Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Downtown Cincinnati needs to raise its Architectural Expectations

Imagine my surprise when I read in the Enquirer that local architects were "less than impressed" with the proposals for the new casino and some described it as a "hodge podge". My response? ABOUT TIME! We need to stop 'settling' for poor design just because someone wants to build something downtown or in OTR. Maybe its because I travel the country so much, maybe its because I work with a lot of architects and designers but I just cannot get excited about "The Banks". I read the other Cincinnati bloggers "giddy" with excitement, "its coming, its coming' the Banks are coming!" Its SO wonderful and it looks SO great!

I would be excited, except there is the same development IN EVERY CITY I go to! Chicago, Indianapolis, Pittsburg, Atlanta, even Detroit. In fact, this architectural style its so overbuilt in those cities to the point that you look at similar projects only to discover that you are in fact looking at "low income" housing projects or student housing for Universities. The fact they are building this stuff in suburbia should be your first clue its 'Late'. I'm trying to be excited, I really am, I know that more housing downtown is good, but I feel like I've landed in a trailer park and the first "double wide" trailer has arrived....I'm just not impressed.
Dayton Street: Once multi unit apartments,  This home is being converted back to a single family mansion. A rapidly increasing trend in West End at the same time the  same time CMHD is proposing to build more low income housing in the West End
Believe it or not, this is NEW construction built on Bruling street in Chicago. A 12-15  million dollar home built because historic housing like we have is simply too expensive in Chicago. This house sits on block of Victorian era houses that were low income slums years ago. This new construction home pays more on property taxes in one year, than you can buy a mansion for on Dayton Street in Cincinnati.

Maybe its because I'm an outsider that I'm not impressed. I've seen city rebirth 10-15 years ago in other places. What you are excited about , I see as "missed opportunity" .In other cities Casinos are often put in historic buildings, old hotels, and former high end department stores. Most cities realize that a casino is a major money making opportunity for its developer/owner and if they want to build it , then they need to jump through the hoops the city wants. French Lick Indiana did this very effectively resulting in  the restoration of two historic hotels and have revitalized their business district. When we have so much square footage empty, why are we building new,  and more importantly why are we tearing down buildings for parking and not requiring designs that incorporate under ground parking? We are letting them TEAR DOWN historic buildings to build this crap! Are we that desperate for new development?
Charleston SC has been at a the forefront of arcitechtural infill compatibility. In fact, in the mid 1980's the was resistance initially to this infill because it wasn't 'historic looking enough" Built originally as low income, owner occupied infill, New construction that sprang up near it, raised property values to a point that many were able to sell years later and lift themselves out of being "working poor".

Like I say, I travel a lot and I see what other cities are doing and when I am able to pursuade developers, architects , and preservationists to visit Cincinnati what are they excited about? Its not "The Banks". It is Findlay Market, Lower Price Hill, my neighborhood Knox Hill overlooking the city, and Dayton street/West End. They look at Findlay Market, and are totally impressed, and they ask me why the North Lot parking isn't underground and new historically appropriate, mixed use luxury infill isn't sitting where the surface lot is and they are amazed that there is so  little development on Elm and Race.

I take them to Lower Price Hill and they say "Architecturally this is is Dupont Circle or Georgetown housing". When I tell them that these Brick row houses typically sell for 5-20 grand, they wonder how long it will be before some East coast or Chicago developer comes in buys the entire neighborhood and its 750K to a Mill for 10 foot wide row houses and is . a gated community.

I take them to Dayton Street and the first impression is that this must be Cincinnati's "Lincoln Park /Bruling Street (Chicago) home to ultra rich. When I explain to them that no, these houses sell for next to nothing... they are shocked and the inevitable response it "Do these people not know what they have"? I explain that some do and the area is starting to see many of the once grand homes converted back to single family and that there are some 1/2 mil restorations going on but the owners know they will be upside down for years and they do it out of love of architecture and are in a constant battle with the city. I explain about "City Link" and the city wanting to build more low income over there and  they just shake their heads. They are amazed that a city, with this architecture, could be so short sighted.
New Urbanist "trendy/edgey' may have satisfied an architects ego but property like this is sitting empty across the country or was bought and the owner is struggling to get anyone to look at it. In fact, I am working with an owner in the Atlanta area right now, on a proposal to Rip off the front of a similar house and reconstruct a new more formal traditional facade just so they can hope to break even. This architecture is "lame' and unsellable already in other cities, but we are building it like gangbusters here, what happens when no one wants  to settle for 'crap' anymore?

