorative plans for the building, however, aren’t what have Greenberg and other concerned locals riled up; Watson’s willingness to preserve the architectural gem, in need of millions of dollars in restorative work, is something most Cincinnatians appreciate. It’s Watson’s intent to pave over about half of the three acres of greenspace just north of the SCPA building for use as surface parking lot.
Cutter Playground is a modest little area, but it’s one that’s hard to picture dissolved. There are rose bushes and spurts of trees ready to bloom. They’re the framework for the parcel’s pastoral grandeur, tucked between a tangle of blinking traffic lights and beeping car horns. That greenspace has only existed since the late 1970s, when residents envisioned the drab, lifeless asphalt lot as a community park. In conjunction with the city of Cincinnati, neighbors successfully planned and built what we know as Cutter today. Cutter was city-owned until 1994, when the city quietly swapped the greenspace with CPS, citing the plot was no longer needed for municipal purposes. In 2005, CPS announced plans to sell the greenspace for commercial use along with the building, which neighborhood stakeholders quashed then — just barely.
The labyrinthine history of the space spans decades, but there’s one consistency: Stakeholders like the space as a park and they want to keep it that way.
There are about 80 existing spots around the perimeter of the building on already-existing asphalt, but Watson intends to provide his residents with around 230 spaces, as outlined in city zoning requirements. Those spots could be located offsite, possibly in coordination with one of the many area surface lots nearby. So far, that doesn’t appear viable. At the Jan. 9 public meeting, Watson stated: “I am unwilling to ask my residents to cross a street to get to their apartments.”
There’s also been buzz about possibly building an underground parking garage beneath Cutter, a massive undertaking that seems unlikely, given Watson already needs to fill a $3 million funding gap with help from the city, which is also amidst a budget crisis.
According to Watson’s tentative plan, he’d leave a portion of the existing greenspace for a softball field and a small dog park, which Greenberg says isn’t enough. Although the newly renovated Washington Park is blocks away, it’s often programmed. For the sanctity of the neighborhood and integrity of the building, she says, Pendleton needs its own park.
There’s no question that the benefits of public greenspace in urban areas are expansive. Greenspace increases property values. Trees and greenspace improve air quality in smog-ridden urban areas and help curb ever-increasing heat indexes in city settings defined by concrete and roadways. Parks provide free, public places to exercise in the midst of an obesity epidemic, and they function as a public meeting place and improve diversity acceptance and social tolerance.
Menelaos Triantafillou, a University of Cincinnati planning and urban design professor, advises that the developer, city and area’s residents work in tandem in a way that is sensitive to the historic nature of the building and neighborhood.
“There’s a current relationship there between the neighborhood and the greenspace — it helps show off the building. I don’t think that relationship should be completely wiped out with a parking lot. The more parking, the more intrusion. We need to be sensitive to the historic nature of the neighborhood.”
Watson wasn’t available to speak to CityBeat before press time. The city is currently waiting for his official proposal, which would then require approval from the Historic Preservation Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals. Plans for the renovation are supposed to be in place by the end of March, and construction is slated to begin in July.
Greenberg is hopeful Watson will come to appreciate the nuances of neighborhood’s fragile urban ecosystem. “This is for the ages. Beyond my lifetime. If Pendleton just goes back to asphalt and parking everywhere, the quality of life declines. This is how it starts.” ©