Oakley gets development fit for the suburbs with new Millworks plan

The abandoned Millworks site in Oakley has inspired urban enthusiasts for almost a decade. The thoughts of injecting new life into an former industrial space in the heart of some of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods was truly something to get excited about.

The vision first laid out in the early part of the new millenium included hundreds of residential units, a movie theater, hotel, offices and what was to become the second location Jungle Jim’s. The best part about all of it is that the Millworks redevelopment would have done so while also maintaining the gritty industrial past of the site. As details finally emerge today of a new Millworks redevelopment, the reality is looking much different.

Today the plan calls for a $120 million development (less than half of the originally proposed $300 million plan in 2005) that will include 350,000 square feet of retail, 250,000 square feet of offices, 300 apartments and a 55,000 square-foot movie theater. While much of the development’s original components are still there, the plan has taken a decidedly suburban turn not unlike what happened at the Center of Cincinnati just around the corner.


Proposed Millworks redevelopment in 2005 [LEFT] compared to current Oakley Station site plan [RIGHT].

Gone is the idea of preserving the site’s industrial aesthetic. Gone is the idea of creating a unique urban infill project. Gone is Jungle Jim’s. And most importantly, gone is the true long-lasting investment in Oakley.

With the signing of Cinemark NextGen, the development seems to now be more real than ever. Work has already begun on removing asbestos from buildings on the 74-acre site so that demolition can follow for more than one million square feet of former industrial buildings that used to house Cincinnati Milacron, Ceco Environmental, Factory Power Company and Unova Industrial Automation. Worse yet, the city of Cincinnati is working to get project developers $3 million in Clean Ohio Revitalization funds and an additional $9.9 million in tax increment financing to pay for infrastructure work surrounding the project.

The controversial Center of Cincinnati development turned on a dime from an exciting urban infill project meant to inject new office, retail and residential space into the area just north of the Millworks site, into a cookie-cutter suburban big-box development.

At the time Vandercar, the same developers behind the Millworks redevelopment, said that market forces would no longer allow them to do such a project and charged Mayor Luken’s administration to rid the city of its Planning Department that had made an issue of the development’s dramatic, last-minute change. Vandercar won that battle and then city manager Valerie Lemmie decided to move forward and infamously shutter Cincinnati’s Planning Department.

The victory was only short-lived for Vandercar, however. The developer was part of a team that was promptly eliminated from contention to build The Banks, and Mayor Mark Mallory and City Manager Milton Dohoney have since restored Cincinnati’s planning dignity. So while much has changed, it appears as though the outcome may be the same for Oakley.

Oakley is the geographic population center for the 2.1 million person Cincinnati region, and is located along I-71, near the Norwood Lateral, and potential future light rail corridors. Each metropolitan region tends to have several dense commercial centers. Cincinnati currently has Downtown, Uptown and Kenwood, and the greater Oakely area should be the fourth.

Instead of championing “pro-growth” policies at all costs, Cincinnati’s leaders should act with long-term interests in mind and get the best end product for its people. Unfortunately, the status quo appears to be more in line with appeasing developers, like Vandercar, that go after low-hanging fruit, rather than demanding that investments in Cincinnati get the best return.

  • Aaron

    Seems like a real shame not to preserve the core of Oakley’s blue-collar, industrial roots.

    Are there other examples in the area of this sort of combination business park, shopping center, apartment complex? Who wants to look out of his or her apartment window and discover the live in a giant parking lot, across from a Best Buy (probably)? I don’t see the hip, young professionals having much interest in these residences.

    Look at all that parking! Actually, it’s probably appropriate for eh amount of retail space planned. I’m not familiar with the original plan, but where were shoppers and residents to park in that plan? Was there more focus on residences and less focus on retail and dining in the original plan?

  • it looks very similar to the Green up in Kettering/Dayton… but yeah, I’m really overwhelmed by all the parking. The Green had a few garages/enclosed parking and the rest of the area between the stores was walkable.