What doesn't impress these people I show Cincinnati to? Well, gateway quarter and  the other "Hot/Cool/Trendy" loft conversions. They do marvel at the exterior restoration of existing historic buildings, but wonder how the "spaceship architecture' (newer 3CDC infill projects) were allowed to be built and I am always asked where the Historic Commission is and why don't they have any veto power. Note to 3CDC: the jury is in, no more "Spaceship" architecture in a historic district...its LAME and really embarrassing when outsiders come to town. You can do better....just try!

So what do I see that you don't see? Well I'm plugged in to the "Preservation Underground" in Cincinnati. the people who love historic architecture and see the potential in OTR, Lower Price Hill and other areas you wrote off.  I see the former seven unit mansion being converted back to a single family on Dayton street. I know people coming here from out of state and buying around Findlay and instead of rehabbing  a bunch of apartments over a storefront into 2 or 3 100K condos are instead building a 3500-4000 square foot historic luxury home in a former tenement apartment building. I watch as people I know come from Indy and Chicago, St Louis and other places and are quietly buying up houses in my neighborhood and parts of Fairmount and Price Hill because they see what those city views are worth in a few years. These people are not "stupid", they have seen what has happened in other cities and they KNOW  what will happen in Cincinnati, they are just amazed you do not see it. You are gong to see things happen in the next 3-5 years that you will shake your head at and say "these people are crazy", yet in 10 years you will be saying I wish I had been that smart!.

I wish you saw it, I wish 3CDC saw what is quietly going on. Maybe we would "raise our architectural expectations". Maybe some local developer would be looking at West End as "where the rich will be" in a few years. I guarantee the first million dollar new luxury infill Townhouse in West End/Dayton Street will be built by an out of town developer. The first Million Dollar Luxury single family townhouse will spring up around Findlay Market some day and it will be some "out of stater" who was the potential. When people start combining condo units on Vine and Mains streets because they are "too small" and don't have proper amenities. 'maybe' you will have a clue.
New infill does not have to look like a spaceship landed  and it doesn't have to some cheap vinyl sided crap. There will be  a demand for quality "Architecturally compatible infill" in the historic neighborhoods of our city. It just takes some vision to see there would be a demand for new construction homes like these, as people living in the burbs and tired of paying 5 bucks a gallon for gas, want to move downtown and have the same luxury they have in the burbs..

We need to stop 'settling' and expect more. We need serious architectural review  , not just "Oh thank you for investing in our city and building crap here, please have some tax credits". We need to ask ourselves will a project look "cheap" in a few years. We need stricter architectural review, less density (enough with the tacky 1 bedroom  HGTV lofts) and we need more upscale single family and we need to incentivise that kind of development by increasing the tax abatement limit to 500K. We need to perhaps look at phased tax increases or a 5 year extension of the current 10 year abatements to 15 to avoid a foreclosure crisis in Mt Adams as many find they cant afford the dramatic tax hike as those tax abatements suddenly run out and start walking away from them. We need to reduce/streamline our permit process as well and a very ANTI tear down policy that will insure we preserve our historic architecture while architecturally compatible property is built on our multitude of vacant lots due to our city's misguided "blight=bulldozer" policies.

If would be nice if, Cincinnati did this on their own, AND we can. Otherwise, you will see outsiders coming in to do it for you. Don't blame me when you wake up and see all those outside developers signs everywhere and you are priced out of your own city.  I've seen it happen over and over again in other cities. We need to lead or be will be on the sidelines. Set your sights HIGHER people!


Neil said...

Thank you for posting this! When I lived in Cincinnati I was appalled at the low quality of infill that was being built and didn't think it was possible to make something look nice.

A few years later I move to Chicago and wonder, what the heck is wrong with Cincinnati?!

