Two Big Ideas to Bring Cincinnati’s Urban Housing Boom to Next Level

It has become painfully clear that we are not building enough housing supply to meet demand for center city living. In order to meet those demands, and prevent runaway price increases, now is the time to go big and develop thousands of more units.

In 2014, CBRE released a study about the strength of Cincinnati’s urban real estate market, and noted that the center city housing market could support thousands of additional residential units, even as 2,500 were under development at that time.

This was reinforced by CBRE’s economic outlook for the region released just days ago that said, “The multifamily recovery continues with unabated strength in the Cincinnati MSA with strong demand fundamentals pushing rents higher.” With occupancy hovering around 95% and the strongest demand in the urban core, their real estate analysts expect rents to continue to rise.

As of now, 3CDC is virtually sold out of all of their condos, luxury apartment buildings are being filled in a matter of weeks, and a parade of home builders continues to redirect their attention to the market. But it has not been nearly enough.

While 3CDC has done an incredible job at establishing a viable residential market in Over-the-Rhine, they have only produced a few hundred units over the past decade. Bigger projects in the central business district are turning historic office towers into posh residences, but are doing so at about 100 units per project. Even the long-planned residential tower at Fourth and Race Streets will only include 208 units once it is complete several years from now.

The rate of production at The Banks, which is by far the largest development in the center city, only averages out to a couple dozen units per year when you consider the time it continues to take to build out that massive undertaking.

Something bigger is needed. Something much bigger. Here are two options.

City Hall Quarters
Cincinnati’s majestic City Hall is unfortunately surrounded by decrepit, low-slung parking garages and a smattering of parking lots. The area’s proud history, however, can still be seen by taking a leisurely walk along Ninth Street. There, one can view the regal structures that were the original homes of Cincinnati’s economic and political elite.

Just around the corner, however, is a collection of parking lots controlled by collection of different limited liability companies. The original owner of the lots, if it is different from now, had long-planned to build offices on the site similar in nature to what was developed on its north side along Central Parkway. That building was completed in 1983, and times have certainly changed since then.

The large collection of parking lots allows for a unique opportunity to create a residential sub-district within the central business district. Look to Atlanta’s West Midtown, Chicago’s South Loop or Denver’s Cherry Creek District of examples of the type of development that could rise here.

Its density would respect its historic surroundings, but its scale could provide hundreds of residential units. Instead of lining each street with retail, thoughtfully placed corner markets and cafes could be placed intermittently in order to maintain a residential character for the sub-district.

CL&N Heights
Like its Broadway Commons neighbor to the north, this area was once part of the large warehouse district that previously occupied the site with the CL&N Railway. Those proud buildings, and the history that went along with them, are now largely gone and have been replaced by I-71. There are, however, some of the historic warehouse structures that can still be seen in the Eighth Street Design District and immediately to the south.

This collection of parking lots is largely out of site since they sit beneath I-71 and at a lower grade than the rest of the central business district. Procter & Gamble currently owns the vast majority of the site, but Eagle Realty has recently acquired some land with the interest of building a parking structure along with some office space.

Unlike the City Hall Quarters site, this location has an opportunity to go even bigger.

In order to properly develop the location, it would make most sense to raise the site up to the same level as the rest of the surrounding street grid. This would essentially create a situation akin to The Banks, where two or so levels of parking could be built as a platform, with the structures then rising from there.

Instead of building four- to five-story structures, like at The Banks or near City Hall, this site would be an ideal location for a handful of sleek, modern residential high-rises. In this case, think of Vancouver’s Yaletown or San Diego’s East Village near their ballpark.

In this location it is conceivable that four to five residential towers could be constructed, while also preserving some land for pocket parks and other neighborhood amenities. At such a scale and density, this site alone could produce upwards of a thousand residential units.

Like the City Hall Quarters site, there would be no strong need to build retail as part of this project. Instead, a small collection of service offerings, like dry cleaners and convenience stores, could be built as part of the development, thus allowing the new influx of residents to bolster the existing and potential retail offerings in the central business district and Over-the-Rhine.

Both development sites include their challenges, but they offer immense opportunities to not only provide the much-needed injection of housing, but also improve the city’s tax base, hold down skyrocketing residential prices, bolster center city retail, and rid the city of two of its largest-remaining surface parking lots.

