Construction to begin on $78M mixed-use development uptown

After lengthy delays, U Square at The Loop, a new mixed-use development planned for Calhoun and West McMillan streets just south of the University of Cincinnati’s campus, is finally set to begin construction in January.

For Clifton Heights, it means the largest development since University Park Apartments (UPA) was completed in the fall of 2005. But for residents, it will mean construction and traffic detours through much of 2012 that will transform a long-vacant piece of real estate into $78 million development.

The site once housed a smattering of drive-thru restaurants and a small collection of historic building stock, but was cleared in 2003 to make way for the development. The project then became entangled in a messy eminent domain case with Acropolis Chili and Inn the Wood restaurants which did not end until 2005 when UPA was completed across the street.

The $78M U Square at The Loop development is set to break ground in January 2012.

“While there is undoubtedly a lot of work converging at once, we have phased a lot of other work in prior years,” explained Clifton Heights Urban Redevelopment Corporation (CHCURC) director Matt Bourgeois in reference to various streetscaping projects, renovation of Classen Park in 2010, and construction of 65 West Apartments in 2011.

Developers anticipate groundbreaking on U Square at The Loop to take place in January 2012 on more than 150 apartments, two parking garages totaling 750 spaces, office and retail space. The final hurdle has been financing, and was finally cleared when the University of Cincinnati (UC) signed a lease on 40,000 square feet of office space for its Campus Services Department.

The lease signed by UC then triggered the signing of several retailers which had signed letters of intent on approximately nine-percent of the development’s total street-level retail space. Those retailers include DiBella’s Old Fashioned Submarines, Great Clips and Firehouse Subs.

Growing Pains
Final drawings and permit acquisition for the project are currently underway, with site excavation set to begin soon. Developers say that the project’s two blocks—one primarily office and one primarily residential—will undergo construction simultaneously, with the residential component set to begin in late February and the office component to begin in mid-April.

Though the smaller office block is expected to be complete by the end of 2012, developers do not expect the site’s residential component to be finished until July 2013. At the same time, city officials will continue streetscape improvements throughout Clifton Heights which will include two phases of work in the spring of 2012.

“Both projects are a part of the original urban renewal plan from 10-plus years ago and they are finally coming to fruition,” Bourgeois stated. “I wouldn’t discount the “growing pains” that are part of that, but I think that was to be expected and it becomes simply a matter of planning and managing a difficult scenario with the construction and maintaining good communication.”

A future phase of the development at U Square at The Loop includes the vacant “Gateway” site at Vine Street and Calhoun Street. There, a mid-rise office building is envisioned at what would become the junction between Uptown and Downtown streetcar lines.

“Our goals [set forth in the urban renewal plan] are being met and that is certainly something to celebrate,” concluded Bourgeois. “This is a continuation of that work, and another hugely positive step towards the rejuvenation of the Clifton Heights business district.”

Cincinnati wants cyclists to grade city on its bicycle infrastructure and policies

The City of Cincinnati is looking for bicyclists to share their thoughts about how the city is progressing with its bicycling infrastructure and policies. From now until December 31 bicyclists can give their feedback to the Department of Transportation & Engineering (DOTE) about what would make them feel safer and use their bicycle more often.

In 2010 bicyclists gave the city an overall grade of “C” for its progress, just as they did in 2009, and city officials are hoping the feedback can help guide policy decisions to improve the atmosphere for bicycling in Cincinnati.

An on-street bicycle corral was installed on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine earlier this year.

“We’re working to create a bicycle friendly city, so that Cincinnatians of all ages and abilities can use bicycles for everyday trips,” stated DOTE director Michael Moore. “The report card survey is a great tool for publicly measuring our progress.”

This is the third year in which the city has solicited such feedback to help guide its bicycle program. Over that time the city has also worked to implement new bicycle parking and lane infrastructure, along with new policies intended to improve bicycling culture in Cincinnati.

