Art: Teeing Off, Moving Ahead

Movement on several fronts points to an arts district for downtown and Over-the-Rhine


In May, CityBeat advanced the concept of an urban arts district, focused on Walnut and 12th streets downtown and in Over-the-Rhine. Calling it "The T" ("Cincinnati Tees Off on the Arts" and "Creating a Cultural Corridor in Over-the-Rhine," issue of May 4-10), CityBeat has offered regular reports since then about related developments in the neighborhood.

We explored how other cities have fostered successful arts districts ("The Philadelphia Story," May 4-10) as catalysts for downtown development. A foundation already exists in Cincinnati with existing structures — the Aronoff Center for the Arts and the Emery Theatre — and new projects underway such as the new Contemporary Arts Center and the likely relocation of the Art Academy of Cincinnati ("On the Move," May 18-24). Our region's proposed I-71 light rail corridor line is envisioned running down Walnut Street, offering affordable and convenient transportation with no issues about parking.

We also imagined two facilities on Walnut Street south of Central Parkway. For lectures and films, we envisioned a new auditorium at the Public Library, which controls Walnut Street property east of its Ninth Street expansion. On the east side of Walnut, north of Eighth Street, we saw room for an intimate performance facility for small theater groups, such as the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, and for musical organizations, such as the Blue Wisp. This building could also include satellite gallery spaces for Cincinnati's art museums and historical institutions.

Uptown movement
Since May, momentum for The T has increased.

In "The Art of the Deals" (Aug. 31-Sept. 6), we des-cribed the construction of the new Uptown Arts center at 123 E. Liberty St., where the Rosenthal Foundation will offer arts classes for kids, aged 4-10, beginning in January ("Widening Worlds," Nov. 30-Dec. 6). Lois Rosenthal says more than 200 children have already enrolled. Uptown Arts is off The T as originally defined, but it's part of arts activity that keeps springing up in Over-the-Rhine.

Another example will soon appear north of Liberty Street, across from Uptown Arts. Vernon Rader and Mark Bernhardt plan to renovate six buildings in the 1600 block of Main Street, the intersection's northeast and northwest corners. Rader, a painter and retired Procter & Gamble art director, and Bernhardt, a photographer, have studios downtown but wanted to be closer to their home in nearby Prospect Hill.

"We actually found the (first) building before they put up the (for sale) sign," Rader recalls.

A broker acquaintance had e-mailed them 15 pages of listings, he chuckles. Once they acquired the corner property, they decided to buy three adjacent buildings. Next, they recruited a friend from Europe to invest in two buildings across the intersection.

They plan to rehab the building's exteriors and facades, with design work by architect Don Beck. Rader envisions artist studios, some commercial and gallery spaces at street level and possibly a residential component, plus some greenspace and a parking lot.

As a young professional — Rader taught art at UC then worked as an art director with P&G for 38 years — he routinely walked to work through Over-the-Rhine, where many stores still operated. His love of the urban environment was reinforced by years spent working in European cities.

"When I came back here," he recalls, "I wanted to live in the city."

After living in a historic home in Walnut Hills, he bought and renovated a house on Milton Street. The property he and Bernhardt are developing represents another choice for artists who have filled the Pendleton Art Center, a beehive of studios in an eight-story former warehouse.

Emery living a go, but not theater
One of the most important components of The T is where the proposed arts avenues meet: 12th and Walnut, the Emery Theatre. The building's ongoing rehab project symbolizes the two-steps-up-one-step-back reality the Cincinnati arts community faced in 2000.

The apartments taking shape in the building's old classrooms are a beacon of hope on The T. More than half of the 59 planned apartments already have been rented, with the first tenants expected to move in March 1.

The renovation of the theater, however, has not moved forward. Exterior cleanup work is almost finished, but funds to overhaul the stage, dressing rooms, seating areas and an upstairs practice hall are still needed.

The nonprofit Emery Center Corporation (ECC), formed to lease the building from the University of Cincinnati, its longtime owner, has struggled to find theater financing after the State of Ohio rejected a $5 million request for the Emery project earlier this year.

"We've really had to maximize revenue from the total project," says Beth Sullebarger, who directs both ECC and the Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA). "So some of the things we wanted to do — like an incubator space for small arts groups and a black-box theater — likely won't happen now."

What hasn't changed is the Emery's importance for local arts organizations and patrons. A renovated Emery could fill the need for a mid-sized theater — something that fits between less-than-1,000-seat houses like the Playhouse's Marx Theatre, CCM's Patricia Corbett Theatre and the Aronoff's Jarson-Kaplan Theater, and more-than-2,500-seat houses like Music Hall, Taft Theatre and the Aronoff's Procter & Gamble Hall.