    No one wants to live in a sea of parking lots.

  • These suburban malls don’t even work in the suburbs anymore.
    What a shame, this place will be abandoned in 5 or 6 years.

  • Darryn

    This reminds me a lot of Easton Towne Center in Columbus. Easton also has apartments on its edges along with plenty of parking spaces and chain restaurants.

    I’m really disappointed to see this kind of development in Oakley. If I wanted to live in Mason or West Chester, I would have just moved there.

  • If this place was like the Greene in Dayton or Easton in Columbus it would have been successful, resilient and walkable; a new mixed use community. Instead we’re getting “mixed-use” from the early 1990’s. Heck, it’s not even as well designed as the crap shopping center on bypass 4 near Hamilton. It’s a true disappointment.

  • Nate

    Yes, disappointing, to say the least. I understand the desire for parking – their target market is more than just nearby Oakley residents – but they could, and should, tie it into the neighborhood better.

    What makes Easton and Greene unique and more walkable is the fact that they bunched their development closer together and pushed their parking lots out to the perimeter of their complexes. Say what you want about those developments, but I believe that their approach is much, much better than this one.

    Compare:

    Easton: http://www.eastontowncenter.com/images/interface/etcdirect_sp20100830_web_tenant.pdf

    Greene: http://www.thegreene.com/directorymap.aspx

    Oakley: http://www.oakleynow.com/PDFs/Oakley%20Station%20Site%20Concept%20-%20to%20Oakley.pdf

  • Les

    It seems like a boondoggle waiting to happen. How much will we have to subsidize for these ‘attractions?’

  • This is nothing like Easton in Columbus. Easton is an outdoor mall with a Main Street, public space, etc. While you do have to drive to it essentially, walkability is built in once there. For this development, there is almost no walkability built in whatsoever. There is little attempt to align the buildings along any sort of Main Street or commercial avenue. Instead, the buildings are like a pellet shot attempt at urban design – the organization makes no sense. This is case in point the problem with large lot developments/PUD. On paper this entire thing is considered ‘mixed use’ but in reality, its as single use as you can get. This is down right pathetic and should not be tolerated. All this is doing is creating another space that no one will care about in 20 years. Cincinnati deserves better – its neighborhood heritage demands it. This is anti-city, anti-neighborhood.

  • DP

    At first I looked at the photo-simulation and thought “that’s not too bad, what’s all the complaining about”. Then I realized that the one of the right is the current plan. I’m more forgiving than most on this site when it comes to market reality vs. urban ideal, but that does pretty much suck.

  • cornercase

    I concur, this is nothing like Easton in Columbus and Oakley deserves better. How sad Millworks couldn’t pull through.

  • Jake

    Doesn’t Cast Fab still occupy that foundry in Oakley? The company website says that they’re still there in Oakley manufacturing machine tools. They bought the machine tool division of Cincinnati Milacron in 1988. I’m a bit confused about the location of this…

  • There’s no place for new construction like the 2005 version in today’s society – we live in and for our cars. Although this new version looks much better, I for one would like to call for the removal of all the buildings floating in the middle of the property to be removed so that there’s no doubt that I can find a parking space if I decide to leave the comfort of my big screen TV to go out and see a movie in a theater in Oakley.

  • In my opinion this is a really lazy development proposal. The developers have basically ignored the neighborhood context and plopped down a cookie-cutter, big-box development in the heart of the region. Given that these developers were behind the Center of Cincinnati development, I wouldn’t expect a much higher quality product than that.

    Honestly, I am just not sure if I can even express how disappointed I am with this development proposal for this site. What a shame.

  • I saw the developer give a presentation of this to city council. Randy’s assessment of lazy is exactly what I thought as I watched.

  • Marshal

    I am truly shocked and am wondering if I should be eating my words from last winter…

    Did they really sign a movie theater and retail tenants for this garbage?

    What happened to Rookwood Exchange? That project is infinitely more visible and exciting, even to a retail agent. Just higher value all around.

