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.

Neighborhood Group Attempting To Establish Museum Focused on Over-the-Rhine

For those of us who worry that Over-the-Rhine is in the process of losing its history to a swarm of new development and residents who know little about the previous lives of the neighborhood, there is a new group, of which I am part, which is working to address that very issue.

The impetus behind the Over-the-Rhine Museum, which is still in its formation stage, is to create a space where people can come to “discover and interpret the history of Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood from its earliest inception through to the present.”

The goal is to accomplish this by using the stories of real people who have lived in specific buildings in OTR to show how the neighborhood has changed over time.

The museum plans to share not only stories of the neighborhood’s celebrated German heritage, but also stories of the Appalachian and African American residents that have helped to define the neighborhood more recently – creating a comprehensive history of the neighborhood over the past century and a half.

The Over-the-Rhine Museum group is in the early stages of forming and is basing itself on the model used by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, which is located in another neighborhood with a strong immigrant influence that has changed dramatically over time.

While the Over-the-Rhine Museum does not yet have a physical location, the plan is to establish a pop-up museum in the near future, with the exhibits based on the specific space where the pop-up will be held. Any historic building in OTR can fit the bill for the pop-up space or the permanent museum because, as founding member Anne Steinert says, “all of these buildings have stories to tell.”

Those interested in getting involved with the effort, or simply learning more, can participate in a walking tour of historic tenement buildings around Findlay Market on Sunday, October 4. Tickets for the OTR Tenement Walking Tour cost $10 and can be purchased online.

Group organizers say that they are also planning to host a storytelling event over the winter. Additional questions regarding how to get involved can be directed at

Cincinnati’s booming center city should be obvious choice for CDK Global’s new operations center

It was announced earlier today that CDK Global, an integrated information technology and digital marketing provider for the retail and automotive retail industries, is looking at Southwest Ohio for a new facility that would house around 1,000 employees.

CDK Global LLC expects to create $45,000,000 in new annual payroll as the result of a 75 percent, 15-year job creation tax credit estimated to be worth $15,652,715 that was approved by the Ohio Tax Credit Authority on Monday. The tax credit will require CDK to maintain operations at its new site for the next 18 years and would retain $3,421,465 in existing payroll along with 80 jobs. CDK is expected to make $9,750,000 in capital investment as a result of the tax credit.

The move makes sense given the region’s strong marketing and retail presence, and its rapidly growing tech scene. According to the report from our content partners at the Business Courier, a specific site has not yet been selected. We would like to take this opportunity to point CDK Global to the center city where many of the region’s fastest-growing, most innovative and successful companies are locating. Plus, there are several great sites located directly on the first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar that would only add to the experience and quality of life for CDK’s employees.

LOT Expo Looking to Tackle Problem of Vacant Properties Throughout City

Just think if a vacant lot near you could be turned into a solar-powered wi-fi hub and electric car charging station, a home for egg-laying chickens, or any number of other creative and productive uses. That is what a group of thought leaders are trying to accomplish with a new program they hope will gain traction at City Hall.

In an effort to promote vacant properties as entrepreneurial and sustainable turnaround opportunities, Lots of Tiny Exposition will be held this week in Over-the-Rhine.

The brainchild of local U. S. Green Building Council activists, LOT Expo is an upcoming free two-day open air exhibit in OTR to draw attention to the “sub-prime” real estate plaguing many neighborhoods.

Specifically tied to the tiny house movement, LOT presents exhibitors that showcase inventive, small scale installations for big, immediate vacant lot impact. Exhibitors will include a tiny house on wheels, vertical garden systems, solar and wind power operations, mobile mini-chicken coops, a 1950’s Airstream retrofit, and pervious parking pads.

Organizers say that they hope visitors bring property addresses for vacant lots that they believe have potential. At that moment, they say an on-the-spot professional laptop “green diagnosis” rating report will be produced. Designers who want to stimulate new ventures for abandoned property blight will be on the lookout for those projects brought to attention.

While the idea seems easy enough, vacant lot redevelopment can actually be a complicated, multi-faceted subject requiring professional knowledge.

As a result, the LOT Forum Panels at the Expo are meant to offer public and private sector professionals to bring expertise, experience, and skills to the vacant lot syndrome – the knowhow for sustainable success. Four different panels are convening under roof at a three-minute walk from the LOT Expo venue; and panel discussions will turn attention to vacant lot gridlocks and reinvestments that lessen public subsidy supports.

Individual Lots on Massive Scale
According to Vacant Lots: Occupied – a guide produced by a group of University of Cincinnati students with the help of Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, the City of Cincinnati Department of Community Development and Building Value – there are approximately 22,000 vacant properties in the City of Cincinnati. These properties are classified as land with or without a structure that have been abandoned by its owners. It is estimated that 8,000 of these are without any structures.

Though not as dismal as some other American cities, vacant properties account for about 10% of Cincinnati’s parcels.

Keep Cincinnati Beautiful has successfully ‘cleaned and greened’ vacant lots throughout the city. This typically means cleaning up the lot before planting grass that then requires continued maintenance. Not satisfied with that approach, KCB collaborated with the University of Cincinnati Horticulture Program to develop Vacant Lots: Occupied. This award-winning manual established an analytical guide to select and transform abandoned lots.

