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.”

  • Nice write up! It’ll be great to see all of that empty space become something productive again.

  • Whats the exact location of this project? There are a 4 or 5 cleared blocks now. Is it directly across from UPark Apartments or is it the blocks ending at Vine?

  • 5chw4r7z: I believe it is the entire area that is empty right now :)(not sure about the lot that butts up to Krishna and the computer store though)

    It’s about time! I can’t wait to see this as it develops!

  • chuck

    The blocks at Vine are the “Gateway” future phase, where the old nightclub/garage hulk was. I would sure love to see something that could preserve the dramatic view at that spot for all Cincinnatians rather than an office building blocking the view. An actual gateway plaza or park would be cool – or maybe that could be integrated with the office space. Walkability is also a concern. Lots of drivers come flying through that intersection, even as multitudes of pedestrians scurry across.

  • It is great that this development is starting to fill in some necessary gaps in Uptown. But we really need to demand a higher quality product here. It seems people are just happy to see something, anything go up. Based on the renderings I have seen, these buildings look cheap and poorly designed. We must demand better if we want this district to really turn into a great place and last for longer than 10 years. Cincinnati and it’s architectural heritage demand so much more.

  • Jenny K

    the space is the empty lot between the UPA Apartments and the block with Pomodori’s – I used to live across the street ( You couldn’t pay me enough to live there now.

  • GoCoast

    Another day another cincinnati boondoggle. Shocking. Can’t you guys do anything without taxpayer money?

    You should be embarrassed

  • Eric

    The rendering is as good as those buildings will ever look. More style-less architecture like the Banks.

  • COAST: Will you guys still call it a boondoggle when the retail and residential space is fully leased?

  • adam.


    a: yes

  • Ryan L

    First: I am glad some progress is being made, though I agree with Greg. I looks surprisingly similar to McMillan Manor and 65 West… Which look awful.

    Second: Do we really need two more sub places?! I mean, come on! We have Jimmy Johns, Penn Station, Quiznos, Potbelly, and like, three Subways within walking distance from the University…. What the area really needs is a large office supply store. Something like a Staples would be nice. I’m a little worried that all of the space won’t get leased out. UPA is still having problems leasing the remaining spaces underneath the apartments. Is more restaurant space really what that area needs? Also with the new developments in Corryville, I think the whole area is going to be over saturated with restaurants. Hopefully I’m wrong.

  • Matthew Hall

    The entire city of Mason is a boondoogle. It’s received more in money than its ever earned in the last 50 years. Take away mortgage interest deductions, fannie mae repurchases of 90% of mortgages, and make I-71 pay for itself through tolls or higher local taxes and Mason would collapse under these expenses in a matter of years. Until you can acknowledge these truths you are a shameless, self-serving hypocrite.

  • Aaron Watkins

    @ Nate Wessel : I’ve read that Hartshorn St. is slated to be removed, so there some grey area there, however I’m pretty sure it’s going to look nothing like it does now.

    @ Ryan L : I think a Staples would have a pretty negative effect on the Plaza store that is up there now. Plus, what does Staples have that they don’t have? Also good luck getting a store like that to go in a location that doesn’t have a soccer field sized parking lot in front of it.

  • adam.

    re: abundance of sub shops.

    a better mix out of the gate would be great, but this makes sense economically as a first round as a university campus area is a great location for a sub shop, therefore every single one of them identifies this independently from one another as a great location and they jump on the lease signings.

    Basically all these sub shops are going to gun it out for the same limited base of customers, 2-3 of them will have the right mix of taste, business model, convenience, price, etc, and maintain, the others will close up shop. eventually some other things will move in and stick for awhile.

    now the kooky eclectic shops won’t be able to afford the rents new construction will cost, but will be able to swoop in to the spaces that would be vacated when something like starbucks or chipotle moves out of their older buildings.

  • While I agree that the initial designs for this project don’t look great, we also don’t need everything new that is built to be breathtaking. I remember when University Park was being built, and everyone complained about the development’s cheap architecture.

    University Park does in fact boast cheap architecture, but it has grown into something much better over time. The retail tenants have personalized their spaces, the trees have begun to grow and add character to the block, and the development has injected that critical urban element to the street – people.

    The same is happening at The Banks right now, and I predict the same will happen here. The renderings may not be up to your standard, and the final architectural product may in fact end up being cheap. But in my opinion, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the urban form is right, and that it engages the street with a lively degree of people.

  • In regards to the suggestion for the “Gateway” site at Vine Street: Does Cincinnati really need *more* park/open space? Cincinnati already has one of the highest amounts of park space per capita of any city in the United States.

