Redesigned Streetscapes Could Turn Fourth and Race Streets Into Vibrant Public Spaces

Fourth Street offers one of the more impressive urban street canyons in all of America. Its pre-war high-rises dominate the streetscape and offer a glimpse into the proud history of Cincinnati.

Once the very center of business activity, Fourth Street was historically known as the region’s financial district – a place where all the power players lingered and conducted business. Since its heyday in the early 20th century, that center of financial clout has shifted. Some say it has shifted to Third Street, while others say it has moved east along Fourth or even north to Fifth Street.

In any case, many of those power players are now in other nearby districts, while the impressive structures they built are left behind.

City leaders had believed, with good reason, that Fourth Street would become the region’s premier shopping destination. However, with the demise of downtown malls and department stores, that vision never fully came to be.

All has not been lost though. Virtually all of the impressive, historic urban fabric remains and has since been largely converted into residential space. There is also a movement afoot from some business and civic leaders to breathe new life into not only Fourth Street’s retail scene, but Race Street’s as well.

Part of the ongoing transformation includes Mabley Place, which converted the former Tower Place Mall into a parking garage with street-level retail, the proposed 30-story residential tower that would replace the aging Pogue’s Garage, and the nearby and soon-to-open dunnhumbyUSA headquarters tower.

There is even the possibility of Fourth Street being converted back to two-way traffic following the activation of the now unused ramp to I-75 from Third Street.

As all of these projects start to become reality, they offer a unique opportunity to redo the public space in the area. One particular area that has long needed a redo, and has been the subject of many studio projects at DAAP, is Fourth Street’s dated streetscaping. Not only does the design of the sidewalks, benches and street trees leave much to be desired, they also do not follow standard good design practices.

The renovation of Fountain Square realized this and implemented good urban design practices in its final product. Things like softscaping and movable furniture are powerful elements to a good public space. The same could be done along Fourth Street’s, and for that matter much of Race Street’s, wide sidewalk widths.

Being in the midst of the digital age, it would also make sense to make the area more welcoming to tech users by implementing Internet hot spots and including solar-powered charging stations at benches and tables set up along the street.

Specifically, the areas best suited for such a transformation would be the north side of Fourth Street between Vine and Elm, and the east side of Race Street between Fifth and Seventh.

With more and more hotels opening up downtown in general, and specifically on or very near Fourth Street, this public space could also serve as a convenient and desirable ‘third place’ for travelers that are looking to spend some time out in the city, without feeling obligated to purchase endless cups of coffee or beer, but not also be trapped inside their hotel room.

Such a design could also activate the largely lifeless corridor with people from all backgrounds, and provide more passing customers for existing and potential businesses looking to setup shop there.

With all the construction taking place and about to get started, it would make most sense to leverage these private investments to improve this public space at the same time. Heck, it might even be the perfect opportunity to connect the new Central Parkway Cycle Track with the Ohio River Trail.

Construction Work Progressing on Hamilton’s $11.8M Artspace Lofts Project

From the construction of the Fitton Center for Creative Arts, to aggressively marketing Pyramid Hill, to proclaiming itself The City of Sculpture, Hamilton has been actively reinventing itself as an arts-friendly and arts-centered community since the early 1990s. One of the most recent efforts, however, has been the development of the Artspace Hamilton Lofts, a partnership between Neighborhood Housing Services of Hamilton and Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects.

When finished next summer, the $11.8 million mixed-use development will include 42 market-rate rental units including studios, one-, two-, and three-bedroom options. It will also include commercial and studio space on the first floor for burgeoning local artists.

Since its inception in the late 1970s, Artspace has transformed itself from simply being an advocate for the needs of artists into one of the premier non-profit developers of art-centric residential and commercial space in the United States. From artist cooperatives, to family lots, to non-residential projects, the Artspace Hamilton Lofts will continue their mission of creating unique, historic spaces for artists and arts organizations.

The Artspace project is also indicative of Hamilton’s efforts to reinvigorate its downtown by embracing its architectural past. Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, in an effort to appear more modern and match the neighboring structures that were being constructed, many of Hamilton’s downtown buildings had superficial metal facades installed on them that masked the original architectural details.

Fortunately, two of these surviving buildings, the Mehrum Building and Lindley Block, are in the process of having those metal facades removed as part of the Artspace project. The two properties were selected for the project after an extensive search, for the best location in Hamilton, over the past several years.

According to the Hamilton Lofts project lead, Sarah White, these facades have, in an ironic twist, protected the buildings from the elements over the years. While the structurally important aspects of the two century-old buildings will be left intact, the soft interiors are being completely gutted and rebuilt so that they will function as one.

The project was funded through a combination of public and private sources, including state historic tax credits and the National Endowment for the Arts and the Hamilton Community Foundation.

Project officials say that leasing will begin in the spring, and that those who are interested in applying for one of the residential or commercial art spaces can do so by attending their next informational session on Tuesday, November 18 at the Oxford Community Arts Center.

EDITORIAL NOTE: As part of our efforts to continue to keep you connected with what is happening in the urban areas of our region, we have added a new writer dedicated to covering Butler County’s historic urban cities of Hamilton and Middletown.