    I’m stumped on this one. Truly am.

  • chuck

    That’s not around the corner from the parking-plentiful Center of Cincinnati, it’s directly abutting it, and there’s already been house-razing and parking lot expansion done by the Crossroads Mega Church across the street. This would create a vast sea of asphalt possiblly visible from space. I guess they want it to be like Tri-County? Or do they want to be like Norwood with their neighborhood leveling fiasco? Isn’t big box over yet? Oakley has got a great street-scene going along Madison road – they should rise up against this Fields-Ertelization of their town.

  • Matthew

    I really wish I’d seen these plans earlier in the process so I could respond at a community council meeting. As Oakley residents, we are pumped about a movie theater finally coming to the area, but until recently I thought the plan still involved re-use of some of the existing buildings, and an urban main-street look and feel. Even if you concede the 60% parking coverage that they have laid out here, the positioning makes no sense. All pedestrian traffic from the neighborhood has to enter the area from the southeast corner off of Madison. We’ll be forced to walk past the apartments and 3 blocks of parking lots to get to the retail & theater. Absolutely stupid.

  • Jumper

    This quote from an article a couple of years ago makes me very sad after seeing the current plan. “This large industrial site is the type of major infill project ripe for retrofitting – it’s actually larger than the Riverfront Banks [Project] in total acreage and has equally as large development potential.”

    http://goo.gl/XAuUC

  • Whynot me

    Heads up about the proposed movie theatre. In 2008 Cinemark CEO Alan Stock donated $9,999 toward the successful passage of California’s Proposition 8, an initiative restricting the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples and overturning the California Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. Some have called for a general boycott.

  • Marvin1915

    Rob Smyjunas cares nothing about context. He was pretty clear about his intentions…everything had to be low maintenance ie no landscaping to take care of. Minimal cost in construction, and pocket as much money as possible to move on to the next project.

    From the standpoint of Oakley and the City, the one attractive thing about this was that it was being funded with private dollars (except for the environmental clean-up and TIF). There’s no one out there investing in these projects in this environment. When Smyjunas’ proposal was first floated, there was a lot of uncertainty about whether or not he could really pull it off, and many involved with this from the neighborhood and City hoped that if that in fact happened, the project would at least get the obsolete structures removed and environmental problems fixed so that another (more responsible) developer wouldn’t have to deal with that part. So, rather than a vast sea of largely unusable buildings falling into disrepair, what you might have gotten out of it is something shovel ready. But, the pieces fell into place for Smyjunas.

    What’s sad is even what is approved by the Oakley Council is not necessarily what gets built in these situations. Case in point…the new auto parts store on Ridge. The project that was presented and approved was totally different, yet somehow Oakley gets an O’Reilly’s right across the street from Autozone. Is this Ridge Rd, or Beechmont Avenue?

  • For some better context, here is what Seattle recently got in terms of an urban redevelopment project. The site was previously a giant parking lot surround by other automobile-oriented development (just like this site). The differences are striking though: http://bit.ly/jN3KzA.

  • I looked at the Seattle link you posted on twitter Randy. While there is still a lot of parking at that site, it looks head and shoulder better than this crap. I look at the site plan and all I see are cars cars and more cars. It is depressing that something couldnt have been done to inject a little more life into this development. I still dont “get” why developers justify spending so much on pavement when they could be getting so much more. Isn’t there a financial case to make for this?

  • Aaron

    Curt, To play Devil’s advocate here: perhaps the developer sees the success of Rookwood Commons, which is another giant parking lot with shops and restaurants–plus a high-end grocer–along the perimeter and sees it as a recipe for success worth duplicating. The place is seemingly booming, despite not being particularly pedestrian-friendly and with hardly any greenery at all.

    I’m not saying Oakley doesn’t deserve better, because this plan is a steaming pile, but the market for this sort of big-box-retailer-strip-mall-thing may not yet be saturated.

