North America is populated with endless examples of previously great neighborhoods that have fallen on hard times. How do we reactivate these places on a super tight budget without resorting to the usual Silver Bullet build-it-and-they-will-come model of the heavily subsidized casino, stadium, outlet mall, aquarium, or convention center which are all proving increasingly ineffective anyway?
Walnut Hills is located on a bluff above downtown Cincinnati and is halfway between the University of Cincinnati to the west and Hyde Park to the east. In other words it’s perfectly situated between the three best parts of the city. In its day a century ago it was the premier streetcar suburb that constituted a mini downtown surrounded by some of the wealthiest homes and families of the time. But the Twentieth Century wasn’t kind to Walnut Hills. There was the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the war years of the 1940’s, white flight to the suburbs in the 1950’s, and devastating race riots in the 1960’s. From the 1970’s on Walnut Hills suffered abandonment, decay, and neglect. Much of its excellent building stock was lost to fire and slum clearance. The Department of Transportation did a pretty thorough job of slicing the place up with high speed one way roads that made it effortless for people to drive out of the neighborhood in a hurry while destroying property values and killing mom and pop businesses along the way. Gas stations, fast food joints, low end chain stores, and parking lots currently litter the landscape. This sort of thing was in no way unique to Walnut Hills or Cincinnati. It was standard practice all across the country.
Half the pre-war buildings are long gone. There are patches of squat flavorless vinyl-sided tract homes with little front lawns and sad back yards sitting in clusters amid the “missing teeth” of vacant lots. Some of these were built by Habitat for Humanity with good intentions and no doubt provided homes for deserving families. But it appears that the only two options that were available to this neighborhood for decades involved urban decay or cheap suburban sprawl. Not much of a choice…
Somehow parts of this neighborhood managed to survive the ravages of disinvestment, abandonment, and ill-conceived redevelopment attempts. There are pockets of Walnut Hills that retain the gorgeous architecture and civic pride of a century ago. This is absolutely a place worth saving. Fortunately a new generation is now beginning to rediscover neighborhoods like Walnut Hills and the city of Cincinnati understands that market demand is aligned with the existing building stock and historic urban fabric. Many people still prefer a large single family home with a bit of garden space, but they want that home to be part of a compact, walkable, mixed-use, transit-served neighborhood. We haven’t built new places like this since the end of World War II so demand and supply are out of balance.
The Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation here was formed to jump start the reinvestment of the neighborhood with a special focus on the commercial core. It has almost no budget, but it’s using a patchwork of incentives and funding sources and some charming and charismatic local coordinators to encourage the reinvention of the area.
One of the most successful examples of shoestring budget “place making” is Five Points Alley, a triangular patch of open space that is defined by the rear walls of the adjacent buildings – some commercial and some residential. It’s essentially the forgotten left over space between buildings. The Five Points Alley triangle is quiet, green, and comfortably scaled for humans like a big outdoor room. The area was cleaned up with local volunteers. The city delivered large amounts of free mulch brought from routine tree trimming work. Then the space was programmed with live music, a pop up beer garden, food trucks, and other simple but highly effective community events. All the right people and ingredients already existed in the neighborhood. They just needed to be organized and given a venue to thrive. During public events the back doors of the long-empty shops were opened up and people were invited to explore the spaces and new businesses that are being planned for the soon-to-be renovated buildings.
As more of the contiguous buildings are renovated and fill with new businesses property values and rents will rise. Rising property values will encourage more private investment. More private investment will generate increased property taxes and local employment. More tax revenue for the city will encourage new public investment in infrastructure… It’s a virtuous upward cycle that feeds on itself.
These photos show an historic fire station and adjacent townhouse that had been abandoned since the 1970’s. Ironically the fire station was itself the victim of a fire and was left to fester for decades along with the rest of the neighborhood. A young local developer bought these two buildings as well as the vacant lots next to them and the abandoned buildings across the street. The city of Cincinnati sold them to him for $1. Truth be told, that’s about what they were worth in their dilapidated condition. The city provided a forgivable loan (on condition of certain standards being met) as well as a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) along with other economic incentives to make the project financially attractive. That investor contributed substantial amounts of private money to get the place rehabilitated. He transformed the ground floor of the old fire house into a pizzeria and bar by partnering with a successful local mobile vendor who was ready to take the leap into a brick and mortar establishment who brought his loyal clientele with him. The upstairs of the building was converted to a luxury apartment where the developer himself now lives. He’s putting him money where his mouth is. The townhouse next door will soon be renovated into equally fashionable apartments. Even with the $1 purchase price and various financial incentives this building isn’t likely to generate a profit for the developer anytime soon. Instead, he expects the pizzeria and bar combined with low cost community events to reactivate the immediate area and help make the place interesting enough pull in new renters and buyers over time. At least that’s the plan if all goes well.
There are inevitably going to be growing pains in Walnut Hills. While the public cost of generating new activity in the area is relatively modest, the gradual incremental private cost to bring all these old buildings up to a better standard is ultimately going to be extremely high. It’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit to make them desirable again. New infill construction on vacant lots will also be very expensive. The people who can afford to occupy these buildings aren’t necessarily going to be the same people who live in the neighborhood now. Don’t get me wrong, Walnut Hills desperately needs new investment and more people with more money to put flesh on the great old bones. Rehabbing long abandoned buildings in no way displaces anyone. The hard working people who currently own property in the area may well benefit from the rising tide and that’s a very good thing. They’ve muddled through all the years of neglect and atrophy. But this isn’t the kind of neighborhood where most people were ever in a position to become homeowners. There’s a strong push from various agencies including the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation and Cincinnati’s LIFT program here to get as many renters as possible to buy homes in the neighborhood while they’re still affordable. And there are vaguely defined attempts to retain the lower income rental class in the area. Past experience in many other communities all across the country suggests that older people will be cared for in their golden years since they’re nonthreatening and their pensions and federal programs tend to pay their way. And it’s true that the more capable lower income members of the community will probably benefit from a stronger local economy with improved employment options and civic amenities. Local development boards requirement that a number of members must be residents and meet certain lower levels of income to ensure that particular “voice” is at the decision making table. For the moment there’s enough existing affordable rental stock to last for many years so there’s no immediate concern, but a decade on I expect the demographic composition of the area to have changed significantly. We’ll see how it goes.