Tuesday, June 15, 2010

OTR: Can we 'connect the dots' of development? Part 1

To restore OTR to the thriving community it once was much work is ahead.

Over the weekend I checked out a piece of property for our business. The price was right the neighborhood well "has issues' and that got me to thinking about how we need to really 'connect the dots" in OTR. This is a two part Blog. Today the "islands" of OTR, tomorrow the possible solutions to bring them together into a cohesive neighborhood.

From a historic urban planning standpoint OTR is a bunch of "islands of development". You could blindfold people drop them into parts of OTR and they would swear they were in Charleston or New Orleans. You could drop them off in other parts and they would think they were in a ghetto in Detroit. OTR right now is a neighborhood of contrasts. So for my observations: I am wearing several hats today; a preservationist, a planner, and an "outsider looking in".

We began our morning at 9 am driving down the pristine wide streets of Central Parkway which presents a very positive 'facade' to drivers. Most people have no clue it was once a canal, later to have the "subway that never ran" built beneath its wide streets.
A new Washington Park plan is a clear nod to gentrification of Over the Rhine
We get downtown and hang a left and we drive by Washington Park which at this time of the morning is full of homeless, 'hanging out". It is what most people (suburbanites) think of, when they think of OTR. Soon change comes in the way of a major renovation of Washington Park. Gone soon is the swimming pool and basketball courts, to be replaced with dog parks, performance lawns, and new lighting and things that make a upscale park an upscale park. I wonder if those people have a clue about the changes that will take place there? I wonder where these people will go, where will wind up.

Washington Park is an " island about to change".

High end residential and commercial development have successfully rebranded this part of vine as a safe area
We travel a bit and turn left on Vine. This is the OTR that people tout. Nice restored storefronts with trendy stores, Condos for sale signs everywhere. It is what some would like all of OTR to be and well what it may someday become. Restored buildings with a smattering of "new urbanist" infill which I predict will be terribly out of fashion in a decade as restoration becomes the norm and the most highly desired, but for now it serves a purpose. We have traveled 2 blocks and gone from skid row to rodeo drive. OTR is a neighborhood of dramatic contrast.

The 1200-1400 Block Of Vine is an "Island of change"

We travel north and above 14th street or so it goes from Charleston to Detroit quite rapidly. Of course those changes are lost on me a bit as we talk about the Italianate, late federal and second empire architecture architecture. But our doors were locked. We slowed as we got near our destination and we were not in "Kansas" any more. It's 9 AM and the drug dealer are on every corner their runners and spotter mid block. As we pull up to our destination they look towards us not sure if we are looking to "buy" or if we are police. I put on my best "don't mess with me look" at we exit the Jeep clipboards in hand looking 'official' enough that they decide we probably work for the city or someone they don't want to mess with and the scatter non chalantly. They move further down the street and stare .
The architecture is there, The real cost of restoring however is staggering
The building is typical for this part of OTR, Great architecture, down on its luck, battered and bruised from years of neglect. I spot the usual 'serious issues' that scare of the typical buyer, we take some notes. Shot lots of photographs which further scatters the drug dealer and prostitutes. We get in the car and drive around back watching yet more drug dealers scatter as we take pictures of the back of the building.
Why does the city waste taxpayer dollars on parking meters on streets with blocks of vacant buildings no no businesses to patronize?
We drive around the "hood" and I feel like I am in that movie 'the stand' where the world is mostly wiped out of people and towns are empty. Traffic lights change for traffic that isn't there. We see drug dealers and prostitutes frequently. You have to wonder just who their 'clients' are because I don't see anyone else but us in the neighborhood. I am amazed that this goes on in broad daylight and there isn't a policeman anywhere. Maybe its the 'over sensitivity' to the race issue and the riots still loom in the consciousness of CPD but seriously for OTR to turnaround there has to be REAL enforcement in this area.

This area is an island too, an "island that hasn't changed and doesn't want to change but development is coming their way".

Urban planners from across the country come to Findlay Market to figure out what makes it tick.
Its about 9:30 and we know Findlay will open soon, we head over there and are able to get into the North parking lot for once, It's usually full and is filling up rapidly. I have no problem with parking on the street but I find it comical watching suburbanites circle like Indians waiting for a spot to park their Hummers, Volvos and Mercedes, in "mortal fear' that if they parked on the street it would be immediately stolen or they would come back to a car sitting on blocks.

Findlay is a Beacon of stability, no matter what happens its still there and it is the one true "tourist attraction" in OTR over 700,000 people come to Findlay Market every year. Urban planners come from across the country to study Findlay Market, to try to figure what makes it tick so they can replicate it in their own urban core.

The south side of Findlay has not taken off and these buildings have been vacant since I started visiting in 2008.

