Buildings ablaze 10 years ago, now long gone. The former Queen City Barrel Company site is mostly empty, but not devoid of potential.
As you travel 1.5 miles from downtown along the Eighth Street Viaduct, you pass over the 18 acres of vacant land that welcomes you to Lower Price Hill. While new construction happening elsewhere in the city is constrained by existing buildings and streets, MetroWest Commerce Park is a blank slate 4.5 times the size of a typical city block, and almost as close to downtown as Findlay Market is to Fountain Square.
Though no tenants or buyers have agreed to terms on the City-owned property, Al Neyer Inc., Resurgence Group, and Colliers International are working to market the site. Highly contaminated from previous industrial uses, redevelopment of MetroWest has been years in the making, but the City has received notice from the Ohio EPA that the site is now clean enough for new construction. Sam Stephens, an economic development officer at the city, believes in the site’s potential.
“The project is not only about cleaning up the Queen City Barrel Company site, but more importantly facilitating a development that can bring productive jobs to Lower Price Hill and positively impact the environment,” Stephens told UrbanCincy.
The team marketing MetroWest believes it is an ideal location for manufacturing thanks to its easy access to I-75, active rail lines on site, and is within 1.5 miles of downtown. Furthermore, the Metropolitan Sewer District is nearby and can offer up to 50 million gallons of any water quality daily, potentially lowering the costs for businesses that require high water use that need not be potable.
In 2008, Cincinnati completed its Growth and Opportunities Study (GO Cincinnati) with a team of national advisers in economic development and real estate. The final study categorized the Queensgate/South Mill Creek Corridor as “a generally obsolete corridor,” but also noted that “recycling South Mill Creek into the hub of green production in the region, and perhaps the nation, is indeed a unique market opportunity that could catalyze development in this aging industrial stock area.”
Perhaps serving as a contradiction is that while GO Cincinnati recommends the corridor for mostly ‘drivable sub-urban’ development, it also specifically identifies Lower Price Hill as “a ‘walkable-urban’ place, which is experiencing the beginning of a revitalization.”
The current task is marketing the site to find a buyer or tenant. Imagesshown to promote the site look ripped from the context of a suburban industrial park, places that are not even remotely ‘walkable-urban.’ Even though, project team members say, these images are only intended to show buildable square feet, they could quickly become reality.
The GO Cincinnati Study cites industrial tenants’ primary concern to be purely functional, with little concern for aesthetics or prestigious location. It should then fall to the City to make sure what is developed is actually beneficial to Cincinnati and the surrounding neighborhoods. Does Lower Price Hill want to welcome people on the Eighth Street Viaduct to their community with dirty manufacturing rooftops cluttered with mechanical units?
When asked about the City’s vision for the site, all of the development parties emphasized there will not be heavy industry and welcomed any interested manufacturing or light industrial businesses. Given the site’s history, and the City’s spotty responsiveness to environmental concerns in the past, the neighborhood would be right to be weary of new industrial development.
Eileen Gallagher, Lower Price Hill Community Council Secretary, says that the neighborhood is open to a variety of businesses but would want express their opinions on any business, saying, “LPH would welcome positive, safe development that would utilize potentially valuable land, create jobs, expand the city’s tax base, and perhaps give training and employment to neighborhood people.”
A vision should be expected from the city, one to which residents can respond. GO Cincinnati began that vision, but the recommendation for a “green industrial park” is not being followed. The City has owned the property for almost a decade and has spent years marketing the site without finding a buyer or tenant. Stephens, however, puts the idea of visioning a little differently.
“It’s the city’s job to serve our citizens, not define communities,” Stephens explained. However, even if Lower Price Hill creates a vision, will the City listen?
Alternative Vision: Industrial Mixed-Use with Residential
MetroWest is a few hundred feet east of Oyler School, and another few hundred feet from the LPH Community School. Paired with Evans Field Park, it will be a gateway to the future Price Landing park and Ohio River Trail West.
Increasingly, developers are recognizing the potential benefits of light industrial mixed use as manufacturing becomes greener, lighter, and cleaner. A Los Angeles study showed tax income on mixed-use development to be five times greater than solitary industrial uses. With a prime location near downtown and access to transportation, it would seem that MetroWest is a great location for residential use. Perhaps even the Eighth Street Viaduct could once again allow access to buildings from the sidewalk.
Ohio EPA’s approval for development at MetroWest, however, came with a caveat: the site can only be used for industrial and commercial uses. While the site is approved as safe, residential uses are prohibited. City officials say that the decision was made to only clean the site to commercial/industrial standards because the remediation grant would not cover the increased cost of cleaning the soil to a residential standard.
