Liberty and Elm Project Is a Concerning Precedent

City Council appears to be losing its commitment to keeping OTR the special place it has become and could continue to be.

May 25, 2017 at 3:06 pm

Three years ago, when my wife Kathy and I decided to move out of our apartment in Hyde Park and buy a home in a more urban neighborhood, we looked at places in Covington, Northside, Columbia-Tusculum, downtown Cincinnati and Over-the-Rhine.

But it was only in OTR, just moments after emerging from our car on Main Street, that a middle-aged black man on a bike approached us and asked if we’d heard the sad news. A beloved local businessman, whose name we didn’t recognize, had died the night before. The man on the bike delivered the news as though it was something we would want to know. After all, he assumed, we were residents of the neighborhood and vested in its fabric and fate.

That small moment left a lasting impression on my wife and me. In the end, we bought a third-floor unit in a 120-year-old renovated apartment building overlooking Main Street, just feet from where the messenger on the bike, whom we would come to know as Mark Anthony, had given us the news.

At the time, my wife was commuting to work in Dayton. I still commute to Miami University’s Oxford campus twice a week. But we decided we wanted to live in OTR — not because of the increasing property values, not because of the nascent streetcar project, not because of the bustling bar and restaurant scene — but because we wanted to live in a diverse, inclusive neighborhood where people knew about and cared for each other.

We have not been disappointed. We seldom walk down Main Street without engaging at least one of our neighbors, black or white, in conversation.

What is disappointing is that City Council appears to be losing its commitment to keeping OTR the special place it has become and could continue to be. The 8-1 council vote on May 10 to approve the $26-million, 110-apartment Freeport Row complex at Liberty and Elm streets might be a sign of more to come.

Though it had to approve the sale of land owned by the city to make the project feasible, Council made no attempt to extract a single concession for low- or median-income residents. It gave the green light to the development despite multiple votes against it by the Over-the-Rhine Community Council and objections from nearly every other OTR neighborhood group, including the Over-the-Rhine Foundation, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing and the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition. Only Vice Mayor David Mann had the guts to vote against the giveaway.

Source 3, of course, says it’s open to discussing affordable housing options in the future. But anyone who has lived in Cincinnati long enough knows how unreliable those promises can be. Seven years ago, the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) planned to redevelop the historic Dennison Hotel in partnership with The Model Group into 63 affordable apartments for those with mental health and substance-abuse issues. When financing on the project fell through in 2013, 3CDC sold the Dennison to the Columbia Group, which recently demolished the building and has plans for erecting a gleaming, over-sized office tower that has about as much place in OTR as Godzilla stomping through Tokyo.

In 1977, when Cincinnati lost its grandest movie palace, the RKO Albee, for the Westin Hotel in Fountain Square, developers promised to build and operate a public ice skating rink in the hotel lobby. The cavernous lobby is still empty and about as inviting as a bus terminal.

Between 2002 and 2015, Over-the-Rhine lost 73 percent of its affordable housing, according to Xavier University's Community Building Institute. Purists could argue that my wife and I are part of OTR’s housing challenge. After all, we bought a condo that low- and median-income families could never afford. (Full disclosure: we paid $206,000 for 1,600 square feet, with two bedrooms, one bath.)

The purists may be right. But my wife and I are committed to making the neighborhood work for all of its residents. We maintain a community garden on Liberty Street that was formerly just weeds and trash. Our condo association is making plans for fixing up the dog park at Melindy and Clay streets. And we support Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, a leading advocate for affordable housing in OTR.

Somewhere there’s a reasonable middle road between Buddy Gray’s brand of “hands off my decaying old buildings” activism and handing over OTR to high-end developers to do whatever they please. In their last vote, eight members of Cincinnati’s City Council failed to find that middle course.

Next time, it may take an army of neighborhood messengers for our voices to be heard.

JIM DEBROSSE is a resident of Over-the-Rhine and a visiting assistant professor of journalism at Miami University. Contact him: [email protected]