Rowhouse Rebirth

25 thoughts on “Rowhouse Rebirth”

  1. Nice video, nice remodel. To continue the grocery store discussion, where do people in these reviving neighborhoods go for hardware, underwear, personal care/drugs, other basics? I didn’t see what I’d consider “real” businesses in your video. Do you see any trends in these reviving neighborhoods, or are all the retail businesses about leisure pursuits and luxury consumption? I have a vision of livable urban neighborhoods that probably comes from 1940s children’s books, vintage photos and my own 1950s early childhood. I’d love to see them return.

    1. No one who lives in Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati will think of “luxury goods” as the go-to description of the neighborhood. The majority of the area is still “transitional”. New people are moving in, renovating old dilapidated abandoned buildings, and opening up all sorts of shops. You can, in fact, by hardware underwear, and medicine in the immediate area. I strongly suspect that the supply of such items will only grow in the future as the population increases.

      What the area experienced for the last fifty years (in contrast) was relentless depopulation, disinvestment, and decline.

      Your question suggests there’s a sharp choice between “real” neighborhoods with “regular” people and “boutique” neighborhoods with some other category of inhabitants. In my experience Cincinnati (more than most places) is an especially jumbled mixture of all-of-the-above. Perhaps the difference from the emerging gentrification in some parts of Cincinnati vs. top tier cities like New York or San Francisco is that in Cincinnati the cost of the super premium real estate is still lower than the fair-to-middling stuff elsewhere. The physical proximity between impoverished and relatively expensive property is measured in blocks, not miles. Does that equate to an equitable arrangement for the locals? Not so much. Is it a bad thing? I don’t think so.

  2. Awesome to see the Rust Belt coming back to life. Although I’m California born and raised, my dad’s from Buffalo and I have relatives in Pittsburgh. So I know first hand about how undervalued and livable those cities are. I think your investments will play out nicely over the next 10-15 years.

    However, what prevents CA natives like myself from making that sort of leap is that ANYWHERE else is so much cheaper than CA that it looks like a bargain. Portland, Seattle, Denver, Austin – all San Francisco-esque and 1/2 to 1/3 the cost. And if I wanted the brownstone lifestyle and was ready to deal with winter, 1st class Chicago is there for even less. Why would I even consider 3rd tier Cincinnati? Just to save a few bucks?

    Take my brother for example. He loves SF but can never ever afford to buy. He tried the Oakland thing but the schools really are that bad so he moved back across the Bay, this time to an overpriced rental house in Pacifica. He knows it’s not sustainable or smart.

    Ultimately, he’s probably gonna move to Portland. He figures if he took a 25% pay cut, he could still afford up to around 400k which is more than enough in Portland (for now, which is all that matters when you’re buying). He could probably even telecommute/contract for his current job and maintain his network in the Bay Area easily. We already have friends and relatives in both OR/WA so the transition is super easy.

    Now I know it’s not really rational. Objectively, Cincinnati is like Portland at 1/2 price on the ground floor and the folks are awesome. But most people aren’t ground floor pioneers. They’ll take the first “Not San Francisco” they come across that makes economic and emotional sense to them.

    1. I agree with your analysis as far as you and your brother are concerned. The $400,000 house in Portland is a steal compared to the $800,000 one bedroom apartment in San Francisco. Sure. Although $400,000 doesn’t buy you as much of a house in Portland as it used to.

      Starting from the perspective of someone who is already well educated, fully employed, and living in San Francisco… Portland is a relative bargain and delivers excellent San Francisco-like qualities at half the price. In fact, 70% of the people who moved to Portland in the last generation were ex-Californians. That massive wealth transfer is largely responsible for Portland’s current high real estate values. You could say the same thing about Phoenix, although those folks were looking for a Los Angeles-like suburban environment at a lower price point. Same migration pattern though.

