Success of Hickory Place Townhomes Accentuates Avondale’s Turnaround

A long-held vision for bringing new market rate housing to Avondale is finally being realized; and its early success has surprised many. With most of the initial eight Hickory Place Townhomes already sold, developers say they are ready to invest in a second phase.

“We knew the townhomes in phase one would sell quickly, but sales outpaced our expectations,” said Beth Robinson, president and CEO of the Uptown Consortium.

Robinson says that the first five homes were sold in just 16 days, which is well ahead of the 51-day average for homes on the market in the Cincinnati area. Those first five homes, she says, also had listing prices above $175,000.

When community leaders and development officials with the Uptown Consortium broke ground on eight townhomes in early 2014, many were skeptical about whether they homes would sell.

The skepticism was easy to understand.

The site is located in the middle of a redevelopment area that has yet to be fully realized, is situated in a neighborhood that is often defined by crime and poverty, and is also located near many foreclosed or abandoned homes. But knowing the challenges of the site and project only offers a partial understanding.

The site is located just off of Burnet Avenue, which has seen tens of millions in new investment over the past decade. These investments have created new businesses and jobs, while also preserving some long-time neighborhood establishments and historic assets. Meanwhile, the nearby Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center has continued to add hundreds of high-paying medical and research jobs to its growing campus, and the nearby playground and ball field was recently freshened up thanks to an investment from the Reds Community Fund.

These new investments, combined with changing demographics more interested in urban living and working options, have set the table for a new path forward for the city’s seventh most populated neighborhood.

“We are thrilled that the market has responded so favorably to the Hickory Place Townhomes,” said Ozie Davis, executive director at Avondale Comprehensive Development Corporation. “The success of this project proves our strong belief that Avondale is the next hot residential market.”

Similar to what has been completed thus far, the $5 million second phase will include eight townhomes with approximately 1,400 square feet of living space, and including two to three bedrooms. In order to maximize the use of the land, developers are only building one-car garages for each home, but they will come with the option of an additional on-street parking space along Northern Avenue.

Listing agents with Coldwell Banker’s Metro Link office say that the prices for these homes will start at $225,000.

Developing homes in this price range within Avondale is intentional. In addition to being the largest black community in the city, Avondale is also one of the city’s poorest. This has led to numerous problems over the years, including schooling options, lack of healthy food options, crime and abandonment.

While neighborhood leaders have shown a strong commitment to bolstering affordable housing options, and improving existing conditions of the neighborhood for longstanding residents, the diversification of income levels and housing options is seen as a positive.

If recent success stories, such as the $40 million Avondale Town Center development on Reading Road, and the massive capital investment to improve low-income housing options, are any indication, then the future of the neighborhood looks as bright and as hopeful as the vision Davis has for it.

Covington Embraces Idea of Transforming On-Street Parking Into Public Spaces

Five sites and designs were recently selected for bringing parklets to the heart of Covington. The announcement came on Friday, January 15 and marked the conclusion of a design-build competition called Curb’d.

Organizers say that the intent of the competition was to support Covington’s business districts by promoting walkability, connectivity and placemaking – topics that align with the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation, Renaissance Covington and MainStrasse Village Association, which provided financial support for the competition.

The five selected sites are also seen as a pathway link between the MainStrasse and Renaissance districts in Covington’s downtown.

First popularized in North America in San Francisco, parklets have grown in popularity over the years particularly in neighborhood business districts looking to reclaim public space from cars for people walking, biking, shopping or simply relaxing. Over the years, cities, like Chicago, have even embraced the idea so much that specific design guidelines and practices have been institutionalized to lend legitimacy to the movement.

In Cincinnati that has so far not been the case.

In 2012, a parklet program was proposed for Over-the-Rhine, but the effort never gained the community support, funding and endorsement from City Hall that it would ultimately require. Since that time, ideas have been pitched to develop a parklet in front of Tucker’s Restaurant on Vine Street, but those efforts have also fallen short.

Aside from that, the closest the region has come to experiencing the transformation of on-street parking spaces into other uses has come in the form of the international celebration of PARK(ing) Day.

While parklets have generally become known as public seating areas or small parks, the organizers of Curb’d said they wanted to push the limits with this competition.

“The examples that we showed the businesses and designers in our information sessions were glow-in-the-dark swings, a mini-movie theater, and a bus stop that resembled an old school radio,” explained Sam O’Connor, Curb’d project coordinator. “Ultimately, we wanted our design teams to really discover the potential of a parking space.”

