Delay Presents Opportunity for 3CDC to Rethink 15th and Race Development

Between two of Over-the-Rhine’s most treasured attractions is a Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) proposal currently on hold. As a result, the non-profit development corporation will either need to obtain a new funding source or the project will need to be “a little more within the scale of the existing market.”

The current proposal for the mixed-use project at Fifteenth and Race includes over 300 parking spaces, 57 residential units, and almost 22,000 square feet of commercial space. With the project now on hold, now is the time to step back and critically evaluate a major development in the heart of Over-the-Rhine.

The unnamed development sits primarily along Fifteenth Street, between Pleasant and Race Streets, and would occupy almost an entire city block with a massive parking garage and what can otherwise be described as a lackluster design. Think Mercer Commons 2.0.

Stand at the northern edge of Washington Park and look down Pleasant Street. If your eyes are better than mine, you’ll see Findlay Market. If you’d like to walk there, it is only a leisurely five to ten minute stroll. This proposed development’s car-centric design places a parking garage exit on Fifteenth Street, and would force vehicular traffic onto one of Over-the-Rhine’s most important pedestrian axes.

Additionally, the garage packs in 200 more vehicles than is mandated by law, forces the partial demolition of two historic structures, and limits the available commercial and residential space sandwiched between the phase one Cincinnati Streetcar route. If the streetcar should increase property value as predicted, a parking garage may not be the best use of land for such a prominent location along the line.

As is currently designed, the buildings that would wrap the garage present themselves as a homogeneous wall. This character contrasts heavily with the existing fabric that presents gaps between buildings, portals to interior courtyards, and strong visual relief. While the roof line makes an attempt at creating rhythm in concert with windows, its variation is not enough to mask that it is one big building.

These characteristics detract from the pedestrian scale, though the new construction hints at these qualities with balconies, recessed entries, and slightly offset building faces. These expressions are more akin to developments at The Banks and U Square at The Loop, and are a cheap imitation of Over-the-Rhine’s authenticity.

Along Pleasant Street, the Fifteenth and Race townhomes are compressed by the large, central parking garage. The private walk at the townhomes’ rear is noted as a ‘garden space’ but these spaces are approximately 10 feet wide and will be shadowed by a three-and-a-half-story parking garage. Along the street, the crosses and boxes highlighting the townhomes’ windows are wholly contemporary, which are expressions out of place on a building that is neither modern nor traditional; it is non-committal.

It should be noted that an entire block design is a difficult task in Over-the-Rhine because its designation as a historic district stems from the collection of smaller individual buildings built over time. Furthermore, the neighborhood’s historic character, established before the invention of the automobile, does not easily accommodate cars.

However, there will be a need for more parking, and the Over-the-Rhine Comprehensive Plan recognizes this, but states that new parking should be done “without impacting the urban fabric or historic character of the neighborhood.”

Individually rehabbed buildings do not typically have the potential to alter a neighborhood’s character, but when large-scale development is proposed, community members should have a place at the table.

When asked about developers engaging community stakeholders, Steve Hampton, Executive Director of the Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation, says, “If there’s one place for community outreach it is in large-scale development because of the unique architecture, historic neighborhood, and diversity of people in Over-the-Rhine.”

In the case of this Fifteenth and Race development, the first stages of community engagement were initiated by Over-the-Rhine Community Housing (OTRCH) and Schickel Design, who completed the Pleasant Street Vision Study (PSVS) in 2013.

While the proposed development incorporates all of the individual elements from the PSVS, it is not in the spirit of the pedestrian-focused Pleasant Street Vision Study and on a very different scale. The size and location of the parking garage is a major difference between the 3CDC proposal and the PSVS, and Mary Rivers, of OTRCH, noted that this is a big issue for many people.

Of course there is a gap between a vision study that outlines a community’s desires or needs, and the market forces that drive a real development, but there are various ways a community should be engaged in a project of this scale.

While OTRCH held focus groups prior to beginning the award-winning City Home project one block south along Pleasant Street, Rivers said that 3CDC did not engage OTRCH until after the current plans had been unveiled.

