Could Proposed New Districts Help Preserve Cincinnati Neighborhoods?

The Cincinnati Planning Commission has proposed responses to concerns around development in Hyde Park and Mount Lookout that could have implications for neighborhoods across the city.

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click to enlarge Opponents of the May 19 demolition of 1228 Grace Avenue in Mount Lookout, a historic home built by one of the city's first families, say it illustrates deeper concerns around residential development in Cincinnati. - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Opponents of the May 19 demolition of 1228 Grace Avenue in Mount Lookout, a historic home built by one of the city's first families, say it illustrates deeper concerns around residential development in Cincinnati.

The Cincinnati Planning Commission Aug. 17 unanimously approved a raft of suggestions that look to address consternation around changes to two of Cincinnati’s most sought-after neighborhoods — and which could have implications for historic enclaves across the city.

But CPC also says it needs more time to fine-tune its suggestions, and is asking Cincinnati City Council to approve an extension of heightened oversight of some development in the neighborhoods.

Residents in Hyde Park and Mount Lookout have expressed concerns for a number of years about changes in their neighborhoods, which have a number of historic homes on larger-than-usual lots. Those lots are sometimes very tempting for developers, who can tear down a single house and build two, each of which often sells for as much or more than the original structure. In 2015 and 2016, Hyde Park saw 68 demolition permits and 13 lot splits approved, and Mount Lookout saw 35 demolitions and 12 lot splits.

That’s chipped away at the character of the neighborhoods, residents say.

Their concerns came to a head in May, when a nearly 200-year-old house on the former estate of early Cincinnatian Isaac Ferris was demolished so that its lot could be split.

Residents asked the city to do something about the ongoing issue.

“Recently, it has kinda felt like the gold rush in the Wild West,” Veronica Tollefson, a 14-year resident of Mount Lookout, said at the planning commission’s August meeting. “It’s time to bring the pendulum back into the center, where the need for good development and community interest are balanced. I think that will be a net benefit for everybody.” Today, Ferris would likely be astounded at the neighborhoods that have grown around the family homestead. They’re among Cincinnati’s most desirable, with grand old houses built 100 or more years ago holding court in large, well-manicured lawns framed by soaring mature trees. The historic Cincinnati Observatory, the oldest in the country, has been in the area since 1873. The former suburbs boast some of the best schools — and highest property values — in the city. The median household income around Ferris’ old homestead is $115,000 a year — $80,000 above the city’s median. There is potential for an additional 360 lot subdivisions in Hyde Park and Mount Lookout, according to Cincinnati’s planning department.

To address the concerns, the planning commission in May recommended an Interim Development Control overlay district, which basically requires developers who want to demolish houses or split lots in the neighborhoods to undergo an extra level of scrutiny via the planning commission before their permits are approved. During the IDC, a working group composed of members of the Hyde Park and Mount Lookout Community Councils, a representative from the mayor’s office, a member of Cincinnati City Council and three members from the development and real estate industries would work out a long-term fix for the situation.

The extra oversight expires Sept. 6, however, and the commission says it needs more time, especially on dealing with the issue of lot subdivision.

“When we started digging into the issues related to subdivisions, we found out it is a multi-faceted issue,” said Marion Haynes, chief counsel for the city’s land use and planning department. “There were concerns about increased density, lot placement, loss of open space, storm water, concerns from the development community about multi-step processes, and certainty in the process. What became apparent there was going to be a lot of work needing to be done.”

At its August meeting, the Planning Commission agreed to ask Cincinnati City Council to extend the IDC for 30 days — a reduction from a 90-day extension it sought last month that city council seemed unlikely to approve.

The commission also approved first steps toward something called Neighborhood Conservation Districts, which could help regulate demolitions and the development of structures that don’t fit neighborhoods’ characters in the future.

Those districts would allow neighborhoods more power in approving certain development items, first on a limited, temporary basis and eventually in a more fleshed-out, permanent form. The regulations set by the districts would be less onerous than those set forth by historic conservation districts, but could still help neighborhoods preserve their historic character.