PHOTOS: Construction Updates From Along the Mighty Ohio River

Both sides of the Ohio River are full of construction right now. In Cincinnati, General Electric’s new Global Operations Center, 300 new apartments, and 60,000 square feet of retail space are under construction at phase two of The Banks. The latest phase of the Smale Riverfront Park, which includes Carol Ann’s Carousel, is also moving along just around the corner.

Then, across the river in Newport, 238 apartments, 8,300 square feet of retail space, and an Aloft hotel are being added as part of the next phase of Newport on the Levee. Prep work is also taking place for the relocation of Kentucky Route 9 and the long-delayed Ovation project.

You can click on any image to enlarge it.

EDITORIAL NOTE: All 13 photos were taken by Travis Estell for UrbanCincy between January 18 and February 15, 2015.

VIDEO: Smale Riverfront Park’s Carousel Taking Shape in Mansfield

Carol Ann’s Carousel is taking shape about three hours north of Cincinnati in Mansfield. It is there where master wood carvers are hand-crafting the $1 million showpiece for Smale Riverfront Park.

Carol Ann’s Carousel is being built by an Ohio company that claims to be world’s largest manufacturer of wooden carousels. Founded in 1986, Carousel Works has built dozens of the rides that are now in operation throughout North America. According to their employees, Cincinnati’s is one of the more unique and interesting projects they have worked on to-date.

“I’ve got to work on some really fun ones so far, but I have to say that the Cincinnati’s carousel is going to be really fantastic,” explained carver Tim Gorka. “I  really think it’s going to be a favorite of most of the people working here.”

The $4.5 million structure that will house the amusement ride is now largely in place, with the glass walls and roofing all in place just west of the Roebling Suspension Bridge along the central riverfront.

Project officials say that the progress is advancing according to plan, and that the 44-character carousel will open to the public on Saturday, May 16.

Megabus, Greyhound Open to Idea of Relocating Into Riverfront Transit Center

Following UrbanCincy’s story on the ongoing struggles between the City of Cincinnati and Megabus, the two largest intercity bus operators have come forward and expressed a willingness to discuss relocating to the Riverfront Transit Center.

The conversations started after Megabus was forced to move its downtown Cincinnati stop this past autumn – marking latest in a series of moves forced by City officials following complaints from surrounding property and business owners.

“Local businesses, through City Hall, requested megabus.com move from 1213 W. Central Parkway to our new present location at 691 Gest Street,” Sean Hughes, Associate Director of Corporate Affairs at Coach USA North America, explained to UrbanCincy. “Megabus.com would love to be in the Riverfront Transit Center, but that was not a viable option because of Riverfront Transit Center operational concerns.”

The issue extends beyond the various intercity bus operators and City Hall. Since the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) operates the facility for the City, and collects annual revenues from it. In October, SORTA officials told UrbanCincy that expanding operations within the Riverfront Transit Center is possible, due to its large excess capacity, but would bring additional costs.

“It’s our understanding that Megabus pays a fee to share transit facilities in other cities,” Sallie Hilvers, Metro’s Executive Director of Communications, said at the time. “As a tax-supported public service, Metro would need to recover the increased costs related to maintenance, utilities, security, etc. from Megabus, which is a for-profit company.”

At the same time, there appears to be growing pressures for Greyhound, which has been operating in Cincinnati since 1976, to potentially find a new location as it is crowded out by new development surrounding the Horseshoe Casino.

While Greyhound and SORTA have engaged in conversations in the past about relocating Greyhound’s operations to the Riverfront Transit Center, little progress has been made; and the two sides still appear to be at a standstill, albeit a softening one.

“No decisions on that front have been made that this time,” Lanesha Gipson, Senior Communications Specialist with Greyhound, commented with regard to relocating to the Riverfront Transit Center. “All potential relocations have to be analyzed and be in the best interest of everyone – the customers, the company and the community – before a decision is made as to whether or not we should relocate our operations.”

With both Greyhound and Megabus thriving as an increasing number of people ditch their cars and plane travel for short trips – less than 500 miles – these conversations appear to only be in the early stages.

While all parties agree that some legal, regulatory and logistical issues would need to be resolved prior to establishing the Riverfront Transit Center as Cincinnati’s intercity bus terminal, it sounds like the primary issue is the financial arrangement. Until then, intercity bus passengers will continue to be plagued by continuously moving and inconvenient stations for the region’s two largest operators; and an underutilized transit facility sitting beneath Second Street.

