What Does the Uptown Innovation Corridor Mean for Avondale Residents?

The new developments around the MLK Interchange have sparked bold claims about job opportunities and neighborhood growth, but the surrounding community remains apprehensive.

Mar 20, 2019 at 9:01 am
click to enlarge The intersection of Reading Road and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
The intersection of Reading Road and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive

The neighborhood of Avondale has seen a monumental transformation over the past 25 years. What was in 2000 a neighborhood of 16,298 shrank into a neighborhood of 12,466 by 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

The reasons for the population loss in Avondale — the city’s fourth-largest neighborhood — are complex. Some residents moved out to seek better housing or economic opportunities. Some lost their homes as major institutions like Cincinnati Children’s Hospital have expanded.

Now, efforts are well underway to bring new jobs and residents here. But can the long-term residents who have remained in this predominantly African-American community benefit from the coming changes? While the groups in charge of the next major development in the area are making big promises of innovation and opportunity, fears of residential displacement and gentrification are as strong as ever.

Since 2014, when the city began construction of the interchange at Interstate 71 and Martin Luther King Drive, Vice Mayor David Mann, the University of Cincinnati and the Uptown Consortium — an organization comprised of leaders from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, University of Cincinnati, UC Health and TriHealth, Inc. — started vocalizing ideas about an “innovation corridor” located in the area around the interchange, but it was not clear at that time exactly what that would look like.

Avondale’s low-income residents and renters are very concerned about being priced out of the area with so many higher-income residents potentially moving in, says Patricia Milton, president of the Avondale Community Council. For Milton, racial gentrification is not the only issue, but income gentrification as well.

“You’ll have more professional people that will be moving in to the neighborhood who can call Avondale home, and that’s really the thing that we’re trying to figure out now — how that’s going to work without displacing folks that are already a part of the community,” she says.
Plans for Avondale’s resurgence via the Innovation Corridor have come into sharper focus recently.

The latest development along that corridor: the March 12 announcement of the Uptown Gateway, which represents $150 million in private investment in the form of an office complex, hotel and University of Cincinnati’s Digital Futures building.

The idea of an “innovation corridor” is inspired by similar areas such as the Innovation District in Boston or Silicon Valley in San Francisco. These districts, centered near universities, share the goal of attracting cutting-edge companies that intend to take advantage of university resources and recruit students to work on projects, particularly focused around new technology. Cincinnati’s Uptown Innovation Corridor will be made up of “four corners” centered around the intersection of Martin Luther King Drive and Reading Road in Avondale.

click to enlarge A map of proposed Uptown Innovation Corridor developments - Uptown Consortium
Uptown Consortium
A map of proposed Uptown Innovation Corridor developments

Each segment of the new district has been designated to a different development group, each one with a different concept and purpose than the others:

• The northwest corner is exclusively designated for the construction of a $110 million campus for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), to be completed by 2021. The campus will employ 550 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It will consist of three buildings — an office, a lab and a warehouse.

• MLK Investors I, a partnership between Neyer Properties Inc. and Kulkarni Properties, will redevelop the 20 acres in the northeast corner. The project will be developed in three phases and will include office, retail and residential spaces, according to the Uptown Consortium.

• The consortium tasked Queen City Hills, a minority-owned development organization, with redeveloping the southwest corner, the former site of the Dual Manor Health Care Center. The corner will house a 162-room Residence Inn by Marriott hotel, the Business Courier reported in June, along with other mixed-use spaces.

• The aforementioned southeast corner, called “Uptown Gateway,” will be developed by Terrex Development and Construction and Messer Construction Company. The $150 million development will include three office buildings encompassing 450,000 square feet and a 158-room hotel and is expected to be completed by 2021. The development will also include an underground parking garage with 1,800 spaces. The UC Digital Futures building will be housed in this corner, a space similar to the existing 1819 Innovation Hub that the university promises will provide more space — 180,000 square feet, to be exact — for digital research.

