New Race Street Project Seeks Exceptions, Draws Criticism

Steiner + Associates, a Columbus, OH based development company, has submitted plans through Platte Architecture + Design to the City’s Historic Conservation Board (HCB) to build a six-story mixed-use infill project along Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine (OTR). The proposal has drawn criticism and support from neighbors and the local Over-the-Rhine Foundation Infill Committee, an independent committee which reviews new construction in the neighborhood on a volunteer basis. A hearing on the project is scheduled for Monday, April 10.

The proposal for new construction would demolish two single-story garages at 1216-1218 Race Street and replace them with a 20-unit apartment building with approximately 3,300 square feet of ground level retail. Along Race Street the building will be five stories, and along the rear alley it will be six.

The developer is seeking three variances relating to buildable density, parking requirements and retail frontage. The variance for density would double the allowable number of units allowed on the site by its current zoning. The property is located along the Cincinnati Bell Connector route and qualifies for a 50% reduction in parking, the applicant is asking for relief from the remainder.

City staff recommends denial.

Included in information presented in the HCB packet are numerous letters of support for the project coming primarily from other residents and members of the city’s architectural community praising the design for its modern, 21st century design.

In one letter OTR residents Marcia Banker and Jeffrey Schloemer expressed their frustration with the Board, “We continue to be at a loss why well-designed projects that look as though they were created and built in the 21st century receive push back while new construction that is little more than not a good copy of 19th century design that is more fit for Main Street USA at DisneyWorld encounter little resistance.”

The OTR Foundation Infill Committee reviewed the project and found it to meet only one of eleven evaluation criteria for conformance to its infill guidelines. In her review of the application, City Historic Conservator Beth Johnson found that the project only met two of the OTR Historic Guidelines on infill projects.

“At this time staff does not feel that enough support or evidence has been provided to staff to justify that there is a hardship of any nature, to allow for a doubling in the density allowances, to not have the applicant attempt to provide any of the required parking, as well as justifying the extensive amount of building recess on the ground floor of the building,” Johnson stated in her report.

There is no question that demand for development in OTR is accelerating the scale and impacts on the historic urban city neighborhood. But should zoning and historic guidance rules be ignored for the sake of development? And if not, is it time to perhaps reevaluate these rules in light of the evolving development patterns and changing conditions in the neighborhood?

The Historic Conservation Board hearing on this project is at 3pm on Monday April 10 at the 5th Floor Conference Room of II Centennial located on 805 Central Ave.

Update: The hearing for this project has been moved to April 24th as reported by the Cincinnati Business Courier.

Editors Note: Mr. Yung is a member of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation Board of Trustees.

  • Jesse

    I’m completely behind conservation and preserving the character of the neighborhood, but I’m not sure I understand the objection to this project. The proposed building is not significantly taller than surrounding structures and its design seems respectful of the overall aesthetic of the area. It looks modern but not radically so. I don’t know what more you can ask. It’s not like you can build new historic buildings. If the alternative is to build structures so bland that nobody notices they are there, then I think the guidelines are misguided.

    As for the zoning issues, aren’t we trying to encourage density, or does the word mean something different here? As for parking requirements, those should be dropped completely for a project like this.

    You know what doesn’t appear to conform to the historic character of the area. The ugly garages sitting is a spot where a lot of people would love to live or just sit down for a cup of coffee in a recessed area that is not blocking the sidewalk.

    • Eric

      The architect could at least try to sell the 200% density increase, or rezone.

  • SquidHunter

    Continuing to require parking minimums in the most walkable areas of Cincinnati not only demonstrates a total incompetence with regards to urban design (book: The High Cost of Free Parking) but it also proves these people have no idea how modern society operates. Facilitating easy parking will increase the amount of traffic in the area. Not to mention, in an era when autonomous ride hailing vehicles are becoming ever more popular, car ownership will continue to decrease. Then we’re going to be stuck with an abundance of garage space that could instead be an income producing apartment. Driving a personal vehicle downtown is reserved for the car dependent slobs of suburbia. Downtown is for civilized people who walk, bike, Uber, and use public transit.

    • Lucas Dillingham

      Absolutely agree with this. Parking requirements are ridiculous.

    • Brian Boland

      So much yes in both of these comments. #ditchparkinginthecity

    • Eric Anspach

      Agree. Parking requirements should be abolished in the urban core.

    • Eric

      Especially since there’s a public garage across the street. Unfortunately, if the number of required spaces are not secured only for this development, they can’t be counted entirely, which again runs counter to the logic of shared parking and urbanism.

  • Erich Griessmann

    I’m sure the usual suspects will start filing lawsuits……

  • Matt Jacob

    I think they’ll also be coming to the OTR Community Council meeting on April 24th to talk about it too if anyone wants to voice their opinion there.

    Overall I like it. Just wish they’d drop the extra height being added above the 6th story from the stair access to the rooftop deck by using the roof of the 5th story as the roof deck instead. Less competing with the steeple next door that way and it overlooks at the park then.