Likewise, Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, the School for Creative and Performing Arts and other groups see a reborn Emery as an attractive option for regular performances. So have those who book touring concerts and theatrical shows.

Initial estimates envisioned 300 days of use annually at the Emery, annual audiences of 150,000 and ticket sales of $2.5 million. Sullebarger says CCM professor Alan Yaffe, who did the first pro forma study, will revise it based on the complex's new financial realities.

At least 2001 will see new life in the old building when the apartments open. There's even talk of an upscale grocery store in the complex to serve residents and downtown workers alike.

The theater, meanwhile, won't reopen until 2004 at the earliest.

Moving the Art Academy
Since purchasing the Pembrooke Building in June, home of the BarrelHouse Brewery, the Art Academy of Cincinnati has kept a low profile over its planned move to Over-the-Rhine from Mount Adams. Academy President Greg Smith continues to dialogue with students and trustees, who will make a final decision in the coming year. Still, Smith says the move's targeted date remains 2005.

"There are going to be various points when you work on a project that there is nothing to report," says Smith. "We are continuing to work on it. But nothing has dramatically happened that's worth reporting or has postponed or derailed the project."

The academy's increased enrollment to 220 full-time undergraduate students confirms the need for additional space. The ongoing question is whether students and faculty will support a move to Over-the-Rhine.

For now, Smith watches Over-the-Rhine development and the City of Cincinnati's comprehensive plan with keen interest. He understands that a new School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) and renovated Emery Theatre will make the neighborhood more attractive. To him, these projects confirm Over-the-Rhine's status as Cincinnati's arts district.

"Any time that good projects like the proposed SCPA or what the Rosenthals are doing with Uptown Arts or that Ensemble Theater Cincinnati has had a great season is all positive for us," Smith says. "We're looking at the neighborhood and opportunities for our students and faculty."

SCPA seeks new digs, too
Earlier this fall, after the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) Board of Education approved $26 million in funding for a new SCPA adjacent to Music Hall and Washington Park, the project became part of a unique, two-track process within the CPS facilities plan.

A master architect team is reviewing and updating previous facilities plans with a new report to be submitted by September. Board approval of a K-12 SCPA allows the projects to select an architect of record as early as next month.

But CPS administration hasn't entirely committed to the new school. Its decision is contingent upon the project's private supporters raising $26 million in matching funds by September.

"We have to massage the program," says CPS Facilities Director Michael Burson. "The project was determined when there was no indication about what the budget would be. Now the project has to work within the proposed $52 million. But if the private group is not able to raise the $26 million, we still need to address Schiel Elementary and SCPA in some way."

Possible scenarios to reuse the current SCPA building for new purposes are speculative. Burson says a decision about the building's future will also be made some time in September.

"I would be hopeful that Cincinnati Public Schools would still reuse it as a school," says CPA's Sullebarger. "I would be unhappy if any school building were to close. But there's a great deal of interest on the part of developers regarding SCPA, whether adapting it into offices or housing."

Hat shop moves; CAC digs in
One of the most vital components of The T, the new Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) at Sixth and Walnut streets, has inched closer to reality.

Throughout 2000, Zaha Hadid's striking building design garnered national and international media attention while an impasse over acquisition of the final piece of property — Batsakes Hat Shop — prevented construction crews from breaking ground.

The Batsakes family sued the city to stop a forced sale; city attorneys asked a judge to allow the city to claim the property under eminent domain laws. Finally, after lengthy negotiations between the family and Cincinnati's economic development department, the shop will relocate next month to Seventh and Vine streets, in the soon-to-be-vacated Delta Air Lines ticket office space.

The city's role in the CAC project is to acquire and clear the necessary land, then turn it over to the center's design and construction team. Demolition of the Batsakes building plus the former McDonald's and King News/Hustler stores will take place in the first three months of 2001, says the economic development department's Ed Ratterman.

"King Wrecking is under contract and ready to go," Ratterman says. "We're looking forward to a downtown project where the hole in the ground lasts only a matter of days."

As the year ends, fund-raising goals have been met, and the project finally is ready to move forward. In April, CAC Director Charles Desmarais announced an $800,000 pledge to the project from the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation, conditional on meeting an overall fund-raising goal by Nov. 1. That goal, $30.3 million, was met, and an additional $1.8 million has been pledged to a "supplementary campaign."

Earlier in the year, Desmarais told CityBeat the CAC would be able to open the doors to its new facility two years after completing property acquisition.

With such evidence of forward motion downtown, in addition to some very concrete activity in Over-the-Rhine, The T continues to be a viable vision for Cincinnati's urban core. ©

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