If you haven't read already on Building Cincinnati, Uptown properties is getting ready to tear down another block of fine victorians to replace it with their cardboard crap.

Also, I kind of disagree on one point I think it is possible to do New Urbanist well, classy and elegant moderinist leaning post-moderism works best, here's a good example in Chicago: (though its just a rendering)

Neil said...

Oh yeah, and here's the "Banks" (this is an old pic, its now fully constructed) in suburban Raleigh NC :P,+NC&aq=0&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=28.252954,57.480469&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Raleigh,+Wake,+North+Carolina&ll=35.836037,-78.639772&spn=0.003557,0.007017&z=17&layer=c&cbll=35.83604,-78.639783&panoid=aGkqgq-ZcsnBObYGm9mr3A&cbp=12,47.14,,0,2.39

I'll admit that its nice to see Cincinnati building what was built 10 years ago in Chicago though.

Paul Wilham said...

Yeah Neil but wouldnt you like to see them lead the way instad of following the pack? Don't get me wrong I have no problem with modern architecture, But, as you know good stuff is few and far between.

We are walking a 'fine line' because of the tax credits. Some great houses in Mt Adams and Pendleton, bought for song with super low taxes as a result. Restored and abated but when that 275K credit is gone and your taxes go up to 4-5000 a year? I already know people from Mt Adams buying who sold off and are buying in my area because it will give them another 10 years of low taxes. If we stopped demoing and started restoring and grew our population we would have a substancial property tax base and the rate could go down!

Neil said...

"Yeah Neil but wouldnt you like to see them lead the way instad of following the pack?"

Totally, its something that drove me crazy about the place when I lived there, and since Cincy has such awesome assets, it should really start making use of them instead of being sticks in the mud.

Case in point, I wrote a scathing review of the Esquire Theater for doing the same thing local developers are doing but with film instead of architecture:

I think the theme is the same here, local people not respecting what this city has.

Jeffrey Jakucyk said...

I'm a little puzzled that you think less density is a good thing for an urban neighborhood such as Over-the-Rhine. It takes a lot of people to support the amount of retail space that's present in these buildings, but if every apartment/tenement is converted into a single family house for $500K plus, then we'll never see the storefronts that line Elm and Race ever fill up. Even Vine and Main could end up somewhat disjointed. Storefronts don't convert well to residential, especially if you're trying to preserve architectural integrity. Also, a lack of people in such an environment can breed crime and fear of crime from not enough eyes on the street, etc.

That said, I generally agree with the rest of your points. The casino looks like Kenwood mall that just happens to be pushed up to the street. In this country we seem to have forgotten how to design good large buildings. We don't build many small urban buildings anymore at all, but we try to make the big ones look like an assembly of smaller ones, which just comes across as insulting. The other option though is a big monolithic hulk that looms over the neighborhood and presents blank walls to the sidewalk. Nobody seems to look at the successful downtown buildings of old that manage to be both large but also well-detailed and still human in scale to the sidewalk.

Still, that doesn't mean it can't be done, nor does it have to be traditional/classical architecture either. Good design is good design regardless of the particular style, and modern designs can and should be encouraged even in historic neighborhoods, as long as they work. After all, to use Chicago as an example, while there's lots of great examples of modern infill buildings that fit well with their neighbors, there's also very VERY bad attempts at classically inspired projects too. At least a bad modern building is just a bad modern building, but a bad classically-inspired building is not only bad on its own, but it also comes across as cartoonish and disingenuous. Here's a perfect example:,-74.574817&sspn=0,359.98071&gl=us&ie=UTF8&t=h&layer=c&cbll=41.928801,-87.666919&panoid=XzUYo0GFFgQU6S-JoZf0RQ&cbp=12,29.46,,0,-5.67&hq=&hnear=1516+W+Wrightwood+Ave,+Chicago,+Cook,+Illinois+60614&ll=41.928815,-87.666779&spn=0.01159,0.019526&z=16

Neil said...

^-hahaha, that's the overdone mansion that's replaced the old bungalow next to the 'Winslow' house (house in the intro to Family Matters).

