All Eyes on Walnut Hills

Can development efforts in a historic Cincinnati neighborhood avoid opening old wounds?

click to enlarge Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation staffer Thea Munchel works with attendees on a neighborhood mapping activity at a Feb. 6 planning session.
Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation staffer Thea Munchel works with attendees on a neighborhood mapping activity at a Feb. 6 planning session.

Olivia Harper remembers the last time Walnut Hills went through major changes.

The retired Cincinnati Public Schools instructor has lived in the community for 68 years. She was there when it boasted busy corridors of shops and theaters, when white residents began leaving in the 1950s and 1960s and when I-71 came through her part of the neighborhood in the 1970s, erasing predominantly black enclaves.

On a recent Saturday, Harper joined about 100 people packed into Douglass Elementary for a community planning session. The Feb. 6 event, organized by the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, attracted area business owners, newer community members and lifelong residents to give their ideas on what they’d like to see from coming development.

“We’re here because Walnut Hills is changing,” Kevin Wright, Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation executive director, told the group. “It’s seeing investment for the first time in a long time — on a pretty big scale.”

The goal, organizers say, is to harness an emerging burst of activity in Walnut Hills while maintaining the neighborhood’s diversity. But the community must navigate larger systemic forces that make equitable development challenging.

Meanwhile, memories from a painful past are hard to forget for some residents.

“Where I grew up — all of that is gone. That’s what I thought was about to happen on (the south) side of McMillan. That’s why I came,” Harper says of the session. “I wasn’t involved in the process when they took my parents’ home.”

The session was the kickoff for an intensive community engagement blitz by the foundation and two firms hired to help with the planning process. That effort also involved sessions for specific areas in the neighborhood as well as open hours during which residents could come with questions and concerns. The foundation expects to issue its plan in May.

The nonprofit Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation has been working in the neighborhood for nearly four decades. Four years ago, shortly after Wright came on board, the group decided to focus its efforts on the area around McMillan and Gilbert avenues called Peeble’s Corner, once one of the city’s major crossroads.

It started small: stabilizing buildings, establishing public areas like the St. James Pocket Park and holding community events like pop-up beer gardens. Then larger projects started to pick up, including Fireside Pizza, which serves craft beers and gourmet pies. The restaurant in 2014 moved into a historic fire station on McMillan renovated by the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation.

Developers and media have taken notice. The foundation recently completed work on the Trevarren Flats, three buildings on Peeble’s Corner currently accepting tenants for 7,000 square feet of retail space and 30 market-rate apartments. And the foundation recently won $2 million in Ohio Historic Preservation tax credits for the Paramount Building, a neighborhood landmark slated for a $20 million renovation by developer Model Group.

Meanwhile, on the neighborhood’s north side, a $100 million-plus Ohio Department of Transportation project will add a new I-71 interchange at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. That’s led to a multi-million-dollar buying spree by developers in the area in anticipation of a so-called “innovation corridor” along I-71.

“This is one of those rare opportunities where so many things are starting to align,” says Joe Nickol of Columbus-based planning firm MKSK, which was contracted by the foundation. “Not only do you have great leadership happening here, and a community that’s been here going on 70 years, but you have a convergence of a lot of people starting to pay attention to this neighborhood where maybe before they didn’t.”

Early in the Feb. 6 planning session, former Walnut Hills Area Council president Kathryne Gardette spoke to the crowd about the neighborhood’s integrated past. Gardette pointed out Walnut Hills was the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of famous abolitionist text Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and also a home base for many other 19th-Century Cincinnati abolitionists.

But a century and a quarter later, Walnut Hills has yet to fully recover from decades of economic segregation and neglect. White flight hit the neighborhood hard — the white population went from a majority in 1950 to about 20 percent today. The construction of I-71 in the 1970s also took its toll, resulting in the destruction of churches, businesses and residences that made up pillars of the neighborhood’s black community.

A study by Xavier’s Community Building Institute found the unemployment rate in Walnut Hills is 25 percent, and among black residents, it’s 36 percent. In especially impoverished parts of the neighborhood — like Census Tract 267, which lies south of McMillan Avenue and West of Gilbert Avenue — the median household income is just $15,000, a full $20,000 under the city’s median. The tract is 93 percent black.

That area, which the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation calls the Southwest Quadrant, is a focus of its community engagement efforts, along with Peeble’s Corner and the area around the forthcoming MLK interchange.

Wright touts minority-owned businesses like Just Qin’, Cuts Plus and Zweets Candy that are opening along McMillan.

But Harper isn’t necessarily convinced that a focus on business will keep long-term residents in the neighborhood.

She’s lived in the same apartment on Kenton Street in the Southwest Quadrant for 21 years. When she first moved in, her building was affordable housing. But a succession of new owners has since purchased it, raising the rent each time. To her, long-term Walnut Hills residents are what make the community, and she says some of her neighbors have had to leave.

“They want to have people start up small businesses, but they’re forgetting what else goes around those businesses,” she says. “Will it just be a business district, or will it be a community?”

Some fear changes seen in other neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine, which has seen a 73-percent decrease in housing options for the lowest-income since 2000.

Apprehensions that large-scale changes, including the new I-71 interchange, could spur displacement aren’t entirely unfounded, experts say.

“Public policy in this city has a long history of displacing the poor and African-Americans and providing little to no alternatives for their relocation,” UC history professor Christopher F. Casey-Leininger told the Cincinnati Business Courier recently. “That part of the city might become much more accessible to a lot of people, and there’s a possibility of gentrification in Avondale, Corryville and Walnut Hills.”

Rents in the Trevarren Flats can cost up to $1,850 for a top-floor two bedroom, though some studios range from $500-$650. The Foundation says it’s working to keep developments inclusive by trying to attract developers who will invest in the neighborhood’s crumbling historic buildings while offsetting their pricier market-rate offerings with affordable housing and retail space.

Wright says community engagement in an ongoing development plan can help keep things equitable and allay fears.

That can be complicated, however.

At a Feb. 9 planning session about Peeble’s Corner, Baba Charles Miller asked tough questions about who wasn’t in the room.  Miller is married to former council president Gardette, and the two own a building across from Fireside Pizza near Peeble’s Corner.

“Until you get more of the people who need to be here in the room, you’re going to get pushback (about development),” Miller said, noting that few people of color were at that particular session.

Part of the problem could be that planning meetings don’t feel inviting for some. But there are deeper reasons for the difficulties as well, Miller says.

“I’m not a psychologist, but the African-American community here and other places is suffering from all kinds of problems,” he said, noting high rates of poverty, lack of educational opportunity and other barriers in a neighborhood that has seen decades of neglect. “They haven’t had the opportunity to do what you’re doing,” he said of development planning. “That causes a tremendous amount of mental anguish. You have to understand that.”

Miller cites some success in going to the neighborhood’s churches and also points out that a holiday pop-up shop by MORTAR, a business incubator focusing on minority entrepreneurs, was a big success.

Addressing the diverse group of attendees at the Feb. 6 kickoff, his wife Gardette sounded a hopeful note, despite potential difficulties in keeping the neighborhood diverse.

“It’s so invigorating to look out and see what the sign coming into Walnut Hills says: ‘A diverse neighborhood since 1800.’ That’s what we are. That’s what we have been,” Gardette told the group at the Saturday event. “Now we get to choose what our next choice will be.” ©

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