      But what about the ever increasing percentage of Californians (perhaps a plurality if not an outright majority) who will never be able to afford any of the cities anywhere on the west coast? Or the better parts of Chicago for that matter? Wrigleyville, Wicker Park, and even Schaumburg aren’t what you would call affordable on a $15 an hour income. Many professionals tend to assume the world is made up of comfortably middle class people. It isn’t. $400,000 is a lot of money to some people… So where do you go when you’re 27 and permanently locked out of the entry level housing market? Where do you go when you’re 62 and your rent gets jacked up beyond your meager pension – assuming you even have a pension? Portland or Chicago doesn’t really help you.

      I’m not saying the Rust Belt is for everyone. But it’s one of many possibilities for a certain subset of the population.

      1. I agree it’s not an either/or and that $400k is way too much still. Also many Californians are in total denial, don’t look up historical price histories and don’t realize that $500k is not a reasonable price for a “starter” home. That applies to the many immigrants we have in the State as well. I told my Indian-born co-workers that the median home price in the U.S. was around $200k and they flat out didn’t believe me. I had to Google it. Many of my co-workers in technology have bought homes/condos in the 500k-800k range even though, by my estimation, their household might “only” be 80-150k. House poor.

        Another case in point, childhood friends of mine are hanging on in Oakland with retail/clerical jobs and are actually looking to buy with the minimum down. I think they’re flat out crazy and told them so but they have this strong emotional attachment and they’ve never lived anywhere else. I know they would be so down with a place like Pittsburgh but it’s just too far of a mental leap, to imagine that it could be more than dirty snow, backwards people and burned out factories…

        I’m obviously no fun at parties 🙂

    2. Good comments. However, it is important to keep in mind that people move to and from places other than California. There are millions of people living in east coast cities that are culturally similar to Cincinnati, look like larger versions of Cincinnati and have even worse weather than Cincinnati. A smaller and vastly more affordable Midwestern city could be appealing to some of those folks.

      Not that the Midwest has no potential appeal to people from the west coast. What about native Oregonians who are finding their only big city increasingly unaffordable and culturally alien as more and more wealthy people move up from California. They may want to live in an urban environment where they can still afford to enjoy what the city has to offer after paying the rent. I dont know as much about Denver and Austin as I do about Portland but I imagine there are people in those cities who miss the time when there city was much more affordable and maybe a little less polished.

      And then there is the Southeast. Much of the growth in that region was fueled by people migrating from the Midwest in search of a sunshine. Now that that Romany places in that region are starting to suffer from decades of poor development choices some of the the children or grandchildren of those Midwestern migrants may be looking for a change. For them the Midwest is closer, more affordable and more familiar than the coasts.

  3. ‘Beige stucco dingbat on stilts with a view of Jiffy Lube…’
    Love that.
    But make it $450,000. This is VAN NUYS you’re talking about, buddy, not Pacoima.

    1. The Pacoima people will be up in arms at your dis…Their economic development officials have been desperately trying to get a Jiffy Lube to come to town for years.

  4. What do you lose by living in a cheap but declining city. or in an urban part of a cheap but sprawling city? In a word, amenities. Most people you work with, most people you date, most grocery stores, etc. will be in suburbs. And if you go car free most people you know will think you are a freak. That’s the difference.

    Having said that, the difference is not always high cost vs. low cost. In Pittsburgh, the urban neighborhoods are strong enough that you can get many of the big city amenities that you can’t get in a Cleveland or Cincinnati.

    1. I’m a big fan of Pittsburgh which did manage to turn itself around sooner than other rust belt towns. Cincinnati declined (past tense) and is now on the rise again with more urban amenities that are making it easier to live car-light and avoid the suburbs to a larger extent. I give it a few more years of catching up.

      But I have to ask… “most people you know will think you are a freak.” Really? Are you in high school? Are you afraid to sit at the wrong table at the cafeteria so people won’t make fun of you? By all means, PLEASE go live on a cul-de-sac with all the cool kids.

      1. Having gone to college in Cincy and now living in Chicago (though I still have family around Cincy and visit often) I have to agree with mlewyn above about amenities (however I get a feeling that Pittsburgh is oversold and Cincinnati undersold still need to make a trip to Pittsburgh to confirm my theory).

