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.

PHOTOS: Northside Celebrates Second Year of Cincy Summer Streets

Last weekend, Hamilton Avenue in Northside was packed with people walking, biking, skateboarding, painting, playing music, and enjoying a nice summer day.

The street, which serves as the spine of neighborhood’s business district, was closed to automobiles for four hours as part of the Cincy Summer Streets series.

More than 100 open streets festivals take place across the country, and Cincinnati joined the trend last year with events in two neighborhoods. In 2015 Cincy Summer Streets has expanded to three events – Walnut Hills on July 18, Northside on August 23, and Over-the-Rhine on September 26.

Enjoy our photos from the August 23rd event:

John Yung to Become Lead Project Executive at Urban Fast Forward

John Yung, UrbanCincy’s Associate Editor of Public Policy, will take on a new role with Urban Fast Forward as the firm’s Lead Project Executive.

John will maintain his position at UrbanCincy, where he has contributed for nearly five years. Over this time he also worked for the Bellevue, KY, and led the effort there to implement one of the region’s first form-based codes. He then obtained his American Institute of Certified Planners certification in 2014, and took on a leading planning role at the Village of Yellow Springs this past winter.

John says that he is excited to be back in Cincinnati full-time and is looking forward to the possibility of living car-free with his new office within walking distance of his Over-the-Rhine apartment. Kathleen Norris, Managing Principal at Urban Fast Forward, is also excited about the addition to her team.

“John is an urban rock star. His insight into the ebb and flow of cities and their neighborhoods is going to add real value for our clients,” Norris said.

In the new role, Norris says that John will be taking the place of Matt Shad, who is moving on to become Cincinnati’s Deputy Director of Zoning Administration. While at Urban Fast Forward, Shad assisted Norris with strategic planning consulting that complimented the firm’s retail leasing and development consultancy.

“The City of Cincinnati is lucky to be getting Matt,” said Norris. “He knows the intricacies of planning and zoning, in both theory and practical application, and I think he is going to make the whole development process lighter, quicker and faster.”

Since its founding in 2012, Urban Fast Forward has established itself as a firm that specializes in urban real estate and development, with a particular focus on retail district revitalization.

Urban Fast Forward has been particularly involved with the retail strategy in Over-the-Rhine, Pendleton and along Short Vine in Corryville. More recently the firm has been taking on bigger roles in Walnut Hills and Northside, and is also overseeing the strategic development of a Race Street retail corridor downtown.