“Megabus.com continues to work with SORTA to find a permanent location for our stop in Cincinnati,” Hughes noted. “Megabus.com has an annual passenger spend of $8.2 million in Cincinnati and we look forward to serving the city by giving passengers a safe, environmentally friendly way to travel.”

System Designs Unveiled, Operating Agreement Reached for Cincinnati Streetcar

Officials with the City of Cincinnati and Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) made several major announcements last week pertaining to the rollout of the Cincinnati Streetcar system.

While the design of the rolling stock and the system’s color scheme were revealed more than a year ago, the official branding for the new mode of transit for the Cincinnati region had not. SORTA officials say that the branding will be utilized all throughout the system including its fare cards, ticketing machines, uniforms, wayfinding, brochures, website and social media, and, of course, the trains and their stations.

The branding scheme was put together by Kolar Design, whose offices are located in the Eighth Street Design District just two blocks from the nearest streetcar stop, after competing with more than 100 other firms interested in the opportunity to developing the design scheme.

Project officials say that the $25,000 cost for the branding effort was paid for through Federal funds.

Founders Club Card Sales
At the same time, SORTA and City officials announced the availability of 1,500 Founders Club Cards. The sale of the cards, officials said, would help raise some initial funds to be used to help offset initial operating expenses.

Project officials have informed UrbanCincy that approximately half of the 1,500 cards were sold within the first 24 hours of going on sale; and that more than 1,000 had been sold by Friday. A limited number of Founders Club Cards are still available for purchase at the Second Floor Cashier’s Office at City Hall, Metro’s sales office in the Mercantile Arcade across from Government Square, and online at Metro’s website.

There are three card options available. The first goes for $25 and allows for unlimited rides for the first 15 days of service, which is currently pegged for 2016. The second and third options go for $50 and $100, and allow for unlimited rides for the first 30 and 60 days, respectively.

The commemorative metal cards and matching metal cases were seen by some as one of the first ways for Cincinnati Streetcar supporters to show their support. Having experienced strong sales thus far, it seems as Metro’s strategy may prove to be a success.

“This is one of the first tangible opportunities streetcar enthusiasts can show their support,” said City Councilwoman Amy Murray (R), Transportation Committee Chair. “This is a great idea that Metro has developed to generate excitement. I think many will appreciate the privilege of being a Founding Club Member with this commemorative card.”

Operating Agreement Finalized
Perhaps lost amid the other news was the signing of an official operating agreement. Under the current structure, the City of Cincinnati is building the system, and is its owner, but will contract out its operations to SORTA.

The Cincinnati Streetcar Operating & Maintenance Agreement first came out of Murray’s Transportation Committee and was approved 7-2 by City Council in early November. It calls for expanded on-street parking enforcement in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine until 9pm, an increase in parking rates in those two neighborhoods, and a set streetcar fare of $1 for two hours.

The agreement also utilizes an innovative technique that would lower property tax abatements 7.5%. This is an important component of the agreement as it addresses a longstanding call from opponents for those benefiting from real estate valuation increases to cover more of the costs of modern streetcar system. It also eliminates the need to utilize the Haile Foundation’s $9 million pledge, and would instead only tap into those funds in a worst-case scenario.

Project officials estimate that the system will cost approximately $3.8 to $4.2 million annually to operate, and that those costs would be covered by $1.5 million in additional on-street parking revenue in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, $1.3 million from fares and advertising, and an estimated $2 million annually from the tax abatement reductions.

“This is the most innovative plan I’ve seen in the United States,” stated John Schneider, noted transit advocate and real estate developer, at the time of City Council’s approval in November.

The SORTA Board approved the agreement last week and touted the benefits of having operations of the Cincinnati Streetcar be handled through Metro, which also runs the region’s largest bus service.

In addition to the critical financing elements of the agreement, it also delineates various responsibilities once service goes into effect. To that end, the City of Cincinnati will be in charge of maintaining traffic signals, clearing blockages from the streetcar path, cooperation on utility interfaces, safety and security; while SORTA will be responsible for operating the system, maintaining vehicles and facilities, fare collection provision and maintenance, marketing and advertising sales.

Construction on the $148 million first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar continues to progress, with most track work in Over-the-Rhine now complete and track work now progressing through the Central Business District. Current time frames call for operations to begin in September 2016.