News: Worth Saving

'Endangered' status could actually help OTR

May 31, 2006 at 2:06 pm
CityBeat Archive

Often called "dangerous," Over-the-Rhine is now officially "endangered." Historical preservationists worry about the future of its architectural gems.

A group of people sitting around a 50-foot high ball of twine in the middle of a table can't see what's on the other side; each person has to rely on descriptions by others to get a complete view. That's the situation faced by various community groups focused on revitalizing Over-the-Rhine, according to Kendall Fisher, executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA).

The inclusion of Over-the-Rhine on the 2006 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, issued by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is bringing together many groups that have previously refused to sit at the same table.

Like New Orleans
The application for the designation was prepared by the Over-the-Rhine Community Council and compiled with information gathered from a host of Over-the-Rhine groups. Before making their decision, the National Trust came to Cincinnati and met with "tons of people," Fisher says. The National Trust's conclusion means a new beginning for a neighborhood promoted for more than 30 years as having great potential.

"It seemed like wherever we went people saw it as a combination of an honor and an opportunity," Fisher says. "It recognizes something that we have here as a national treasure. Ellis Island was once on the list.

"Some of the other sites on the list this year are the Vesey Street stairs at the World Trade Center, the historic neighborhoods of New Orleans, the Arts and Industry Building of the Smithsonian.

So we're in the company of these places. Places that aren't important never get designated as endangered."

CPA is the official partner working with the National Trust over the next two to three years to formulate a plan to get Over-the-Rhine off the list. Their guiding principle is simple.

"People are primary," Fisher says. "Buildings were originally designed and built by people to serve and inspire people. They should be assets to the community. Crumbling, vacant and under-employed buildings are not doing their job. The goal here is to employ these buildings. That's going to have to happen on multiple fronts."

Citing the need for increased home ownership — the current level in the neighborhood is 3 percent — Fisher says condo developments by the Cincinnati City Center Development Corp. (3CDC) will begin to address that issue. During the next few months she'd like to explore programs that allow renters to convert their payments into a mortgage and inclusion of Section 8 subsidized housing. This is to ensure people who live in the neighborhood, and those who want to move back, can. The National Trust agrees.

"Saving the character of an entire neighborhood could have quite a profound effect on quite a few people," says Jennifer Sandy, the Midwest field representative for the National Trust. "We feel that preservation has moved on from 'Let's save the mansion on the hill' that might affect one or two people. It's more about quality of life and neighborhoods and the fabric of our historic communities."

Heritage tourism
Acknowledging that many people are wary about the organization supporting gentrification, Sandy says that's the antithesis of what it does. The National Trust's primary objective is to get input from residents, service agencies, businesses and others so they can work together to figure out which of its revitalization services will be a fit for Over-the-Rhine.

"We have a very good heritage tourism program," Sandy says. "We have a community revitalization department with some experience with housing and rehab plans for a community. We're looking at historic tax credit workshops. Our main goal is to speak to everybody and hear from everybody and try to facilitate."

The endangered listing will also "give a leg up" to Over-the-Rhine when applying for grants from the National Trust Foundation, according to Sandy. While the designation will likely help with other fiscal efforts, Fisher is looking forward to using the designation as a means to continue and build more momentum for rehabilitation efforts. The next step is public meetings to collect information, and she's cautiously optimistic about that process.

"Any time you have a new interest, a new energy, a new development in an area (there) is that fear that people are losing their stake or their voice or control over their neighborhood where they've been," Fisher says. "I'm not arrogant enough to presume to know what's best for other people."

To that end, she wants to make sure everyone feels welcome at the table and not threatened by the presence of any group, especially the National Trust. Fisher understands that Cincinnatians can see outsiders as do-gooders trying to foist unwanted solutions onto their community. She describes a previous encounter with a local man who "probably had never been done-to in his life" as a way to explain what this process is like.

"I said, 'You know what? I fancy myself a great interior decorator. I know you and your wife are going out of town this weekend. So, as a favor to you, I'm going to come over and redo your living room. Do you have any problem with that? You don't even have to pay me. I want to do it for you.' You should have seen the look on his face," Fisher says. "This is what I'm talking about, losing that sense of control over your own space. If they don't know what's going on and they don't have a stake and they're not able to communicate, then they start to get a little uncomfortable with that.

"People deserve ownership of their neighborhood. You can't just foist that onto people and come in with a decree and say, 'This is what we're going to do.' "

The CPA is extending an open invitation to provide input in the redevelopment of Over-the-Rhine.

"The more minds we put to this, the more well-thought-out, comprehensive solutions and ideas we'll get," Fisher says. "We'd rather have a full picture of what we're dealing with here. It's going to be a group effort, no matter what happens."

For information about upcoming community meetings or to share views about Over-the-Rhine, call Kendall Fisher at 513-721-4506