“You could consider neighborhood conservation districts to be sort of like, historic designation-lite,” Cincinnati City Planning Director Katherine Keough-Jurs says. “They’re not quite as strict as you would have in our historic district. They’re actually something that we’ve talked about doing in the city of Cincinnati for some years. It’s recommended in Plan Cincinnati, which was adopted in 2012. When these issues came to a head this spring… that was considered the time that this seemed to be a suitable solution.”

Keough-Jurs says that Cincinnati Urban Conservator Beth Johnson helped work on the framework.

The planning commission approved legislation that enables the creation of the districts and creates frameworks for two interim NCDs in Hyde Park and Mount Lookout. Those districts would provide extra community council input and city regulator oversight on demolitions, as well as setting limits on replacement building height and lot configuration.

Over time, the planning commission and interested neighborhoods would continue to develop more robust plans for larger sets of NCD standards that could be applied to any neighborhood that wants them.

“We believe it will take quite a bit more time to take these neighborhoods through a full conservation plan process,” Keough-Jurs says, “and we still haven’t worked out how it will be funded or what we expect, so it’s a long term solution.” Those NCD standards might also include the height and bulk of buildings and the configuration of lots they are built on, as well as other elements various neighborhoods could emphasize or leave by the wayside, including stipulations for architectural style, building materials used, lot density, landscaping and others.

The NCDs would not exist overtop of special districts like the three Urban Design Overlay Districts in Hyde Park, and would take a backseat to some other special districts.

The goal: give neighborhoods and the city more control over development in areas with historic or otherwise unique character.

That’s something Margo Warminksi, preservation director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, applauds.

“For many years, I’ve seen an urgent need for the city to create a mechanism to implement neighborhood conservation districts,” she says. “It’s badly needed by our neighborhoods. Great neighborhoods don’t stay great unless people work for them. We have to have a way to keep them and preserve them."

The proposals put forth by the working group also include some things that could make life easier for developers, including a temporary effort to streamline permitting processes so that they aren’t so scattered — a big challenge currently. That streamlined process would be in place as the planning commission continues work on more permanent new subdivision rules.

“What is required now is, if you’re a developer, you have to demolish on the property before you can subdivide the property,” Keough-Jurs says. “You go to the department of building inspections for the demolition, the city planning commission for the subdivision and back to building inspections to for any variances you need. One of the things we’ve talked about is to keep that authority right here with the planning commission, so you can review it all at once and see the project more holistically. That makes it easier for the development community, because they have more certainty about what is permitted in their project and what is not. And it provides more certainty for the residential community, because they don’t have to worry about things coming before different bodies in a piecemeal fashion. They get to see it all at once.”

Next, city council will have to approve the IDC extension and the NCD legislation. The proposals already have a couple supporters, including Councilman Jeff Pastor, who sat on the working group, and Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, who sits on the planning commission.

“The tearing down of the (former Ferris) property, which I thought was unfortunate after we signaled that we had a concern, is what brought us here — the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Smitherman says. “But at the end of the day, because of that, it looks like we’re going to make some really good public policy. Not just for Mount Lookout and Hyde Park, but for the entire city. One of the great things about Cincinnati are our neighborhoods. I think what we’re trying to do here is that, 100 years down the road, people will have certainty for what these neighborhoods look like.”

Both the Hyde Park and Mount Lookout Neighborhood Councils voted to support the proposals. But some aren't happy with them. Among the roughly 30 emails the planning commission received about the plans, four were staunchly against them, including one from a Mount Lookout resident named Bruno Abanto IV, who said increased regulation would infringe on private property rights and discourage development. He said new additions to the neighborhood have raised his property values and made positive contributions to the neighborhood.

"I feel that some things can't stay the same forever," he wrote. "In this case, it's great."

The proposals don’t address all resident concerns. During meetings in May, many expressed anger over tax abatements given to developers who were building large houses some thought were out of character and over-priced.

Jennifer Powell lives near a plot in Mount Lookout that once held a single house. It now has five on the land, Powell wrote in a letter to the planning commission earlier this month.

“Perhaps our greatest complaint is the tax abatement provided to these million (dollar) home owners,” she wrote. But Powell also supports the changes, saying they could balance out development in the neighborhood.

“I realize that changes in subdivision planning will not correct the tax abatement issue, but they will deter these very significant changes to neighborhoods where home ownership is solid and not in need of revitalization.”

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