While many individuals and families are already helping to stabilize lots in their community, 8,000 is a big number. Ryan Geismar, one of the professors that led the UC students, says the guide was originally intended for KCB and other organizations, but that it became clear that collective effort is needed to address the blight problem.

From a large-scale planning perspective, Geismar says the best approach is to “Identify assets within neighborhoods and use strategic investment catalysts that inspire others to take action.”

Return on Investments
Neighborhood developers are drawn to prime property, usually clear, open lots with existing infrastructure. There is a dire need to address the marginal, by-passed lots that are an economic drain on our city and region. Though numbers aren’t available in Cincinnati, the city of Philadelphia highlights the imperative of critical action. In 2010, their approximately 40,000 vacant parcels consumed about $20 million in city services (fire, police, maintenance, pest control, etc.) and represented $2 million in uncollected property tax revenue.

Vacant properties have always been around; their numbers surged after the recent recession and spike in housing foreclosures. Many large financial institutions faced lawsuits over fraudulent foreclosures or mortgages; and Ohio’s Attorney General settled a suit against five of the nation’s largest mortgage servicers over foreclosure abuses, fraud, and unfair and deceptive mortgage practices.

A portion of that money was disbursed to Ohio counties for home demolitions. The result in Cincinnati was to tear down hundreds of buildings over the last few years, creating even more vacant lots.

Blight or Bonanza
One of the few cities with data and a comprehensive approach to the problem is Philadelphia where a study concluded that blighting effect from vacant parcels reduced values by 6.5% citywide and by up to 20% in some neighborhoods. In order to counter this epidemic, Philadelphia officials responded by offering landowners adjacent to vacant properties the land for little to no cost.

Since not every lot is the same, solutions require resourceful, frugal and innovative investments. With depreciated property values and dwindling public dollars spread thin, small business opportunists may see vacant lots as overlooked economic potential or reframe the problem as an engaging community asset.

Place from Space, a design competition to transform vacant underutilized spaces into vibrant places, awarded Renaissance Covington with a $1,000 prize to transform a parking lot into a performance space after business hours. This was achieved with financial and infrastructure support from the City of Covington, and a large amount of volunteer hours from committed citizens and professional designers. The performance space, now known as MadLot, has since hosted live music, movies, and other programming since opening.

Individual efforts should not go unnoticed. Whether guerilla gardening or picking up trash, these small steps help improve appearance and reverse the effects of the broken window theory. While the sheer number of vacant lots is large, the challenge is not insurmountable. It will take economies of thrift, practical knowhow and strategic thinking to execute solutions.

A tiny house on wheels, bocce ball court, performance stage or another enhancement might find a way to a lot near you. It might not be long before you find a goat chomping down honeysuckle next door.

LOT Expo will take place from September 19-20 from 10am to 4pm each day at the New Findlay Market Playground at 1814-1822 Elm Street. The Saturday forum panel will focus on tiny living and the Sunday forum will focus on vacant lots. Both will take place between 11am and 2pm at Rookwood Pottery Company around the corner at 1920 Race Street.

The event is free and open to the public, but organizers are asking for those interested in attending to register in advance online.

Model Group Moving Forward With $30M Second Phase of Broadway Square

Despite missing out on millions of dollars in state historic tax credits, Model Group is moving on undeterred with the next phase of work at Broadway Square.

Project officials say that the $30 million Broadway 3, which is actually phase two, should get started within the next week and will include 30 residential apartments and 1,200 square feet of commercial space.

“It’s a pretty sterile scoring system, so it’s pretty fair and to the point,” Bobby Maly, Chief Operating Officer at Model Group, told me when asked about missing out on the tax credits.

Undeterred, Maly then quickly changed to a more positive note and spoke about how Model Group is excited about the changes on tap for nearby Ziegler Park.

“Anytime you can create high quality green space that is safe and programmed is terrific,” Maly said. “Even the planned parking can be helpful for a high density neighborhood like Pendleton.”

One of the big differences about Broadway Square from the other developments taking place in Over-the-Rhine is that it has a different and unique setting. As many longtime residents know, Pendleton is less a district, and more of a pocket neighborhood.

To that end, he says that Model Group’s Broadway Square project is trying to not recreate what is happening on Vine or Main, but rather create a nexus that has a high concentration of professionals and niche businesses in a “high energy” environment.

So far the first phase of Broadway Square has lived up to that motto by attracting a collection of small, creative businesses, along with Urbana Cafe’s first brick-and-mortar location and the recently opened Nation Kitchen & Bar. While this next phase of work will have considerably less commercial space, Maly says that they have their eyes set on a small brewery for the corner of Thirteenth and Broadway Streets.

With apartments in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine at nearly 100% occupancy, and the first phase of Broadway Square fully leased within months with new marketing, the climate seems even better for the 30 new units this investment will bring online.

“There’s so much demand for Downtown and Over-the-Rhine right now that Cincinnati is still catching up with demand in that regard,” said Maly. “This is still more the beginning, than the middle or end.”

With work expected to get started soon on phase two, project officials say that the third and final phase could break ground as soon as January.