Christmas Came Early for Southwest Ohio Developers, Historic Preservationists

The Ohio Development Services Agency provided developers and historic preservationists around the state with an early Christmas present when they announced 18 projects that would receive Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credits.

In total, the tax credits are worth $22.8 million and are expected to spur $225.6 million in private investment.

“A community’s historic buildings make it unique,” said David Goodman, director of the ODSA. “Giving a building new life honors the history of the building, while creating construction jobs in the short-term and opportunity for economic activity in the future.”

In recent years southwest Ohio had fared extremely well in the competitive bid process for the funds, and this round proved to be much of the same. This group of winning applicants includes five from Cincinnati, one from Hamilton, and two from the Dayton area.

One of the Dayton projects was the winner of one of the state’s two prestigious $5 million awards. That money will go toward the $46 million United Brethren Building project in downtown Dayton, which will transform the long-vacant, 112-year-old building into 164 apartments.

While the Cincinnati-region had the most number of awarded projects, most of the tax credits were small in size. Four projects, three located in Over-the-Rhine and one in Hamilton, received amounts ranging from $150,000 to $250,000. While small in scope, the projects will save numerous historic structures from demolition, while also creating dozens of residential units and commercial space.

The long-debated Freeport Row project, located at Liberty and Elm Streets, received a sizable $1,358,772 tax credit to help restore five historic structures as part of the overall $25 million development. Once complete, the project is expected to yield 110 apartments, 17,000 square feet of retail, and a total of 100,000 square feet of new construction on the vacant lots surrounding the historic structures.

Just blocks north of Freeport Row, along the Cincinnati Bell Connector, is another project that took home the largest tax credit in Cincinnati. Market Square III was awarded with $1,690,000 in tax credits and push forward the latest phase of Model Group’s massive redevelopment efforts surrounding Findlay Market.

Market Square III will renovate eight historic structures, most of which are currently vacant, to include street-level commercial space with 38 apartments in the upper floors.

Hamilton Looking At Possibility of Developing Urban Trail on City’s West Side

The City of Hamilton is looking at the possibility of acquiring approximately 36.5 acres of land from CSX Corporation following its filing for abandonment of the former freight railroad. If city officials ultimately decide to proceed with the purchase, the plan will be to turn it into an urban bike and pedestrian trail on Hamilton’s inner west side.

Running from CSX’s main line in Millville to the former Champion Paper Mill, which is in the process of being redeveloped into a youth sports and entertainment complex, the property also includes a former railyard near the Great Miami River at Two Mile Creek.

Hamilton’s west side neighborhoods currently lack any protected bike lanes or off-street bike paths. As a result, the possibility of adding such an amenity has community leaders excited.

“The proposed Beltline trail will be of great value to our community,” said Hamilton Councilman Rob Wile. “By connecting these neighborhoods to our existing trail infrastructure we open up a number of convenient outdoor recreational opportunities to our residents.”

Earlier in the year city officials hosted public hearings to gather feedback on the concept, and are continuing to gather feedback through an online survey. The results, they say, will help determine whether they should ultimately pursue the project.

“The survey lets the City know what kind of benefits residents see in the trail, how often they may use it, what potential negative aspects or problems may occur with it; and is being used to see what generally the public thinks about the potential trail,” Nicholas Garuckas, City Management Fellow inside Hamilton’s Office of the City Manager, explained to UrbanCincy.

“The [survey] results are carefully being looked at and considered in helping determine whether or not the City should be moving forward with this project or not.

In the meantime, Garuckas says that City Hall is moving forward with an appraisal of the land’s value, along with assessing the possibility of various grants from agencies like the Ohio Public Works Clean Conservation Fund, Rails to Trails Conservancy, Dopplet Family Fund, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Clean Ohio Trail Fund, and Recreational Train Fund.

The project follows a pattern of other more marque urban trail projects around the country that are transforming former industrial rail corridors into park and recreation space for under-served urban communities.

Last June, Chicago celebrated the opening of its 2.7-mile trail called The 606. Atlanta, meanwhile, has been opening segments of its much larger 33-mile BeltLine project in phases over recent years. Nearby, in Cincinnati, city officials are poised to acquire an abandoned 7.6-mile freight rail line in its eastern neighborhoods for what is being called the Wasson Way project.

While smaller in scope, the approximately 2.7-mile Hamilton Beltline has, at least initially, has gained the support of Hamilton City Council, and is rooted in the city’s planning documents. In fact, city officials explain that the idea for the project came out of discussions about what to do with the Champion Paper Mill complex and surrounding areas.

“This project is part of the bike path master plan and it will be an asset to all those who enjoy the outdoors including walkers and joggers,” Wile concluded.

If Hamilton is successful in acquiring the land, it would add significant recreational facilities and new transportation options to the city’s west side. If abandonment proceedings continue without Hamilton moving to purchase the property, it will instead be sold off in piecemeal fashion to private owners.

CORE Looking to Spread Redevelopment Activity Beyond Downtown Hamilton

Following the successful efforts of the Consortium for Ongoing Reinvestment Efforts in the area around High Street in downtown Hamilton, the public-private partnership is now taking a more targeted approach to spark new investment along Main Street in the city’s historic Rossville neighborhood.

CORE has acquired a collection of 10 properties along the Main Street corridor that they say were purchased either due to availability or significance. The hope, they say, is to make an immediate impact on private property movement in the district.

The group does this by making strategic property acquisitions, returning them to productive use, then selling the properties to new private owners. In order to have the broadest impact, CORE also works with City Hall on more traditional economic development efforts to enhance the value of their properties and those around them.