I'll have to admit, even that is light years beyond stuff like this:,+Cincinnati,+Hamilton,+Ohio&aq=&sll=41.928801,-87.666919&sspn=0.00356,0.014033&gl=us&g=1516+W+Wrightwood+Ave,+Chicago,+Cook,+Illinois+60614&ie=UTF8&geocode=FScuVQIdxpL2-g&split=0&hq=&hnear=Corryville,+Cincinnati,+Hamilton,+Ohio&ll=39.133822,-84.505752&spn=0.001856,0.007017&t=h&z=17&layer=c&cbll=39.133943,-84.505734&panoid=pMIvvGM2WvGjc-LrECjTNA&cbp=12,249.62,,0,-7.11

Paul Wilham said...

Jeffry, if you study how the OTR neighborhood worked when OTR was new, you will understand that we will NEVER have that kind of retail mix again.

Businesses in OTR will never survive based on residents but rather by Heritage tourism. People coming in and visting OTR. Findlay Market has hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and only a microscopic percent are OTR residents. Findlay would be bankrupt in a month if they had to depend on OTR residents only, to survive, even if you filled everything back to the density it was.

When OTR was built there were 50-60 corner groceries,there were Hat shops, Barber shops,dry goods stores, tack shops etc on EVERY BLOCK. Look at the 1894 city directory on line through cincy museum to see what I am taking about. There were all kind of businesses that no longer exist today because their products are obsolete.

OTR business will NEVER be supported by a local residential base in the way it was in the 1870-1890's.

New Orleans or Charleston businesses Do not thrive based on local residents. That is why we need to grow our heritage tourism business.

We will never have the original density because people do not want to live in 300 square foot tenements they want 3000 sq foot townhouses. The retail we have in OTR will always be dependent on non resident tourists once we actully have retail in any density in OTR. It will most likely be art gallleries, boutiques, gift shops and yes probably a starbucks every two blocks.

Jeffrey Jakucyk said...

Heritage tourism is fine, and it's certainly something that Cincinnati should be trying to build up. After all, it could be a significant component of the local economy, and right now it's not even on the radar screen.

Still, that's a very shaky foundation to try to build a new neighborhood on, especially in this day and age. Tourism is all about discretionary spending, and in case you haven't noticed, there's not a whole lot of that going on right now. With the prospects of further energy supply turmoil and volatile prices, tourism is something that's going to suffer.

Even in good times, neighborhoods that rely mostly on tourism or those art galleries, boutiques, gift shops, etc. are none too resilient. That doesn't mean they have no place, but to rely on them is very risky. Local heritage tourism as a component of more pragmatic uses is a much more solid strategy. Draw more captive local people rather than try to reach out to the whole rest of the country in competition with other cities. But how to do that?

OTR's particular strengths are its central location, walkability, and dense built form with great architecture. These are all things that will become much more valuable as we continue to see gas prices rising. I would not be surprised to see OTR become a new regional or at least city hub of commerce. Its accessibility may be good enough to allow all those first floor shops to fill with enterprises that draw those from the rest of the city who otherwise are flung out to places like Kenwood or Tri-County. This is much more like the neighborhood functioned 100 years ago. Of course a robust transit network will be needed for this to work as well.

That said, it still needs a large resident population base to support diversity of uses and to populate the streets at non-shopping hours. Of course it won't be at the population of the 19th century, but no amount of heritage tourism will be able to fill up so much space. Nor would there be much draw for residents if all the commercial uses are geared towards tourists. Residents need groceries, barbers, and dry goods, but if those are crowded out then what's the point of living there?

Charleston and Savannah are much smaller cities with tightly packed but still single-family houses in their central neighborhoods. New Orleans is a bit denser, but even the French Quarter has a lot of one-story shotgun houses and small buildings with no first-floor retail. I'm just not convinced that OTR can fill itself out merely on tourism, nor do I think that's a good goal either.

The problem with heritage tourism is that it's a one-trick pony. Most tourism is in fact, and it has a sterilizing effect on the area. OTR is a dense and large enough neighborhood that it can and should support many more activities than that. Regional specialized retail, music/performing arts, beer brewing, German studies, local produce and meats, these are all things that are equally important and can be scaled up and sold (figuratively and literally) to the whole region.

