A strategic residential plan for Cincinnati’s center city

There are increasingly fewer and fewer development sites remaining inside Cincinnati’s central business district. There are small surface lots scattered about the CBD, and some larger collections near City Hall and the Hamilton County Courthouse, but outside of that there is not much land left to be built upon.

This makes the things we do build on those sites even more important. The Banks seems like it will end up being successful in an urban design context, as well as an urban vibrancy context with its inclusion of so much residential in addition to office, retail and entertainment space. The recent Procter & Gamble daycare facility on Broadway Street, not so much.

What has long held back Cincinnati has not been a lack of tourists, commerce, or entertainment, but rather it has been the lack of a critical mass of residents. The lack of this critical mass is what has prevented the CBD from attracting everyday retailers, groceries, affordable dining, and later evening hours for all of the above.

According to a 2009 Downtown Cincinnati Inc. report, there are 9,000 residents living in the greater downtown area which primarily includes the CBD and Over-the-Rhine. According to the same DCI report, that number of downtown residents is expected to grow to 12,500 by 2012 largely in part to the opening of the initial phase of The Banks. Even while this growth is encouraging, if Cincinnati wants its center city to be truly vibrant around the clock, more needs to be done.

Cincinnati leaders should identify residential focus areas and work with developers on a comprehensive plan that would strategically place residents throughout the center city in the most economically feasible, and beneficial ways. Based on Cincinnati’s current central business district buildout, its surrounding neighborhoods, and potential opportunities I have developed a general plan for two residential focus areas for which Cincinnati leaders should develop.

Core High-Rise:
Within the CBD itself there are several real opportunities to not only add to the urban context, but its vibrancy. Surface lots at Fifth & Race, Seventh & Vine, Fourth & Plum, and Third & Race offer the greatest potential of them all. These sites could all potentially host high-rise residential living which could finally put Cincinnati’s center city over the top.

Affordable and successful residential high-rises can be done. Many cities around the country have experienced this first-hand. In Atlanta, 30- to 40-story residential towers have sprung up throughout Midtown and Buckhead like weeds, and were often built in an almost cookie cutter way that was sure to deliver profits for the developer. The same has happened in Charlotte, Miami, Austin, Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia, Denver, San Diego, Chicago, and elsewhere.

These efforts should not exist on their own, but rather also work with potential residential conversions of aging office structures nearby. This will remove antiquated office space from the market, and add critical new housing opportunities within the center city.

Mid-Rise Community:
Another great opportunity for the CBD is a collection of low- to mid-rise residential structures near City Hall on approximately four city blocks of available surface parking lots. The area is bounded by Over-the-Rhine to the north, the Betts-Longworth Historic District to the west, Ninth Street Historic District to the south, and the Court Street district to the east. All of these surrounding areas are made up of three to five story structures which would make a three to five story residential community ideal in this area.

It would make sense to include townhouses/rowhouses along Ninth Street and Central Avenue to help create a natural blend with the surrounding areas, but also provide a greater mix of residential offerings. The rest of the residential focus area would be made up of multi-unit mid-rises similar to those being built at The Banks right now. This addition of residential activity would inject new life into arguably the most lifeless part of the CBD, and it would create a tangible connection from the CBD to Over-the-Rhine and the West End.

While not identified as a focus area due to its small size, the surface lots near Eighth & Sycamore should also be developed with a residential focus to compliment the burgeoning residential district there.

By developing a strategic approach for implementing new residential offerings in Cincinnati’s center city, city leaders and developers will be able to improve the area’s urban framework and its vitality.  New residents will demand new retail offerings that will benefit the thousands already living within the greater downtown area, and more residents will help drive existing businesses to maintain later hours to serve the growing residential base.

The buzz surrounding 21st century planning has often been about creating 24/7 urban communities where people live, work and play.  Cincinnati already has a great set-up for exactly that, its leaders and investors simply need to take advantage of those opportunities and position the center city for even greater success.