    Parking requirements are antiquated and it’s unreasonable to make a project like this comply. There’s not enough land here to add meaningful spaces without cutting into the retail SF, which in the long-term would hurt its viability to keep it full. I’ve heard the complaints of long-term residents over the loss of parking, but to me that’s what you signed up for living in the middle of the city. You can’t expect to live central and bring a car like has been the case in the past. It’s long past time that we made residents choose between a walkable neighborhood and their car.

    I’d like to hear more about the density and how this compares to the zoning and other places in the neighborhood. In general I favor increased density to increase affordability (which also takes a hit when requiring parking spaces) and income mix. Based on some quick math, it would seem these are near 725 SF/unit, so it doesn’t seem too tight, and I’d guess that they won’t be able to charge the $2.00+/SF rates on the lower floors that look towards the alley, so within the building there should be a decent mix of prices from the high-middle range (it is still on WP and at a SC stop, aka prime location, after all).

    • John

      Matt, in general I am right with you. On smaller projects, there shouldn’t be parking requirements. On massive project like Elm and Liberty there absolutely should be as the injection of 115 apartments, and several commercial storefronts, with employees and guests represents a dramatic influx of vehicles into our neighborhood. As always, we should be considering the quality, and livability of the surrounding neighborhood. This project may be slightly too dense, but should not have to give up valuable retail or residential square footage to accommodate any cars. I like the design a lot myself–in general I am in favor of contemporary designs, versus trying to copy the past and trick people into thinking new buildings are old. The problem is (as you rightly point out) the height of this project. It dwarfs the two surrounding buildings, especially when you take into account the fact that you will see the back from across the park. I am highly skeptical though, that they will have a diversity of rates being charged for rent. I am guessing that they are building the max that they will be allowed to on the site, and charging the max that they can get based on the market–which is just fine, so long as the zoning and building regulations on those maximum sizes that the community put in place are followed!

    • Matt Jacob

      I agree that on parcels of land that are big enough to reasonably facilitate structured parking, that some requirement is still reasonable. That’s not the case at all here like it is at Elm/Liberty.

      Personally I think this project did a great job of addressing the height (outside what I mentioned above the 6th story). It’s such a slippery slope to say that “you will see the back from across the park” because how far away is that from and why is this vantage point more important that the window of a neighbor for example? Using the vantage point of the sidewalk across the street has been typical and the 6th floor is outside this clearly. The 5-stories at the streetline is pretty close to the “one story above a neighboring property” rule from what I can tell from the front elevations. There’s really not a lot more that you can ask for here.

      I’m sure they won’t be cheap, just because of the cost of construction, but even if they want to charge a lot, those low back units are going to be a much harder sell than the front and upper floors. My guess is a sizable difference in prices, but I’m sure they’ll try for as much as they can, given the location.

  • This X 1000 … while new construction that is little more than not a good copy of 19th century design that is more fit for Main Street USA at DisneyWorld encounter little resistance.”
    I’m tired of ugly infill with proportions that don’t match the neighbors. I love the two new buildings on Race just north of 15th. More of that please.

  • Chris Godby

    Why a project such as this would get major push back is an absolute head scratcher. Granted I’ve only seen the renderings in this post, but it appears to be an attractive building that fits the character of the neighborhood. I’m guessing height is a major push back. While the building probably would blend in more at 4 or 5 stories, I don’t think that should be a deal breaker. The development would certainly be a welcome addition to the neighborhood, especially compared to the two garages its replacing!

    When it comes to development, it seems like the OTR community frequently gets in its own way. The Liberty & Elm project is another good example. That project is potentially a major catalyst for OTR north of Liberty being built on mostly vacant land, but community protest is slowing down the project. If those developers pull out, it would be a major blow to the area’s development and set it back at least 3-5 years.

  • Eric

    Relates well with the building immediately north and the block, and there’s precedent for contemporary architecture on Washington Park now with the Shakespeare Theatre.

    I really dislike the drab, unfinished contemporary aesthetic 3CDC has adopted, as well as phony neotraditionalism from other developers. Cincinnati needs more striking contemporary architecture on infill lots like this one. Building to the street and keeping form won’t detract from historic OTR.

    My concern would be the commercialization of this block with a café and prominent signage.

  • I’m going to play contrarian here.

    If you read the criticisms, they make sense. First, I have a degree in architecture and love modern design, and in fact would agree it would be good to have more contemporary designs in the neighborhood. That said, it wouldn’t be particularly expensive to add some architectural detailing that would break up the facade and prevent the project from appearing as one plain face (between floors 2-4, at least).

    Second, the 6th floor (which appears to be metal or vinyl siding?) WILL be seen from across the park as well as from the alley, WILL look ugly and out of place, and WILL block sunlight from entering the alley. I’m a big proponent of density in the neighborhood and support waiving the density limit here. But the 6th floor might be a step too far.

    Finally, I have conflicting views on parking. In general, I’m against parking minimums. But I believe the majority of people moving into OTR will still have cars. I’m afraid not asking for SOME requirement on larger projects (and 20 units to me should be considered large) could open a pandora’s box.

    My hunch is the developer and architect both know this and are factoring in a need for negotiation. My hope is that with some tweaks this will eventually get approved.