We have been writing more and more about Walnut Hills, East Walnut Hills and Evanston lately. That has largely been because a lot has been happening there over the past couple of years; and it seems like that trend is only just getting started.
It is, perhaps, no coincidence that these three neighborhoods also fall loosely into the focus area for the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. While WHRF is a different organization in size and scope from 3CDC, it too is making an out-sized impact in this part of the city. One of the more current examples of this, in a bricks and mortar sense, is the redevelopment of the city’s oldest firehouse.
Located in Peeble’s Corner, the 134-year-old structure had sat vacant for the better part of four decades. The restoration created a new street-level restaurant space that is now occupied by Fireside Pizza, and an apartment on the upper-floor. It is also part of a larger redevelopment effort, being led by Kent Hardman, on a slew of surrounding buildings.
The restoration of this historic firehouse is particularly important to Kevin Wright, the executive director of WHRF, who says that it really is the first completed example that embodies the foundation’s goal of acquiring and restoring blighted properties.
Street food vendors follow the crowds. You can find them scattered around downtown, office parks at lunch hours, or outside many events. But this coming Saturday, you will find most all of them at the third annual Cincinnati Street Food Festival in Walnut Hills.
With the help of many volunteers, the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation (WHRF) started the festival in 2012. According to organizers, they say the idea was to showcase not only the incredible food, but the neighborhood as well.
“The idea was to create an opportunity for the neighborhood to come together and celebrate, with all of Cincinnati, the goodness of Walnut Hills and the great things happening here,” event coordinator Sarah Dotter explained.
Back in 2012 food trucks in Cincinnati were still a fledgling, albeit rising movement. Since that time, the number of food vendors has continued to grow, as has the festival’s numerous activities.
This year organizers say that the festival is deepening the offerings that make it unique. This will include more free art activities, live bands all day long, and expanded beer offerings to include Rhinegeist and Great Lakes. Neighborhood leaders are also proud to point out that all of that craft beer will be served in compostable cups that will then end up in a community garden within Walnut Hills.
Along with their regular goodies, each food truck will have an item for sale that costs $3 or less, allowing festivalgoers the option to grab a cheap snack and even sample something from every truck.
It has been an eventful summer Walnut Hills following the assignment of two grants for neighborhood ventures, kickoff of the Findlay Market Farmstand and Cincy Summer Streets events, as well as a host of other neighborhood events.
The Findlay Market Farmstand began in early June with a variety of fresh, seasonal produce, all from within a 100-mile radius. Funded through a Healthy Initiatives Grant by Interact for Health, attendance was strong at the first Findlay Market Farmstand, but the WHRF says they will be going door-to-door within the neighborhood to ensure that all residents know where and when the farm stand will be open.
“Passersby and residents need to support the farmstand for it to be financially viable,” said Thea Munchel of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. “We wanted to ensure that it would be in a space that would attract the neighborhood residents while also interesting people passing through.”
Organizers say that the farmstand will be open, going forward, on Thursdays from 4pm to 7pm at 767 McMillan Street, next to the aforementioned Firehouse. In addition to the produce offerings, they say there will be music, grilling, cooking classes and other rotating activities to build a sense of engagement.
It should be noted, however, that this is not the only, or even first, location for Findlay Market’s outreach into the city’s neighborhoods. Ohio’s oldest public market also sets up farmstands in East Price Hill and Westwood.
In addition to the Healthy Initiatives grant, the WHRF has partnered with Fifth Third Bank to create what they are calling the THRIVE Grant, which provides $3,000 to $15,000 to attract established businesses to the Peeble’s Corner business district. Angst Coffee is the first recipient of the grant, and is expected to open at 2437 Gilbert Avenue this fall. Built in 1890, and featuring exposed brick, warm colors and modern interior finishes, owners expect the space to be ideal for a coffee house.
Cincy Summer Streets, an open streets celebration, kicked off in Walnut Hills this past weekend as well. The event closed McMillan Street between Gilbert and Woodburn, and Woodburn between McMillan and Madison Road to automobiles, while opening the street up for biking, walking, dancing, art-making and fitness classes.
The event was meant to, and did, breathe new life into the streets with residents of all ages, mingling and enjoying the unseasonably mild weather. The Walnut Hills Area Council, Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, East Walnut Hills Assembly, Art on the Streets, and the City of Cincinnati organized the event, while sponsorship came from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation and Interact for Health.
Both Cincy Summer Streets and the Findlay Market Farmstand are examples of how the Walnut Hills community is embracing tactical urbanism as a way to transform itself.
To build on all this activity, neighborhood leaders will be preparing over coming weeks for the City of Cincinnati’s award-winning Neighborhood Enhancement Program (NEP), which will kick off in Walnut Hills on August 15. But for those looking to score some fresh produce from area farmers – you can do that at the next Findlay Market Farmstand set up in Walnut Hills this Thursday from 4pm to 7pm.
