Ongoing demolitions threaten downtown historic districts

With new businesses and the Smale Riverfront Park opening last week, it seems that downtown is finally becoming the place to live, work and play city leaders have long envisioned. Unfortunately, despite the many signs of progress, some of downtown’s distinct historic fabric continues to be threatened by the wrecking ball.

Last year, the owner of 309 W. Fifth Street demolished a building next to Mainstay Rock Bar in favor of a parking lot. Now the neighboring building, which was meant to be served by this new parking lot, has been demolished in spite of opposition from the city’s Historic Conservation Board.

Not only was the demolition opposed by the Historic Conservation Board, but it was also opposed by Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA). The reason the demolition is allowed to move forward, however, is due to a successful appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), which stated that the justification for the tear down was economic hardship.

The use of “economic hardship” as a justification for the demolition of historic structures is a common one, according to local preservationists.

The demolition of 305 W. Fifth Street made way for a parking lot, and this exposed wall that was later turned into a mural. Photograph courtesy of 5chw4r7z.

“CPA and many other advocates spoke out against the demolition because the building is contributing, and is a significant structure with development potential,” stated Margo Warminski, Preservation Director of CPA. “The building next door is under renovation, and there are already two vacant lots on the block.”

Warminski says that 305-309 W Fifth Street LLC, claimed the building’s poor condition and costly repairs made it not viable for office use. She also stated that other potential uses, like residential apartments, were not explored in great depth by the owner. It is expected that the LLC owning the property will soon apply for a variance that would allow the construction a landscaped surface parking lot in the historic building’s place.

According to preservationists, the problem with tearing down this structure goes beyond the immediate loss of the historic building. The demolished building shares a common wall with the neighboring building which is currently being renovated, and engineers and insurance agents are already assessing the potential damage the demolition may have caused to the neighboring building.

Similar Story on Main Street
Five blocks east, on Main Street, the former Bay Horse Café building faces demolition under similar circumstances. Situated in the Main Street Historic District, the demolition permit must first be reviewed by the Historic Conservation Board and if denied could be appealed to the Zoning Board of Appeals. A meeting date has yet to be set for the demolition proposal.

The building owner of the Horse Bay Café building says that trucks loading and unloading equipment sometimes hit and damage the building, and thus needs to be demolished. Evidence of this can be seen from the partially damaged storefront cornice, but an independent site analysis, performed by UrbanCincy, found that a wider alley accessible off from Sixth Street is commonly blocked by parked cars. Should the parked cars be prevented from blocking the alley, it could serve as an easy remedy to the problem and would avoid demolition of yet another historic building within a historic district.

Despite these recent setbacks, Warminski is optimistic because the city’s preservation ordinance is currently being revised and strengthened. The revised ordinance, Warminski claims, will include stricter criteria when using “economic hardship” as the case for demolition.

Private options, such as OTR ADOPT may not work in downtown because of high property values, but getting information out on vacant and distressed downtown property may help potential buyers looking for historic renovation projects. A strategy being pursued in Philadelphia is similar to OTR ADOPT, and aspires to help transfer property from owners who want to demolish to owners who want to restore. But ultimately, it may come down to a more engaged public, and more preservation-minded city staff.

“Get the facts, turn out, speak up, and share information in a timely manner,” Warminski exclaimed when asked what people can do to help prevent additional demolitions of historic buildings. “When controversial issues come up it’s important to show City boards that people are interested and are following what is going on.”

  • The building demo’d on 5th just blows my mind. There is a surface lot and two huge parking decks within a few blocks. You would think with the Convention  Center across the street there would be some viable business options for those buildings.

    • Neil Clingerman

      You aren’t kidding.  I was pretty disgusted by the “Emergency Medical Center” being demoed too, that building really gave cincy a kind of european feel.   Without them what does Cincy have to sell itself to the rest of the world?   If only Cincy would actually get off its butt and market the things it does well and market the assets such as its incredible historic building stock then maybe, just maybe stuff like this wouldn’t happen.

      Also, a lot of the issue is the local banks are too conservative, and unwilling to take bigger risks to make bigger returns take for instance the IGA in Clifton, the local banks just don’t GET what’s happening in much of the rest of the country, people are moving back to cities and demanding to live there.

    • John Yung

      I’m reminded of a quote I almost used in an article a few months ago. It basically said city’s have the one big resource the suburbs don’t and that’s how oldness of its buildings contributes to the character of the the downtown. Once its gone, its gone. We can’t build anything that ever looked like that today.

  • It’ll be interesting to see how quickly the Aronoff enters into a lease agreement with the Bay Horse Cafe owner so they can use his lot to provide wider access to their loading area.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Its amazing how there are cities like San Fran, NYC and Chicago where this happens all the time and the trucks just have to deal with it.   In Cincinnati its well we gotta tear down all the buildings to make it possible.   I’m constantly blown away by how much Cincy does not see it self as a city in spite of its intense historical urbanity.

    • The same can be said for people’s complaints about traffic and parking in Cincinnati. No matter how much parking we add, some people will still complain about “how hard it is” for find a space or how much it costs. No matter how many lanes we add to area highways, there will still be backups at rush hour and some people will complain. Instead of catering to these crowds, Cincinnati should focus on building the best city possible.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Some of those same people should try driving in Chicago and finding parking sometime ;-).   It takes time but it can be done, Cincy is too easy by comparison even on weekdays downtown.

    • Obviously the Aronoff is involved because 1) There are currenlty Aronoff Delivery signs on the Bay Horse Cafe Building, and 2) Why would a building owner demolish a building without some surety that there’s money to be made?

    • John Yung

      That reminds of the time I was on a tour bus in China and the driver basically backed the bus down a narrow alley, parallel parked in a small lot behind all these buildings with about ten other tour buses in the same space all without hitting anything! I’m sure there are truck drivers that can be that graceful in tight spaces here in the states.

    • Zachary Schunn

      It’s crazy to me how desperate people can be to lay blame on anything but themselves.  Aronoff doesn’t provide enough loading space, drivers block another accessible loading access point, truck drivers keep hitting the building… and yet it’s the BUILDING’S fault?

      Could you imagine if the city had blamed Baba Budan’s for being in the way of this driver?

    • John Yung

      I’m not sure how the access to this side of the Aronoff has suddenly become an issue for them. The theater is not that old and I’m sure they gauged the amount of access they needed when it was designed and built.

  • Thank you for covering this important subject. The rate of demolition and lack of meaningful resistance is appalling. I wrote about this last week on the OTR blog:

  • Zachary Schunn

    It’s a shame we don’t have better ways to increase private development downtown.  OTR Adopt is an incredible program and I was really impressed after going through a few buildings last week.  Their building stock is actually in fairly good shape.

    Philly’s system looks nice, though the map doesn’t look much different than a listing service.  Anyone else could do the same thing for Cincinnati with some good data and a little bit of time.  My only fear with that is people commonly go to real estate agents saying, “How can I find a building?”  And with a solution like the map, though real estate agents serve a lot more purposes than just the initial building search it may give people a false impression they can do it all on their own.