The southern section of Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine is a row of shiny glass facades, boutique shops and start-ups. Nearby Washington Park has received an extensive facelift, and other projects are popping up around the neighborhood.
But just a few blocks north across Liberty Street, the 10-year drive to remake OTR has had far fewer noticeable effects as buildings stand vacant, windows shattered and facades crumbling. Now, as interest in redevelopment moves toward this long-neglected area, there is disagreement about who should lead the efforts.
The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) is a step closer to becoming the main group working north of Liberty. On June 23, City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee approved 3CDC’s request to become “preferred developer” of 33 city-owned buildings near Findlay Market on the neighborhood’s northwest corner. The preferred status means 3CDC would vet and approve other developers’ plans as well as carry out its own for the buildings.
While some are ecstatic that the group will be leading efforts to redevelop northern OTR, others are dubious.
3CDC was founded in 2003 by some of the biggest corporations in the city and has wrought many of the dramatic changes in the neighborhood’s southern portion. It has spent more than $300 million in private funds and tax dollars in the process. Boosters say the developers have done the near impossible in their redevelopment efforts. But critics say the group has displaced the low-income, helped push out social service agencies and changed a tight-knit community without listening its residents.
Either way, it’s clear the next chapter in the neighborhood’s saga is beginning. Right now, 3CDC holds few properties north of Liberty. The request marks the first time it has turned its attention north in a significant way.
The difference between the two sides of OTR is stark. South of Liberty Street, the median household income is $40,000 and rising, according to Census data. North of Liberty, it’s just $11,000 and falling. A 2011 report by McClatchy found that OTR had the highest income disparity of any neighborhood in the country, due mostly to the chasm that is Liberty Street.
Some think the area north of Liberty needs the 3CDC touch.
But others say such redevelopment won’t benefit everyone, that it will shut out independent developers and that it won’t come fast enough.
Last week, the Over-the-Rhine Community Council asked Mayor John Cranley and City Council to hold off on the preferred developer deal with 3CDC.
In a letter authored by Community Council Vice President Ryan Messer, the group praised 3CDC’s work over the last 10 years but said the developer’s large bank of land is slowing down prospective efforts from smaller developers.
Though 3CDC says it has stabilized or completely redeveloped more than 100 structures, it has also stumbled at times with the large stock of more than 300 buildings under its control. The developer has 98 buildings with code violations, according to a May report by WCPO. This year alone, the Cincinnati Housing Appeals Board has cited the developer for past-due vacant property fees and so-called “demolition by neglect” on three properties. The developer has since made plans to stabilize those buildings.
Messer’s letter also highlighted other concerns, including the need to preserve affordable housing in the area.
“We believe it’s time for a new era in our neighborhood,” he wrote. “A common thread in the neighborhood is the expressed desire to protect and expand our cultural diversity and this, in part, can be done by paying close attention to providing affordable housing options.”
Demand for housing has outstripped supply in Over-the-Rhine, and prices have ballooned in the past few years. When considered by price per square foot, OTR is now one of the most expensive places in the city, according to a report in the Cincinnati Business Courier.
That’s dovetailed with an increasing need for more affordable housing, both in the neighborhood and citywide. A 2011 study found about 1,000 units of subsidized housing in OTR out of about 3,600 total occupied units. Advocates say that number used to be much higher. The neighborhood lost about 1,000 units, for example, when a single landlord — Thomas Denhart — declared bankruptcy shortly after the 2001 riots.
Carmen Williams has lived a block from Findlay Market for the past 10 years, right in the area 3CDC would like to redevelop. She says she’d like to see the empty buildings around her occupied. But she doubts the group will develop much affordable housing based on its past history, she says.
“They should fix the buildings up for people who already live here,” she says. “These big money people get the property and don’t do anything with it. It’s not giving the elderly and families places to stay. They’re not asking us.”
Others in the neighborhood are happy 3CDC is moving in.
“All of these apartments have been vacant for as long as I can remember,” says Ashley Anderson, who lives just south of Findlay Market. “This will make them more presentable.”
When asked about possible rent increases, she said, “It’ll be worth it — it’ll be nice housing.”
Some middle ground emerged last week when Vice Mayor David Mann proposed an ordinance requiring 33 percent of the units 3CDC develops north of Liberty Street be affordable housing.
3CDC President Steve Leeper said the group applauded the motion and would abide by the requirements.
Josh Spring, executive director for the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, called Mann’s proposal “a step in the right direction,” though he said more work is still needed to ensure the neighborhood remains accessible to everyone.
Members of the Budget and Finance Committee unanimously passed the motion giving 3CDC preferred status, but not without a number of questions.
Councilmember Wendell Young posed concerns about the way the group would choose developers to work with and whether there would be an appeals process so council could review the choices 3CDC makes. He and other members of the committee stressed the process should be very accessible to women and people of color who wish to develop properties.
A final vote on the issue was scheduled to take place at the June 25 City Council meeting. ©