Another problem is that the site is currently zoned Manufacturing General, which would limit residential use. While the site, as is, cannot be used for residential, the decisions leading to this circumstance now appear short-sighted. Cincinnati’s zoning code is changing; and MetroWest will likely become Industrial Mixed Use (IX) in the current draft of the City’s Land Development Code. This important change would allow for residential use on upper floors, except for the covenant with Ohio EPA.
The city could go after more grant money to remediate the site to residential standards, but this would require a total restart of the remediation process – something that may very well be a bridge too far.
Alternative Vision: Sustainable Dreams
Without changing the site plan in marketing images, these are a few solutions that could significantly enhance the property.
Densely plant trees around the building. Over time the ‘forest’ would help absorb air and noise pollution, and would be aesthetically breathtaking.
Where deeper soil is clean enough, water gardens surrounding buildings could help contain storm water and provide an ecological habitat to complement the Mill Creek and Ohio River.
Rooftop gardens could be used for edible or non-edible plants. If a nursery were created for native trees, any nearby resident could pick up a sapling (ash, maple, oak, walnut, cherry, locust) for free. In 40 years the neighborhood could be heavily forested. Alternatively, Kroger might be interested in a new distribution center with edible greens on their roof similar to what Whole Foods had done with one of their stores in Brooklyn, NY.
While much is not yet clear about the future of this site, it is evident that something will be built at MetroWest; and when it is, it will bring some amount of jobs to Lower Price Hill. The question now is whether a developer or industrial tenant will dictate the development, likely benefiting their own interests, or if the City of Cincinnati will work to enhance its environment with sustainable infrastructure and buildings that benefit Lower Price Hill.
Construction is nearly complete on the fourth phase of work on the Mill Creek Greenway. As part of that work, a new 0.7-mile trail stretches along the border of South Cumminsville and Milvale, from the Millcreek Road Bridge to the intersection of Fricke Road and Beekman Street near Ethel Taylor Academy.
Once this work is complete, project planners say, the stretch will include additional accommodations for the trail to safely cross the creek on the existing roadway bridge, along with traffic calming measures for a safe crossing at Beekman Street near the school.
This latest phase of work is part of the much larger Mill Creek Greenway project that is being spearheaded by Groundwork Cincinnati – Mill Creek. The non-profit organization is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and is hoping that the planned 15-mile green corridor, which starts at the Hamilton County Fairgrounds in Carthage and will eventually reach the Ohio River Trail in Lower Price Hill, will help clean up one of the region’s most notoriously polluted corridors.
“We have done 33 ecological restoration projects as part of the greenway program,” Robin Corathers, Executive Director of Groundwork Cincinnati – Mill Creek, told UrbanCincy. “That includes bank stabilization, stream bed stabilization, wetland restoration, wildlife habitat restoration.”
In addition to that, Corathers says that edible forest gardens have been planted along the trail, with seven layers of vegetation that mimic a natural forest ecosystem. Improving the health of the ecosystem is a key component of Groundwork’s strategy, and more work is planned to help revitalize and heal damage to the natural resources within the Mill Creek Valley – one of the city’s oldest industrial corridors.
This latest phase of work was funded through a $245,000 grant from the Clean Ohio Trail Fund, $80,000 grant from the Interact for Health Foundation, $30,000 grant from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, and $191,000 from the City of Cincinnati that was provided through its annual capital budget. Corathers also notes that the C.W. Wood Company donated a strip of land along Fricke Street for the trail.
The project, however, is not just about new trails and habitat restoration. Groundwork leadership also says that they are focused on capacity building, community involvement, and environmental education programming for 4,000 fourth through twelfth grade students each year.
“Phase four is really important to us for several reasons” explained Corathers. “As a ground work trust we are committed to working in economically distressed and historically under-served communities and neighborhoods; and in this case it’s the neighborhoods in the lower Mill Creek watershed.”
To this end, Corathers says that community leaders and neighborhood residents have been excited about the project and the process by which it is being implemented. She says that neighborhood councils become involved in the planning and design work of each phase of the trail, which leads to moments like this past November 12 when they celebrated the groundbreaking for the latest phase of work with about 85 area residents and business owners.
While there has been a good deal of neighborhood support, there are still challenges that exist for project leaders. One of those challenges is the Millcreek Road Bridge, which is envisioned as a crossing for the trail, but is currently only one lane in each direction for automobile traffic.
To tackle this issue, Groundwork Cincinnati has been working closely with Cincinnati’s Department of Transportation & Engineering (DOTE) to address safety issues with the narrow bridge. City officials say that the aging Mill Creek crossing is not considered a priority bridge and is not scheduled for replacement.
