Cover Story: Mending the City's Bones

Steven Bloomfield and Ken Schon enjoy bringing back Cincinnati's industrial buildings

Sep 19, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Joe Simon

Steven Bloomfield (left) and Ken Schon

Older cities like Cincinnati are blessed with "good bones" — the still-standing but often-vacant factories and warehouses that attest to a proud, powerful, endlessly fascinating industrial past.

Neighborhoods and even downtowns were once built around them. Today they stand like museums with only memories for exhibits.

The challenge is to keep them standing until an intelligent reuse can be found. They're often viewed as magnets for blight and vandalism because their formidable size makes any graffiti, litter and broken windows tower over the people who live or drive nearby.

They can become frightening and imposing.

Cincinnati developers Steven Bloomfield and Ken Schon, who formed Bloomfield/Schon + Partners in 2003, are dedicated to trying to save some. They won praise for their renovation and preservation of the Historic Ford Factory at 660 Lincoln Ave. in Walnut Hills.

Now they're out to do it again — only with risky and more ambitious plans — at the old American Can Co. building in Northside.

The Ford Factory, built in 1915 and once where Model Ts were made, was brought back from abandonment and now houses attractive offices and a first-floor parking garage that sensitively connects present with past.

It won a 2005 Preservation Merit Award from the Ohio Historic Preservation Office.

From their office inside that building — sprawling, airy and spacious — architect/developers Bloomfield and Schon are planning their next effort at saving an old factory. They already have elaborate blueprints, spread out on the conference-room table as they talk.

American Can is located near the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Blue Rock Road in Northside, although its address actually is on Spring Grove Avenue. A 1920s-era edifice, the five-story building has devolved into a vacant shell sharing once-precious urban space with ghostly, seemingly forgotten unused land.

Yet nearby on Hamilton are new restaurants, a shoe store, a cake shop, a market selling homemade pink-grapefruit sorbet and the city's best record store. There are some rougher, tougher properties, too, but the neighborhood mixes buzz with grit.

"What we liked about this building was that it had good bones and good visibility," Schon says.

Factory Square, as Bloomfield and Schon are calling their project, is intended to be a very cool undertaking, mixing residential units with offices and retail, for an increasingly cool part of town.

"We're very high on Northside," Bloomfield says. "It is sort of the East Village of Cincinnati. We think it's a great market for 20- to 30-year-olds to live. But I have enough experience in housing to know we're going to have everybody in there, old and young."

Bloomfield came to Cincinnati in 1978 from Baltimore as an assistant city planner. He became director of the city's then-new Department of Neighborhood Housing and Conservation. He left in 1984 to become a private developer.

Schon has 25 years of experience in development.

Their firm purchased American Can in 2005 and bought an adjacent lumberyard the next year. They were helped by a $2 million city loan as well as community support for saving a landmark.

The total cost for Factory Square is estimated to be $25 million. The 8 1/2-acre site would encompass not only American Can with 90-100 loft apartments plus commercial space, but also two newer buildings. Bloomfield and Schon are promising the project will be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified (LEED) as a "green building."

"If developers as crazy as us won't do that, others won't," Schon says.

Bloomfield characterizes the project as using "baklava financing" since there are so many layers of it. In addition to city support, they are planning conventional financing, New Market Tax credits for community renewal, federal historic tax credits, state historic tax credits and a state grant for environmental cleanup. The city recently designated the site a local historic landmark; the developers are waiting for a federal nod and the clean-up grant. They hope to begin renovation in spring.

Meanwhile, they're involved in several "green" new-construction projects. Work has started on Cayuga Place in Ithaca, N.Y. Its first phase consists of a contemporary, five-story apartment building downtown near City Hall, with an art-house cinema on the first floor and a public shower/bike rack for commuting cyclists. The second phase will be condominiums.

And the developers are about to start in earnest on their plans for a stunningly contemporary new condo building at 2801 Erie Ave. in Hyde Park. (They're also involved in discussions for new residential townhouses in College Hill.)

"We're not tied to historic buildings," Bloomfield says. "We are tied to good design. If it's a new building, it doesn't have to always be contemporary. We're not just doing replications of whatever else happens to be around there. But we are trying to be good neighbors." ©

Q: What's the coolest thing about you?

Steve Bloomfield: "I think we're doing good work, interesting work, work that makes a difference. We really are trying to do well and do good."

Ken Schon: "This is a partnership where Steve and I are doing what we want to do and we're pretty good at."

Q: What's the coolest thing about Cincinnati?

Bloomfield: "If you have the gumption, you can probably do it. There are plenty of opportunities here to do interesting, worthwhile and profitable projects."

Schon: "Once you understand our market a little bit, you can do cool things. Cincinnati is cooler than most think it is."

Q: What's cool about sustainability/"green" buildings?

Bloomfield: "I don't know if there's anything cool about 'green' buildings. It certainly shouldn't be a fad. It's just the way people are going to have to go."