Last July the City of Cincinnati opened its first new police station in more than 20 years. Aside from updating and expanding the previous offerings inside a 107-year-old building, the new facility also aimed to create a new community gathering place for the city’s most populous neighborhood, while also achieving net-zero energy consumption.
The 36,000-square-foot facility was built for Cincinnati Police Department’s District 3, which serves 14 west side neighborhoods and some 95,000 residents. The $16 million landmark includes 40 geothermal wells, a 330-kilowatt solar panel system, and high-tech energy zones inside the building for system optimization.
Such investments have resulted in a LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, the organization’s highest rating, and an energy usage coming in 20% lower than what was originally estimated for the environmentally sound building.
While the District 3 Headquarters is one of America’s most sustainable police stations, it is part of a growing trend where environmentally and economically conscience cities are looking to both reducing their carbon footprint, while also aiding their budgets through lower utility costs.
EDITORIAL NOTE: All 13 photographs were taken by Eric Anspach on March 17, 2016.
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.
Eight years ago Cincinnati was one of the first municipalities to incentivize sustainable building practices through tax abatements for LEED certified buildings. Last week, City Council continued its leadership in sustainable design by becoming one of the first cities in America to incentivize certification through the Living Building Challenge.
Launched in 2006 by the International Living Future Institute, the LBC has quickly become one of the most stringent green building standards in the country. Instead of focusing on reducing bad practices, the LBC encourages projects to be regenerative and create places that make a positive social, economic and environmental impact.
“This will allow us as a matter of policy to support some of the most robust green and sustainable projects anywhere in the country,” Sittenfeld explained to UrbanCincy by email. “We hope this will encourage developers and rehabbers to push the boundaries of sustainable building.”
The LBC certifies renovations, buildings, infrastructure and landscapes, and even entire communities. It does so through a system of seven petals, including Place, Water, Energy, Health and Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. Each of these petals then includes an additional 20 imperatives, all of which must be met, and judged based on real world performance data.
The ordinance spells out that both new construction and remodeling projects attaining LBC Net-Zero can receive a 100% tax abatement of up to $562,000 of the market improved value, while those attaining LBC Petal or Full have no cap.
While City Council has made stricter requirements for LEED tax abatements in recent years, this new ordinance would not alter those existing incentives for LEED projects. Instead, this provides project developers and owners with more than one opportunity for an applicable certification process; while also helping raise the bar of sustainable and resilient design.
The decision not to override existing incentives for LEED projects makes sense from an overall usage standard. So far, there have been more than 69,000 LEED projects worldwide, while only 23 projects have been certified by the ILFI, with some 250 projects currently registered. Part of this is due to the newness of the ILFI standard, but it also has a lot to do with how difficult it is to attain certification.
For example, full ILFI certification requires a project to produce all of its own energy, process its own waste, and harvest all of its water on the property, or by sharing resources with another property. These are not simple tasks to accomplish, and require a diverse set of skill sets in order to achieve.
Selander, a mechanical engineer with KZF Design, and Whittaker, a landscape architect with Human Nature and founding facilitator of the Cincinnati LBC Collaborative, reflect the diversity of interests and collective buy-in needed on such projects.
“In order to meet the requirements of the Challenge, everyone has to begin to think more holistically and take an integrated systems approach, looking at the building, site, and context in more complex ways beyond just first costs,” Whittaker said.
He also believes that these projects often have a transformative effect on those involved in their creation.
“When project teams start to see how the built environment can become more socially just, culturally rich, and environmentally regenerative, they become very inspired and willing to go the extra mile to develop projects that benefit their communities.”
Some of the practices called for in this more aggressive green building standard, however, are prohibited by other existing City ordinances. This means that any project looking to go down this path will need to exhaust all regulatory appeals, short of legal proceedings, before using any exceptions allowed by the LBC that acknowledge current policy conditions.
This, developers of the standard say, is where the Challenge becomes more than just a checklist, but a tool for advancing regulations and culture, advocating for a more resilient, sustainable, and vital built environment.
Uptown Rental Properties is making progress on their latest development in Corryville. This one, called VP3, is located on Euclid Avenue between Corry and Charlton Streets, and will add 147 units with 300 beds to the neighborhood. If all goes according to plan, the $30 million project will open in the fall of 2015.
The site previously included seven homes and a suburban-style Fifth Third Bank retail branch, and is located across the street from the planned site for a new Kroger grocery store.
Corryville has seen a wave of private investment recently that has added hotel rooms, apartments, and retail and office spaces. Much of that investment has come from Uptown Rental Properties, which has constructed hundreds of new residential units and injected thousands of new residents into Corryville over the past several years.
According to Dan Schimberg, president of Uptown Rental Properties, the demand for additional housing units in Corryville is so strong that they have revised their original plans over the years to try to serve the market.
“There is such an incredible demand for housing on the east side of campus,” Schimberg told UrbanCincy. “Originally our plan was to build housing for 1,200 people on Short Vine, but now we’ve increased that total to 1,600 by 2016.”
For better or worse, all of this development is changing the face of Corryville.
But unlike many of the company’s other developments surrounding the University of Cincinnati, it is not just students occupying the residential units being built in this area. According to Schimberg, more than 30% of the total residents are non-undergraduate students, compared with just 3% on the south side of campus – something he attributes to the growing demand for urban living.
“Three of the top five largest employers are in Uptown, and then have been adding thousands of jobs over recent years,” Schimberg explained. “What we’re seeing is a demand for workforce housing on the east side of campus from a desire for people to live in a more urban environment.”
In addition to the increased demand for urban living and the rapid job growth nearby, Schimberg believes the improvement of Uptown neighborhoods is also keeping and attracting residents in a way he has not seen since starting Uptown Rental Properties nearly 30 years ago.
It is expected that work will wrap up on the four-story VP3 development in the fall of 2015. At that time, a new 550-space parking garage, being built in coordination with this project, will open and provide some 225 public parking spaces for the Short Vine business district.
“The addition of these new residents is providing the core demand for the retail, and the residents get to benefit from those nearby services,” Schimberg continued.
Due to the philosophy of wanting the retail and residential to benefit one another, Schimberg said that the public portion of the parking garage is being built solely to help bolster the business on Short Vine. As a result, Uptown Rental Properties and the City of Cincinnati are sharing the costs for the garage.
Yet another Indianapolis-based developer is entering the hot Cincinnati residential market. This time the developer is Buckingham Companies and the location is Oakley.
According to the Business Courier, an UrbanCincy content partner, Buckingham has been eyeing the Cincinnati market for some time. They decided that now was the time to move on the seven-acre site immediately southeast from the $120 million Oakley Station development which will include nearly 600,000 square feet of office and retail space, 302 apartments and a movie theater at full build out.
The developers are citing the location’s close proximity to Downtown and the neighborhood walkability offered in now-booming east side city neighborhood as the main draws.
Buckingham hopes to break ground on the project this May and open the summer of 2015. At full build out the project will include 272 apartments in seven, three-story buildings. Residences will range from 812 to 1,600 square feet and likely cost around $1 to $1.50 per square foot.
The project announcement comes immediately after the developers acquired seven of the properties earlier this week. Of the remaining five homes, three are held by separate, unaffiliated LLCs and the other two are listed by the Hamilton County Auditor as owned by individuals who live elsewhere.