  • Nathan Strieter

    Really like the post, and couldn’t agree more that Cincy needs a unified residential strategy to get more residents.
    About the sites at the western intersection of Central Parkway and Plum. I would really like to see the new PlanCincy attack that area with more infrastructure, possibly dividing the current super block currently occupied by a power substation I believe. It is just difficult to get into the West End from East to West which is a problem in opening that area up for growth or even policing. Bringing Elizabeth Street through to Central Parkway would be a great alternative to the current road situation and sets up a small street grid nicely for brownstone/lowrise residential development.

    The map could also include the lots at W Court & Walnut.

  • I thought about including the lots at Court Street and Walnut, but I then thought that those might not fit into a specific residential focus area. The high-rises seem to fit into their own category, then the City Hall and Design District area seem to also have their own focuses.

    The lots near Court & Walnut may end up being better for institutional, government, or commercial use. I could certainly see mid-rise residential working there too though.

  • Nathan Strieter

    I can understand that, though I think you could go as high as 14-15 stories on one of those lots (some might consider that high-rise, but I would say it is still in the mid range).

    Out of curiosity, and without specifics because they tend to ruffle people, were you thinking high rise in the 20-30 range?

  • Most of the high-rises that work in the sense I mentioned in the article are in the 15-30 story range. I would imagine that structures any taller or shorter might not provide the optimal return on investment.

    The mid-rises that I mentioned would be more like 3-5 stories in height. I believe that is the maximum height at which you can build wood-frame structures. Going higher dramatically increases the cost and mandates even significantly higher densities to get the necessary return.

  • Nice post Randy. Anymore, a downtown residential plan ought to first and foremost take into account the streetcar route. High rise, high density development should occur along the line and go down from there. It seems your suggestions generally follow that principle, with the exception of the mid-rise community designation over around 7th and 8th. Seems that area could now support high rise development.

  • Matt Jacob

    While I agree that downtown’s over abundance of surface parking lots is not the most efficient use of real estate and alternatives like your residential strategy might be the best uses for the space(and the future of the city), the fact is that the parking spaces that currently occupy the land are much needed and demanded by city workers that commute downtown. Any plan to change the status quo has to start with building new parking structures to replace the old ones and creating even more for the new residents. In a fairytale world it wouldn’t be a problem because they’d all ride the streetcar (which I support), but realistically they won’t and the issue will need to be addressed first before anything will ever happen.

  • Matt:

    I do agree that parking is a consideration for a city like Cincinnati, but the amount of spaces that would be lost by building over these surface lots is nominal. Most of the lots are quite small, and the larger ones near City Hall are rarely fully occupied.

    With that said, current zoning requirements mandate exactly what you are stating here. Developers will certainly be forced to provide parking spaces to satisfy the needs of their development minimally, and potentially more for larger more impactful developments (i.e. 5th & Race).

    In terms of the streetcar, a transit system of that nature is not designed to relieve commuter traffic or parking demands. Streetcar systems are designed to eliminate or drastically reduce the need for an automobile within the service area. So where this would help is with the new developments needing fewer parking spaces to satisfy the needs of the new residents.

  • One thing that I’d like to see more of is mid-tier rentals downtown. There are a number of “luxury” lofts available, and of course very low tier rentals available. But it seems like most of the new construction are condo towers or conversions. I know there are some mid-price range apartments available, but from what I heard they have pretty high occupancy rates.

    Also, on the topic of parking, there are thousands of spots being built in the Banks. I would assume any development could be offset by some of the many parking spots going in. And to the point about mid-tier apartments, you fill those with recent college grads or people wanting a car-free lifestyle (assuming they also work downtown), the parking needs are liable to be less than elsewhere. Thinking out loud here…

  • Eric:

    You are right about the existing mid-price apartments in the downtown area. They typically run at 95% occupancy rates and sometimes higher. There is a great need for more of those units, but they are often not cost effective to cover the cost of renovation or new construction. Eliminating parking requirements could help to make these more affordable, or we could continue to provide gap financing for affordable projects like this as we currently do.

    As for the parking at The Banks, there is a ton of it. Unfortunately, much of that was included by Hamilton County’s request. They wanted to continue to receive the parking revenue generated from events at the two stadiums from the underground parking garages. Some excess was created to replace the parking that was there prior that served lots of office workers along 3rd Street.