St. Vincent de Paul looks to expand to better serve clients, but concerns linger about more social services in the West End

West End Community Council voted against a St. Vincent de Paul expansion, but some residents were vocally in favor and blamed opposition to the move on an unfair phobia of the poor.

click to enlarge St. Vincent de Paul wants to expand its West End location by building a new service facility on the site of the former Young and Bertke building, but the plan has sparked controversy. - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
St. Vincent de Paul wants to expand its West End location by building a new service facility on the site of the former Young and Bertke building, but the plan has sparked controversy.
Plans to expand a major facility operated by one of Cincinnati’s oldest and largest social service agencies in the West End could mean better care for some of the city’s lowest-income residents. But they’ve also awakened old controversies in a neighborhood with a long history of hosting such services as it plans for its future.

Saint Vincent de Paul has been at its current location at 1125 Bank St. since 1962. The organization, which has been active in Cincinnati for almost a century and a half, provides myriad resources for low-income residents out of the building. It runs a food pantry and pharmacy, provides assistance with clothing and furniture, hosts dental and health clinics, assists citizens returning from incarceration and other vital services.

Damin Lewis lives on Bank Street in the West End, near SVDP, where he says he’s also he’s been working on renovating a few houses. He’s eager to see investment here in one of Cincinnati’s most historic and also most neglected corners. Lewis is worried, however, that the new facility could attract crime, lower property values and dry up potential investment in the neighborhood.

“I understand that they need to increase access to the services,” he says. “But is there any thought as to how the increase in traffic will affect private investment on nearby blocks? Some of us have projects nearby, and our finances are limited. How will it affect the area? Little guys like me… we have problems with our areas already.” 

Lewis isn’t the only person in the neighborhood who has reservations about the new facility. Last month, West End residents crammed into a contentious meeting of the neighborhood’s community council and narrowly voted against supporting the project, despite a presentation by SVDP Executive Director Mike Dunn. 

Dunn has assured community members that the new building isn’t an attempt to expand the number of people it serves and is only a way to better help the roughly 4,000 clients who come to the Bank Street location each year. SVDP estimates that the new service center would represent between five and seven new full-time jobs.

Currently, SVDP provides many of its services in the West End on staggered days of the week because of space constraints, limiting when clients can access services. The agency would like to address this problem by building the new, 25,000-square-foot service center on the north side of Bank Street near I-75.

“When you think about the population we’re serving, some of them are living in absolute, abject poverty,” Dunn told residents at the meeting. “On some level, on the way we currently offer our services, we’re almost part of the problem. Folks have to wonder if today is the day I go over to Saint Vincent de Paul, can I get those services? Sometimes folks end up waiting in a line in the heat, the rain, the cold, the snow. We’re trying to do away with all of that.” 

Bob Latham is one of SVDP’s clients. He’s retired, and his wife is on disability. A few times a month, they make the 40-minute trip from Lawrenceburg, Ind. to get vital prescriptions from SVDP’s pharmacy. Latham gets diabetes medication and inhalers for his asthma, as well as a host of other services. 

“They’re fantastic,” he says. “My wife is on eight different medications. If we didn’t have them, we’d have to choose which ones we buy. If they were open more, it would help a lot of people.”

Despite West End Community Council’s vote against the expansion, some residents were vocally in favor and blamed opposition to the move on an unfair phobia of the poor.

“People at St. Vincent de Paul don’t bother anyone when they come for food or whatever,” says D. Ann Williams, who has lived nearby for decades. “They come and get their food, and pick up their trash, and they move right on. They walk with their children down there.”

But some wondered why the former industrial site couldn’t be turned into another business, something that will generate tax revenue for the city and provide more jobs. And others like Lewis expressed concerns that the project could dampen investment interest and lower property values in a neighborhood that is just now starting to see interest and development after decades of neglect.

The proposed expansion comes as West End leaders put the finishing touches on a neighborhood comprehensive plan called “West End Speaks,” which they presented to the city planning commission last month. That plan, which came after a number of resident engagement sessions, includes a land use map and goals for increased jobs, safety and more residential and commercial space that leaders hope will attract new residents and spark economic activity in the neighborhood, long one of the city’s poorest. 

Median household income in the West End is just $12,808 a year and even lower in the Census tract SVDP occupies at just $10,000 a year. About a third of the structures in that tract are vacant, Census data shows.

Already, some private investment seems likely for the neighborhood. New York-based Zada Development purchased two former Cincinnati Public School buildings near SVDP in 2014 and has talked about a multi-million-dollar plan to fill them with apartments and commercial space. However, progress on those plans has been slow to materialize. On the other side of the neighborhood, local company Messer Construction has made more concrete plans to build its new $12.5 million, 50,000-square-foot headquarters on Cutter Street. 

Resident apprehensions over the expansion plan echo past controversies around the nearby CityLink Center, which opened in 2012 after legal challenges and protests from some neighbors. The 80,000-square-foot facility serves those looking to transition out of poverty with job training and financial and health services. 

Real estate experts say social service providers in a neighborhood don’t necessarily lower property values there. And despite worries about crime cited by opponents of CityLink and the SVDP expansion, neither agency seems to be a magnet for illegal activity in the neighborhood. In the past year, both facilities saw fewer crimes in the areas immediately surrounding them than very active spots to the south in the West End and in northern Over-the-Rhine, according to maps of police data. A few vehicles have been broken into, and at least one serious shooting incident happened nearby. 

SVDP says it has the support of many in the area, including neighboring businesses the Fern Company, Sun Janitorial and Decal Impressions. The majority of the West End Community Council’s board also supports the plan, though the council’s general body rejected it. 

A few other nearby business owners oppose the plan, however. There are also concerns about preservation of historic Curry and Porter alleys, which are on the site of the proposed expansion. Those alleys, part of the neighborhood’s historic district, might need to be removed, depending on how planning for the new building proceeds. 

Dunn says SVDP is “100 percent open” to preserving the alleys, but that will depend on how planning goes. Cincinnati Preservation Association hopes to work with SVDP on plans to preserve the alleys, Director Margo Warminksi said at the council meeting. The association has a big presence in the West End. 

There’s also another bit of Cincinnati history tied up in the property.

SVDP would build the new facility on the site of the former Young and Bertke building, which was home to the iconic tin man sign drivers saw until recently when they cruised past the West End on I-75. Young and Bertke opened at the location in 1920 and sold the building to SVDP in 2014. The company recently took back the tin man, named You-Bert II, after a roof collapse at the building in June. SVDP says the entire structure needs to come down.

Pending city approval of a zoning change request, SVDP would construct the new service center on the site of the Young and Bertke building, which is currently zoned for manufacturing. The organization’s administrative functions would remain in SVDP’s current building, while most of the service functions would move to the new building. © 

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