OTR Leaders Close to Turning Pleasant Street Into Neighborhood Connector

A coalition of community organizations organized a public event on July 11 that encouraged people to explore Pleasant Street and showcase it as a model pedestrian pathway connecting two of Over-the-Rhine’s biggest anchors.

Neighborhood leaders have long wanted to better connect Washington Park with Findlay Market via Pleasant Street. The effort really gained traction when the first phase of City Home was developed at the southern terminus of the street in 2012. Prior to that, however, the street was one of the worst in the neighborhood in terms of the status of its buildings and the street itself. That has changed.

The recently held event closed off the narrow street to vehicular traffic so that people could better visualize how a pedestrian-friendly Pleasant Street might look and feel.

In coordination with that event, an ongoing public art project, entitled Alternate Steps, has overseen the installation of several pop-up pocket parks along the corridor between Washington Park and Findlay Market. The first example of this is a wiffle ball field that doubles as a working garden that supports Findlay Market’s other production gardens.

Built adjacent to the former AVP Volleyball court, Field of Greens is a partnership between People’s Liberty, Findlay Market, 3CDC, OTR Community Council, and a bundle of classes at the University of Cincinnati.

Organizers say the overarching goal is to foster a better connection between the areas both north and south of Liberty Street in OTR.

“The idea is to encourage pedestrian traffic,” said Erica Bolenbaugh. “Actually thousands of people walked by today and we are in hope to have them provide feedback on which options are most appealing.”

The most recent part of this effort is a seating option made with tires that was designed by a graduate-level architecture program at UC. The participants in the MetroLAB program say that they have been working with residents through various community engagement activities to determine how residents and the community would like to use the street.

“It was very important for us to engage the Pleasant Street community in this process,” explained Findlay Market’s executive director, Joe Hansbauer. “We wanted this project to be as community-led as possible.”

While the redevelopment of Over-the-Rhine has come with some criticisms that it has not been inclusive enough, considering the diverse range of incomes in the neighborhood, the university team is working to show that even good design and ideas can be implemented and used by everyone.

As a result the MetroLAB team designed an outdoor kitchen, that they hope to install soon, that was made of used plastic baskets. The idea is that it is something that is scalable and can be done by just about anyone, regardless of their economic standing.

“We used low price materials to let people know that this is something that they could build in their own backyard,” Michael Zaretsky, Director of MetroLAB, told UrbanCincy. “We are working on a permit for one of those parklets; hopefully we can make this great idea come true in the early August.”

Uptown Neighborhoods Have Outsized Role in Regional Economy

Data released by the UC Economic Center shows that Cincinnati’s uptown neighborhoods – Avondale, Clifton, Corryville, Clifton Heights, Fairview, University Heights, and Mt. Auburn – contribute heavily to the regional economy.

Commissioned by the Uptown Consortium, a non-profit dedicated to development in the area, the collection of neighborhoods actually have an outsized influence on the regional economy.

According to the study, uptown houses more than 800 businesses that collectively employ around 52,000 employees and contribute more than $3 billion in annual wages in the Cincinnati Metropolitan Statistical Area. For the City of Cincinnati, the area represents 18.2% of all income tax collections taken in by City Hall.

These statistics are buoyed by the fact that the area also has one of the fastest growing job rates in the region. From 2012 to 2013, uptown neighborhoods saw employment rise by 12%, while growth throughout the rest of the city stood at 0.2%, and the rest of Hamilton County at 0.7%. All of this growth has led to a building boom that is changing uptown’s image.

Furthermore, the UC Economic Center found that while average city-wide property taxes collected per acre held averaged $8,000, while in the uptown area that figure stood at an average of $14,000 per acre.

This economic impact is driven mostly by what the report refers to as anchor institutions – education, healthcare, and social assistance agencies. These types of employers make up a large portion of the city economy, but particularly so uptown. Overall, these types of employees make up 16.3% of the city’s total workforce, and contribute around $98 million in city income taxes and $17 million in Hamilton County sales taxes annually.