        Despite being the HQ of the largest grocery in the country (or perhaps due to) Cincinnati doesn’t quite get the concept of an urban grocery and they are seriously dragging their feet on figuring out the idea (they don’t even get the concept of the Storefront urban specialty Markets like the Green Grocer or any number of them I can walk to in Chicago). Cultural attitudes are hard to change down there though lately there has been a shocking shift that’s occurring but not without a lot of push back and bickering from the old guard who is jealous and spiteful of change even positive change. This is just one of many amenities that are lacking in Cincinnati’s urban neighborhood that people should expect from higher tier cities.

        On the flip side, Cincy urban neighborhood bones are easily among the finest in the country. If you look at census numbers both it and San Francisco had about the same population in 1900 and both have an abundance of gorgeous old victorians. Both cities were more mercantile/trade centers than industrial centers and that’s also reflected in their respective buildings, there are far more gorgeous townhouses and mansions than there are ugly workers cottages that one would find in Chicago for instance. Cincy would have been more like San Fran in the 1950s but sadly gutted 2/3rds of its most dense neighborhoods (which were btw some of the most dense in the country at the time) and replaced them with a failed urban renewal industrial park known as Queensgate, this led to displacement and a ripple effect that caused the city to eventually hollow out. People still wontonly tear down those beautiful old buildings due to neglect and misunderstanding of their real value as folks down there don’t travel enough to know their housing stock is more San Francisco than Indianapolis (not even Chicago outside of the loop or the high rises along the lake shore has this level of Victorian architecture). I’m not even going to get started on Transit, which San Fran kept a quirky but robust system while Cincinnati went from having the largest per-capita track mile streetcar system in the US to a skeletal system that’s ok in the core but pretty sparse even in several popular neighborhoods.

        I really appreciate you letting outsiders know about Cincinnati’s potential charm, perhaps someone who is overburdened with the cost of living and has a mindset of bringing their culture to the hinterland can maybe help save what should be saved in Cincinnati that the locals don’t appreciate as much as the transplants should – its a noble cause. (not to say there aren’t locals who are doing good work, but they are fighting a status quo that is super pro-suburban bizarrely so considering the urban treasures that exist there).

        As for me, I put up with the cold winters as living in a 1st class city with transplants is MUCH better than a 3rd class one where everyone is concerned about which high school you went to 😉 As mentioned before Chicago is still relatively cheap and per cost-benefit analysis the best bang for my buck right now. I’m still rooting for Cincy to get its due – it deserves it but it will be very hard to get there.

        1. All perfectly valid and accurate points. But I’m in it for the long haul.

          First, don’t ask Kroger (a super sized suburban grocery chain) to do intimate local urban markets. It’s just not their bailiwick. I love little mom and pop shops much better anyway. Let’s support the Italian, Korean, Palestinian, and Indian markets that spring up on the corner instead. Give your money to the farmers market in season. Seek out individual bakeries and specialty shops. Join a hippy dippy organic co-op. Work around the Big Boys. We don’t need them – at least not right away.

          Second, the reason there has been such rapid change in the core neighborhoods of Cincinnati (see also, other second and third tier cities) is that many of the city-hating pro-suburb (plain old fashioned racist…) people have finally moved to Florida or died off. They just aren’t around anymore. And their adult kids drove off in their Chevy Blazers to split level ranch homes on cul-de-sacs in Blue Ash or Mason. Mayor Cranley’s administration is the last gasp of the old regime propped up by highway contractors and the folks who build casinos and shopping malls. These things will fizzle and play themselves out over time. Meanwhile new people who love the city are rapidly moving in. It’s a bit like West Berlin, but it works.

          Third, don’t obsess about transit. We need to rebuild all the great old neighborhoods so they are self evidently vibrant and productive places. Then we can start linking them back together with street cars or whatever.

          Fourth, I’m not giving up my place in San Francisco. I was fortunate to buy here years ago when that was still a reasonable possibility. I have the luxury of keeping a foot in each world. And I’m no longer young. I’m not so much climbing up a career ladder or social circle as easing down a bit. For me renovating an old house in a cool neighborhood in the Midwest is a relatively inexpensive hobby that may eventually mature into a good retirement investment. We’ll see. But I love being part of the renaissance.