    Parks are only great urban amenities if they 1) address a critical need for softscape or vegetation, and/or 2) are well used and become vibrant destinations. I do not believe a park in this location would do either of those. What Cincinnati’s urban core needs is more people, more jobs, more businesses, more activity. While a mid-rise office building may not be the best use or design for this particular parcel, I certainly do not think another after thought of a park is either.

  • Randy – I have to disagree with your sentiments about the quality of the built environment. You can’t help but wonder, in 30 years, will this building be worth a damn or will we be demolishing it in favor of another current urban trend? What is so great and sustainable about places like OTR is that the form is there, yes, but also it is a group of buildings worth caring about long-term and thus reinvesting in. If Uptown continues to get a bunch of these hideous, built-for-the-moment buildings, in 30 years it will be right back where it started, a pit in the ground waiting to be redeveloped. It just isn’t sustainable to be developing in this way.

  • @Greg Meckstroth: I too want a high quality product, but there is virtually no way to legislate aesthetics. We can complain on blog posts and online forums all we want about the architectural stylings and collection of retail tenants, but it doesn’t do much of anything.

    As long as the buildings have a good form, and are made of quality materials, then what more can we really demand out of developers? Want high quality architectural finishes, then get prepared for rents much higher than they are now.

    The problem is economics. We mandate that developers build parking that proves to be incredibly expensive in urban areas. We also ask that they provide units that are affordable for non-chains and the average citizen. Then, on top of all of that, we ask them to deliver a top-tier design. Unfortunately, I just don’t see that as reality anywhere in the world.

    Don’t get me wrong, I want quality urban design as much as anybody. But I don’t see the need in complaining about every single infill project that comes along just because it doesn’t fulfill 100% of our desires.

    Now maybe this could be solved. The developer coudl provide a high quality design, and provide the mandated parking. The gap in their finances to provide affordable housing and commercial options could then be made up by government subsidies. But I don’t know that I consider that to be a sustainable solution either.

  • Greg Meckstroth & Randy: I think Randy touched on a good point with economics, the politicians create artificial goals with coding that the developers then need to meet. What would the developers build if consumers and market forces were driving the designs instead?
    For instance the 750 parking spots at $15,000 each comes out to $11,250,000. That could buy a lot of quality instead of spots that will only be at capacity during ball games.

  • Schmiez

    @ Greg: I have no problem with you opining on the aesthetics Greg. Could you please provide examples of such that you do like thats comparable to the new development (urban, possibly college located, near campus and housing)? Im not a huge fan, but I cant think of a glaring better example. Maybe you can.

    I dont frequent campus too much, but i disagree with worry on tenants. And someone pointed out that the larger national brands will fill it up and smaller shops will take their place on mcmillan. They didnt seem to have any problems getting potbelly, BW’s, 5-guys, etc. in place. Heck, Adriaticos got smart and built right across the street.

    And you cant ask for better foot traffic, or real traffic! 2000+ students cross that way 6 days a week. Another 10K probably drive by, and another 2K live across the street in the dorms. Very similar to OSU and High street, which manages to support 4 sub shops, and another 20+ eateries.

    And its these kind of developments that slowly but surely make UC a better living option than commuter option.

  • Schmiez: A small, but real objection:
    “you cant ask for better foot traffic, or real traffic!”

    People on foot aren’t real until they get into a big smelly car?

    I’m just sayin’ 😉

  • Clearly the architecture is not great. But that’s not just a problem that’s limited to Cincinnati or even cities in general. Look at most of the schools that have been built in the past decade, McMansions homes, or the strip malls and big box stores that constitute most of the nation’s retail space today. At some point, most of the country stopped caring about architecture. It’s really quite sad. And I think that it’s going to take a major shift for people to demand higher quality architecture. How many of the buildings built in 2012 across the US are we going to consider great architecture in 80 years?

  • Neil Clingerman
  • Schmiez

    @Nate Wessell: Oh very true. I just dont think many folks would take Calhoun St. to get somewhere unless that somewhere is UC.


    I chuckled a bit because 2211 Illinois (on the right side of the street) looks eerily similar to the Gateway condos that many despise based on architecture. Gateway actually looks better.

    Then again maybe you were only focusing on the left side of the street. And the U-square is serving a different purpose (residential+comm+retail+courtyard) than what the wicker park example is. Chicago does have better options than what Cincy has provided though.

  • @Schmiez – There is a good example in Ohio. Take a look at South Campus Gateway in Columbus next to Ohio State. This is a much higher quality mixed-use development right next to a major university that still includes ridiculous parking requirements.