David A. Emery, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s School of Planning and former Hamilton resident, will be covering these cities in an effort to provide coverage of two other urban centers in our metropolitan region that boast significant populations and were 19th century boomtowns along the Great Miami River and Miami-Erie Canal.

Over many generations, both cities have been pulled into Cincinnati’s cultural and economic influence, and now essentially serve as satellite cities to the Queen City. The both, however, also are interesting places that are dealing with issues of urban redevelopment, diverse populations and changing economies.

PHOTOS: Take A Look Inside Cincinnati’s Deteriorating Union Terminal

Cincinnati’s Union Terminal is one of the few remaining gems of its kind. In addition to being a part of the golden era for passenger rail travel, the grand structure also pioneered the modern, long-distance travel building architecture for many of today’s airports.

Built the 1933, the impressive Art Deco structure was originally designed by Steward Wagner and Alfred Fellheimer as a passenger rail station. When it opened it even included a large terminal building that extended over the railroad tracks below.

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After train service was drastically reduced in 1971, the building began to languish. Shortly thereafter, freight railroad companies moved in to acquire some of the land and the terminal building was removed. Facing imminent demolition approximately one decade later, Hamilton County voters approved a bond levy to restore the structure.

When renovations were complete in 1990, some passenger rail operations were restored and what we know of today as the Museum Center moved in. However, not much has been done to maintain the building since that time and even those repairs that were done in the late 1980s were only some of what was needed. That means the building is once again in need of an overall in order to stay in use.

On Tuesday, November 4, Hamilton County voters will once again decide the fate of one of the region’s most prominent landmarks. They will go to the polls to decide whether they want to initiate a quarter-cent sales tax to provide up to $170 million for the $208 million project.

To get a better idea of the current conditions of Union Terminal, I took a behind the scenes tour of the facility two weeks ago. There is noticeable water damage throughout the building, some visible structural damage and outdated HVAC systems that are driving up maintenance costs for the behemoth structure.

Whether this particular region icon is saved once more by the voters of Hamilton County, or not, is something we will soon find out.

EDITORIAL NOTE: All 11 photos were taken by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy on Saturday, September 27.

New High-End Townhomes Add to Pendleton’s Ongoing Revitalization

A relatively small development called Pendleton Street Townhomes will bring 10 new single-family residences to the center city in two phases over the next two years.

One of the interesting components about the project is that it is blending in mostly new infill on vacant lots with a renovation of an existing historic structure that dates back to the 1870s. The work also comes at the same time as a flurry of other investments nearby that are poised to transform the historic neighborhood.

Often considered a sub-neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine, Pendleton is actually one of the smallest of the city’s 52 official neighborhoods. Its building stock and urban form are essentially identical to that of its more well-known neighbor to the west.

The neighborhood has long had a slightly unique sub-culture of its own, perhaps driven by the Pendleton Arts Center, which boasts the world’s largest collection of artists under one roof. While this claim may be more hyperbole than reality, the Pendleton Arts Center is located in an impressively large warehouse building that has more than 500 studios and 200 resident artists.

Over the past two decades the Pendleton Arts Center has served as an anchor for the neighborhood, and the new townhomes being developed are fittingly located in its proud shadow.

Developers broke ground in late August on what will be four newly constructed townhomes, and one renovated property. Each home, developers say, is approximately 3,100 square feet and ranges in price from $390,000 to $449,000.

The second phase will include five more newly constructed townhomes and is anticipated to break ground next fall. While it is still preliminary, developers expect those homes to be slightly smaller and to go for around $400,000.

Evidence of the area’s hot real estate market is the fact that developers sold five of the units before even breaking ground just over a month ago.

One of the key marketing points, and a policy point of pride for those promoting sustainable development practices, is that each of the properties will be LEED certified and thus qualify for the City of Cincinnati’s tax abatement program for such properties.

The townhomes within the first phase of work under construction are expected to be complete in spring 2015.

VIDEO: Breathing New Life Into the City’s Oldest Standing Firehouse

We have been writing more and more about Walnut Hills, East Walnut Hills and Evanston lately. That has largely been because a lot has been happening there over the past couple of years; and it seems like that trend is only just getting started.

It is, perhaps, no coincidence that these three neighborhoods also fall loosely into the focus area for the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. While WHRF is a different organization in size and scope from 3CDC, it too is making an out-sized impact in this part of the city. One of the more current examples of this, in a bricks and mortar sense, is the redevelopment of the city’s oldest firehouse.

Located in Peeble’s Corner, the 134-year-old structure had sat vacant for the better part of four decades. The restoration created a new street-level restaurant space that is now occupied by Fireside Pizza, and an apartment on the upper-floor. It is also part of a larger redevelopment effort, being led by Kent Hardman, on a slew of surrounding buildings.

The restoration of this historic firehouse is particularly important to Kevin Wright, the executive director of WHRF, who says that it really is the first completed example that embodies the foundation’s goal of acquiring and restoring blighted properties.

In light of that, the WHRF worked with Andrew Stahlke, an occasional video contributor to UrbanCincy, to produce the following three-minute video on the history and process of bringing the building back to life.