          1. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching the transformation, though my morale is off as I see Cranley trying as hard as he can to undo a lot of the progress of the previous administration with his worst offenses being bringing back a toxic culture of infighting and pitting tribal provincial groups against each other – he’ s cost the city many years of positive change though I’ll agree with you, he’s a last stand of a dying culture (good riddance too). I’m seeing the Cincinnati I left behind in college come back to a degree, though the culture has changed enough that I’m still optimistic its just going to take a lot of fighting to get things back on track. Cincinnati was a town that left me completely demoralized when I left – I could see the potential but waaaay too many of my peers didn’t understand it – the only reason why I’m following it these days is I’m impressed with the changes, frankly I didn’t think Cincy had it in itself to accomplish as much as it has.

            As to urban groceries I kind of smashed together two concepts and when I’m talking about – with Koger I’m talking about stores that are more like this: than the nice corner markets. IMO a healthy urbanist city needs both to serve locals grocery needs – fewer large urban groceries and more corner stores. Kroger gets it in other markets (LA for instance where they own Ralphs) but not in its hometown which is baffling though some of it comes down to how Kroger manages its property and in Cincy that’s decided by an office that’s solidly in suburbia.

            Finally transit drives development. A good example in Chicago for instance is the West Loop, adding a station in the middle of that neighborhood (green line – Morgan) has caused property values to skyrocket and development to accelerate. I know coming from San Fran these are bad words because its gotten out of control, but Cincinnati needs a lot of this to keep its wonderful urban core from literally crumbling to dust – some neighborhoods have gotten so bad that even the poorest of folks are leaving it behind causing an obscene amount of abandonment considering the relatively stable local economy (its better than most of the rust belt btw).

            I’m really happy that your doing what your doing, I hope you bring more people like yourselves to help the locals understand the beauty of what they have. I do agree with you 100% Cincinnati is an excellent long term investment, and people like you from the overpriced coastal cities (especially those who can keep a foot in both worlds) are exactly what that town needs to help save it.

            1. Other chains know how to operate successful urban supermarkets. Let Whole Foods set up shop and tap the underserved market. That will get Kroger’s attention…

              Yes, I know transit drives development. In the Bay Area property within a few blocks of transit commands a huge premium above the already crazy high baseline prices. San Francisco had the good fortune to preserve and steadily expand our transit for decades. Then again, the communities in the suburbs fought (and continue to fight) new train stations since they fear the “urban” people who might come with it. Even the proposed high speed rail was successfully repelled by the towns along the peninsula. That rail system (if it’s ever built) will go to Sacramento, Oakland, and San Francisco rather than Palo Alto and Mountain View…

              Personally, I think there’s Ohio/Kentucky/Indiana and then – long pause – there’s the urban core in Cincy. Let’s not pretend they have anything to do with each other. In a perfect world Cincy would have a regional subway and a street car system and bus rapid transit, etc. But realistically Cincy will always be an island that needs to look after itself. The Governor of Ohio and DOT will always starve city transit service of funding while building new highways out into the corn fields. Kentucky and Indiana will continue to build barriers to filter out “the wrong element”. (“Respectable white people own cars. Poor blacks are on the bus.” Blah, blah, blah.)

              At the end of the day the best parts of Cincy will be repopulated by people who love the city and are willing to put their money where their mouth is. Higher property values, increased tax revenue, greater employment and so on will speak for itself over time. Political will always follows the money.

              The opposite is also true. I’ve noticed that as rents and property values steadily rise in OTR, downtown, Uptown, Northside, etc. there is a steady decline in places like White Oak in the middle distance suburbs. It appears that money is either going farther out to newer McMansion cul-de-sacs or closer in to the urban core. The stuff in the middle… I see an insecure white establishment that is increasingly administering a poorer blacker population with declining economics. “Hey! These are split level ranches and mock Cape Cods! Poor people aren’t supposed to live here!” That’s not going to end well.