  • Oakley would be lucky if this were a Rookwood Commons. Rookwood Commons is at least lifestyle center 1.0. This steaming pile isn’t much better than the decaying K-Mart strip malls you see around the U.S.

  • CincyFanReally

    cincinnati, outsuburbing the suburbs since nineteen seventy.

  • Ryan L

    I don’t “get” how anyone can work for a company that does this. I looked at their website and almost every project is exactly like this one with oceans of parking. I can’t imagine people asking me what I do, and I say, “I build enormous strip malls across Cincinnati”. I would be embarrassed.

  • chuck

    This one is apparently just phase 1 for that area. There was a sign slapped on the wall of the building across from the church (obscured by weeds now) about a public meeting in March for this first phase of industrial cleanup business. I wonder if anybody saw the sign.

    Just to the South is another section of the old site, Plant 5 at 3025 Disney, with another one of these State/City “Clean Ohio Assistance Fund” project announcements. It says the application is posted at the Oakley Library and there is a public meeting on August 2 at 7 PM at Oakley Rec Center.

    Notice of Public Meeting – Oakley Station / Milacron Plant 5 – Clean Ohio Assistance Fund Grant
    http://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/pages/-42701-/

    http://choosecincy.com/assets/uploads/files/Website%20-%20Milacron%20Plant%205%20Application%20Summary.pdf

  • Ian

    I don’t know Randy.

    Times have certainly changed since Millworks were proposed. Rents are down, financing for anything but multi-family are seriously impossible, requiring more equity (higher returns, eating into feasibility) and more difficult debt covenants in order to stay out of default. Economics must play a role in the development of anything including investors who make everything and anything happen.

    Do you remember the Epicentre in Charlotte? Great uptown development which has has helped contribute to the revitalization of uptown at the expense of an empty old, convention center. Well that project has been taken back by the bank and is now worth about 1/4 of the initial debt service due to a collapse in rents, land prices, etc.

    When I lived in Hyde Park, it pained me to go to Anderson Township to hit Target, etc. Having those amenities close to home…yes they are amenities to families looking to return to the city are huge….which is another benefit to having more “suburban, big box retailers” close to higher income population centers close to town.

    Live in Hyde Park want to go to movies? Unless you want an artsy on Ludlow, its N on the L or Kenwood. While not perfect, this will be a great addition and will help to strengthen property values in HP, Oak, M’ville, PR, etc.

    While we all strive for urbanism, etc, a taste of reality is also good when trying to understand why developers do what they do.

    If anything, this is also good for The Banks, and won’t be seen as competition for residents, retailers and visitors.

    I look forward to your response.

  • @Ian: I completely agree that it is nice to have the retail provided by typical big box retailers in the city, but I do think it can be executed much better than this. The seattle example I gave above includes a movie theater. The similarities between that Seattle project, and this Millworks redevelopment, end there though.

    As you know, Charlotte has urban designed big box stores (Home Depot, Staples, Harris Teeter, etc) that provide typically big box retail services in an urban setting without destroying the urban fabric.

    What was done here was a lazy effort and didn’t seem to look at doing anything contextually sensitive since it was outside their standard design portfolio. In my opinion, that’s a real shame for Cincinnati and the Oakley neighborhood that will now have to live with this sea of asphalt.

  • Ian

    While agree it’s not ideal, I’m not against it. Oakley, while in the city of Cincinnati, is hardly “urban”. Maybe by Cincinnati standards it is, but it’s certainly not “urban”.

    In my opinion we should focus our urban efforts on traditionally urban areas such as CBD and OTR rather than create Mickey Mouse copies that if anything create a “safe urban alternative” to downtown and detracts from the momentum already in place in the downtown core. Let’s not kid ourselves. The deal as presented before (without having seen the numbers) in my opinion. Structured parking, historic preservation, landscaping, blah blah blah, all cost money. Money that does not exist. Unless we want to wait another 10 years or so, this proposal might be the next best thing.

    There’s a reason why Millworks as originally designed did not get built. No money to develop and/or no retail interest at rents that make the project attractive to investors/lenders (usually go hand in hand). If it did, it would have been done.

