News: Remaking a Neighborhood

Clifton Heights gets ready for urban renewal

You'll never hear a duller name, but the people trying to redesign Clifton Heights — the Clifton Heights/University of Cincinnati Joint Planning Project Steering Committee — have some pretty exciting plans.

The committee hopes to redevelop much of Calhoun and McMillan streets, along the southern edge of UC. What is now a slapdash collection of fast-food restaurants, surface parking lots and independent businesses would make way for hundreds of new owner-occupied condominiums, a one-acre park, campus apartments, new restaurants, a small hotel and hip regional retailers combined with unique local businesses.

Without asking a question, Cincinnati City Council unanimously passed the neighborhood's urban renewal plan June 6. The steering committee worked three years on the plan, whose implementation will be up to the Clifton Heights Community Urban Renewal Corporation (CHCURC). The first step could come in a few weeks, according to Dan Deering, director of CHCURC.

Deering hopes to announce in early July a developer for two mixed-use projects along Calhoun Street. The projects would mark a major step toward achieving the plan.

Mixed-use? Think 'city'
Mixed-use refers to a long-missed type of urban development common a century ago. Instead of trying to separate businesses from apartments, for example, a mixed-use building stacks a few uses into one space, using land more efficiently.

South of Calhoun Street, Deering expects to see 100,000 square feet of retail space and 150 owner-occupied condos, served by 400 parking spaces, likely underground.

The plan emphasizes careful attention to benches, bike racks, trees, lighting, paving and other amenities for pedestrians.

Mixed-use development is also at work on university property north of Calhoun, where UC is financing a project expected to include 65,000 square feet of retail space and 500 student apartments — some targeted toward students with families. Supporting the apartments and businesses will be an underground garage with 1,100 parking spaces.

The plan for Clifton Heights includes a one-acre park at McMillan and Moerlein streets, a hotel on the former Primetime club site at Calhoun and Vine streets and a reconfigured fast-food hub with shared parking.

Change is already underway. Urban Outfitters, a nationwide clothing and home goods store appealing to the college-age market, expects to open July 20. The store is in the old Third Protestant Memorial Church at Calhoun and Ohio Avenue. UC loaned the company $2.4 million for the project.

UC's role in the urban-renewal plan continues to rankle some in Clifton Heights, despite three years of meetings, outreach and changes in the plan.

Residents fear the continued creeping expansion of UC and increasingly dense development tailored for students and visitors instead of residents. In the 1980s, they watched landlords convert single-family houses into student apartments, bringing more cars and noise into the neighborhood, creating a kind of student ghetto.

"Basically, nobody in the neighborhood trusts UC to do anything," says Linda Ziegler, a member of the Clifton Heights/Fairview/University Heights (CUF) Neighborhood Association.

Ziegler wonders if local businesses will suffer as Deering and CHCURC try to lure corporate retailers to Calhoun and McMillan. Many business owners are afraid to speak out against the plan for fear they will lose their property under eminent domain, according to Ziegler.

City council's approval of the plan enables the use of eminent domain — or forced sale. But eminent domain requires money, and not much is available for that now, Deering says. According to Cindy Schrader, an economic development officer for the city of Cincinnati, many of the projects might be paid for with tax increment financing — a way of borrowing against future tax dollars to jump-start a project.

Public involvement pays off
Most disconcerting to Ziegler and other long-time residents is the urban-design plan's call for a traffic study of Calhoun and McMillan streets; they fear it will lead to the return of two-way traffic and dangerously congested streets. The plan identifies two-way traffic as a way to make the district more pedestrian-friendly. But that study hasn't been funded. If and when it is, there will be lots of public involvement, Schrader says.

Public involvement has paid off in some of the planning battles in Clifton Heights. Last fall, with the help of zoning regulations and an attorney, Ziegler and dozens of other homeowners defeated a proposal, which UC backed, for a 950-space parking garage between Clifton and Stratford avenues.

But now, according to Schrader, another mixed-use project with a garage is being considered for two parcels — one at the southeast corner of Wheeler and McMillan, and another on Clifton Avenue just south of McMillan.

Disputes between residents, UC and businesses have deep roots, and too often various groups have failed to act upon the agreements they do have, Deering says. But the planning process has helped, he says; people who wouldn't talk to each other three years ago now crack jokes while having lunch.

"People fear change," Deering says.

Marjorie Klusmeyer, president of the CUF Neighborhood Association, gives credit to the steering committee for listening to criticism. The business association began the plan, but responded when Klusmeyer said residents should be represented, too. The committee also changed its mind when residents and Hughes Center teachers objected to including the school in a blight study. The committee exempted Hughes from the study and endorsed keeping Hughes as a public high school.

With the plan approved, the future of the 17-member steering committee that created it is unclear. Klusmeyer says the committee is finished, but Deering sees an advisory role in the near future and a different version of the committee later. With Ziegler and fellow residents certain to remain active, the best scenario for the neighborhood might already be underway: various neighborhood committees and leaders listening to an active group of residents.

Everyone concerned has to take an active stance on the future of Clifton Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods, according to Deering.

"We just can't leave this to fate," he says. ©

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