At its 2015 State of Metro meeting on Friday, Dwight Ferrell announced that the region’s largest transit agency will be build a new transit center in Oakley, along with a variety of other transit improvements in the immediate area.
The project is part of a larger effort by Metro to overhaul its regional bus system from a traditional hub-and-spoke model, which focused on moving people in and out of the center city, to one that has more flexibility and connects more people, more directly, with job centers throughout the region.
“We are always looking ahead and planning for the future needs of this community,” SORTA Board Chair Jason Dunn said in a prepared statement. “Our goal is to continue to operate efficiently while constantly working to improve service.”
Metro officials say that the Oakley Transit Center will consist of four boarding bays, park-and-ride spaces for commuters, enhanced transit shelters and wayfinding, real-time arrival screens, and a ticketing kiosk like those at Government Square and the Uptown Transit District.
As of now, the improvements made as part of the Oakley Transit Center will immediately improve service for routes 4, 11, 12X, 41 and 51.
While Metro has stated that they are currently short on capital funding for upgrading their fleet, the funds for this project were provided by the Federal Surface Transportation Program, along with some local funds.
After having been located in East Walnut Hills along William Howard Taft Road for many years, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield recently announced that they would move to Oakley into a new $13 million, 80,000-square-foot office building at Oakley Station.
Shortly after the announcement, Mayor John Cranley (D) said that the insurer was prepared to move its 400 jobs outside of the city, should the economic incentive deal not have been struck.
“We’ve got to keep these jobs in the city,” Cranley told the Business Courier on June 25. “The infrastructure that we’re building – the public garage – is not going to just support Anthem but the entire Oakley Station development.”
There is a lot of truth to what Mayor Cranley said, considering the City of Cincinnati generates the majority of its revenues from income tax collections. This means the preservation and growth of jobs – particularly high-paying ones like these – is of the utmost importance for leadership at City Hall.
But this move does a lot more than maintain 400 high-paying jobs; it also will open up a key piece of property in one of the city’s up-and-coming neighborhoods.
“Walnut Hills is booming so much that it will create a really exciting development pad,” Cranley continued. “I’ve heard people think they can reuse it as office. People say that they want to tear it down and use it for market-rate housing. In concert with the neighborhood, either one of those can make a lot of sense. It will see new life quickly.”
While the loss of that many jobs is rarely welcome news for a neighborhood, leadership at the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation says that they have been prepared for it.
“We have known about Anthem for a few months and have been brainstorming,” Kevin Wright, Executive Director of the WHRF, told UrbanCincy. “We haven’t been involved in anything specific, but there is a great opportunity to do something with this site that further connects the McMillan and Woodburn commercial corridors.”
Located on the eastern end of the McMillan business corridor, the Anthem site occupies 6.3 acres of land, with nearly 70% used as surface parking lots. A redevelopment of the site, which is one of the largest of its kind in this part of the city, could free up enough land to develop hundreds of housing units, along with thousands of square feet of commercial space.
“There’s momentum in Walnut Hills, both east and west of Gilbert, as well as in East Walnut Hills,” said Blake Bartley, a commercial real estate agent with Urban Fast Forward who is working on several projects in the neighborhood. “This site could be the catalyst for bridging the gap between development in both neighborhoods. Plus, you don’t often find a redevelopment site of that caliber located so close to the urban core.”
While neighborhood and city leaders see great potential for the site, it is not yet known what will happen to the site when it is sold. The hope is that Anthem, through its subsidiary Community Insurance Co., will do something in coordination with neighborhood leaders to ensure that it is redeveloped in a manner that fits with the community’s vision for it.
Preliminary construction work has already taken place at the sprawling, 74-acre Oakley Station site, and it is expected that Anthem will be able to move into the new office building as early as summer 2016.
In three related moves, the City Planning Commission recommended using Interim Development Control Overlay Districts. Two were extensions of existing IDCs, but one was newly recommended. Traditionally the City uses IDCs to put a temporary control on development while planning or feasibility studies are conducted. During such time, the establishment of uses, construction of new buildings, and the demolition or alteration of existing structures are all subject to review by the City Planning Commission.
The two recommended for extension include IDC Districts 73 and 74, Wasson Line District and Pleasant Ridge NBD, for an additional six months to allow for the completion of land use and zoning studies.
The newly recommended IDC is for the hot real estate market surrounding the University of Cincinnati. In particular, the neighborhoods to the south and southwest of the university where midrise developments continue to be proposed and built, much to the dismay of many long-time residents.
IDC District 77 was recommended to be put in place for a period of three months while a University Impact Area Study will look at growth and housing conditions, parking and traffic, quality of life concerns, and new development vs. existing character in the areas within a quarter-mile walk from the university’s main campus and the Clifton Heights business district.