Rivers said, “We asked a diversity of people, ‘What do you like in Over-the-Rhine? What are you looking for in a home?’ Their answers ultimately influenced the design.” This type of engagement is not easy; and Rivers acknowledged that the best way to engage a community is on big issues not the details.

3CDC needs to step up, engage community stakeholders, and propose a design that is more respectful to Over-the-Rhine’s residents, and its unique architectural and urban form.

  • Matt Jacob

    3CDC found a strategy that works for redevelopment and is sticking to it with this plan. Build a new parking structure to open up an area of high potential density to those that already own cars and capture the higher spending power that comes with it through street level retail. Use the historic renovations of existing buildings as loss-leaders (so they can add tax credits to their project budgets and sell the urban living that is demanded) and infill with new buildings that are built in much the same way as a suburban retail/office buildings at lower cost. Steel structures with a slightly better exterior facade (but still not near those surrounding them) that, while introducing rhythm through varying setbacks, do not fool anyone since all the floors and window lines (with roof lines vary by a few feet) pick up from a neighboring building and continue uninterrupted through the whole massive development. They found a way when no one else could and I truly applaud them for that, because without them we wouldn’t be anywhere today.

    It will be interesting to see if/how their strategy changes now that there is pushback on the lower quality of their infill designs and that a new mode of transportation is coming to the neighborhood. Will they find a way to adjust their current model to make their designs on par (or dare I say above) with the surrounding historic architecture? Many hope so. Will they need to continue to include the parking structure component as a part of their design when people have another option? I tend to think so, due to the complete lack of parking in other parts of the neighborhood still, but perhaps it will be to a much smaller degree and hopefully include a larger car sharing and bicycle component.

    I think I agree that putting this project on hold could be a good thing, but for both 3CDC and the community. 3CDC is going to be forced to rethink their strategy soon (for reasons I mentioned above) and this offers a prime location to do version 2.0 of their strategy prove their new concept. Since they didn’t get tax credits they now have time now to reimagine this prime location, which even they will have trouble finding another one of.

  • thebillshark

    If they were able to break ground tomorrow on the current plan I’d be all for it. I am getting frustrated that so many big beautiful buildings sit empty down here when seemingly all pieces are in place and the momentum is here for redevelopment. If this parking garage can accomodate redevelopment on other surrounding blocks while keeping surface lot parking to a minimum that’s a good thing too. There’s a lot of abondoned buildings between Central Parkway, Elm, and Pleasant, and some buildings right across the street on Race that it could serve. So while this block might have a more monolithic “superblock” appearance due the the garage, it may help facilitate more piecemeal onesy twosy developments around it.

    I see the other side of the issue too. The footprint for those planned townhomes on Pleasant looks really small. Also, they are demolishing most of two historic buildings to accomodate the garage. It would be nice if they could shrink and re-arrange the garage to a minimum cost-effective size to support residents of this and surrounding developments so they didn’t have to make these comprimises.

    I wonder what the best strategy for the actual corner of 15th and Race is- the 3CDC plan has new construction addressing the street, which is good. But I wonder if anything is gained by saving the rear (minus the little garage) of 1505 Race and letting its side address the streetcorner, maybe with a little parklet like on the SE corner of 14th and Race? Then you would have historic buildings on all 4 corners of the intersection.

    I like how the Schickel design for the area addresses Liberty St. The time is coming soon when we have to start thinking about Liberty St. not as a border but as a centerpiece for development.

  • “a building that is neither modern nor traditional it is non-committal” That is the most succinct description of Cincinnati’s new architecture I’ve seen.

  • EDG

    Since the last administration, every project that has come out of City Hall and 3CDC has come with a 200-300 space publicly-subsidized garage.