    @Randy and 5chw4r7z – I am aware of the economic realities of infill development like this and am also aware of what it takes to create high quality urban infill. I work for a Philly architecture/urban design firm that is currently working on a simiLAR project, right next to Temple in Philly, that, when built, will make this development look cheap and second rate. And believe me, the developer does not have some grandiose budget to work with.

  • Some thoughts:

    First, as a former architecture intern I’m actually not disappointed in the design. It may not be of the character of the Italianate architecture in OTR, but what new building will be? And with the economics of the development this is about the best the area can support design-wise.

    My only concerns are with the excess parking which, though needed on occasion, will sit mostly empty, and the traffic issues this will cause both next year during construction and in 2013 when opened.

    I see the comparison to High St., but High St. is a fairly major road. Calhoun is 1/2 mile long, and both it and McMillan are already traffic nightmares. Once the new I-71 ramp is built on MLK it may solve some problems with McMillan, but for now we’re in for a mess.

    And–worse–this extra traffic raises safety concerns for students. I’ve almost gotten hit on Calhoun before, and I know pedestrians have been hit in the past. Cincinnati drivers largely do NOT watch for pedestrians, and the UC area has been plagued with motorist-pedestrian accidents for years. We need a real way to end them.

    As far as the retail space is concerned, adam is right: the bigger names will move into the new space, and the independent shops will take the vacant spaces left behind. As a Realtor in the area, I’m happy to see new space coming into what’s a growing area with limited retail supply. As Randy said, growth of our urban areas should be the primary goal; successful urban and architectural design only help contribute to the sustainability of this growth.

  • Two FYI’s:

    1) Signs are now up stating the development will be open in March 2013. I assume this refers to the retail portion. Residences should be open for the 2013-14 schoolyear.

    2) This is a private development. I know most here know to ignore COAST, but no tax money is being used on this.

  • Van

    The design is cookie cutter but if it brings in businesses and makes the area even more lively than I’m for it. I would love to see some of that restaurant space converted to clothing stores – give students and staff some compelling options near campus.

  • It seems to me a reason Cincinnati gets so much crappy new development is because there simply isn’t a market for anything better. Despite Cincinnati’s very rich architectural heritage, buildings around here are still incredibly cheap. You can buy a decent little rowhouse for just a few tens of thousands of dollars. There’s so much supply of nice old buildings that there’s very little demand for more, thus prices are low.

    This is a problem for new construction. If a project is built to higher standards it will cost more, obviously, which will be reflected in higher rents or sale prices. Because there’s so many cheaper options, such spaces are unlikely to sell or be leased at those rates. So new construction (which is expensive enough to begin with) has to be as cheap as possible to meet the supply/demand curve in the area.

    Now I’m not saying that’s a good thing, it’s just an unfortunate economic reality. It’s another reason much of the city is so rundown. Renovating these great old buildings doesn’t make financial sense if you can’t get out what you put in. Same for new construction. If “teh new shiny” sells just because it’s new, even if it’s cheap, that’s what they’re going to build.

  • Starsifter

    An economy boost in anyone’s backyard is always a plus. Will your congressional candidates running for office in March be as willing to create jobs in your district. Best to find out now and make an informed decision:

  • Matthew Hall

    “That’s why so much of the city is rundown”? I think that’s a relative judgement. Compared to Orlando or Minneapolis maybe, but people pay hundreds of thousands for charmless glorified garden sheds in san fran and seattle while Detroit is so “rundown” only an archeologist can even find evidence of its previous existence. I don’t think many cincinnatians think of it as “rundown”. My friends from Philly and Buffalo always comment on how “pretty and charming” cincinnati is. Everything is relative.

  • Schmiez

    They probably could get away with some nice structure that close to campus. The first phase of development along Calhoun has some decent food/bar options. And UC doesnt really have a target area up there right now (the was OSU has south campus gateway). By that i mean a destination to serve many purposes.

    Right now to get groceries, gas, prescription, beer, and tshirt, you have to visit 5 different locations, none of which are adjacent (maybe gas and Urban Outfitters).

  • Sarah

    I’m a student at UC and live at UPA. All apartments are fully leased here as well as 65 West. We are excited for the final product!

  • Tangentially, as UC continues with plans to expand the Law College and renovate the unoccupied YMCA building this development will do a lot to enliven Calhoun Street. As a past UPA resident myself I’m excited to see what this holistic masterplan will do (hopefully not create an urban canyon out of Calhoun St.!)