Revised Plan, Drawings Submitted for $27M Mixed-Use Development at Liberty and Elm

After announcing plans for a $27 million mixed-use development at Liberty and Elm Streets, Source 3 Development, the developers of record for the project, have been met with both cheers and push back on their proposal.

Located directly on the streetcar line, the project would be the first major new construction project to occur north of Liberty Street in Over-the-Rhine in many years. As scores of historic buildings are now being renovated around Findlay Market, many see this site as a critical piece of the Northern Liberties puzzle.

While preliminary designs were not released in January when the project was announced, the developer did discuss building massings and programming. Those plans called for the creation of 15,000 square-feet of street-level retail, 165 parking spaces in a three-level garage, and 118 apartments in new buildings, and within four existing historic structures that would be renovated as part of the effort.

In response to those details, the Over-the-Rhine Foundation issued a list of 12 concerns they had about the project. One of the primary issues was related to the appropriateness of a 85-foot-tall structure in a historic district made up of buildings that are generally shorter than that.

“The proposed height of the structure dwarfs all buildings in the surrounding area especially considering the smaller scale of Elm Street and the topographic elevation change from Liberty Street northbound on Elm,” a joint committee made up various neighborhood groups wrote to City Hall March 24.

“This will not only change the historic character of Elm Street and the Over-the-Rhine Historic District, but eliminate the views of downtown Cincinnati’s skyline enjoyed by residents on Elm and Logan.”

Source 3 responded to the comments from Over-the-Rhine Foundation by varying the heights of the two buildings to be construction, and reducing their heights from 85 feet to approximately 76 feet and 54 feet. These adjustments, Source 3 says, will increase the cost of the building and also forced the development team to reduce the number of apartment units in the development by eight.

The developer has also made a variety of other changes to respond to those 12 concerns from the community, including the elimination of two parking spaces in the garage and adjustments along the Liberty Street facade to minimize garage exposure and add retail frontage.

These will be presented to Cincinnati’s Planning Commission, due to a request to rezone the properties from Commercial Community Auto (CC-A) and Residential Mutli-Family 1.2 (RM-1.2) to Planned Development, on Friday, April 15 at 9am.

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.

Planning Commission Flexes Muscle With Use of Interim Development Control Districts

While two of the more lengthy discussion items were controversial planned commercial developments in Hyde Park and Roselawn, Cincinnati Planning Commission had a slew of other items on their Friday afternoon agenda.

In three related moves, the City Planning Commission recommended using Interim Development Control Overlay Districts. Two were extensions of existing IDCs, but one was newly recommended. Traditionally the City uses IDCs to put a temporary control on development while planning or feasibility studies are conducted. During such time, the establishment of uses, construction of new buildings, and the demolition or alteration of existing structures are all subject to review by the City Planning Commission.

The two recommended for extension include IDC Districts 73 and 74, Wasson Line District and Pleasant Ridge NBD, for an additional six months to allow for the completion of land use and zoning studies.

The newly recommended IDC is for the hot real estate market surrounding the University of Cincinnati. In particular, the neighborhoods to the south and southwest of the university where midrise developments continue to be proposed and built, much to the dismay of many long-time residents.

IDC District 77 was recommended to be put in place for a period of three months while a University Impact Area Study will look at growth and housing conditions, parking and traffic, quality of life concerns, and new development vs. existing character in the areas within a quarter-mile walk from the university’s main campus and the Clifton Heights business district.

Here is a quick rundown of the rest of the cases and the recommendations made by the seven-member board:

  • Approved the sale of 1623 Pleasant Street in Over-the-Rhine to Avila Magna Group, LLC for $20,000. The developer plans to renovate the 3,296-square-foot building into three one-bedroom for-sale units and one two-bedroom for-sale unit.
  • Approved the sale of approximately three acres of land left over from the Kennedy Connector road project to Vandercar Holdings and Al Neyer Inc. for $530,000. The developers plan to consolidate the land with adjacent parcels to construct two office buildings of up to 45,000 total square feet.
  • Approved a dedication plat of 3.48 acres along the south side of River Road in Sedamsville to allow for a western extension of the Ohio River Trail.
  • Approved a final development plan for Phase 1G of Oakley Station, which will consist of a 12,000-square-foot multi-tenant retail building at the northwest corner of Vandercar Way and Oakley Mill Lane.

The commission also approved the sale of a one-acre parcel at Eighth and Sycamore streets to the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation for $1. This move will ultimately pave the way for a new $45 million development that will continue the transformation of the northeast quadrant of the central business district where numerous other midrises are advancing.

Through the agreement, the non-profit development corporation will create a garage air lot, a commercial air lot, and an apartment air lot. Once construction is imminent, 3CDC will sell the garage air lot to the City for $1 to allow for a 500-space parking garage to be built. They will then sell the apartment air lot to North American Properties for $1 for the construction of a 130-unit tower, and will retain ownership of the commercial air lot for the construction of 10,000 square feet of commercial space.

Hyde Park, Roselawn Community Leaders Push Back Against Perceived “Commercial Creep”

“Commercial creep” was the dominant theme of Friday’s meeting of the Cincinnati City Planning Commission.

