News: Oakley in a Box

Neighborhood character yields to big retail stores

Geoff Raker

A residential area of Oakley will see more big-box retail and parking lots under a new city-approved plan.

The node has triumphed over the neighborhood in Oakley. The Cincinnati Planning Commission last week approved a site plan for new PetSmart and Circuit City stores next to an already approved Expo Design Center. All three larger retailers will be on land once occupied by housing.

Vandercar Holdings began this mini-boom with the Center of Cincinnati, next door to the site for its new developments. The 440,000-square-foot Center of Cincinnati includes Meijer, Target and Sam's Club stores on the former Cincinnati Milacron property. (See A Neighborhood or a Node, issue of Nov. 27­Dec. 3, 2002.)

Rob Smyjunas Jr., president of Vandercar, has touted the potential for this part of Oakley to become a development "node" that will eventually attract office tenants and other more valuable, tax-generating projects.

But members of the Oakley Community Council such as Susan Doucleff have been fighting Vandercar since the Center of Cincinnati was approved.

"We should demand our standards are set much higher," she says.

Doucleff wanted projects that combine retail, housing and office space in a more traditional way — so-called "smart growth" — such as Oakley Square has.

Ignoring the community's plan
The planning commission's vote ended a busy week for city employees and the Vandercar team. The planning commission held a public meeting March 20 at the Oakley Community Center to discuss the PetSmart and Circuit City developments — a rare deviation from the commission's downtown meetings.

More than 60 residents attended the meeting, with most saying they didn't want to live next to "cookie cutter," traffic-generating development.

Dave Schaff, president of the Hamilton County Young Democrats, said the neighborhood's pedestrian-oriented nature is what's kept him in Oakley for most of his life.

"I saw what a lot of young people in Cincinnati see, and that's a lot of character," he said.

Young people are moving to places such as Anderson Township and Mason because of their housing and schools — not their stores, according to Schaff.

The commission unanimously voted to delay a decision for two weeks to work on a compromise design. But the next day, the commission shortened the delay to one week at Smyjunas' request.

Before the March 28 vote, city staff and the Vandercar team produced a plan with much more landscaping — but no fundamental design changes.

Planning Commissioner Caleb Faux cast the lone dissenting vote March 28. The project is the kind of sprawling development the Oakley North Plan was supposed to prevent, according to Faux. The plan, which took several months to finish, was a response to the Center of Cincinnati project. Residents, the city and Smyjunas participated, finishing the plan last summer.

Smyjunas hinted he'd be back to the planning commission with another proposal for more nearby projects in a few weeks. But he also said his company and the retailers would not spend more than the $1 million they've already spent on infrastructure improvements in the area, although clearly much more money would be needed to equip roads to handle the traffic Vandercar expects.

Choose from 19 cookie cutters
Retailers such as Target and Circuit City have formulas for success. Decades of trial and error taught them to put stores of a certain size with a certain number of parking spaces near a certain number of passing cars and a certain number of residences.

These well-tested projects have evolved — or devolved, if you're a sprawl critic — into about 19 standard development projects, according to Chris Leinberger, a New Mexico-based partner in the Arcadia Land Co., a smart growth developer.

Two years ago Leinberger wrote "Financing Progressive Development," an 18-page paper, for the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. The paper made him a household name among many advocates of smart growth, also known as "New Urbanism."

"(Leinberger) has put a lot of thinking into the problems of financing smart growth," says Charles Bohl, who teaches architecture at the University of Miami.

Bohl is the author of Place Making: Developing Town Centers, Main Streets, and Urban Villages.

Leinberger's 19 categories include low-rise office buildings, neighborhood retail centers anchored by grocery stores, limited-service hotels, low-density suburban apartments, self-storage facilities and entry-level detached homes. None of them combine uses in the same building, such as putting apartments over shops. They're the opposite of Hyde Park Square and Ludlow Avenue.

This standardization allows bankers, brokers, university endowment funds, nonprofit institutions and other real estate investors to know exactly what they're buying into without ever seeing it. Brokers can offer a fund made up of big-box centers that will almost guarantee a certain return. This makes it easier for developers such as Smyjunas to get funding.

"You can't really do that with a town center or a smart growth type project," Bohl says. "Each one is kind of its own little financing battle."

What's a smart growth lover to do? There's no easy way to standardize town centers. Years will probably pass before there are enough successful New Urbanist projects to make commercial bankers comfortable financing them.

To help solve this problem, Leinberger suggests a three-tiered financing system made up of short, medium and long-term investors. The more typical, shorter-term investors could take most of the early revenue, while more patient investors, such as university endowment funds, could wait for a decade or more to see a return.

What's most interesting about Leinberger's paper is that he believes New Urbanist projects could earn investors much more over the long-term than short-term sprawl development.

Mixing it up in Walnut Hills
One of the developers of a New Urbanist project in East Walnut Hills never thought about going to commercial banks for financing. He'd never heard of a bank that would help him do what he wanted to do.

The partners behind DeSales Corner wanted to integrate a multi-story mix of 45 apartments and 14,000 square feet of space for shops and restaurants into the existing neighborhood's architecture.

Keith Glaser, one of the partners, wanted to make sure DeSales Corner complimented — not competed with — the towering St. Francis DeSales Catholic Church at the corner of Woodburn and Madison avenues.

"We've tried to integrate it into the community as much as we possibly could," he says.

Glaser and his two partners are members of the East Walnut Hills Assembly, the local community council, so there was no fight with residents. The city has also supported the project, most notably with a $1.7 million second mortgage.

A key part of the financing came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, in the form of a 40-year guaranteed mortgage. This means the partners can spread the cost over a long time and not put their personal property in jeopardy, two key reasons the project is happening, according to Glaser.

So far the partners have leased 9,000 square feet of retail space to Simone's restaurant, the Italian restaurant Mama Vita's and Lookout Joe coffee shop.

Simone's restaurant was already in the area, but Glaser and his partners are creating a building they expect to last for decades — one that can adapt to a variety of tenants. There are also 165 off-street parking spaces on two decks behind the building.

Glaser and his partners couldn't just slap a pre-designed building in place.

"It costs more money," he says. "Our design fees are not small."

But that's how you get quality.

Quality urban places are a key attraction for today's mobile workers, according to John Alschuler Jr., an economic development consultant hired by the Cincinnati Business Committee.

After several months studying Cincinnati, Alschuler says it could become the next ghost town or one of the most livable cities in the Midwest. That depends largely on how it handles economic development, particularly urban design.

Glaser shares Alschuler's sense of urgency.

"If we don't save our urban centers, I think we're going to have big problems down the road," he says. ©

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