Findlay Market is both successful and a partial failure. It is a major tourist attraction, It is pristine, neat, cool, brightly painted historic buildings yet there are vacancies. It has an almost "disneylandesque" aura. A facade of activity, yet by 5 or 6 it's a ghost town again. Findlay has never made that full leap to becoming a neighborhood "center". It lacks restaurants and nightclubs and trendy arts and antique dealers around it. It been 'poised' for that to happen for decade now, it just hasn't 'quite' made it. It sits surrounded by vacant undeveloped buildings lining Race and Elm, most emptied after the riots as the community that patronized those shops were scattered to the four winds.. Property now tied up either by the city for code violations or speculators who "hold' it who hope to make a bit score financially who are either willing to pay VBML fees or willing to keep a attorney on retainer to fight them.

Shops on Elm in view of the market that should be restaurants, antique dealers and art galleries tied up by speculators and city orders
We walk around a bit and venture past Findlay proper into the 'no mans' land where suburbanites fear to tread. More cool building on Race and Elm dying for someone to restore them. I spot a few new "for sale" signs and jot down the numbers. based on experience they will either be priced outrageously or priced somewhat reasonably but are condemned with tons of city order and years of red tape.

We wander back to Findlay pick up some fresh corn and other veggies some pastrami from one of the delis and head back to the lot where people now circle waiting for that open spot.

Findlay Market is an "island of "visual" success surrounded by failure".

Tomorrow I am going to talk about some ideas and possible solutions to connect the dots and turn OTR from "Islands" to a neighborhood again


Brad said...

Best way to connect the islands? Build the Cincinnati Streetcar.


David Ben said...

Building the Cincinnati streetcar will conect a lot of the development in OTR. While it is a VITAL piece of the puzzle, its just one piece of many.

I think one overlooked way to connect the development is increased attention on urban design. People in cars will not drive where they cannot park, but pedestrians will often feel uncomfortable if there are too many parking lots. Finding a balance between these two assets while also maintaining the aesthetic integrity and safety of the neighborhood is a difficult task, but not impossible. Using mixed use development to infill some of the barren areas will help. Retrofitting the abandoned apartments so that they appeal to a more economically diverse crowd will draw in more people. Fixing sidewalks and alleys, ensuring there is adequate street lighting, providing bike racks and street furniture, bringing in visually appealing landscaping, fixing deteriorating brick, painting where needed - all of these things make places appealing to be. If there are pockets that have these places, don't assume that people will stroll through unappealing areas to try to find another appealing place. We need to connect them with good, clean, safe street design.

Paul Wilham said...

I have never thought the streetcar would be the "salvation" of OTR. It's an important component but its not a, be all, end all.

As someone whose looking for a business location the streetcar is not a plus and its a factor I weigh "negatively" against possible locations if they are on the route. My clients buy "big things' Antiques, lighting ceiling medallions etc. They are not going to hop on a streetcar to do that.

I am looking at buildings with adaquate off street parking on the side or rear of the building.

The streetcar is nice for 20 somethings who live on Vine to get to Findlay Market but that's not a big enough, or well monied enough demographic, to turn OTR around.

The "suburbanites" who are afraid to park anywhere but the North Findlay lot are not going to hop on a streetcar to shop on vine or main. They have to go through to many "scary' areas to do that. Findlay market is sucessfull because its a block off the "relatively safe" Central Parkway and you do not have to drive thoruigh the "bad parts' of OTR to get there. Its a great location.

Thats just the real world.

I personally think planners 'missed the boat' with the streetcar design. I would have preffered more traditional San Francisco style trollys rather than the modern monorail/bus "portland designs".

This would have blended better with the architecure and established a more tourist oriented vibe, like you'd expect to see in a historic destination. The sucess of OTR depends less on who lives here and more on who visits here. OTR will only turn around with Heritage Tourism because even if you filled all the buildings, there is not enough local base for businesses to locate there and be sucessful.

CityKin said...

A perfect building for your business would be along Central Parkway, like Wooden Nickel. In fact I wonder if that guy wants to sell since he seems to be letting his building fall apart and he moved most of his business to Lebanon years ago.

Paul Wilham said...

I've been in that building citykin, too small a showroom space too many seperate buildings, not connected well.

Our research shows that somewhere around Findlay may be good location for us in terms of finding the right size space. Since we are doing "period design space" that means finished space with victorian wallpapers, chandeliers , the works. Our particular vision is a high end "New York'style design salon of the late 1880's where you might go to buy some Herter and Tiffany. We want people to see Victorian antiques in an victorian environment.

Of course doing it right means more cost per square on interior finish.

Randy Simes said...


I disagree about the design of the streetcar. Not only are the heritage designed streetcars less ADA accessible, smaller capacity, and have worse operations...they also pitch the system as a tourist thing. When Cincinnati's proposal is actually trying to accomplish much more than that.

In many historic European cities they use the modern streetcars within the historic context. This presents a beautiful contrast, and avoids the awkward mistake of trying to imitate the past. In my opinion, that is a flaw found in many contemporary building projects. If we're constantly trying to replicate the past, then 100 years from now there will not be much to preserve from our current time.