              1. I’m baffled that Whole Foods or Trader Joes or anyone (even say Marianos, Dorthy Lane Market or any other smaller regional upmarket grocery from another city) has refrained from entering the Urban Cincinnati marketplace. Groceries are a conservative market not prone to risk taking, but even then Kroger gets it literally down the street in downtown Lexington. Why not Cincinnati? I’m wondering if its fear of Kroger’s hometown advantage…

                Why hasn’t another grocery picked up on this market opportunity? Why hasn’t a local entrepreneur figured out how to do a proper corner store? Why did Cranley go out of his way to block a plan to have a urban grocery as part of a downtown project? Something really fishy is going on here, its even more obvious when you see that even Downtown Dayton is getting an urban grocery right up the street. Dayton is MUCH more typical of a Midwestern city and its regional economy is in the tank with little growth prospects and yet this amenity will be available to them and not Cincinnati.

                There are far more examples of weird stuff that happens in Cincy that makes it feel like its stuck in its own backwards universe: why is a Skyline Chili (local regional specialty) a block from the action in Over the Rhine keeping bankers hours when it would be FAR more profitable for it to stay open? Why do restaurants owned by locals tend to be closed on Sunday even in the most popular and hip restaurant district, when the more civilized world has decided that Monday is a day that makes more sense from a business perspective. There is totally something weird in the water in Cincy and it makes locals act very strange to the point where they fight their own self interests.

                I’m wondering when all of this will fall apart when people will realize the sheer missed opportunity costs here?

                Cincinnati needs transplants and/or non locals to convince them that reality is different than where they live.

              2. You’ve made a point which showcases the advantage of Pittsburgh, or Scranton, or Allentown, or Buffalo, Rochester, or Syracuse — vs. Cincy or Columbus or Cleveland etc.

                State government.

                It’s taken a while to turn around the attitude in Cincy city government, but you basically admit that you’re going to be at odds with the state government for *decades*. As we saw with the endless streetcar fight.

                Thanks to being in the same state as New York, when Rochester city government turns around, the state shrugs and goes along with it (as we see with the “Inner Loop” teardown).

                Similar dynamics in Pennsylvania: by the time you’ve got the Scranton, Allentown, and Pittsburgh city governments holding the right attitude, add Philadelphia in and you have the state government backing you.

                It helps. So honestly I’d bet on Rust Belt cities in PA, NY, MA, CT — or IL — before I’d bet on the ones in OH, IN, MI.

    1. Well, you could buy a piece-of-crap two bedroom condo in a beige stucco dingbat on stilts with a view of a Jiffy Lube and the dumpsters behind the Winchell’s Donuts in Van Nuys for $289,000. Or you could get an entire fabulous 19th Century building in a great historic neighborhood in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buffalo… I’m just sayin’.

        1. I’m so tired of people talking about weather as if it’s the be-all and end-all of a city’s success or failure. Ever been to Toronto in January? How about New York in August? London or Paris in February? Shanghai in July? The weather is miserable. Beyond hideous. But you know what? These places have qualities that compensate for the climate. I’m not opposed to year round great weather. I do live in San Francisco… But there’s more to life than 72 degrees and sunshine. And by the way, Cincinnati is directly across the river from Kentucky. The winters do include a bit of snow, but it isn’t Saskatoon.

          1. I warn people that the weather dividend does pay forever. I went to college in a dirty run down mill town near Pittsburgh and found more there to inspire me now, 20 years later, than I do on a long walk in West LA.

            1. I understand that some people hate winter. Here’s my sales pitch for buying property in the Rust Belt. With the $800,000 you save on your primary residence in Pittsburgh vs. West LA you can buy a primo second home in Aruba.

              1. Precisely. Here in Savannah, a fair number of people live here half the year, enjoy its beauty and urbanity, and then half the year in a northern climate to escape the heat. It’s not a big city, but you have a surprising amount of big city amenities at a much lower price, which affords real lifestyle options.

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