After finding businesses interested in participating, O’Connor says they, in cooperation with the participating businesses, then proceeded to curate a collection of 12 design teams that would come up with proposals for the spaces. The selected design teams then worked with local fabrication workshops to discuss their ideas and work through the logistics of turning their designs into reality.

After some further refinement, five design teams had their proposals selected to receive funding to have them built.

A+D Design developed what they called Hopscotch Garden for space in front of Braxton Brewing on W. Seventh Street, and will work with 3dx on fabrication. The concept calls for a space that will allow for people to sit and enjoy a beer or coffee outside, while also offering a hopscotch zone.

BPHOGS Design came up with The Boxing Ring for a location in front of Cutman Barbershop and Flow. They will work with Weld Rite Industries to produce the parklet, which will include passive spaces for seating and dining. The parklet will also include several programmed spaces, which, fittingly enough, will include speed bags positioned along the sidewalk to allow for maximum accessibility, and a center area for a game of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em.

Hub+Weber Architects designed a parklet intended for people to exercise and enjoy virtual trips to far away destinations, or even classic movies shown on a projector powered by the pedaling of the bikes. The stationary bicycle space will be located in front of Inspirado at Madison Gallery.

In front of Left Bank Coffeehouse, Seth Trance and Harry Ross developed a concept they call Wish-Igloo, which they hope will promote engagement between the first person who uses the parklet and the last person who does so. Trance and Ross believe this will be accomplished through the parklet’s striking design that is both changeable and invites users to physically manipulate the space.

The final project is also, perhaps, the most unique. To be located next to Stoney’s Village Toy Shoppe, John Noble & Team came up with a design that includes a range of engaging toys for children of varying ages. In essence, the parklet is seen as a way to extend the shop’s culture out onto the street, while also encouraging children to be more active.

Fabrication of each of the five parklets is expected to begin within the next week or so, with installation taking place the first week of May. O’Connor says they plan to do a grand reveal on Friday, May 6, with the parklets staying in place until the end of October when they will then be taken down.

EDITORIAL NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that MSA Architects designed ‘The Boxing Ring’ parklet for in front of Cutman Barbershop. That parklet design was actually produced by BPHOGS Design. Additionally, due to a mix-up in winning project announcements, it was incorrectly stated that Hub+Weber Architects designed the coloring lounge concept for in front of Madison Gallery. Hub+Weber Architects actually designed a stationary bicycle parklet. Both items have been corrected in this story.

Hamilton County Pushes Forward With Latest Phase of The Banks

Hamilton County has awarded the latest bid package for a variety of trade contracts on the infrastructure work for Phase III of The Banks, which includes a 690-space addition to the Central Riverfront Garage and a one-block addition of other infrastructure south of Freedom Way.

All three contacts were valued at a combined $653,228; and all went to area companies. According to Phil Beck, project executive for The Banks development, Universal Contracting Corporation will perform site work, Geograph Industries will handle signage, and ESI will manage security of the site.

While not particularly large or sexy contracts, project officials say they are representative of the continued progress being made at the massive central riverfront mixed-use development.

“Awarding these contracts for work at The Banks signals that another aspect of the riverfront development is nearing completion,” said Chris Monzel (R), president of the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners. “This phase of the project sets the stage for more economic impact.”

The University of Cincinnati Economics Center has estimated that, once fully completed, the first phase of The Banks will positively impacting the local economy by some $276 million per year – a figure they expect to grow substantially once later phases are built out. General Electric’s new 338,000-square-foot Global Operations Center, alone, is projected to boost the region’s economy by roughly $1 billion annually.

While Hamilton County is overseeing the construction of the infrastructure work at Phase III, the City of Cincinnati and the private development team is making progress on the vertical build of GE’s new building, the 165-room AC Hotel, and 291 apartments and 19,000 square feet of retail within the first two phases of the project.

THP Limited and Burgess & Niple are in charge of the design of Phase III work, while Messer is handling the construction.

As of now, all the infrastructure work being managed by Hamilton County and the City of Cincinnati is $29.3 million within budget; and project officials say that they have achieved 30% Small Business Enterprises participation on all work, but just 17.3% on phase three activities thus far. Beck also says that phase three work is on schedule to be complete by September.

EXCLUSIVE: ODOT Expected to Announce Major Shift to ‘Fix-it-First’ Policy

While Ohio’s gas taxes and population have remained flat over the past decade, the Ohio Department of Transportation has continued to add capacity to roadways across the state – in some cases even building entirely new roadways to add to the state’s existing infrastructure. This may all soon be ready to change in what is being called a “major” policy shift in Columbus.

