Courting Controversy

As the city mulls selling public land in OTR to a private developer, familiar tensions arise

click to enlarge Developers have proposed 21 single-family homes on a swath of land in northern OTR that currently holds basketball courts, a community garden and 20 fruit trees.
Developers have proposed 21 single-family homes on a swath of land in northern OTR that currently holds basketball courts, a community garden and 20 fruit trees.

For 11-year-old Santinez Payne, the grassy lots and basketball courts behind his apartment building in northern Over-the-Rhine are among the most important places in the city.

The spot, a little overgrown and very green, is where he goes to meet up with his friends, many of whom also live in the same low-income apartment building.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” he says. “I love coming to the courts every day, any time I want. I love getting to play with my friends, running around and playing tag, playing football in the field. This is the closest place to go.”

But the area, roughly one city block of space just north of Schiller Street and just east of Main Street across from Rothenberg Academy in ever-more-bustling OTR, means different things to different people. Some see a blighted, dangerous space that needs filled. And a developer, the NorthPointe Group, sees a big economic opportunity in a place where land values are rising and development continues to heat up.

Last year, CityBeat reported on NorthPointe’s proposal to buy the land from the Cincinnati Recreation Commission and the city’s Department of Community and Economic Development and facilitate the development of 21 single-family homes with garages on the site (see “New Plan, Old Tensions,” Issue of April 1, 2015). The developer estimates those homes, which will be built by other companies, will likely cost $400,000 or more. NorthPointe itself will develop another building with eight one-bedroom units of so-called “workforce housing” costing around $900-$950 a month.

Despite some changes, NorthPointe’s plan has continued to cause a lot of friction around some big questions: Should the city sell public land that’s currently used for recreation to a private developer, perhaps also providing funding for that developer’s proposed project? Further, some housing advocates ask, how did that public land get added into such a development deal in the first place?

Meanwhile, residents and the nearby Peaslee Neighborhood Center have drawn up an alternative plan that stresses recreational opportunities for the neighborhood’s children, affordable housing for its low-income residents and continued ties between the land and neighboring Rothenberg.

“The city owns the land,” Peaslee co-founder Bonnie Neumeier says. “The city gives lip-service all the time to creating racially and economically mixed neighborhoods. This is where we can do it.”

The area has deep ties to education and recreation. According to the Centennial History of Cincinnati and Representative Citizens and other historical works about the city, the plot was originally the farm of public education benefactor Thomas Hughes, for whom Hughes High School is named. A few days before his death in September 1824, Hughes willed his lands to a trust he dedicated to the establishment and continued funding of public schools. It was the first such donation toward what would become Cincinnati Public Schools.

“The property left by the will of Hughes was not considerable in value,” the book notes. “It covers about 10 squares extending from Schiller up to Mount Auburn between Main and Sycamore.”

In the 1970s, the land came into the possession of the city’s recreation commission as part of a planned project called the Schiller-Hughes Model Cities Open Space Park.

A May 20, 1975 resolution by Cincinnati City Council giving the land to the CRC reads, "it is the Intent of the City of Cincinnati to appropriate to public use for recreational purposes the real estate" now occupied by the courts and the gardens.

The two-acre Schiller-Hughes recreation space is listed in a 1978 inventory of city recreation spaces, though the city at the time considered it a part of OTR, not Mount Auburn.

In April 2012, the city entered into a preferred developer agreement on the land with NorthPointe. That agreement, which has been extended four times, is due to expire July 25 this year. The group is also currently being considered for funds under the city’s Notice of Funding Availability, or NOFA, program, which has $4.2 million available to jump-start housing development in the city this year.

“This project has not been approved by my department,” says Department of Community and Economic Development Director Oscar Bedolla. “Obviously we have an interest in it. … But we only see this moving forward if there is some consensus.”

So far, that consensus has been difficult to find.

NorthPointe’s original plan necessitated the removal of the site’s basketball hoops and a community garden, angering some nearby residents. That plan won approval from the Mount Auburn Community Council — the neighborhood on the edge of which the land technically sits. But Over-the-Rhine’s community council rescinded a letter of support for the project after residents said big changes needed to be made to the plan.

Many of those around the courts live in buildings owned by Over-the-Rhine Community Housing and identify as OTR residents.

Now, NorthPointe has tweaked its proposal, offering to move the basketball courts to a location a few blocks away. It will also sell the plot the community garden occupies to the Civic Garden Center for one dollar and help it expand.

“We were here in 2015, and we heard the community’s feedback on the issues, and we’re trying to talk to them,” NorthPointe’s Lisa Scovic says.

“At the time, we were removing them,” Scovic says of the basketball hoops. “But we heard what the community had to say, so we went and did our due diligence and found some owners a stone’s throw away that are willing to convey the land to recreation and relocate the basketball hoops. We as the developers will pay the money to build the new courts.”

Those courts would be built on nearby East McMicken Street. But that’s not close enough, opponents of the plan say. And the courts are just the tip of the iceberg for some advocates.

