Neighborhood groups are still fighting for a say in a proposed new development at Liberty and Elm

Freeport Alley and intersecting Campbell Street are at the center of a fight over a potentially precedent-setting development in northern Over-the-Rhine.

click to enlarge Neighborhood groups are still fighting for a say in a proposed new development at Liberty and Elm
Photo: Nick Swartsell
The field on the northwest corner of Liberty and Elm streets sits at the mouth of northern Over-the-Rhine, a community on the knife-edge of transition. To the south, development around Washington Park has skyrocketed over the last few years. Findlay Market, where development is just starting to take off, is a couple blocks north. Just to the west, the West End still languishes.

A final decision on a large project that could set the tone for future development around this crossroads currently rests with Cincinnati City Council. But with that decision comes a question: Can a development project go forward when almost every major neighborhood group in the area opposes it?

Cincinnati-based Source 3’s $26 million Freeport Row development would put 110 market-rate apartments, 15,000 square feet of retail space and an 80-unit surface parking lot on the northwest corner of Liberty and Elm streets. Two adjacent historic buildings would also be renovated.

The development has already gone through the city’s Historic Conservation Board, Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, winning approval each time. 

Now, Council must approve the sale of Freeport Alley and Campbell Street for $35,000. It must also give the go-ahead for two tax abatement agreements — one for 15 years on the project’s new development and one for 12 years on the project’s rehabs. The agreements are 60 percent abatements based upon the project’s compliance with LEED environmental standards.

The upcoming vote is the last chance for opponents to stop the project.

There are a lot of reasons for the opposition, which comes from the Over-the-Rhine Community Council, the Over-the-Rhine Foundation, the Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless and other organizations.

Affordable housing advocates don’t like that the project only includes market-rate units. Historic preservationists don’t like the building’s overall 73-foot height at the corner of Liberty Street, which will “loom” over the rest of the neighborhood, Over-the-Rhine Foundation Secretary Kristen Myers told Council earlier this month. Some also don’t like the prospect of the city selling two alleys running through the land in question. And a parking garage in the original plan for the project won’t be built immediately, raising the ire of some community members in a neighborhood where parking is already stressful.

Beyond that, however, community representatives say they feel like they haven’t been listened to and that their organizations don’t have control over developments in their neighborhood.

“These organizations ensure that neighborhood development responds to the needs of residents,” Vice President of Over-the-Rhine Community Council Maurice Wagoner says. “We don’t oppose development. But we do oppose those who come to our council to get approval without properly addressing the concerns of our members. The residents and employees and organizations in our community — their voices are critical.”

Source 3 Development Director Michael Heekin says his company has made every effort to listen to the council and other neighborhood groups, removing one story from original plans for the building and making other adjustments.

“It’s been my personal mission that we were engaged through everything,” he says. “We listened. We made compromises. Now we’re $500,000 into this. This is a big thing for us. We’re a small company, and we’re putting our necks and our money on the line.” 

Heekin says Source 3 can’t get financing for the garage just yet, but that it could come in a Phase 2 of the project. He also says his company supports affordable housing but that other developers are better equipped to develop it. 

But affordable housing proponents say the development’s large size and potential to influence future projects suggest that it should bring some affordable units to rapidly changing OTR.

Questions of affordability are especially important in the area around Liberty and Elm. While southern OTR has seen development and median income spike — and the displacement of some longtime, low-income residents there — the northern section remains low-income. Median household incomes south of Liberty Street have risen to more than $40,000 a year, according to Census data. North of Liberty, median income is just $11,000 a year. 

Andy Hutzel of Over-the-Rhine Community Housing points to a 2015 study by the Community Building Institute, which found that 73 percent of OTR’s rental units affordable to its lowest-income residents had evaporated since 2002. 

“If (OTR) continues on its current trajectory, the affordable housing inventory will suffer even greater losses,” Hutzel says. “With this possibly being the largest structure built in the neighborhood in a century, we should be setting a precedent that we are serious about reversing current trends.”

The battle between the neighborhood groups and Source 3 has gone on since 2015. The Over-the-Rhine Community Council has rejected the project multiple times, most recently voting 30-13 to appeal the project to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals in January. Not all residents are opposed to the project — a few wrote letters in support to Cincinnati City Council. A packet of those letters, as well as those from others in and outside OTR including developers, business owners, some Findlay Market merchants and organizations like the Cincinnati Reds, was entered into City Council's records by Councilman Kevin Flynn.

The ZBA upheld the Cincinnati Planning Commission’s approval of the project earlier this year. 

Source 3 attorney Tim Burke says city boards have already approved the project and that Council should let it proceed. 

“Do you really want this body to do the design work you’ve assigned to the Historic Conservation Board? Or to take away the role you’ve imposed upon the Planning Commission to determine whether or not a final development plan is appropriate? That’s not Council’s role,” Burke said at a Budget and Finance Committee meeting April 24. 

The Budget and Finance Committee delayed its vote for two weeks at the April 24 meeting to give developers and those opposing the plan a chance to continue negotiating. 

Some council members have signaled they’re skeptical of voting for the project as it stands, citing concerns about the parking garage that may or may not materialize, the building’s height and other issues voiced by residents. Others, like Councilman Kevin Flynn, say the issue has already been decided and Council should approve the final details.

Vice Mayor David Mann tried to drill down on some of the disagreement surrounding the development at a May 1 Neighborhoods Committee meeting. 

“Given that there’s a parking problem, how can I reconcile the positive recommendation from the (city’s Economic Development) department and the parking problems in Over-the-Rhine?” Mann said.

The project, as approved by the planning commission, gives the developer the right to build a garage if it wants to, but doesn’t require it, according to city administration. 

Department of Community and Economic Development Deputy Director Greg Huth told Mann that his department thinks the 80 units of surface parking could suffice, given that the streetcar runs right by the building. 

Councilman Chris Seelbach also shrugged off concerns about parking, saying renters who might be interested in living in the project should know the parking situation in the neighborhood. But he also acknowledged the project could be improved.

“The people who spoke in opposition to this, it’s their neighborhood,” he said at the May 1 meeting. “I want this development to go forward, but I do think there are some reasonable concerns that could be fixed if everyone came to the table.”

Burke says the developer might be amenable to lowering the building’s height somewhat — on one condition. He asked Council to consider an ordinance attached to the tax abatement deals that would allow the developer to reduce the project’s height without having to go back through the Historic Conservation Board’s approval process. He urged Council to pass that ordinance at its May 8 Budget and Finance Committee meeting. 

In the meantime, representatives from neighborhood groups, Source 3 and the city have set a meeting for the morning of May 4 and another meeting that day with Seelbach. 

But even discussion around those meetings is riven with disagreements. Those pushing for changes to the development plan want to involve an independent mediator — something Source 3 won’t agree to. 

“We believe we can get together with the groups and the city and talk about the issues at hand and see if we can make any compromises at this point,” Source 3’s Heekin says. “But we don’t feel a mediator is necessary or would help.” ©

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