It would be a tragedy to completely flip OTR around from a slum to a chic yuppy tourist neighborhood. It would become a Disney caricature of what it was, and it would be more vulnerable to future collapse. Individual interventions need to be made constantly all over to maintain it, not cataclysmic redevelopments that sterilize whole areas then decline again. If we want to strive for better architecture, we should also strive for better planning and neighborhood development. Don't decry the derivative or passe architecture of The Banks or the Gateway Quarter and then copy whole chapters from the Charleston/Savannah/New Orleans playbook. Let's come up with some new and better strategies for 21st century Cincinnati.

Neil said...

I think a good mix of the two strategies would work best.

I also think that this is a generational difference, younger people don't mind having smaller places in old tenements, in fact its quite trendy these days. In a fully revitalized OTR (also factoring in a more open culture in Cincy) you can live just like you live in environs on par with a hip neighborhood in Brooklyn or Chicago but for a fraction of the cost of living.

Let's take a look at Boston. I've said time and time again that its a good model for Cincy, as both are (at least regionally speaking) economic powerhouses that are blessed with large amounts of historic neighborhoods.

Boston is much larger, but when you go there, not only are the neigborhoods walkable, but they are tourist destinations for their architecture. The North End is something OTR should strive for. Its a hood that looks something like OTR on steroids, quite possibly the closest the US has to a European neighborhood. This neighborhood has large tenements, is really walkable and also has some single families mixed in. Its a very desirable area that's not to far from downtown, something made even better by the Big Dig project (costly as it was) and not only that, its also not overly yuppified, there still is a lot old character left over from its Italian years. (probably still a lot of Italians living there too). Heritage tourism is good as the freedom trail blazes right through the neighborhood, and sites such as Paul Revere's house exist there.

While Cincy is definitely no match for Boston, in terms of history its a good model of a city that isn't just a museum, but still has a real functioning economy along with heritage tourism being a defining part of the city. Its the reason why Boston is mostly gentrified (unlike Cincy where all the wealth is concentrated in the 'burbs for the most part).

Paul Wilham said...

The big determining factor as far as business goes is rents. Right now rent is dirt cheap for commercial in OTR you can rent retail on Vine and Main streets for 650-900 a month for good space. Interestingly that was about what people paid in Indianapolis before the turnaround of Mass Ave and downtown. The avenue was filled with mom/pop businesses. Today 10 years later those retail rents are 3500-7500 a month plus a percent of sales. Other than those who bought their own buidling when they were cheap the small shops are gone. The property values have cause the taxes on a typical builing to be 15-25K a year! And the Mom/pops won't last much longer whith taxes that high and people willing to offer a mill on building they paid 150K for 10 years ago.

As a result you have higher end galleries, restaurants bars etc.

Residential rents have tripled or quadrupled as many former rentals went condos. I saw the same thing happen in Charleston. Will current OTR residents pay 1400-2400 a month for an nice apartment? Doubt it because they cant afford it. And they certainly wont be able to buy.

The facts are as soon as OTR turns around and is perceived as "safe" rents will go through the roof or the buildings will be condoed. Vacant buildable lots in downtown Indy are 150K now 250K in neighborhoods like Lockerbie or chatham arch.

Anyone who thinks OTR will some "cumbaya multi-income neighorhood" is kidding themselves. When the suburbanites believe its safe the "pionnnering" people in OTR will be pushed out because they cant afford it. Just wait till those 10 year tax abatements end on condos and the tax bill it 4-6K a year instead of the few hundred they are now. We are already seeing people who restored years ago, leave Mt Adams because they wont pay the high taxes. Same thing is happening in Columbia Tusculum.

Parking in OTR will be a mess . Try to find parking in Indy on Mass Ave a Friday or Saturday night now. Because the suburbanites still will not give up their cars, a big selling point on condos downtown in most cities is 3 or more garage/parking spaces or a private garage.

Developers have a saying "If you plan on building, you might as well build for the rich because they are the only ones who can afford it!"

Part of neighborhood turnaround, And I dont belive OTR will be different that other cities, is that those who pioneer get pushed out or they bought and made enough bucks to go somewhere else, less on the radar.