All told, they account for 7.8% of the Cincinnati MSA’s gross regional product.

The report also demonstrates that, in addition to the direct economic impact of anchor institutions, they also draw considerable indirect impact from the money injected into the local economy.

While the institution and what are referred to as their auxiliary businesses are a boon for the regional economy at the moment, an over reliance on them could be dangerous.

As the Economic Center stated, “were the University of Cincinnati to close, much of the economic activity in Uptown would leave the region.”

City Hall Inching Forward With Overhaul of Cincinnati’s Zoning Code

Zoning. The word evokes a sense of bafflement from many people – often serving as a Rorschach test for those outside the urban planning profession. Even to experts, there are different ways to tackle the term; however, the term simply refers to the method of how municipalities regulate the usage of land and dimensional placement of buildings.

Almost every community has them, with the notable exception of Houston, and most two zoning codes are never the same.

In Cincinnati, the last time the city passed a zoning code was in the 1960’s. At that time shopping malls, office parks and subdivisions were all the rage, and the zoning code reflects it. Many zones called for large yards, two cars per dwelling unit, and large parking lots for commercial strip malls. The code was updated over time, with the last significant overhaul occurring more than a decade ago in 2004.

Since that last update, the city has undergone a renaissance that has focused on urban development in previously long-neglected neighborhoods. The current zoning code does not adequately address that change, nor does it address many emerging trends as they relate to sustainable development, bicycle infrastructure or even tiny homes.

In 2012, the City of Cincinnati undertook an effort to redesign the zoning code around the changing development patterns of the city. The code, which is referred to as the Land Development Code, is still in the early stages of drafting and review. The second draft was released in October 2014 and the Planning Department has been making changes and soliciting input in preparation for releasing the third revision.

“Incorporating public input into any draft revising the zoning code is a top priority, and we are making every effort to receive and incorporate public input prior to any draft being presented to the City Planning Commission or mayor and council,” explained Charles Graves III, Cincinnati’s Planning Director. “They will gather additional public feedback and ultimately have the final say on any changes to the Code.”

After looking through the draft code posted on the City’s website, the biggest difference is the visuals. There are plenty of diagrams and drawings that assist with interpreting the code. Aside from that, here is a breakdown of a few major issues the new Land Development Code could potentially address:

Lot Sizes
Lot sizes generally will remain the same for all residential zones; however, there are some proposed changes to mixed commercial zones and other zones. The Planning Department is considering the concept of tiny houses, something UrbanCincy hosted a forum on in 2014, and is a media partner on with to Bradley Cooper’s effort to construct Tiny Houses in Over-the-Rhine.

“There is the opportunity to write some language in the draft Code that would permit the newer concept of tiny house; however, we are seeking input from the public and developers,” Graves said.

Parking
Parking regulations have been revised after consultants made recommendations to the department, but planning staff decided to delve deeper into the issue as parking regulations can be a complex balance between the needs of developers, the surrounding community and other variables. The department has assembled a parking and zoning working group to study best practices from around the country and analyze what works best for the City to use in the update.

Bicycle Parking
Bicycle parking is already required in new private and city-owned parking garages, but it is not generally required for other development. The current draft code calls for a minimum number of bicycle parking spaces for multi-family residential development, commercial, industrial and public development, but Graves told UrbanCincy that his staff is reviewing and having discussions regarding bicycle parking as part of the working group.

Administrative Changes
One of the Planning Department’s main goals in this effort is to allow for an easier and more streamlined permitting process. A part of this is creating something called minor variances that can be approved by a newly created Zoning Administrator position. Minor variances would not need to go through the entire hearings examiner process, which would reduce the wait time for minor and non-controversial variances by weeks. Other initiatives have been proposed by the City Manager Harry Black, which could occur outside the code which could streamline the processes related to permitting and plan review.

Other things such as incorporating green development and sustainability practices into the code are being evaluated in the “light impact development” chapter; however, these items are still being discussed by the staff and their consultants. Planning staff has indicated that they do not have a set date for the release of the third review draft because it is still a work in progress.

