WHRF Announces Plans To Redevelop Historic Paramount Building

Last week the Paramount Building at Peebles Corner in Walnut Hills was open to the public for the first time in decades, and UrbanCincy was invited to participate.

The Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, which recently purchased the structure for $750,000 from the Morris Investment Group, allowed several dozen local residents and historic preservation enthusiasts to tour the second and third floor office spaces before the monthly meeting of the Cincinnati Preservation Collective’s monthly meeting.

The WHRF plans to renovate the office floors, as well as the street-level commercial spaces, so the building may return to use as an anchor for the business district.

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However, the tour revealed that the foundation has a significant task ahead in order to make the plan a reality. While it appears that the interior of the building has been secure and not subject to vandalism, there is significant deterioration due to water leaks and open windows. Some rooms were even off limits to the tour due to concerns about structural integrity of floors and ceilings.

Not all was bad though. In fact, a number of attractive original elements remain in place. This includes wooden partitions and glass doors, some of which still retain the stenciled names of the former office occupants.

The Paramount Building, which was built in 1931, originally had a theater attached at the east end along E. McMillan Street, where the CVS Pharmacy now stands. The drug store is part of the property, and provides some cash flow to the WHRF as they undertake renovations.

At the CPC event, WHRF Executive Director Kevin Wright stated that an application was made on the day of the purchase for state historic preservation tax credits. Such tax credits would be instrumental in advancing the project and bringing the prominent structure back to life.

Originally, the building featured a tall spire atop the tower at the corner of Gilbert Avenue and McMillan Street. During World War II, the spire was removed so that the structural metal could be donated to the war effort. Wright announced that he hopes to have the spire rebuilt as part of the renovations.

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.

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.

Designs for Two-Way Street Conversion in East Walnut Hills Nearly Complete

Over the past four months, city planners and engineers have been working away on concepts that would transform William Howard Taft Road and E. McMillan Street into streets with two-way travel. During that time public feedback has been gathered and designs have been revised.

The actual work began much earlier than that when the City of Cincinnati converted portions of those same two streets through the Walnut Hills neighborhood back in 2012. There was some trepidation at the time in East Walnut Hills, but those have seemingly faded away following the successful conversion of those streets to the west.

“This two-way conversion will make the two neighborhoods much more connected, and make the distance between DeSales Corner and Peeble’s Corner more walkable,” explained Kevin Wright, Executive Director of Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. “Our goal is to make the two districts more connected, and this is one of many changes that will be put in place to make that area more walkable.”

Some of those other changes include the redevelopment of historic buildings throughout the business district, establishment of new public gathering spaces, and potential upgrades to the district’s bus service.

Since the last round of public meetings, staff from Cincinnati’s Department of Transportation & Engineering (DOTE) have prepared updated alternatives for traffic flow and streetscape enhancements. These alternatives were presented at a public meeting on February 25, 2015, which included many residents and business owners from the East Walnut Hills neighborhood.

The modifications include the addition of off-peak parking on the north side of William Howard Taft Road between Woodburn Avenue and Ashland Avenue, the addition of left turn lanes from E. McMillan Street to Victory Parkway, and the addition of a landscaped island on the east leg of the Woodburn Avenue and E. McMillan Street intersection.

Project officials say there will be another round of public feedback on these changes, and members of the public are encouraged to share their feedback with Greg Koehler [greg.koehler@cincinnati-oh.gov] or Curtis Hines [curtis.hines@cincinnati-oh.gov] by Wednesday, March 11.

Metro Rolling Out Series of Transit Enhancements for Peeble’s Corner District

As part of Metro’s system-wide upgrades, transit officials have announced a new project to upgrade stations and services in Walnut Hills.

The first part of these enhancements includes the availability of Metro’s monthly passes and regional stored-value cards, which were available as of last week, at the customer service counter at the Walnut Hills Kroger on E. McMillan Avenue.

“At Kroger, we are always seeking ways to offer conveniences to our customers,” explained Sarah Raney, Walnut Hills Kroger Store Manager. “The Walnut Hills Kroger is happy to partner with Metro to sell bus passes to our customers who regularly use them.”

In addition to many of the store’s customers, management also says that many of the store’s employees use Metro bus service to get to and from work on a daily basis.

According to Brandy Jones, Public Relations Manager at Metro, this is the first such partnership for the region’s largest transit operator, but could be the first of more to come. Jones says that this is a test to see how it works, and that additional partnerships with Kroger and other retailers may be explored.

The move is part of a larger goal to increase ridership system-wide. Other recent improvements have included the construction of the Uptown Transit District and Glenway Crossing Transit Center, and the establishment of the Montgomery Road Metro*Plus route and several new crosstown routes.

Metro officials tout the Walnut Hills Transit Enhancement Project as enhancing service for one of their busiest neighborhoods. According to ridership data, approximately 208,000 rides were provided to the historic neighborhood in 2014. Once complete in 2016, the enhancement project will introduce new sheltered boarding areas, improved lighting, sidewalk and landscape improvements, electronic real-time arrival screens and some other more modest improvements at a total of seven stations in the Peeble’s Corner area.

“Metro is invested in the Walnut Hills community,” Dwight Ferrell, Metro CEO & General Manager, stated in a prepared release. “We’re excited that the Walnut Hills Kroger has become the first major retailer in the region to sell Metro bus passes. This new partnership will help us better serve our mutual customers.”

The commitment from Metro is just the latest in a string of positive announcements from the surrounding neighborhoods, but community leaders are hoping to provide even more transportation choices, such as Cincy Red Bike, in the future as well. But as for now, neighborhood leaders are particularly bullish on the impacts the Walnut Hills Transit Enhancement Project will have on the E. McMillan Corridor.

“We think this is going to be a game changer,” Kevin Wright, Executive Director of Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, explained to UrbanCincy. “Peeble’s Corner has always been one of the largest transfer points in the city and we think ridership will only grow as we add more density to the corridor.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Metro provides approximately 2.8 million rides to the Walnut Hills area, while the number of rides is actually 208,000.