Lower Price Hill’s MetroWest Site Looking for Someone to Follow

Buildings ablaze 10 years ago, now long gone. The former Queen City Barrel Company site is mostly empty, but not devoid of potential.

As you travel 1.5 miles from downtown along the Eighth Street Viaduct, you pass over the 18 acres of vacant land that welcomes you to Lower Price Hill. While new construction happening elsewhere in the city is constrained by existing buildings and streets, MetroWest Commerce Park is a blank slate 4.5 times the size of a typical city block, and almost as close to downtown as Findlay Market is to Fountain Square.

Though no tenants or buyers have agreed to terms on the City-owned property, Al Neyer Inc., Resurgence Group, and Colliers International are working to market the site. Highly contaminated from previous industrial uses, redevelopment of MetroWest has been years in the making, but the City has received notice from the Ohio EPA that the site is now clean enough for new construction. Sam Stephens, an economic development officer at the city, believes in the site’s potential.

“The project is not only about cleaning up the Queen City Barrel Company site, but more importantly facilitating a development that can bring productive jobs to Lower Price Hill and positively impact the environment,” Stephens told UrbanCincy.

The team marketing MetroWest believes it is an ideal location for manufacturing thanks to its easy access to I-75, active rail lines on site, and is within 1.5 miles of downtown. Furthermore, the Metropolitan Sewer District is nearby and can offer up to 50 million gallons of any water quality daily, potentially lowering the costs for businesses that require high water use that need not be potable.

In 2008, Cincinnati completed its Growth and Opportunities Study (GO Cincinnati) with a team of national advisers in economic development and real estate. The final study categorized the Queensgate/South Mill Creek Corridor as “a generally obsolete corridor,” but also noted that “recycling South Mill Creek into the hub of green production in the region, and perhaps the nation, is indeed a unique market opportunity that could catalyze development in this aging industrial stock area.”

Perhaps serving as a contradiction is that while GO Cincinnati recommends the corridor for mostly ‘drivable sub-urban’ development, it also specifically identifies Lower Price Hill as “a ‘walkable-urban’ place, which is experiencing the beginning of a revitalization.”

The current task is marketing the site to find a buyer or tenant. Images shown to promote the site look ripped from the context of a suburban industrial park, places that are not even remotely ‘walkable-urban.’ Even though, project team members say, these images are only intended to show buildable square feet, they could quickly become reality.

The GO Cincinnati Study cites industrial tenants’ primary concern to be purely functional, with little concern for aesthetics or prestigious location. It should then fall to the City to make sure what is developed is actually beneficial to Cincinnati and the surrounding neighborhoods. Does Lower Price Hill want to welcome people on the Eighth Street Viaduct to their community with dirty manufacturing rooftops cluttered with mechanical units?

When asked about the City’s vision for the site, all of the development parties emphasized there will not be heavy industry and welcomed any interested manufacturing or light industrial businesses. Given the site’s history, and the City’s spotty responsiveness to environmental concerns in the past, the neighborhood would be right to be weary of new industrial development.

Eileen Gallagher, Lower Price Hill Community Council Secretary, says that the neighborhood is open to a variety of businesses but would want express their opinions on any business, saying, “LPH would welcome positive, safe development that would utilize potentially valuable land, create jobs, expand the city’s tax base, and perhaps give training and employment to neighborhood people.”

A vision should be expected from the city, one to which residents can respond. GO Cincinnati began that vision, but the recommendation for a “green industrial park” is not being followed. The City has owned the property for almost a decade and has spent years marketing the site without finding a buyer or tenant. Stephens, however, puts the idea of visioning a little differently.

“It’s the city’s job to serve our citizens, not define communities,” Stephens explained. However, even if Lower Price Hill creates a vision, will the City listen?

Alternative Vision: Industrial Mixed-Use with Residential
MetroWest is a few hundred feet east of Oyler School, and another few hundred feet from the LPH Community School. Paired with Evans Field Park, it will be a gateway to the future Price Landing park and Ohio River Trail West.