As a result, transportation engineers have come up with a solution that will retrofit the lightly used span to have one lane for shared two-way traffic flow, and one lane dedicated to the trail. The DOTE says that new signals will be installed, in February, at either end of the bridge to control alternating movements of vehicles across the Mill Creek Bridge.
“It’s a great investment. The bridge will be so much safer for people, for bikes, and also for vehicles,” Corathers said when emphasizing the importance of the trails connection. “The trail provides opportunities for outdoor exercise and recreation, active living, and active transportation for people in the Mill Creek corridor and nearby.”
Crossing the Mill Creek at this location is critical in the project’s overall goal of eventually reaching the Ohio River to the south. Once getting past this location, project planners say that a former CSX rail corridor can be used to take the trail all the way to its envisioned terminus.
The former freight rail right-of-way is considered to be wide enough to accommodate the Mill Creek Greenway Trail, as well as tracks for a future transit line. The use of this corridor, Corathers says, will also allow the Mill Creek Greenway Trail to tap into the planned $192 million Lick Run project, which will include another corridor of green space and trails.
Ultimately, the ongoing efforts could produce what would become a large network of interconnected trails through the heart of the city, including the Ohio River Trail, Little Miami Scenic Trail, Mill Creek Greenway, Lick Run, and West Fork Mill Creek Trail in Carthage.
The next 2.9-mile phase of work on the Mill Creek Greenway is estimated to cost $860,000, and project officials say they have already secured $500,000 of that from the State of Ohio, $50,000 from Interact for Health, and $10,000 from Duke Energy. The hope is that the remaining funds can come from City Hall. Should the final funding fall into place, Groundwork Cincinnati believes phase five work could be completed next year – creating a continuous eight-mile stretch of trails.
An attempt has been made all along to keep the trail close to the Mill Creek, but in some places, such as along Este Avenue, project planners say that it has not possible. But in locations where restoration and stabilization work has been performed along the creek, recovery of the ecosystems is easily visible.
“We now have great blue heron that fish in Mill Creek. We’ve got turtles, lizards, salamanders, beavers, birds, and all kinds of wildlife” Corathers exclaimed. “What we’re doing is breathing life back into this corridor. The trail allows users and visitors to experience an urban river that is coming back.”
In addition to Groundwork Cincinnati and the DOTE, Queen City Bike, Human Nature, IBI Group, Kolar Design, and Prus Construction have contributed to the development of the Mill Creek Greenway over the past six years.
The efforts to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods across the country have been well-documented, but it is not often that these efforts revolve around a truly cooperative approach. But this is exactly what Lower Price Hill Community School’s (LPHCS) Community Matters non-profit organization is trying to do.
Lower Price Hill is a relatively small neighborhood in terms of size, but its central location, historic building stock, and close proximity to both the Ohio River and Downtown make it extremely important.
The neighborhood was originally built in the 19th century in order to provide housing for workers in the Mill Creek Valley. Today the neighborhood is largely made up of Appalachians and a more recent influx of Hispanic immigrants from Guatemala.
Knowing the community inside and out, LPHCS, which is also is made up of a second non-profit called Education Matters, has developed a unique model of community redevelopment that places the neighborhood’s residents at the center of decision making and management. To this end, Community Matters will soon embark on a number of cooperative initiatives that will aim to both empower neighborhood residents and also provide them with something their neighborhood needs.
Interior rendering of The Sanctuary upon completion. Image provided.
“While we’re doing all of these projects, we want to help provide jobs to these groups and folks in the city, but also help employ folks in the community and even give them some ownership,” Mike Moroski, Director of Outreach Services at LPHCS, explained in a phone interview.
In order to move this project forward, the neighborhood took it upon itself to raise the first $2 million and using that as a commitment in order to leverage an additional $6.2 million in state and federal tax credits. Once complete, the renovated buildings will serve as a community focal point and special events venue, called The Sanctuary.
The next project will be a laundromat called Washing Well, which will feature eight washers and eight dryers. Due to the age of the neighborhood and low average household incomes, most residents need to use laundromats, but none currently exist in Lower Price Hill.
Moroski says that Washing Well will be an earned-income venture at first for Community Matters, but will be owned and managed by the Lower Price Hill community, with its revenues eventually going back into the neighborhood to support additional investment while also covering the costs of operating the laundromat.
During this process, LPHCS will also develop a co-op service learning center, along Warsaw Avenue, to support its existing GED program and a new Cincinnati State satellite operation, both of which will be managed by Education Matters.