“CORE’s first commitment is to reset and realign commercial storefronts, and increase economic and human activity at the street level,” Michael Dingeldein, Executive Director of CORE, explained to UrbanCincy. “That being said, additional residential density in the upper levels can and will also support increased foot traffic on Main Street.”

While leadership at CORE notes that their mission has been to focus on Hamilton’s city center, the new effort marks the partnership’s first major play outside of downtown. The move comes at the same time as several other initiatives, led by Hamilton City Council and Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, to boost the historic district on the west side of the Great Miami River.

The organization has been incredibly successful on the other side of the river downtown; and they see similar conditions along Main Street that can be leveraged.

Among other items, Dingeldein noted that the Main Street corridor boasts excellent architecture, terrific proximity to high quality neighborhoods, and an inviting pedestrian scale. At the same time, the district is lacking in diverse retail offerings, struggles with a negative public perception, and needs significant investments to improve building and sidewalk conditions.

But as is similar with many other neighborhood business districts, he says that reestablishing a residential presence above commercial retail will be critical.

“One of the biggest challenges will be to establish market rate residential density in the upper floors, over diverse retail storefronts on the street level,” said Dingeldein.

If indications are at all accurate, he may very well be right. As of now, he estimates that only half of the storefronts along Main Street are occupied, while less than 10% of the upper floors are being utilized for residential space.

“Our momentum and success in Hamilton in the past five years has been our broad all hands on deck approach to our challenges,” Dingeldein concluded. “Our city government is proactive and engaged, but fully supports all of our civic resources being in the same boat, at the same time, rowing in the same direction.”

National Citizen Survey Shows Perceptions of Hamilton Continue To Improve

With the recent announcements of two major new employers, London-based Barclaycard and Colorado-based StarTek, bringing hundreds of new jobs to Hamilton, it may come as no surprise that the city performed comparatively well on the 2015 National Citizen Survey.

Made available to residents in nearly 550 other localities throughout the United States, the NCS is considered by most counties and municipalities as the standard-bearer for collecting meaningful qualitative data and providing informative, actionable feedback.

At the survey’s conclusion, each participating community received an in-depth report that summarized their residents’ responses in three areas: community characteristics, governance and participation. In aggregate, these are compiled to give a general overview of the community’s livability and quality of life. Embedded within this, the questions collect residents’ thoughts about eight key aspects that are central to any community: safety, mobility, the natural environment, the built environment, recreation/wellness, education/enrichment, and community engagement.

While the comparison to other communities is certainly useful, what’s most telling is how the Hamilton of today compares to the Hamilton of its not-so-distant past.

When lined up against its results from the 2011 NCS, the city saw positive gains in a nearly two-thirds of the survey. Not only did the city improve upon those areas where it had been lagging for decades, it also continued to bolster its status as a high-quality, cost-effective producer of public utilities and public goods.

From its best-tasting water, its increased hydroelectric energy production, to its publicly accessible natural-gas station (the first and only in Greater Cincinnati); Hamilton has proven that it is indeed possible to effectively provide public services through economically uncertain times.

It wasn’t all great news, however, with some of the lowest scores falling within the realm of transportation. In particular, few residents responded positively to questions about public transit and traffic flow, both of which have been notoriously subpar for a city of Hamilton’s size. By comparison, nearby Middletown, which is smaller than Hamilton, has had direct access to Interstate 75 and its own four-line public bus system for decades.

Within the city proper, there are only three bridges that connect the city across the Great Miami River within the city proper, all of which carry local roads. Further complicating this is Hamilton’s lack of any highway-grade road infrastructure of any significance as well as numerous at-grade railroad crossings on both sides of the river.

The city is attempting to address some of these transportation issues by moving forward with the $29 million South Hamilton Crossing project, while also lobbying to restore regular passenger rail service.

Public transit of any kind is non-existent in Hamilton, which only frustrates this situation even more. In response to this, city leaders say that they are working to improve relationships with Butler County and other entities within the county, including Middletown and Miami University, to improve public transit offerings.

In particular, the Butler County Regional Transit Authority has essentially absorbed operation of what had been independent bus services in Middletown and Oxford in order to build connectivity among the county’s population centers. BCRTA also maintains routes to West Chester and Tri-County Mall in coordination with Cincinnati’s Metro bus system.

Hamilton Earning National Praise For Its Smart Growth Development Approach

Last month, the City of Hamilton was recognized for its built projects by the US EPA as one of three National Awards for Smart Growth Achievement in 2015.

The awards are given annually to three local government entities that embody the spirit of smart growth by embracing policies and strategies that re-utilize existing infrastructure, protect the environment, provide inclusive mixed-income housing, and strengthen local economies.

In the selection process, Hamilton was specifically singled out for a public-private partnership with Historic Developers, LLC that resulted in three redevelopment and preservation projects. This included Mercantile Lofts, Hamilton’s first new downtown housing in decades, and the conversion of the Journal-News’ former offices into an arts and dance studio that now houses the Miami Valley Ballet Theatre.

Officials say that the partnership leveraged just over $17 million to spark an additional $15 million in investment at adjacent properties.

Over the past five years, these initial projects have been a part of more than $65 million in direct investment, by both local and regional developers, along downtown Hamilton’s High Street corridor.

This award follows numerous others that have been given to the city by other organizations, including the International Economic Development Council’s Excellence in Economic Development awards in 2013 and 2014.

The other two cities recognized in this year’s National Awards for Smart Growth Achievement were Newark, NJ for its revitalized riverfront park, and Jackson, TN for its Jackson Walk mixed-use development in its completely rebuilt downtown district.