The commission chose to table a zoning change request by Stagnaro, Saba & Patterson Co. (SSP) to rezone a property at 3443 Zumstein Avenue in Hyde Park from single-family residential use to office use, which would allow the firm to relocate four of its 13 employees from its adjacent office to the building’s first floor.

The zoning change was opposed by the Hyde Park Neighborhood Council, which fears the expansion of businesses onto its residential streets, a loss of parking, and uncertainty about the property’s future use.

“In our meetings with Mr. Saba [Peter Saba, attorney and SSP shareholder], he revealed that the short-term plan was to use the first floor for office, which appears to be rather innocuous,” said Gary Wollenweber, chair of Hyde Park Neighborhood Council’s Zoning Committee. “But then he explained that future plans may be to occupy the entire building, or demolish the entire building and build a parking lot, or perhaps enlarge his current building.”

Saba said that his firm was only exploring its options.

“Specifically, at that point in time when we looked at it, we realized our only plan we wanted to do is use that first floor space,” he said. “At this point, that’s all we have on the table. Anything else is beyond economic feasibility for us right now.”

SSP has a second office in Anderson Township, and it has been suggested that the firm could expand there. But Jeff Stagnaro, who is also an attorney and shareholder with SSP, said that the majority of his firm’s clients prefer the Hyde Park location.

“Your choice is really to move the entire firm to Anderson Township, or stay here in Hyde Park,” he said. “It is somewhat about us, but it’s about our clients more than it’s about us.”

To Wollenweber, the residents of Zumstein Avenue may have little defense over the zoning change, citing a recent change on Edwards Avenue as precedent.

“One of the arguments that was used against us was that it’s just one more parcel in the middle of a block, and what difference would it make if you just move one more parcel north?” he said. “This is the first parcel with a Zumstein address. So we are turning the corner off of Erie and now starting to march down Zumstein.”

The issue may appear before the commission again in May or June, giving time for the firm and the neighborhood to explore possible solutions.

In a less contentious debate, the City Planning Commission rejected a zoning change at 1780-1816 Section Road in Roselawn from residential multi-family use to office use.

Property owner Schuyler Murdock, who has run design-build firm CM-GC from the property since 2009, wants to make utility upgrades to her non-conforming building and is trying to market the adjacent parcels for the construction of two condominium buildings of four units apiece, plus a spa and wellness center.

Murdock told commissioners that she has already lined up an operator for the spa and has pre-sold two condominiums.

But with no concrete development plans and a fear that nothing would be built and the stepped-up zoning would remain, she failed to draw the support of the Roselawn Community Council.

Western & Southern Aiming to Alter Lytle Park Historic District Boundaries

The construction of Interstate 71 spelled the permanent division of several east side neighborhoods in Cincinnati including Evanston and Walnut Hills. But in the early 1960’s, an effort arose from downtown land owners around historic Lytle Park to preserve one of the oldest areas in the city.

Enacted in 1964, the Lytle Park Historic District has protected this area of the city which I-71 now passes under. Now, per city regulations, the city’s oldest historic district is up for renewal. A city staff report to the Cincinnati Planning Commission, however, reveals that several changes may be afoot.

The district has historically been split into two types of regulated areas. Area A properties were those that had to meet the strictest requirements of the historic district’s guidelines; while Area B properties were granted special allowances to accommodate some changes.

Over the last few decades Western & Southern Financial Group has slowly acquired many of the properties that make up the district. Most recently, the company acquired the 105-year-old building the Anna Louise Inn had long called its home.

The proposed district changes would remove some properties from the historic district altogether, and would also eliminate the distinction between properties. Specifically the Woodford Building along Fourth Street, a building along Fifth Street, a parking garage, and several historic buildings along Third and Arch Streets would be removed under the proposal.

In the letter to Planning Commission legal counsel Western & Southern attorney Fran Barrett stated:

“Our client’s desires to be able to provide for keeping its home office headquarters in the area which will ensure the ever-increasing high number of wage earners who add significantly to the city’s tax base, support a number of businesses and commercial activities in the downtown area, and continue to promote a major financial services company in the Central Business District.

There is a concern that an added layer of government reviews could deter positive economic growth at this location. Western & Southern’s track record demonstrates that all concerned should have nothing but the greatest of confidence in any future development undertaken by Western & Southern.”

The removal of these areas from the historic district would essentially clear the way for the financial services giant to demolish and redevelop the properties in a way that would not have to conform to the district’s guidance on new infill development.

Such information only fuels intense speculation that Western & Southern is actively eyeing a location to build a new high-rise office tower to consolidate its headquarters, and possibly even a second high-rise tower accommodating either a hotel or residences.

While the staff report offers no comment on the removal of the buildings from the district, the three buildings along Arch Street are some of the oldest buildings in the city.

The proposed changes will go before Cincinnati Planning Commission on Friday, May 2. The meeting is scheduled to take place at 9am on the seventh floor inside the  J. Martin Griesel Conference Room at Centennial Plaza Two (map).