    On the architecture, keep in mind that there are very few architects who could replicate the existing Italianate architecture to a degree that doesn’t come off as fake like Roebling Row apts in Covington. As far as going modern, I really like the new Mercer Commons building on Walnut. It’s clearly contemporary, the storefront is a near match, the streetwall is continued and the height and color match well

    • Neil Clingerman

      I’m actually a much bigger fan of 14th and Vine, the building that Quan Hapa is in. Its modern but pays homage to the historic architecture without going too ridiculous in its post-modern messiness -it fits into the neighborhood which is exceptionally rare in Cincinnati infill:

    • EDG

      I don’t get all the garage doors and the tower for OTR, but the brick and windows are nice

    • Neil Clingerman

      The garage doors are practical, makes for easy to open up windows for restaurants – Quan Hapa uses them quite nicely. The tower is a good post modern homage to late Victorian ~1890s architecture, while not common in Cincinnati, its a great way of engaging street corners – see also San Francisco (I know there are better examples, and Chicago is also full of them too):

    • EDG

      Walking from Wash Park to Vine along side this building has all of the comfort of walking past an auto mechanic where they don’t open up to restaurant space. Tower is more contextual to northside or Clifton but at least it’s something

    • Neil Clingerman

      Yeah Uptown/Northside/Walnut Hills is a better fit, but I still like it, its not dramatically out of place like the mercer building is.

    • charles ross

      I always kinda like walking by the garage window/doors at that corner. Somehow it breaks things up and makes you go “hey what’s this here?”

    • Neil Clingerman

      I’m also going to add that it reminds me of Parts of Williamsburg, Brooklyn where there are still industrial / old auto repair spots in amongst the similar aged/density old buildings.

    • Hopefully some of the non-conforming building in the neighborhood can be saved and rehabbed. For example, on Fourteenth Street, Urban Expansion is converting a one-story garage into apartments and adding a second story on top. Should be pretty interesting. I am glad that the burger barn got torn down, though.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Take some pics of that one, it sounds like a really cool project.

  • Let me start off with the obligatory statement that we all seem to agree with — 3CDC has done great things for OTR. Without them, we’d be nowhere. However, as the Enquirer put it, OTR isn’t 3CDC’s baby anymore.

    My biggest problem with 3CDC’s now-standard approach is the partial demolition of historic buildings to make room for larger parking garages. With the Mercer Commons garage, they considered the option of building a slightly smaller garage; however, in order to add a few more spaces and have a more “efficient” traffic pattern, they demolished the back half of one of the buildings on Mercer Street.

    This clearly shows 3CDC’s priorities. Their top priority is making OTR into a destination where people can easily drive in, visit some bars and restaurants, and drive out. With this approach, they make a ton of money off of the garages as well as their leases to these businesses. Making OTR into a livable neighborhood is a secondary concern for them. They may claim otherwise, but their actions speak louder than words. 3CDC continues to focus on high-end restaurants and bars rather than businesses that neighborhood residents need.

    This also explains why 3CDC is pushing for residential street parking in OTR. Why would they want to “waste” spaces in their parking garage with residents paying for monthly passes, when they could instead be filled with visitors paying $5/day and make twice as much money?

    • Neil Clingerman

      You know you have a point regarding their current design scheme, I think they should cut back the parking spaces more than a bit, particularly with the Streetcar (which IMO the business elite in Cincinnati seem to completely not understand). Shame there isn’t a mayor still in office that is supportive of new ideas down there.

    • Yes, 3CDC either does not understand the impact that the streetcar will have, or they actually think that the streetcar will negatively impact them (by making OTR more desirable and empowering other developers to invest in the neighborhood, adding more competition).

    • EDG

      Right, and the lack of active parking management in our newer garages is essentially admitting that they’re being overbuilt.

      Dunhummby will be the next overbuilt garage from 3CDC to come on line. The most hyped building downtown since the CAC and it’s largest use until office space expands downwards will be parking since it’s on the 75-Fountain Sq. route.

  • ArcticSix

    I don’t know much about architecture cost-wise or art-wise, but is it impractical to vary the architecture a more by putting space between some individual buildings and making them vary more in height? Scale back the garage a little bit and even with it poking over the top you have something with a better streetscape and a garage in the middle (Vancouver does this well, if I’m not mistaken, by placing their residential towers back from the street and having street-facing buildings be much more pedestrian friendly and interesting). Paint the lower levels of the exterior of the garage with murals from local artists and it could even be pleasant to glimpse in between the buildings.

    Also, I’d like to see more color in the original buildings by 3CDC. It’s not fooling anyone when every individual brick building on a new block is the same color. The individual variation in buildings needs to step up a bit more. Even choosing neighborhood-appropriate paint colors for some of the buildings would do wonders. Does 3CDC stipulate that the buildings can’t be painted?