The new corridor will offer approximately 7,000 jobs in the area, according to the Uptown Consortium. The answer of whether Uptown’s residents will be eligible for these positions is still unclear — most of the mixed-use spaces in the corridor don’t have tenants planned out quite yet. What is clear, however, is that a large portion of the corridor’s permanent jobs won’t have anything to do with new technology or the digital future as the district’s marketing may imply — there are lots of opportunities for retail, food and office jobs. There are also a multitude of opportunities for contracted employees such as construction and landscaping.

Beth Robinson, president and CEO of the Uptown Consortium, says that there is more work to be done in terms of determining what kind of jobs will be available for residents, communicating those opportunities and preparing neighborhood residents for them. The consortium has hired WEB Ventures, a consulting firm that works to create and execute economic inclusion, workforce inclusion and wealth building, to ensure that minority and local residents are included in the project. The firm also worked on projects such as the MLK Interchange and recent projects including the Avondale Town Center and the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute. WEB was able to recruit from the neighborhoods of Uptown 13 residents to work on the Avondale Town Center and about 15 to work on the UC project.

WEB Ventures is constantly meeting with residents at community events about how job opportunities will work, says Bill Witten, managing partner of the Witten Consulting Group and a WEB Ventures partner. The firm has even put computers and printers in the Avondale Business Center to help residents find and pursue these positions.

Witten admits that construction jobs aren’t for everyone and is working to educate locals on what these jobs entail. He says that about 70 local applicants have already interviewed for construction positions in the corridor.

Even though the job site may be right in the backyard of these residents, employers may send their workers all across the region to job sites. Construction workers may stick in one job site for three or four weeks and be moved to another site miles away for another three or four weeks. Many residents don’t have their own cars and oftentimes, construction sites will be far off Metro bus lines.

“It is in Avondale, and we’ve been able to find Avondale residents that can walk to the (Avondale Town Center) as an example and work there for three or four weeks, but when the employer says, ‘Monday of next week we’re no longer here, we need you in West Chester,’ that becomes a real hard problem for them in doing that because what they have is a lack of transportation,” Witten says.

Robinson says that WEB Ventures got her organization to think more long-term about job opportunities, as before she and her team were thinking more about contracted workers, not about the more permanent opportunities.

“They got us to think about the jobs even beyond construction,” Robinson says. “Those are the kind of things they like to call the ‘annuity jobs,’ and those are like the landscaping, the supply companies, that sometimes you don’t think of, but those go on and on regardless of what’s being built — it’s really servicing the buildings and the tenants.”

Regardless of the jobs current residents are able to obtain in the district, companies are moving in and bringing with them executives, researchers and other employees who substantially exceed the area’s median household income of $18,120 (according to the 2010 census).

Robinson expects that the Innovation Corridor will help the population go up again for the first time in decades and create a more vibrant community.

“It will most definitely bring in new people to live and to work,” she says. “I think that’s a good thing because that increases the economic activity in the neighborhood, which will bring in some offerings that the community doesn’t have now. And really specifically, I’m talking about restaurants and coffee places — things that really there aren’t much of in Avondale.”

click to enlarge A rendering of future development in the Uptown Innovation Corridor - Uptown Consortium
Uptown Consortium
A rendering of future development in the Uptown Innovation Corridor

Avondale also lacks green space and places for people to walk around and be immersed in their community. The Innovation Corridor incorporated these elements into the design of the area and created an “open campus.” In initial designs of the area, there was a giant above-ground parking garage in the Terrex corner, something residents were not happy about. Neighborhood residents asked specifically for underground parking and Terrex incorporated that request into the final design.

Robinson admits that more effort is necessary to ensure that the community is aware of the consortium’s plan. She says she is amazed that some people will hear her speak at meetings and still don’t know exactly what is happening in the area.

Through these developments, which have accelerated far more quickly than anticipated due to monumental levels of state support for the interchange, Milton of the Avondale Community Council wants residents to know that there is still a lot of low-income housing in Avondale and lots of empty land.

She says the goal is to bring in these new high price points while protecting the people already in the neighborhood.

“We’re starting those conversations, and I don’t know exactly how that will be done,” Milton says. “I know that we’re probably two or three years behind the conversation, but at least we are having the conversation and we’re trying to plan for it.