The building at 123 E. McMicken Ave. sits at the north end of Over-the-Rhine, gutted and ready for big change. The charming structure is easy to miss if you’re just cruising by.
But not long from now, this humble, historic space — once an 1850s butcher shop — will enter a new chapter as The Volkshaus, a community center for events, coworking and learning. The space will also become the headquarters for Action Tank, a local nonprofit that centers on civic engagement.
Action Tank and OTR A.D.O.P.T. are at the helm of the renovation, with both nonprofits committed to preserving Cincinnati’s history while supporting its long-term residents. OTR A.D.O.P.T. has been doing historic preservation work since 2010 and finds caring, thoughtful occupants for vacant buildings.
Just as Action Tank began looking for a space, 123 E. McMicken Ave. became available from OTR A.D.O.P.T. through request for proposal. It was the perfect fit, and the perfect timing for both nonprofits.
Action Tank Executive Director Ioanna Paraskevopoulos says that even though “trust in government is at an all-time low,” people are still investing time and energy in community engagement. Volkshaus will be a powerful resource for organizing and educating, she says.
“We feel like we want to take advantage of that momentum while people are still willing to actually talk and engage in local government issues,” Paraskevopoulos says.
The Volkshaus renovation is being supported, in part, by highly competitive state and federal historic tax credits. It’s the vision of OTR A.D.O.P.T. and Action Tank that Volkshaus will be accessible to anyone.
Volkshaus — German for “people’s house” — will open its doors to all neighbors and Cincinnati residents as a space to gather and work. The first floor will be available for community events, and the first and second floors and patios will serve as sliding-scale coworking spaces. There also will be a quiet conference room on the second floor that opens to a cast-iron balcony overlooking McMicken. Action Tank’s offices will be on the third floor.
“The goal is to recapture the traditional conviviality of Over-the-Rhine in a comfortable space that cuts across lines of race and class,” says OTR A.D.O.P.T. Executive Director Danny Klingler on the Volkshaus website. “Think of it as Kaldi’s revival, with a social mission.”
Renderings for Volkshaus look something like a cozy space from Harry Potter’s Hogwarts campus, complete with antique banquet tables, fireplaces, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and an owl mascot. And the goal is to renovate this historic building while protecting the community from high costs associated with gentrification.
“So much of Action Tank’s work and my personal interests are focused on promoting investment without displacing existing residents,” Paraskevopoulos says.
Action Tank has a diverse equity advisory board and has developed both a historic preservation action plan and a community benefits agreements tool kit. Both Action Tank and OTR A.D.O.P.T. are committed to keeping the residents involved and are taking their needs and input to heart not just now, but in the years to come.
“We’re actually right in the middle of a formal community engagement plan,” says Ashley Feist, Community Liaison for OTR A.D.O.P.T. “It’s something that’s going to be a part of the process the entire time — not just once or twice, and not after it’s already built.”
Community engagement also comes in the form of getting to know the neighbors. Feist, Paraskevopoulos and their colleagues spend time introducing themselves to local residents and gathering feedback about how people from the area could actually use the space. Their community engagement strategy for Volkshaus is planned into 2022 and will continue to develop. They’ll start by going door-to-door to connect with neighbors personally, and when the weather warms up, Feist and Paraskevopoulos will begin hosting neighborhood gatherings like cookouts, block parties and focus groups.
The events will “solicit feedback and input on our programming choices for Volkshaus, build relationships with residents, and raise awareness about Action Tank and Volkshaus’ mission and services,” Paraskevopoulos says.
“We never pretend to be able to prescribe a just world or what an ideal landscape would be on any block that we’re working on,” Feist says. “But we do know who we want to be involved in the process, and we do know that we want that to show on the landscape. We would like the residents to be involved in whatever this particular portion of OTR becomes.”
Keeping residents involved means both talking with individual neighbors of Volkshaus and addressing community groups like the Over-the-Rhine Community Council. Both OTR A.D.O.P.T. and Action Tank have met with the community council’s housing and economic development committee, which voted to support the project. (Those who are not members of the OTR community council or the neighborhood but want to contribute to the conversation can connect with OTR A.D.O.P.T. by emailing [email protected]).
Volkshaus is projected to be operational by the second quarter of 2023, depending on contractors, supply chain issues and the city’s permitting processes. In the meantime, organizers are planning fundraisers to help lower the mortgage payments. They’re already selling a special Volkshaus coffee blend through a partnership with La Terza, with proceeds supporting Volkshaus operations. There’s also an ongoing fundraiser through ioby.org that provides a discounted membership to Volkshaus.
Follow Volkshaus’ development progress and find ways to donate to the project at actiontankusa.org.
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