    The Home Depot (closed), Best Buy, etc you refer to in Charlotte is significantly closer to Uptown (Downtown) and was well crafted to integrate the once previously covered by parking Sugar Creek into the development to create a dramatic greenway. Yes, fantastic development, but totally different situation (and time for that matter…not happening today….not with all those condos). Charlotte also lacks dense, historic neighborhoods like OTR that can be revitalized to create an authenitic urban experience, rather then make pretend city, 5 miles from downtown.

  • Ian you talk about money that doesnt exist, but to pave all of that parking costs A LOT OF MONEY and aside from the people it brings into the area, doesnt generate proprety taxes or any income otherwise. And you know they arent going to charge people to park there.

    You make good points about competition and such, and I consider developments like this as pandering to suburban trends.

    Perhaps an in-between alternative that took some of the stuff from the previous Millworks design and incorportated them into the new design would have at least showed that the developer was interested in contributing to a positive shift towards efficient development. Give this new one 10 years, and all you have to do is look at other big box/huge parking lot developments to predict what will happen.

  • Jumper

    Got inspired to play around a little today with Oakley Station and make it a place I’d actually want to walk to (we live a mile away). My ground rules included using all of the same buildings, having road access to the back of all retail stores for logistics purposes (restocking/waste), and around the same amount of parking. I’m conceding that the ship has sailed on underground or multi-level parking, based on Vandercar’s other work. In this financial environment, they aren’t the type of company to take on that extra cost just to meet urban desires. Link below is what I’ve got so far.

    https://picasaweb.google.com/matthew.jumper/20110707#5626671047659328002

  • @Jumper: Awesome! I think the theater would have to be a little closer to the main lot that you have there, but overall an improvement.

  • Neil Clingerman

    @Ian:

    “When I lived in Hyde Park, it pained me to go to Anderson Township to hit Target, etc. Having those amenities close to home…yes they are amenities to families looking to return to the city are huge….which is another benefit to having more “suburban, big box retailers” close to higher income population centers close to town.”

    Agreed completely, but said suburban big box stores don’t have to be 100% suburban in an urban environment like Oakley which isn’t as urban as downtown but more so than Mason. Here is an excellent example in the far north side of Chicago, a part of town where large apartment buildings give way to 1950s ranch houses with driveways, its kind of a weird urban-suburban hybrid area where building abruptly stopped in the 1920s very urban and picked up again much more suburbanized in the 50s. For this kind of environment this target works:

    http://maps.google.com/maps?q=target&hl=en&ll=41.990586,-87.683715&spn=0,0.001206&sll=41.991036,-87.68307&sspn=0.00199,0.004823&fb=1&gl=us&sqi=2&t=h&radius=0.15&z=20&layer=c&cbll=41.990586,-87.683715&panoid=fSFs35Q8V-vmV7830D4MEw&cbp=12,59.98,,0,-1.3

    This Target has parking on the bottom floor and the store is on the second. Its compact and reasonably approachable to walk or bike to as there isn’t a sea of parking in front of it (and there is bicycle parking too underground). Cincinnati being still car oriented needs more development like this that both honors the urbanity of the city and still provides for the needs for those who drive there. Millworks could try for this…

  • chuck

    A sign is posted at the site behind the Meijer building. It’s a “Clean Ohio Assistance Fund” project announcement. It says the site cleanup application is posted at the Oakley Library and there is a public meeting on August 2 at 7 PM at Oakley Rec Center.

    Notice of Public Meeting – Oakley Station / Milacron Plant 5 – Clean Ohio Assistance Fund Grant
    http://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/pages/-42701-/

    http://choosecincy.com/assets/uploads/files/Website%20-%20Milacron%20Plant%205%20Application%20Summary.pdf

  • chuck

    There’s a public meeting about the “Clean Ohio Fund” site cleanup grant for 3025 Disney St at 7 PM on August 2 at the Oakley Recreation Center.