“In order to ensure adequate and thorough input there will be plenty of time given for a third public review period once that point is reached,” Graves said.

Public comment is still welcome for review of the second draft code which is available on the City Planning Department website.

What Does Anthem’s Relocation to Oakley Mean for East Walnut Hills?

After having been located in East Walnut Hills along William Howard Taft Road for many years, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield recently announced that they would move to Oakley into a new $13 million, 80,000-square-foot office building at Oakley Station.

Shortly after the announcement, Mayor John Cranley (D) said that the insurer was prepared to move its 400 jobs outside of the city, should the economic incentive deal not have been struck.

“We’ve got to keep these jobs in the city,” Cranley told the Business Courier on June 25. “The infrastructure that we’re building – the public garage – is not going to just support Anthem but the entire Oakley Station development.”

There is a lot of truth to what Mayor Cranley said, considering the City of Cincinnati generates the majority of its revenues from income tax collections. This means the preservation and growth of jobs – particularly high-paying ones like these – is of the utmost importance for leadership at City Hall.

But this move does a lot more than maintain 400 high-paying jobs; it also will open up a key piece of property in one of the city’s up-and-coming neighborhoods.

Walnut Hills is booming so much that it will create a really exciting development pad,” Cranley continued. “I’ve heard people think they can reuse it as office. People say that they want to tear it down and use it for market-rate housing. In concert with the neighborhood, either one of those can make a lot of sense. It will see new life quickly.”

While the loss of that many jobs is rarely welcome news for a neighborhood, leadership at the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation says that they have been prepared for it.

“We have known about Anthem for a few months and have been brainstorming,” Kevin Wright, Executive Director of the WHRF, told UrbanCincy. “We haven’t been involved in anything specific, but there is a great opportunity to do something with this site that further connects the McMillan and Woodburn commercial corridors.”

Wright went on to say that the neighborhood is focused on enhancing the walkability of the area. One such effort to do that is the conversion of surrounding streets from one-way to two-way traffic.

Located on the eastern end of the McMillan business corridor, the Anthem site occupies 6.3 acres of land, with nearly 70% used as surface parking lots. A redevelopment of the site, which is one of the largest of its kind in this part of the city, could free up enough land to develop hundreds of housing units, along with thousands of square feet of commercial space.

“There’s momentum in Walnut Hills, both east and west of Gilbert, as well as in East Walnut Hills,” said Blake Bartley, a commercial real estate agent with Urban Fast Forward who is working on several projects in the neighborhood. “This site could be the catalyst for bridging the gap between development in both neighborhoods. Plus, you don’t often find a redevelopment site of that caliber located so close to the urban core.”

While neighborhood and city leaders see great potential for the site, it is not yet known what will happen to the site when it is sold. The hope is that Anthem, through its subsidiary Community Insurance Co., will do something in coordination with neighborhood leaders to ensure that it is redeveloped in a manner that fits with the community’s vision for it.

Preliminary construction work has already taken place at the sprawling, 74-acre Oakley Station site, and it is expected that Anthem will be able to move into the new office building as early as summer 2016.

Cincy Stories returns for third installment on July 7

0-2The organizers of the Cincy Stories event series will be presenting their third installment on July 7 at MOTR Pub. This time, the event will feature:

  • Maryanne Zeleznik, News Director at WVXU, Cincinnati’s NPR affiliate
  • Penny Tration, drag queen and emcee
  • Alex Stone, stand-up comedian
  • Jess Lamb, musician and former American Idol contestant
  • Mike Moroski, community activist and former City Council candidate
  • Ms. Ebony J, host on Cincinnati’s 101.1 The Wiz
  • Music from Whitfield Crocker

Cincy Stories gives insight into the lives of well-known figures by presenting personal stories from their lives. Several of these stories have been broadcast on The UrbanCincy Podcast.

The event will be held on the main stage at MOTR Pub at 7 p.m.