You hear a lot about the significance of creating a critical mass when it comes to changing perceptions or establishing a new hub of activity in a neighborhood. That is exactly what Kent Hardman is aiming to do at Walnut Hills’ famed Peeble’s Corner.
Hardman, as you may or may not know, is a local real estate investor that has previously redeveloped the Jackson Theater on Eastern Avenue in Columbia Tusculum. He is also finishing up work on a historic firehouse at 773 E. McMillan Stree in Walnut Hills, which will not only house Fireside Pizza, but also his home.
“I walked in the first time, about a year-and-a-half ago, and thought that I had to bring this building back to life,” Hardman explained. “I’ve always dreamed of one day living in a firehouse.”
Hardman will move into his new 1,650-square-foot apartment in the Samuel Hannaford-designed firehouse at the end of this month, and he expects he will be joined shortly thereafter by Fireside Pizza in early July. He says that he likes to focus on old buildings that are shells where he can build new on the inside.
In the case of the 134-year-old Firehouse Row buildings, that was exactly what he had. In fact, the buildings were in such poor shape when Hardman purchased them from the City of Cincinnati for $1, that one of the two, known as the Hamilton House, had a tree growing through the middle of it.
Since acquiring the properties, the Miami University graduate has invested around $450,000 into the city’s oldest standing firehouse, including $100,000 in the form of a forgivable loan from the City.
As work wraps up later this month on that building, work will then begin next door on the Hamilton House. Hardman expects that he will invest another $550,000 into that property, which he is hoping will be offset by some gap financing from the City.
“It’s amazing what can happen to a property when it’s abandoned and left to die,” Hardman recalled. “The whole goal here is to create a concentrated effort, like what 3CDC has done in Over-the-Rhine, and reach that critical mass in Walnut Hills.”
Later in the year, he hopes to begin work on restoring two more buildings across the street, which is expected to cost around $1 million. In total, this second wave of work will create a dozen apartment units, ranging in size from one to two bedroom units, and two new storefronts. This next phase of redevelopment, however, is contingent upon pending gap financing from the City of Cincinnati.
Developing a critical mass is seen as critical for the ongoing revitalization of Peeble’s Corner. According to neighborhood leaders, the redevelopment of this block is the foundation for what they hope will be a larger turnaround for the business district.
“Over the last couple of years, while strategically purchasing key blighted properties, we realized that we needed to identify a small portion of the business district as an initial focus area,” said Kevin Wright, Executive Director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. “This is that area.”
Once the rest of the financing is secured for the rehabilitation of the 114-year-old properties, located at 772 E. McMillan and 2504 Chatham, it is expected that construction work will take approximately four months to complete.
The hopes are that these restored street-level retail spaces can become additional restaurants, grocery options, cafes, clothing shops and bars, as residents have recently indicated as their top preferences for the area. Wright also says that some capital investments will be needed in the near future, but is confident that the area is moving in the right direction.
“There are some wonderful historic buildings on this block, a safe public parking lot, an office building that is fully leased and expanding, as well as the Five Points alley systems,” Wright explained. “We believe this block can and will begin bringing Peeble’s Corner back to life.”
Those engaged in what is happening in the city are undoubtedly familiar with the positive energy that abounds at the numerous Walnut Hills community events. Community Council meetings are packed with a diverse, engaged group of residents on a regular basis.
This is exactly what the upcoming We Are Walnut Hills Festival on May 17 will celebrate. Event organizers say it will be an opportunity to harness the energy of anyone who lives, works or worships in Walnut Hills for a celebration of community.
Recent events there have drawn attendees from the entire city, including, most notably, the Walnut Hills Street Food Festival, which is now planning for its third year. Last year it was estimated to have attracted more than 5,000 people.
Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation (WHRF) community engagement specialist, DJ Greene, says that the We Are Walnut Hills Festival will seek to look inward toward the neighborhood’s roughly 6,500 Walnut Hills residents.
“The festival is really an opportunity for neighborhood people to learn about each other and engage each other,” Greene explained.
The event will take place this Saturday at Firehouse Row, the open green space in the 700 block of McMillan Street, and Five Points Alley, where there will be special activities for kids, art, games and a grill out. And Greene says that local businesses and organizations will be allowed to set up booths for free.
The festival’s location will help show off Five Points Alley’s remarkable transformation. Through the efforts of volunteers, the junction of urban alleyways was turned from a derelict, litter-strewn area into a community gathering space and home to the popular Five Points Pop-Up Biergarten. Building on last year’s inaugural success, beer garden socials will become weekend-long events on the third weekend of every month.