“A lot of the kids I work with who hang out here a lot live in the neighboring building, and their mom can look out at them from the window and know they’re still around,” says Jenn Scheiderer, a teacher at Rothenberg. “It’s one of the few green spaces around here, a place that isn’t full of bricks and abandoned houses.”

Scheiderer believes removing the courts has some unfortunate racial undertones.

“A certain demographic plays basketball, and that’s not the demographic they’re looking for,” she says. She brings up the removal of basketball courts from Washington Park, which caused controversy when the park was renovated in 2011.

Scheiderer’s concerns echo those expressed by many at a contentious, three-and-a-half hour Over-the-Rhine Community Council meeting April 25. At that meeting, about 30 OTR residents lined up to speak against the new plan after NorthPointe presented it. The council ended up voting against the plan.

Many residents said they felt the emphasis on expensive single-family homes over affordable housing and the removal of the courts would disadvantage the neighborhood’s black residents.

“You’re not looking at the kids that go to Rothenberg,” says Dorothy Darden, who has lived in OTR for decades. “You’re not looking at the people that are here and what we need. What you are doing is simply a takeover. Be honest. You’ve come up here really smug.”
Rothenberg students protest a plan to remove basketball courts at an Over-the-Rhine Community Council meeting in March 2015
Nick Swartsell

NorthPointe says its project fits in with both neighborhood plans and recent housing surveys done by Xavier’s Community Building Institute, and that the workforce housing component of the project will provide housing for people who make at or a little under Hamilton County’s median household income of about $49,000 a year.

“We think it’ll be a mixture of people,” NorthPointe’s Rick Kimbler says. “We’ve been developing in Over-the-Rhine for 11 years. We’ve catered to a pretty wide group of people.”

At the meeting, Kimbler was asked if NorthPointe has developed housing that is subsidized or low-income. He said the group has not.

“Twenty-seven percent of the buildings in this quadrant of Over-the-Rhine are vacant,” he said. “There’s plenty of room for affordable housing projects. It’s just not this one. We’re going to workforce housing, which is median income. We’re not a low-income housing developer.”

The county’s median household income and demographics are very different from the neighborhood’s. Census Tract 17, which encompasses the area in OTR north of Liberty Street and east of Vine Street, is about 70 percent black, according to the Census’ 2014 American Community Survey, and has a median household income of just $13,000 a year. A development like NorthPointe’s, critics say, wouldn’t necessarily serve the community that already exists there.

Affordable housing advocates point out that since 2000, 72 percent of housing units available to lowest-income residents have left OTR. In southern OTR, where development has been most intense, a decrease in black population has coincided with the decrease in affordable housing, perhaps mirroring larger economic and racial disparities in the city.

The Census tract encompassing the southwestern part of the neighborhood, where most development has occurred in areas like the Gateway Quarter, was nearly 60 percent black just a few years ago, according to the 2010 American Community Survey. Blacks accounted for just 36 percent of the neighborhood in 2013, according to the ACS. The other Census tract south of Liberty Street saw similar changes over that time, and as many as 1,400 black residents left the neighborhood between 2000 and 2010, according to a Greater Cincinnati Urban League report released last year, even as new white residents moved in.

Opponents of NorthPointe’s plan fear it could exacerbate those dynamics north of Liberty Street.

Not everyone at the meeting was completely opposed to the proposal. Chris Rhodes, who lives nearby on Mulberry Street, is skeptical of the plan, but says something must be done with the land. Rhodes says more focus on affordable housing might be good but worries that the lots attract crime.

“I drive by this every single day,” he says. “The area is barren. Weeds. Crap. Garbage. Debris. We can paint whatever kind of rosy picture we want, and the basketball courts serve a purpose. But is it all positive? No. I see it. It’s not monitored. After hours a lot of things happen right there that are unspeakable.”

Crime concerns — which are also expressed by boosters of NorthPointe’s plan — are hard to nail down, however. A review of Cincinnati Police Department crime records shown on online crime map RAIDS reveals little crime around the courts. In the past year, no crimes are shown in the lots, though three auto break-ins occurred around its perimeter. However, the area is safer than some other streets nearby. By comparison, East McMicken saw a sexual assault, multiple robberies and assaults and a stabbing nearby.

Despite the controversy, Bedolla, the city’s Department of Community and Economic Development director, says the city will try to find a balanced way to proceed as it considers the proposal. Cincinnati City Council would have to OK a final sale.

“I’m a product of affordable housing, so I realize the value there of creating affordability,” Bedolla said after the April 25 community council meeting.

But he also said NorthPointe’s project isn’t necessarily a no-go from the city’s perspective, citing Mount Auburn’s approval and other factors.

“I also understand in my role that you need to think about how to balance economic development,” he said. “Not everyone is going to get everything they want.” ©

This story has been updated with details and documents regarding NorthPointe's preferred developer status with the city.