Increasingly, developers are recognizing the potential benefits of light industrial mixed use as manufacturing becomes greener, lighter, and cleaner. A Los Angeles study showed tax income on mixed-use development to be five times greater than solitary industrial uses. With a prime location near downtown and access to transportation, it would seem that MetroWest is a great location for residential use. Perhaps even the Eighth Street Viaduct could once again allow access to buildings from the sidewalk.

Ohio EPA’s approval for development at MetroWest, however, came with a caveat: the site can only be used for industrial and commercial uses. While the site is approved as safe, residential uses are prohibited. City officials say that the decision was made to only clean the site to commercial/industrial standards because the remediation grant would not cover the increased cost of cleaning the soil to a residential standard.

Another problem is that the site is currently zoned Manufacturing General, which would limit residential use. While the site, as is, cannot be used for residential, the decisions leading to this circumstance now appear short-sighted. Cincinnati’s zoning code is changing; and MetroWest will likely become Industrial Mixed Use (IX) in the current draft of the City’s Land Development Code. This important change would allow for residential use on upper floors, except for the covenant with Ohio EPA.

The city could go after more grant money to remediate the site to residential standards, but this would require a total restart of the remediation process – something that may very well be a bridge too far.

Alternative Vision: Sustainable Dreams
Without changing the site plan in marketing images, these are a few solutions that could significantly enhance the property.

  1. Densely plant trees around the building. Over time the ‘forest’ would help absorb air and noise pollution, and would be aesthetically breathtaking.
  2. Where deeper soil is clean enough, water gardens surrounding buildings could help contain storm water and provide an ecological habitat to complement the Mill Creek and Ohio River.
  3. Rooftop gardens could be used for edible or non-edible plants. If a nursery were created for native trees, any nearby resident could pick up a sapling (ash, maple, oak, walnut, cherry, locust) for free. In 40 years the neighborhood could be heavily forested. Alternatively, Kroger might be interested in a new distribution center with edible greens on their roof similar to what Whole Foods had done with one of their stores in Brooklyn, NY.

While much is not yet clear about the future of this site, it is evident that something will be built at MetroWest; and when it is, it will bring some amount of jobs to Lower Price Hill. The question now is whether a developer or industrial tenant will dictate the development, likely benefiting their own interests, or if the City of Cincinnati will work to enhance its environment with sustainable infrastructure and buildings that benefit Lower Price Hill.

PHOTOS: Custom-Designed Banners Installed Throughout Central Business District

The holiday season was another record-setting year for Downtown with tourists, shoppers, and general holiday revelers packing the center city. At the same time Downtown Cincinnati Inc. partnered with Resource/Ammirati to design and install custom street pole banners.

DCI leaders say that the concept is modeled off of the iconic I “heart” New York marketing campaign that has since been copied countless times around the world. In this rendition, Resource/Ammirati developed 10 original designs that play off local traditions and things that people enjoy doing downtown.

In addition to the 10 total designs, the spelling of Cincinnati is done with typography that is drawn from logos from some of the city’s most famous brands including the Reds, Christian Moerlein, Skyline Chili, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Bengals, Findlay Market, Know Theatre, and the Taft Museum of Art.

In total, DCI installed 42 of these street banners throughout the Central Business District. They will remain in place throughout 2015. There is no word as to what will happen with the campaign at that point, or if the campaign will be expanded to other mediums.

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EDITORIAL NOTE: All nine photographs in this gallery were taken by Eric Anspach for UrbanCincy in January 2015.

VIDEO: $86M Nippert Stadium Renovation On-Schedule for August Opening

With the college football season behind us, the $86 million renovation and expansion of Nippert Stadium is now in its home stretch. At this point, the majority of structure work is now complete and interior work is now advancing during the cold weather.

The project is more of a renovation than it is an expansion. As part of the upgrades just a few thousand more seats will be added, along with the luxury boxes, overhauled concessions and restrooms, lounges and new technology that define the project.

A challenge from the beginning, however, was adding the new amenities in an environment severely constrained by existing buildings that at some points already help frame the stadium’s exterior. In order to accomplish that, New York-based Architecture Research Office, in collaboration with Heery International, designed it so that the structure would move upward along structure’s west side that sits adjacent to Tangeman University Center. The final results are interesting and unpredictable in a manner that should only add to the venue’s notoriety as the Wrigley Field of college football.

