Change a Comin’

Clifton Heights residents push back against developments they say are changing the character of their neighborhood

click to enlarge Once home to a historic mansion, the former Christy’s & Lenhardt’s site will soon be a new mixed-use development.
Once home to a historic mansion, the former Christy’s & Lenhardt’s site will soon be a new mixed-use development.

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iving in the eclectic older houses in Clifton Heights alongside well-established homeowners and non-student renters has long been a rite of passage for many University of Cincinnati students, a lifestyle charming enough that some stay on and become deeply invested in the neighborhood. But that’s changing, residents there say.

Cincinnati City Council on Dec. 10 opened the door for a controversial project in the neighborhood by approving a crucial zoning change that would allow Rhode Island-based Gilbane Development Co. to build a six-story apartment building aimed at students on a site once occupied by a sprawling historic mansion on West McMillan Street. Council is also expected to approve millions in tax breaks for the project.

The development would join a number of others in the residential neighborhood just south of the university. Since 2011, a host of new, often student-oriented developments, including pre-furnished apartment buildings, a looming parking garage, chain clothing boutiques and bars in buildings with a very similar, no-frills aesthetic have sprung up along the busy corridor along West McMillan and Calhoun streets. 

These include the highly-touted U Square @ the Loop, a five-story, two-block development between Calhoun and McMillan streets finished in 2012 that has 161 apartments, 70,00 square feet of retail space and 40,000 square feet of office space. Before the development, the stretch between the two streets had been vacant for years. Another big development just east, on the corner of West McMillan and Ohio streets, opened in 2011 with 129 units of student-oriented housing.

Developers and businesses in the city have cheered the new activity, saying it will bring economic growth and help accommodate UC’s swelling enrollment, which has gone up by nearly 10,000 students in the past decade. The school saw nearly 44,000 enroll last year. But some residents in the neighborhood have pushed back, calling the developments nothing more than extensions of the university that provide no incentive for students to invest in the neighborhood or stay after they graduate.

Sharon Buckner moved to Clifton Heights in 1983 to go to UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. “Back then, it was a little bit more of a neighborhood,” she says. “I loved it. So I decided to stay. I made the ultimate commitment — I bought a home. But things have been leaning more and more toward what the university wants for years.”

Neighborhood advocates have taken special exception to Gilbane’s residential and commercial development, citing concerns about traffic and parking as well as what they call deeper threats to the neighborhood’s character. The development will have at least 180 units of housing totaling 500 bedrooms, along with 7,000 square feet of retail space and 380 parking spots.

Christian Huelsman, vice president of the Clifton Heights, University Heights and Fairview (CUF) Neighborhood Association, says the zoning change, which will give the developer some freedom from the more restrictive zoning in the rest of Clifton Heights, is a bad move.

“It sets a precedent where another developer could come in, propose to tear down homes … and develop something large and not in adherence to what’s been in the neighborhood for the past hundred years,” he says. Hueslman, who lived in the area while attending UC’s Community Planning program and stuck around after he graduated, says the neighborhood group would like to see development that encourages others to do the same.

Representatives for the developer say they’ve taken community input into account and have the backing of the Clifton Heights Business Association and the Clifton Heights Urban Redevelopment Corporation. They also point out they’ve altered their plans in response to community feedback. Originally, the plan was to build an eight-story apartment complex with more than 600 bedrooms and just 276 parking spaces. They’ve also pointed to the six townhomes in the development, which they say fit more with the single family homes in the neighborhood and can be marketed to non-students.

Members of the neighborhood group, however, say the developer’s alterations to its original plan don’t go far enough and that the project by its very nature doesn’t fit.

Opponents and the developer got off to a bad start. In order for the deal to move forward, an 1890s-era mansion that housed Lenhardt’s German restaurant and Christie’s beer garden had to be demolished by the property’s owners, the Windholz family. The slated demolition of the neighborhood landmark set off a flurry of controversy and conservation efforts, which were ultimately unsuccessful. The building was torn down last year.

“We were heartbroken,” says Sandra Wilson, a 30-year resident of the neighborhood. “Think about it. Over-the-Rhine is pushing the beer stuff. And we tear down that building?”

The Windholz family had said that keeping the historic house intact was too burdensome and would cost more than $1 million. The family is under contract with Gilbane to sell the property the house sat on.

Next on the chopping block is a building that stands next to the former restaurant site on the corner of Clifton Avenue and West McMillan Street. The structure once housed Clifton Natural Foods, a long-standing independent business in the neighborhood. The business moved to Ludlow Avenue, outside Clifton Heights, this summer due to the building’s looming demolition.

That’s moving in the wrong direction, neighborhood advocates say.

“We’d like to see more balance in our businesses,” says Clifton Heights Neighborhood Association President Cherie Wallpe. “Right now we’re more than 80 percent student-oriented businesses. We’d like to see more small locally-owned businesses, and more things that people of all ages and families can use. We do have a lot of families in CUF of they’re mixed incomes. It needs to be accessible to everybody.”

Council approved the zoning change in a 7-2 vote, despite some questions about whether the property was eligible. Usually, per Cincinnati municipal code, properties with Planned Unit Development zoning must be at least two acres. Planned Unit Development is a kind of overlay that gives developers extra flexibility. The site of Gilbane’s development is about 1.65 acres. City Solicitor Terry Nestor said at the Dec. 10 Council meeting that the difference shouldn’t present problems for the city. Opponents question that.

For the most part, Council cheered the deal.

“I believe the changes that have been made from the time it was originally presented make it a better development,” said Vice Mayor David Mann at the meeting. “I think on balance it’s a good solution and I believe that once it’s constructed that we’ll find that the adverse impacts that the residents fear will not be borne out.”

In rare agreement, both Democrat Councilwoman Yvette Simspon and Republican Councilman Christopher Smitherman voted against the change, though they did praise Gilbane’s efforts to revise its plans. Smitherman said it was unclear what the big-picture plan was for the neighborhood if the Gilbane development went forward.

Simpson sided with the neighborhood groups.

“What I would caution us to do is continue to listen to the community,” Simpson said. “They’ve been crying out since the development on Calhoun has been developed. We’ve not listened. We just have not. I don’t think this development as it sits today is ready.”

The zoning change paves the way for the project, though critics in the neighborhood say they’ll continue to oppose it. Council’s neighborhood committee Dec. 15 voted to approve a 15-year tax exemption for Gilbane on the CUF project, a deal that could be worth $12 million in tax breaks. A full City Council vote is expected to approve the exemptions Dec. 17.

The debate comes as some criticize the way the city administration makes deals with big developers in a number of neighborhoods. A recent editorial by recently ousted Cincinnati Planning Commission Chair Caleb Faux in the Cincinnati Business Courier and another in the Cincinnati Enquirer by local blogger Kathy Holwadel question whether the city administration is too cozy with such companies. ©