According to employees at ODOT who were briefed at an internal meeting on the matter recently, the nation’s seventh-largest state is poised to announce in the coming months that the days of roadway expansion are over. Instead they say that ODOT will embrace a future focused on maintenance and preservation of its existing network of more than 43,000 miles of roads and 14,000 bridges.

While officials say the move is economically driven, it also comes at a time as activists around the country – including numerous cities throughout Ohio – are increasingly calling for governments to embrace a “fix-it-first” policy.

An increasing number of states have been adopting such policies, with Michigan being one of the first when it enacted its Preserve First program in 2003, and California being the largest when it joined the fray last year.

The forthcoming announcement from ODOT, however, goes a step further than that.

In addition to focusing funds on maintenance and preservation, ODOT officials also say that they will abandon their “worst first” approach to fixing existing roadways. In doing so they say that the new program, called the Transportation Asset Management Plan, can save the state an estimated $300 million over the next six years – money that can then be redirected to other preservation activities like cleaning, sweeping, sealing and micro-surfacing.

The idea here, similar to healthcare or household maintenance, is that it is often much more economical to make steady improvements rather than waiting to make repairs until the asset is too far gone.

“It’s finally sinking in that we cannot continue on this unsustainable pace of highway expansion,” said an ODOT employee who spoke to UrbanCincy on the conditions of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

According to ODOT’s own internal estimates, current funds will not be enough to maintain Ohio’s existing system by 2019 – the time when the Ohio Turnpike bonds are gone. Thus, without a major new source of revenue like a gas tax increase, ODOT intends to completely get out of the highway expansion business, and shift all funds to maintenance and rehabilitation.

“Most projects will occur before a road becomes severely compromised, and will be based around maximizing the service life of a particular road,” the ODOT staffer continued. “Long story short, ODOT isn’t going to waste its money on patching up a road as a temporary fix that will simply deteriorate again quickly because of major structural problems.”

There is no clear idea as to whether highway expansion projects currently on the drawing board will be impacted by this, but it appears likely that they will unless they receive capital funding through TRAC prior to 2019.

Such news could be damning for projects like the recently proposed Eastern Bypass or what is left of the Eastern Corridor project. At the same time, it could be the positive jolt needed for projects like the Western Hills Viaduct, which is in desperate need of an estimated $280 million fix.

Knight Foundation Announces Nearly 150 Finalists For Cities Challenge

The Knight Foundation will announce their list of finalists in the Knight Cities Challenge today. The finalists have been pulled from a collection of more than 4,500 ideas submitted through the challenge to help improve the vibrancy of cities throughout America.

The competition, as with all Knight Foundation grants, is limited to the 26 communities where the organization focuses its efforts. The nearest cities to Cincinnati include Akron and Lexington – both of which were places where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers.

“Through the challenge we want to find new voices and new ideas that capture the three key ingredients of city success—talent, opportunity and engagement,” said Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation vice president for community and national initiatives. “We see these as essential to the challenge and to building stronger futures for all of our cities.”

Akron has become a bit of a darling in the Knight Foundation group as many efforts originating their so tightly align with the non-profit’s core values. In fact, this past October Akron grabbed national headlines when it staged a 500-person dinner on an underutilized highway in the heart of the city – an effort the Knight Foundation supported financially.

The winners of this year’s challenge will be awarded grants to implement their ideas from a pool of $5 million. The target, program officials say, is to invest in civic innovators who help cities attract and keep talented people, expand economic opportunity and create a culture of engagement. Such a model is similar to what People’s Liberty has taken on here in Cincinnati.

Three projects that may prove of interest to leaders here in the Queen City include the Tree Debris to Opportunity project in Boulder, and the New Flavors Food Truck project in North Dakota.

In Boulder, city officials are looking to turn tree debris into an opportunity by training members of the community looking for new skills into collectors and artisans. Through the project, participants would work with the city to collect tree debris and turn it into furniture and art – thus improving the cleanliness of the city and providing the participants with new skills.

In Cincinnati, such a program could potentially help bolster Mayor John Cranley‘s Hand Up Initiative which is aiming to lift 4,000 Cincinnatians out of poverty, while also helping improve the cleanliness of city neighborhoods.

The proposal for the New Flavors Food Truck looks to capitalize on the continued popularity and low-cost of food trucks. In this effort, the organizers would use a generic food truck to provide opportunities to new immigrants to start new food service businesses or restaurants.

With Cincinnati placing a growing interest in embracing and growing its immigrant population, an idea akin to this might serve as a good building block to empower those individuals.

The Knight Foundation will select the winners from this pool of nearly 150 finalists later this spring.