As part of the effort to upgrade the 114-year-old stadium, the University of Cincinnati has been issuing video updates about every three weeks. The latest includes Tom Gelehrter, Senior Director of New Media and Broadcasting at Bearcats Athletics, talking with project manager Bob Marton about recent progress that has been made and looking ahead to what is next.

One of the more notable changes in this update was the start of drilling work on the east concourse, which will eventually allow for construction of the two-story restroom and concession facility, stairways and light poles.

“A year ago we were drilling in this building, and now we’re drilling on the other side,” Marton explained in the the 5:29 video update. “We’ve got two levels of drilling going on…and that’s about a week’s worth of work.”

Due to the careful scheduling of construction activities, project officials do not anticipate ongoing cold temperatures to cause much of an issue since they had gone through it once before when drilling on the west side of the stadium last year.

If the project stays on schedule, it is expected to be complete by August 2015 – just ahead of this year’s September home opener for the Bearcats.

EDITORIAL NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that FRCH Design Worldwide was the architect of record for this project. In fact, FRCH produced the project’s conceptual designs, while Architecture Research Office and Heery International were the primary designers.

Mechanical Optimizers Aiming to Help Area Nonprofits Assess, Update Facilities

Local contracting companies, from air conditioners to electricians, have teamed up to form a group called Mechanical Optimizers to help local nonprofits with the upkeep of their operations.

The newly formed group creates, for the first time, a single point of contact for an audit of a nonprofit’s building’s situation and help with the budgeting and finding grants and funds for the project. All of this, remarkably, is done free of charge for the area’s churches, mosques and many other private institutions.

Jeff Wilmink, an executive at Century Mechanical Solutions since 2012, said that he noticed an acute need for long-term strategies for local nonprofits to maintain their buildings. He told UrbanCincy that he saw institutions were not spending money on proper upkeep and were repairing things that long needed to be replaced. With no master plan for how/what to fix, these nonprofits were putting band-aids on visible problems while invisible problems were compounding, thus creating crisis situations that cost much more money to fix.

With this in mind, he created Mechanical Optimizers to help local nonprofits be proactive and find funds to proactively tackle such projects. When I asked Jeff whether there was a light-bulb moment for this idea to come about, he told me of a call he received from the pastor at St. Louis Church downtown.

The pastor, he said, called because of a noise coming from the basement. After traversing an old, narrow stairway with limited access and even more limited use, Wilmink’s team found an ancient boiler that was leaking, and a basement covered in asbestos. The emergency fix needed for St. Louis Church ended up being much more costly than it would have otherwise been if fixed sooner.

There is not much blame to lay, either. Leaders of nonprofit organizations often do not know or understand the mechanical problems going on in their buildings and, therefore, do not know to fix it. In addition, technicians will often solve superficial problems that create short-term fixes, but neither party tends to think about what will need to be done in a year, five years or ten years.

Add this to the tight budgets of local nonprofits, and many cruise from emergency to emergency without ever fixing the underlying problems in their aging buildings.

“It’s irritating that we’ve allowed these buildings to get in the condition they’re in,” said Wilmink. He continued by saying that many institutions will spend thousands of dollars on cosmetic fixes while the mechanics of their building are literally rotting; or spend $25,000 every other year to fix a unit in order to save $75,000 upfront.

Mechanical Optimizers comes into the equation by offering to provide a free assessment of a nonprofit’s building. Then, after telling “the blunt truth” about what it will take to fix it right, Wilmink and his team will help locate grants and create a budget for fixing the problem and updating aged equipment.

The goal is to be smarter about maintaining a building’s mechanical systems so that high-priced emergency projects do not emerge later. Furthermore, Wilmink says that the very nature of these buildings – churches, mosques, markets, etc. – means finding funds can often be easier once the problem is identified, because someone is typically willing to step up and donate money to help out.

There is, as you might suspect, more to it for Mechanical Optimizers than the charitable work. Once they complete their free assessment, Wilmink says that they will often times submit a bid to perform the work like they would for any other project. Essentially, Mechanical Optimizers has found a way to combine charitable work with their daily business operations. At the same time, this “no agenda” charity is helping many local nonprofits save thousands of dollars.

