With construction expected to wrap up on the second phase of The Banks this coming spring, the development team is celebrating the signing Taste of Belgium as the first retail tenant inside the $67 million project.
After getting his start modestly in 2007 in the back of a produce shop at Findlay Market, Jean-François Flechet has grown Taste of Belgium into a household name regionally. The location on the central riverfront will be Flechet’s sixth, and one of its largest.
“The Banks has been such an important catalyst in the resurgence of downtown Cincinnati,” Flechet told UrbanCincy. “We’re thrilled our locally-owned restaurant will be front and center in the new phase of the development.”
The announcement comes at a time when things are picking up pace at The Banks. Construction work has begun on the new AC Hotel, and infrastructure work has commenced for the third phase of the project.
Once complete in spring 2016, phase two will be home to an estimated 2,000 employees at General Electric’s 338,000-square-foot Global Operations Center and 300 new apartments. There will also be approximately 20,000 square feet of street-level retail, of which Taste of Belgium will occupy 4,800 square feet.
Over the years since getting started, Flechet has positioned himself as an outspoken small business advocate, and has been vocal in his support of inner-city development and the improvement of urban mobility through projects like the Cincinnati Streetcar and Red Bike – both of which are located a block from this new location. Due to this passion, Flechet says this location at The Banks just makes total sense.
“Cincinnati has responded so positively to our waffles and one-of-a-kind dining experience and this new venue – right in the heart of the riverfront – will have that same great energy and atmosphere.”
The move also is a nod to the growing preference for local businesses over national chains. In fact, the first phase of The Banks largely relied on national chains to fill out its retail space. But due to changing demographics and consumer trends, Marc Fallon at JR Anderson, who put this deal together, believed that The Banks would be better suited with an establishment like Taste of Belgium.
“Taste of Belgium is a great local success story and Jean-François is a great example of the kind of visionary entrepreneur driving so much of our regional growth,” said Dan McCarthy, project executive for Carter, The Banks’ master developer.
Like its other locations, Flechet says that Taste of Belgium at The Banks will be open seven days a week, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with weekend brunch and unique wine lists and beer selections. There will also be a private dining room, chef’s table and a patio with outdoor dining.
“With all the excitement around our Radius residential community and the new GE office building, we needed a dynamic retail tenant that would appeal to all the new people who will be living and working at The Banks,” McCarthy added. “Taste of Belgium more than fits the bill.”
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.”
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.
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.
“We are a full-time retail store at Findlay Market selling locally produced goods,” said Karen Kahle, who served as project manager until April. She also wrote the grants that ultimately funded the effort from the Interact for Health Foundation.
Based on the Local Roots store concept in Wooster, OH, Kahle says that she, along with Rebecca Heine and Mike Hass, were inspired to move forward with the idea after visiting the shop during a trip to Cleveland for the International Public Market Conference in September 2012.
“We loved the idea of the ‘consignment shop’ for local food,” Kahle explained.
The market is hoping to make locally grown and produced foods available to Findlay Market shoppers every day the market is open. The trio says that they want to create another way for local growers and producers to sell their product and increase revenue in order to help them become more sustainable and profitable.
A broader goal in the long run, Kahle says, is to help educate the public on the health and environmental benefits of eating fresh local foods, while also promoting community involvement and sustainable living.
The market is currently selling fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, dairy products and cottage goods. Customers will notice that the shop functions a bit like a consignment store where growers and producers rent space by the week or the month, set up their own individual displays, and set their own prices. They are then reimbursed 70 to 80% of their gross sales.
Located in between Maverick Chocolate and Eli’s BBQ, the opening of Dirt is yet another shot in the arm for the once struggling south side of the Findlay Market.
Dirt’s operating hours also show a commitment to the efforts to increase evening business activity in the area. They are currently open from 10am to 7pm Tuesday through Friday, 8am to 6pm on Saturdays, and 10am to 4pm on Sundays. The shop is not open on Mondays.
“Dirt: A Modern Market will market food products that celebrate what is unique and best about a community – its local crops, ethnic traditions, and creative populace – while keeping a greater percentage of food dollars circulating in the local economy,” said Kahle.
A coalition of community organizations organized a public event on July 11 that encouraged people to explore Pleasant Street and showcase it as a model pedestrian pathway connecting two of Over-the-Rhine’s biggest anchors.
Neighborhood leaders have long wanted to better connect Washington Park with Findlay Market via Pleasant Street. The effort really gained traction when the first phase of City Home was developed at the southern terminus of the street in 2012. Prior to that, however, the street was one of the worst in the neighborhood in terms of the status of its buildings and the street itself. That has changed.
The recently held event closed off the narrow street to vehicular traffic so that people could better visualize how a pedestrian-friendly Pleasant Street might look and feel.
In coordination with that event, an ongoing public art project, entitled Alternate Steps, has overseen the installation of several pop-up pocket parks along the corridor between Washington Park and Findlay Market. The first example of this is a wiffle ball field that doubles as a working garden that supports Findlay Market’s other production gardens.
Built adjacent to the former AVP Volleyball court, Field of Greens is a partnership between People’s Liberty, Findlay Market, 3CDC, OTR Community Council, and a bundle of classes at the University of Cincinnati.
Organizers say the overarching goal is to foster a better connection between the areas both north and south of Liberty Street in OTR.
“The idea is to encourage pedestrian traffic,” said Erica Bolenbaugh. “Actually thousands of people walked by today and we are in hope to have them provide feedback on which options are most appealing.”
The most recent part of this effort is a seating option made with tires that was designed by a graduate-level architecture program at UC. The participants in the MetroLAB program say that they have been working with residents through various community engagement activities to determine how residents and the community would like to use the street.
“It was very important for us to engage the Pleasant Street community in this process,” explained Findlay Market’s executive director, Joe Hansbauer. “We wanted this project to be as community-led as possible.”
While the redevelopment of Over-the-Rhine has come with some criticisms that it has not been inclusive enough, considering the diverse range of incomes in the neighborhood, the university team is working to show that even good design and ideas can be implemented and used by everyone.
As a result the MetroLAB team designed an outdoor kitchen, that they hope to install soon, that was made of used plastic baskets. The idea is that it is something that is scalable and can be done by just about anyone, regardless of their economic standing.
“We used low price materials to let people know that this is something that they could build in their own backyard,” Michael Zaretsky, Director of MetroLAB, told UrbanCincy. “We are working on a permit for one of those parklets; hopefully we can make this great idea come true in the early August.”