Over the course of the past year, city officials tout the creation of a pocket-sized guide to Cincinnati’s bike laws, new sharrows on Madison Road, bike lanes on Martin Luther King Drive and Beechmont Avenue, the installation of an on-street bicycle corral on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, and the completion of a segment of the Mill Creek Trail.

The 2011 Report Card on Bicycling survey asks respondents to grade the city on its overall facilities and policies, while also asking what directions the city should take to improve its grade. Those interested can take the survey online now. It takes approximately five minutes to complete.

Main City Station to create new Asian food concept, co-op space in Over-the-Rhine

Sushi Bears PartyA little over a year ago, Dan Wells opened Sushi Bears, a health-oriented food stand in the center of Findlay Market, selling veggie sushi and other specialties. After opening up the brand to two other “Bear” varietals (Indian – Bolly and wheatgrass lemonade – Sippy), and finding a popular niche in offering food lessons and sushi-making parties, Wells is expanding his concept.

Wells informed UrbanCincy in an exclusive interview that he will open a grab-and-go Arner-Asian food shop, a small grocery, and several small co-op spaces at the corner of Orchard Street and Main Street in Over-the-Rhine (map). The location was most recently home to the CS13 art studio space, and at 1,700 square feet, was a daunting space for just one business to fill.

“After looking all over, this building’s rent was a steal at nearly half of what other locations were charging,” Wells explained. “I’m not one to turn down a good deal, but I don’t need that much space – so that’s why I thought, let’s open this up to other people who are in my shoes, who are looking for something in the $300 to $500 range.”

At this point, the idea for Main City Station was born. Wells says that he plans to section off the expansive space into several smaller units and give entrepreneurs a chance to open a small store.

“Why not take a risk, for $400 more a month, and get a space where I can provide three or four other people with what I was looking for,” said Wells. “I think it’s a good thing. I don’t know who’s going to want to be in there, but I can imagine all sorts of different people – art studios to retail and everything in between.”

Sushi Bears will take up the forefront of the floor plan, and the remaining units will be constructed into approximately 225-square-foot spaces that can be built to suit. Wells says that the rent for the co-op spaces will include utilities, cable, internet and a security system.

While Wells’ business is focused around his love for the city, he says that the majority of his business has come from selling Indian food and sushi-making lessons to suburban customers.

“There’s a great opportunity for crossover with Main City Station,” Park+Vine owner Danny Korman said of the potential synergies between Wells’ new operation and his business. “We’re so lucky to have a wide variety of customers who come in and support Park+Vine, many of whom live outside the city limits.”

The Sushi, Bolly and Sippy Bears space will add a unique offering to the burgeoning Main Street business district. Initially Wells will sell grab-and-go sushi and microwavable Indian food, and will eventually expand to table service following the build out of the establishment’s kitchen. The grocery aspect of the store will also be a first for this portion of Over-the-Rhine.

“When you’re doing sushi, you want to carry produce,” Wells explained. “We’ll carry all the things you need to make sushi, even if you don’t use it to make sushi.”

The market may also serve as a precedent for other retailers to build upon, not only with the co-op element, but also by having a reasonably priced, small-scale store offering grocery staples south of Liberty Street. Those interested in renting space from Wells can send him an email.

Cincinnati selects final streetcar station design

The City of Cincinnati has chosen a final design for 18 station shelters along phase one of the Cincinnati Streetcar route. Designed by Cincinnati-based DNK Architects, the stations are described as clean, minimal and are compliant with the US Department of Transportation “Buy America” guidelines. The firm researched station designs in other cities, and developed a design that would be easily recognized and protect riders from the elements for the short time they will be waiting at stops.

“The streetcar project is a series of smaller pieces that must come together before construction of the track begins. The shelter design is another milestone in that list of items,” said Chris Eilerman, the City’s Streetcar Project Manager. “This design combines a modern look, while at the same time, fits in with the historic architecture served by the streetcar.”

The stations along the Cincinnati Streetcar route will have a clean, contemporary design like this one shown outside the Main Library.