After that Community Matters will move forward with renovating Urban Appalachian Council’s former building at Eighth and State Streets, which will then become the home of Jack’s Diner – the neighborhood’s only restaurant.
Jack will manage the restaurant and has even come up with the idea of doing bike delivery service from the restaurant to businesses in Queensgate. Like the new Laundromat, the restaurant will start as an earned-income venture, but then be turned over to the community as a co-op.
In addition to all of this, Moroski says that Community Matters will open a thrift store, choice food pantry, and launch a business incubator in conjunction with Xavier University.
The cooperative visions for Lower Price Hill do not end, or even begin, with this wave of initiatives. When talking with Moroski, it is easy to see that Waterfields serves as a major inspiration for Community Matters.
Waterfields began operating in 2013 as an urban warehouse that provides restaurants with fresh micro-greens, and makes a point of employing Lower Price Hill residents at their rapidly growing aquaponics company. One of the company’s two founders also lives in the neighborhood.
“What Dan started at Waterfields, what we’re doing, and with what Oyler is doing; all of these forces combining at one time is very cool,” exclaimed Moroski. “It’s all right here.”
Lower Price Hill is, perhaps, one of Cincinnati’s more overlooked neighborhoods, but with a strong neighborhood school, engaged community group, rapidly growing local food production business, laundromat, community and events center, restaurant and more all owned and managed by the community, the future only seems strong.
Those who want to help facilitate the process are encouraged to contribute to the LPHCS IndieGoGo campaign to help provide funding for these new initiatives. And Moroski says to be on the lookout for unique events that will be held throughout the year, culminating in the fall with what he is billing a “big blowout” event to close out the campaign in early October.
“With one donation you can support green energy, co-op business models, creation of pathways to careers, re-imagining historic buildings for new use, and the breathing of renewed life into a beautiful neighborhood.”
Cincinnati is one of many cities struggling to fix their CSOs, which are caused by a combination of higher water runoff and sewer systems that were designed to accommodate both stormwater runoff and sewage. What it means in real terms is that when there are heavy rain events, the stormwater fills up the sewers and then mixes with the sewage.
According to the EPA, raw sewage contains pathogens that threaten public health, leading to beach closures and public advisories against fishing and swimming, and is a problem that particularly affects older urban area.
MSD’s plan to reduce 1.5 billion gallons of CSOs from the Mill Creek will include the transformative Lick Run project in South Fairmount.
As a result, under a 2010 consent decree, the MSD was required to either construct a deep-tunnel system under Mill Creek, or conduct further analysis and propose an alternative plan. What is unique about Cincinnati’s approved plan is that it deviates from the standard ‘gray’ tunnel solution, and instead proposes using green infrastructure fixes to reduce stormwater runoff.
“We are very excited to move forward with our innovative wet weather solution that not only provides highly cost-effective compliance with our Consent Decree but simultaneously sets the groundwork to enhance our communities,” James A. “Tony” Parrott, MSD’s Executive Director, said in a prepared release.
In addition to the environmental benefits of Cincinnati’s alternative plan, it is also expected to save taxpayers approximately $200 million upfront and remove 1.78 billion gallons of CSOs annually from the Mill Creek.
The savings come from not building a new deep-tunnel system to accommodate the excess stormwater runoff, and instead aiming to reduce the amount of stormwater flowing into the sewer systems during heavy rains.
The green infrastructure solution being pursued by Cincinnati is already being viewed as a national model for other cities looking to clean up their waterways.
The $192M Lick Run project would create a linear park through South Fairmount along a newly ‘daylighted’ stream. Images provided.
The hallmark feature of the plan is the $192 million Lick Run Project, which will ‘daylight’ the former creek through the heart of South Fairmount and creating a linear park that officials say will convey stormwater and natural drainage to the Mill Creek. This project alone is estimated to reduce overflows into the Mill Creek, from the largest CSO in the system, by 624 million gallons annually.
“This plan is good news for the residents of Cincinnati and for communities along the Ohio River,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Not only will this innovative plan ensure that significant volumes of polluted stormwater and raw sewage are kept out of local waterways, but it will also cost less than more traditional approaches, saving money for ratepayers and the city.”
In addition to the Lick Run Project, MSD’s phase one fixes will also include upgrades to the West Fork, Kings Run, and Bloody Run watersheds that will result in an additional 422 million gallons CSO reduction.
The combined phase one work is planned to take place over the next five years and is estimated to create nearly 1,000 full-time equivalent construction jobs.
MSD officials say that plans for phase two work will be submitted in 2017, and will aim to address CSOs in the Lower Mill Creek watershed. While the plans are not yet finalized, both MSD officials and regulators believe the final remedy will also use an integrated watershed plan approach.