MORTAR Looking To Empower Walnut Hills Residents, Entrepreneurs

Cincinnati’s redevelopment has been gaining momentum over the years, and Walnut Hills is seen by many as the next big thing. While it is not quite the next Over-the-Rhine, the largely black neighborhood has seen significant investment over the past several years, and is adding new businesses on what seems like a weekly basis. While community leaders are welcoming the attention, they are also hoping to maintain the essence of the neighborhood.

Just before the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation announced their comprehensive re-branding to focus on an inclusive and equitable approach to breathing new life into the neighborhood, the non-profit community development organization came together with a start-up organization that has been working in Over-the-Rhine to train and empower non-traditional entrepreneurs, often of minority background, to help power the redevelopment of Cincinnati’s neighborhoods.

“Our emphasis has always been on working with residents who have been in the neighborhood even before it becomes the latest trendy place to be, because they’ve been there through it all,” said MORTAR co-founder and Brand Strategy & Director of Operations, Allen Woods.

By doing so, MORTAR hosts classes for students who are willing to learn and pitch their ideas to a room full of a diverse amount of people including friends, family, and possibly investors. They then guide entrepreneurs in how to start their own businesses.

Woods says that in Over-the-Rhine, where MORTAR has already graduated 15 members and enrolled another 17, the idea was to create a brand new dynamic for the area which has already experienced a huge amount of reinvestment. This is not necessarily what they have in mind for the Walnut Hills area.

“We want to have a different feeling than what you get when you go into Over-the-Rhine,” said Thea Munchel, Director of Development at Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. “We want vibrant, successful businesses, but we want them to represent Walnut Hills.”

One of the ways MORTAR intends to assist in that effort is by engaging with the community and listening to their innovative pitches at events where residents of the Walnut Hills area can present ideas of their own.

“We believe that is an essential part of community redevelopment,” Woods said. “How can you do that without engaging the community?”

They will also open up a 10,000-square-foot pop-up shop space called Brick 939, which will be similar to the one they have in Over-the-Rhine called Brick OTR. This, they say, helps local entrepreneurs activate a vacant storefront in the neighborhood, while also offering them space to test out their business model until they are able to develop their own space.

As of now, the plan is for the pop-up shop to open after Thanksgiving and run through the end of the year.

“There are lots of amazing entrepreneurs around Cincinnati, and who never really feel like they get the opportunity to shine,” said Woods. “So essentially what we want to build is an enormous spotlight for them to have a chance to showcase their skills and businesses.”

The money for the development is going to be coming from the community, a grant from the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, and the Local Initiative Support Corporation.

Project leaders say the development will be completed by November 20, 2015 with a grand opening on Black Friday.

Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation Refocusing Efforts on Inclusive, Equitable Change

Recently, David Brooks wrote an article for the New York Times about Vice President Joe Biden. The article referenced Biden’s ‘Formation Story.’ Regardless of the politics of the article, we were drawn to this term. In order to be effective in civic work we must have a deep understanding of who we are and what drives us to get out of bed every day and fight.

Most people don’t realize that the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation has been around for almost 40 years. We were created by the community council in 1977 to develop quality affordable housing in a time when places like Walnut Hills were being abandoned and, in many cases, forgotten.

After decades of assorted success, the organization was at a crossroads five years ago. We could close our doors … or innovate into an organization that reimagines our role as much more. Having chosen the latter, we maintained that we didn’t just want to be a developer. We wanted to be a catalyst for sustainable and positive change. Partnerships with the Walnut Hills Area Council and Walnut Hills Business Group ignited that course, yet, we have still struggled to establish an identity.

Throughout this time we’ve asked big picture questions like ‘What is our purpose?’ ‘What do we value?’ and ‘What will we fight for?’ Recognizing the importance of community input, we posed these tough questions in the form of neighborhood listening sessions, survey collection, and through non-traditional engagement streams. As a result, our new brand was born.

Our new brand identity is a mash up of what we’ve heard in the community over the last four years. It reflects our relentless desire for equitable change and growth. It reflects community development that values the community organizing and boots on the ground strategy of the past and matches it with the modern day approaches to big, bold and innovative ideas that are driving urban expansion across the country. It is an inclusive brand that respects and celebrates the history and identity of Walnut Hills, while inviting new stakeholders to the table to contribute to our community’s growth.

Will inclusive and equitable change be easy? Will we always be as successful as we want to be? No. It will be hard. Damn hard. But we believe that we must do what’s hard. We believe that we must lead by example. And guess what? We can’t do it alone. This type of change is going to require your participation, through both successes and challenges. It’s going to require all of us to listen to each other, to inspire each other, to be agile, smart and strategic together.

We believe that the future of community development belongs to change agents and risk takers. Those who believe the impossible is possible. Are you one of those people? Are you ready?

Let’s go.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This letter was jointly authored by Kevin Wright, Executive Director of the WHRF, and Christina D. Brown, who serves as the organization’s president. Wright was a reporter for UrbanCincy in 2010, prior to taking on his leadership role in Walnut Hills.

Street Food Festival Returns to Streets of Walnut Hills This Saturday

Cincinnati Street Food Festival (2015)Walnut Hills will host the fourth annual Cincinnati Street Food Festival this Saturday, September 26. Event organizers say there will be music, art, drinks and, of course, food trucks.

There will be 15 food trucks, five live music acts, artists and drinks provided by Rhinegeist and Hopwater at this year’s festival. While none of the food trucks specifically focus on vegan or vegetarian dishes, several of the operators do offer those options.

The event has been organized each year by the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, which started the festival with the help of many sponsors and volunteers in back in 2012. The idea has been to celebrate the city’s diverse street food scene, while also bringing people to what was once Cincinnati’s second largest business district.