Project officials say that the modular design ensures various elements will be easy to maintain and replace. The materials themselves are thin, light, and durable – allowing natural light to come in while protecting waiting riders from the elements. Each station will include a route map, information about the streetcar system and an electronic sign displaying the arrival time of the next car, as well as other important messages for riders.

“We designed the station structures to call to mind what the streetcar will bring to Cincinnati — a public transportation system that everyone can use to connect to neighborhoods,” said David Kirk, founder and principle architect, DNK Architects, and lead architect for the streetcar station design. “We want people to look at the stations and see how easy, safe, and comfortable it is to explore all that Cincinnati has to offer.”

Selection of the station design was the final step in reaching a complete design on the first segment of the Cincinnati Streetcar. In order to reach final design, the streetcar team completed a number of other critical steps, including surveys of the entire route, inspections of basements near the route that lie under sidewalks, coordination of vehicle options, completion of an independent peer review of the project and performance of a quality control review of the entire project.

Next steps for the project are continued negotiations to reach agreements with utility companies. The shelters will be built as part of the construction contract, which is scheduled to be bid in the first quarter of 2012.

New commuter bus hub opens in place of long-planned west side transit center

The brief tenure of Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) has been marked by repeated attacks on public transportation. Shortly after his inauguration, he returned a $400 million federal grant to begin passenger rail service between Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. In April he corrupted ODOT’s Transit Review Advisory Committee, redirecting over $50 million allocated for the Cincinnati Streetcar to road projects in northern Ohio.

Lost amid these higher profile events was his rescinding of $150 million promised to the state’s transit agencies by former governor Ted Strickland (D). With its share, Queen City Metro planned to begin two new express services to Uptown. A direct service from West Chester fell victim to Kasich’s cuts, but with the help of a direct federal grant that Kasich could not block, Metro launched route 38X on December 5.

Each morning six buses now travel between Western Hills and all of Uptown’s major destinations including the University of Cincinnati, Good Samaritan Hospital, University Hospital, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Veteran’s Hospital and Christ Hospital. The only major employment centers not directly served are the various Children’s hospital offices housed in the old Bethesda Hospital and Vernon Manor Hotel.

Cincinnati officials celebrate the opening of the new Glenway Crossing Transit Center on December 9, 2011.

The 38X buses begin and end each day at the Glenway Crossing Transit Center, a new bus transfer station in the Glenway Crossing Shopping Center that also serves the #39, #64 and #77X Delhi Express. It features shelters, several dozen park & ride parking spots for commuters, and restrooms for bus drivers.

In concept the transit center resembles the dozen ‘transit hubs’ that were planned as part of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority’s (SORTA) 2002 Metro Moves plan. Although that plan was best known for its five light rail lines, a half-cent sales tax would have also funded a dramatic expansion of bus service throughout Hamilton County.

Glenway Crossing was built in the late 1980s in place of the Chesapeake & Ohio’s (C&O) disused Cheviot Yard. In 1981, shortly before the railroad’s abandonment, the yard and the line it served were the subject of the Westside Transit Study, produced by the Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI), which examined construction of a light rail line from downtown Cincinnati, via the unused subway beneath Central Parkway, to an ambitious transit oriented development (TOD) in Western Hills.

The line would have emerged from the old subway just north of Brighton, crossed I-75 and the Queensgate railroad yard on a new viaduct parallel to the Western Hills Viaduct, then climbed to Glenway Avenue on the C&O tracks. Midrise office buildings were to have been the focus of the Cheviot Yard TOD. The unused subway under Central Parkway was to have been extended south under Walnut Street or Vine Street to a station at Fountain Square.

SORTA planned to fund construction of this line, as well as a network of other light rail lines, with a countywide transit sales tax that failed at the polls in 1979 and 1980. Without funds available to purchase the C&O railroad when it was abandoned, SORTA was helpless to stop the railroad from being sold to dozens of different buyers. The expense necessary to purchase the right-of-way by power of eminent domain precluded this line from being part of SORTA’s failed 2002 Metro Moves network.