Here is a quick rundown of the rest of the cases and the recommendations made by the seven-member board:
Approved the sale of 1623 Pleasant Street in Over-the-Rhine to Avila Magna Group, LLC for $20,000. The developer plans to renovate the 3,296-square-foot building into three one-bedroom for-sale units and one two-bedroom for-sale unit.
Approved the sale of approximately three acres of land left over from the Kennedy Connector road project to Vandercar Holdings and Al Neyer Inc. for $530,000. The developers plan to consolidate the land with adjacent parcels to construct two office buildings of up to 45,000 total square feet.
The commission also approved the sale of a one-acre parcel at Eighth and Sycamore streets to the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation for $1. This move will ultimately pave the way for a new $45 million development that will continue the transformation of the northeast quadrant of the central business district where numerous other midrises are advancing.
Through the agreement, the non-profit development corporation will create a garage air lot, a commercial air lot, and an apartment air lot. Once construction is imminent, 3CDC will sell the garage air lot to the City for $1 to allow for a 500-space parking garage to be built. They will then sell the apartment air lot to North American Properties for $1 for the construction of a 130-unit tower, and will retain ownership of the commercial air lot for the construction of 10,000 square feet of commercial space.
Neighborhood leaders in Pleasant Ridge say the community has been meticulously studying and developing ideas for how to improve the business district for more than a decade. Research on demographics, assessments of existing conditions, and visioning sessions have all been conducted over the years. This work has resulted in numerous planning documents that neighborhood activists today believe create a strong foundation for future success.
A neighborhood resident for the better part of the past seven years, Chamlee is also part of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority’s real estate team and is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s Masters of Community Planning program. Almost by definition, he would appear to be just the kind of person you would want to have steering a community development corporation like PRDC.
“We’re trying to stimulate development in the neighborhood as we can,” Chamlee explained to UrbanCincy. “Pleasant Ridge is kind of an untapped market in terms of clusters of neighborhoods since it is geographically near so much.”
One of the problems, he notes, is that I-71 and the big box developments to the south often serve as a physical or, even worse, mental barrier for people not familiar with the neighborhood. Unlike Oakley Station and Center of Cincinnati, the Pleasant Ridge business district, primarily organized along Montgomery Road, has a distinctive historic character to it that is only moderately marred by late 20th century planning failures.
Therefore, one of the primary goals of Pleasant Ridge is to rebuild and reinforce that character. Sixty99 is the first project that will help PRDC move in that direction, but Chamlee is quick to explain how it is only the beginning.
“We believe that there is a lot of demand for this kind of business district,” said Chamlee. “There is a good opportunity to appeal to those suburbanites that want an urban experience, but might not want to head all the way to Over-the-Rhine or Mainstrasse.”
The hope is that Pleasant Ridge can become an in-town neighborhood with a walkable neighborhood business district that boasts appealing restaurants and shopping. It is not that the community wants to be a regional draw, but rather start drawing from a slightly larger zone than it does now. Based on the community’s demographic analysis, significant opportunities lie within nearby neighborhoods like Amberely Village, Kennedy Heights, Norwood and Silverton.
One of the sites the neighborhood has its sights set on is the triangle-shaped block bounded by Ridge, Montgomery and Woodford. The site sits right in the heart of the district and is currently occupied by two one-story buildings, a gas station, and several parking lots. Sitting directly across the street from Sixty99 and Nine Giant Brewing, the hope is that the site could be redeveloped with three to five story buildings that include new street-level commercial spaces.
But Chamlee says that before they get started on pumping new commercial space into the business district, they are working to fill out and improve what is already there. To that end, he mentioned two new businesses that will be opening in the coming months. The first is a cocktail-type restaurant and bar that will feature smaller plates and be located in the former VFW Hall. The second is a coffee shop and lunch restaurant geared toward families that is called Red Balloon Play Café + Play.
Beyond that, Chamlee says PRDC is working with building owners to help fill the three remaining spaces at Sixty99 and reimagine what they consider to be underutilized properties.
“We have found that the people that are really interested [in opening businesses] are the people that are already here and have been here,” Chamlee explained. “A lot of what is happening is from people already here who really believe in the neighborhood and are doubling down. We’re only just starting to get the attention of some outsiders.”
While Pleasant Ridge boasts a relatively stable residential base, there may be a significant opportunity should the neighboring Losantiville Country Club ever be sold off and redeveloped. The neighborhood’s 2007 vision study looked at exactly that possibility and found that the site would be ideal for walkable residential infill.
According to Chamlee, the focus on walkability is critical; and implementing a form-based code for the neighborhood would be an effective tool to help make that a reality.
“We know what we want and we know what we need,” Chamlee said in reference to the past planning exercises. “We just need to get some more momentum and find the right partners to help execute it.