While the neighborhood has been struggling with a shrinking population and limited job opportunities, recent investments in the neighborhood have been encouraging. Over the past few years, several new businesses have opened up shop, and dozens of new residences have been developed.

In addition to that, Metro has announced that it will be making bus service upgrades for the area, and the WHRF continues to forge ahead with several new public space projects.

As a result, festival organizers see one of the main purposes of the event as showcasing these improvements and opportunities.

Organizers also say that they are proud to use proceeds from the Flying Pies booth to support UpSpring, a non-profit agency serving the education needs of homeless children and youth, and the Cincinnati Preschool Promise.

The Cincinnati Street Food Festival will take place along McMillan Street, between Hemlock and Chatham Streets, from 11am to 5pm. It is free and open to anyone interested in attending. Several Metro bus routes serve the area, and plenty of free bicycle parking is available in the immediate vicinity.

EDITORIAL NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that proceeds from the festival would go to support UpSpring and the Cincinnati Preschool Promise. Proceeds from the festival will actually go to support the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, while money collected from the Flying Pies booth will go to support UpSpring and the Cincinnati Preschool Promise.

Metro To Offer Limited Late Night Bus Service This Saturday

Metro and CincyYP are teaming up for the second year to encourage young people in Cincinnati to try out the city’s bus service beyond typical commuting uses.

Many people view transit as a means to get to and from work, but the reality is that nearly three-fourths of all trips made each day have nothing to do with work commutes. As Metro works to grow ridership and expand its customer base, choice riders – those who choose to take transit instead of other alternatives – are becoming an increasingly targeted demographic.

One of the efforts to get more young people taking transit will take place this Saturday, August 29 from 8pm to 2am. Organizers are calling it an entertainment bus that will take riders around to some 18 bars in seven different neighborhoods.

“This is a fun way for young professional to be introduced to Metro’s services,” said Kim Lahman, Outreach and Sustainability Manager at Metro. “I believe most participants will feel more comfortable giving Metro a try after they experience just how easy and convenient public transit can be.”

Unlimited trip passes for the late night shuttle can be purchased online for $7 per person, or $20 for groups of four. The public can also simply purchase single trips at Metro’s normal $1.75 fare anywhere along the route. Those who may not have the cash, or just want to get a bit more involved, are being encouraged to volunteer for two hours and receive a complimentary pass in return.

As Lahman suggests, the hope is to get young people more familiar with using the city’s bus service, and will learn tips about how to plan their trip, read a schedule, catch a bus and use Metro’s real-time arrival services.

“YPs should be interested in attending this event because it’s a first step in creating change,” explained event organizer Kaitlyn Kappesser. “If we can prove to Metro that a bus route like this is in demand more than one night a year, we could evolve this into an every weekend thing.”

Kappesser told UrbanCincy that she believes such a route is an important step to not only introducing new riders to Metro, but also toward reducing drunk driving and spurring business at establishments outside of Downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

“Because of this event, people will get to experience and try other neighborhoods,” Kappesser said. “Also, who doesn’t like drink specials.”

Pay-by-Phone Technology Now Available for Cincinnati’s Parking Meters

Smart Meter IdentificationCincinnati city officials announced last week that the more than 4,000 smart parking meters that have been installed throughout the city are now functioning in coordination with a new mobile app payment system.

The announcement fulfills a long-held desire for motorists looking for more convenient ways to pay parking meter fees.

It is expected that such technology will help reduce the amount of tickets that are dolled out since drivers will now be able to refill their meter from anywhere, simply by using their phone. Those without smartphones capable of operating the PassportParking app will also be able to use their phones to reload meters by visiting, or by calling 513-253-0493.

“This enhancement is part of the City’s ongoing parking modernization plan to improve the quality and efficiency of the City parking system,” officials stated in a prepared release. “In accordance with these efforts parking rates were adjusted earlier this year, and motorists saw the introduction of prepay and extended hours.”

In addition to the convenience for parkers, the new technology also allows for local businesses to register so that they can discount the parking costs for their customers.

While the new technology will make payments easier and more convenient, it does not help motorists locate available on-street parking spaces, or utilize dynamic pricing that would encourage those looking for a parking space to navigate toward a lesser used area.

While dynamic pricing has been mentioned as a future possibility by both Mayor John Cranley (D) and City Manager Harry Black, it has not yet been made clear when that will take place.

“Pay-by-phone parking is representative of what we are doing across our organization. We are using technology to enhance services we offer our residents and visitors,” said City Manager Black. “This technology won’t replace more traditional means of paying to park at a meter, but it gives people a new, convenient option that makes visiting Downtown or business districts across Cincinnati easier.”

The mobile payment app, which charges a 25-cent convenience fee, will only work for on-street parking meters and kiosks – not off-street lots or garages. In order to properly use the system, drivers will be asked to input the zone, along with the meter number, into the application so that the payment can be traced to that particular space, and thus monitored by parking enforcement officers.

All of this comes after the contentious cancellation of the parking lease agreement put into place by Mark Mallory‘s administration in 2013.

Under that agreement, the City would have leased its on-street parking meters, along with a number of garages and lots, to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, which then was to enter into operation agreement with Xerox. In return, the City would have received a large upfront payment, along with guaranteed annual payments.

The new structure maintains more control at City Hall, but it misses on the upfront capital, along with the guaranteed payments.

Instead, the City takes on the risk of meeting revenue projections and keeping operation and maintenance costs within their targets. One thing that remains the same is the presence of Xerox, although their role appears to have been greatly diminished from what it would have been under the Mallory administration deal.

So far the response to the new parking meters and payment functionality has been positive, although some neighborhood business districts, where the meters are arriving for the first time, have experienced some temporary glitches with pricing and hours of operation programmed into the meter.