One of the biggest savings that nonprofits typically receive comes from technology and equipment that can replace outdated systems with ultra-efficient units.

When asked about how government policies help or hinder his efforts, Wilmink pointed to a recent program in New Jersey where the state will pay 80% of the costs for upgrading systems and improving efficiency. The money for the program, he explained, comes from funds utility companies there are mandated to set aside for the state to use for such purposes.

In addition to St. Louis Catholic Church, Wilmink says that Mechanical Optimizers has worked on Old St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Findlay Market, the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, and a slew of other buildings throughout the region.

Pointing to the work’s importance, the contractors involved with the group say that they will do whatever it takes to offer up their help and get the project done.

“If you want our help, we’ll find a way to make it happen.”

Great Traditions Planning High-End Townhomes for Northside

While focusing on providing housing for Cincinnati’s increasing population, one might think primarily of downtown density, supported by multi-family apartments or highrises. In addition to the appeal of center city living, however, Cincinnati’s neighborhoods are becoming increasingly appealing to developers looking for a rich and diverse urban form with a mix of housing types.

As part of their City Series, which is focused on challenging infill sites throughout the city, D-HAS Architecture Planning & Design partnered with Great Traditions Land & Development Company and has proposed five new single family homes at the northwest corner of Fergus and Lingo Streets in Northside on what is now vacant land.

The team says that the 2-3 bedroom homes will have a flexible studies and detached garages. Ranging in size from 1,600 to 2,000 square feet, the homes are planned to be financed through pre-sales.

As of now, D-HAS offers 12 different exterior schemes and various floor plans to customize the model for each potential homeowner. The homes starting price will be in the mid-$200,000; while options for a third floor and accessory dwelling unit could push the size to around 3,000 square feet and closer to $350,000.

The price points are a bit higher than what has been developed in Northside in recent years, but Doug Hinger, owner of D-HAS and President of Great Traditions, told UrbanCincy that he believes a development need not be limited by the past performance of a neighborhood.

In fact, Hinger, who began his career in San Francisco and developed an interest in the unique character of urban housing, says that philosophy is what guides his company and made them interested in the neighborhood.

In addition to being attracted to the neighborhood because of its character, Hinger says his company also looks for neighborhoods that have community development corporations with a good structure and leader that is passionate about their work. In this case, D-HAS was worked with Cincinnati Northside Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (CNCURC) and presented to key stakeholders in the community, including community council members.

This is not the first project taking such a bold approach for Great Traditions. In 2006 the company’s Stetson Square development in Corryville earned it the Community of the Year award from the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati. The project has turned out to be such a success that in November 2014, Tom Humes, President of Great Traditions, was recognized by the Niehoff Urban Studio at the University of Cincinnati for the company’s leadership as an urban visionary and city builder.

Similar to Corryville, Northside had experienced a tremendous loss of home-ownership in the mid 1990’s. This drew the attention of the Northside Community Council; and Stephanie Sunderland, now executive director of CNCURC, also began to be concerned with homes being purchased and rented by out-of-town interests that did not maintain the properties.

In 2006, CNCURC was donated the first parcel for this project, and purchased the remaining three parcels by 2013.

According to Sunderland, the homes on each of the parcels were in deplorable conditions and were all demolished by 2008. Then after considering the hundreds of new multifamily units already completed or under development in Northside, and the setting at Fergus and Lingo, CNCURC said they were looking for a developer interested in single family homes and that would also be responsive to the neighborhood.

“We wanted someone that listens to the community as a whole and is sensitive to what the community wants to see,” Sunderland explained.

With single family homes that CNCURC helped complete nearby that are marketed toward moderate income earners, the aim is for this new Great Traditions development is to continue the diversity for which Northside is known, and CNCURC hopes to reinforce. Additionally, Hinger says that the new homes will capitalize on an often overlooked aspect of urban single family homes – quality outdoor space.

As part of the design schemes, land between the home and detached garage will offer a unique exterior space that will serve as an extension of each home. From there D-HAS believes the quality of the homes will reinforce the fabric and architecture of the community to be a good neighbor and a catalytic development.

A groundbreaking date has not yet been set, but the development team estimates each home will take approximately six months to complete. Variances for the development are currently pending with the City of Cincinnati.