Back in 2014 a crowdfunding campaign was started to create a grocery store in the Northside neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio. House after house displayed signs proclaiming the inhabitants had made a financial contribution to the effort. I was one of them since I owned a nearby property at the time.
The plan was to refurbish an existing property that had been a functioning Save-A-Lot grocery for decades, but had been vacant for some time. It seemed reasonable to clean up the empty building, stock it with products, and voilà! It’s been a number of years now and it isn’t looking good for the would-be Apple Street Market.
I’ve watched this same scenario play out over and over in towns all across the country. First a group of passionate citizens organizes around a worthy cause. In this case there was a desire for fresh, healthy, affordable food within walking distance in the neighborhood. This kind of store would be both a lifestyle amenity for the middle class and a practical problem solver for lower income folks living in a food desert. Sounds simple enough.
Proposals are written and presented. Local officials are engaged and offer their moral support. Enough money is cobbled together to hire a grant writer who secures additional funding. That money is used to do a professional study. That study qualifies the project to apply for more grants. That grant money supports the formation of paid staff who lobby for additional funds and gather more political support from higher-ups. Loans and more promises of support are secured. This allows for a fresh round of grants, loans, and subsidies for more advanced studies by more prestigious and important organizations…
Unfortunately, federal tax policy changed halfway through this process for the Apple Street Market. That alteration in the national tax code induced one of the bank loans to be rescinded. Without that loan other backers also withdrew. Local activists made heroic Hail Mary contributions to try and keep the project afloat and buy some time. In order to make the numbers work a new vision was proposed. The project had to become bigger, more complex, and infinitely more expensive. The next incarnation of the plan was to partner with a serious corporate developer, scrape the old building, and replace it with a multi-storey mixed-use complex.
A couple of blocks away is an example of this kind of newly built development. The Gantry sits on what had been a long vacant lumber yard. This is the minimum scale required to meet all the institutional and financial thresholds. The Gantry is a positive contribution to the neighborhood, but it’s a far cry from cleaning up an existing structure and stocking the shelves with produce and packaged goods.
Unfortunately there wasn’t enough land to accommodate all the required parking on the old Save-A-Lot site and still fit the new building. This constraint was exacerbated by the requirement for a loading dock large enough for giant delivery trucks for that kind of establishment. It just didn’t pencil out. Honestly, that’s a good thing. If that version of the Apple Street Market had gone forward it would have been so loaded down with debt or high rent that the market would likely have failed in short order.
The latest “last-chance” plan (their words, not mine) is to partner with the redevelopment agency in College Hill and to attempt an economy of scale by joining up with an existing grocery wholesaler. So the Apple Street Market would no longer be on Apple Street or in the Northside neighborhood. Therefore it wouldn’t meet the minimum goals for the project – to provide wholesome food within walking distance. I also noticed the various unrelated proposals in College Hill all look either very much like The Gantry or involve the construction of surface parking lots to facilitate commerce in the walkable historic commercial strip…
Let’s back up for a moment. Historical context is important here. Directly across the street from the defunct Save-A-Lot that might have become the Apple Street Market is a small mom and pop shop from the 1890s. Dozens of buildings just like it were bulldozed to make room for parking lots and shiny new supermarkets in the 1950s. People celebrated this activity. The new market was larger, more modern, offered more variety, and had lower prices. No one mourned the loss of decrepit outdated buildings at the time. Instead they wanted air conditioning and ample free parking.
Peppered throughout Northside are the ghosts of many such establishments. The shop-houses of the 1890s were systematically outlawed through zoning regulations and building codes. Banks would no longer fund such properties since they were non-conforming to modern financing parameters. New investment flowed to fresh projects elsewhere. Customers migrated away. Property values dropped. And these buildings became worthless white elephants slowly devaluing everything around them. Inhabiting them didn’t make economic sense.
As property values rise and Northside experiences a middle class resurgence these old corner shops are being converted to single family homes. It’s illegal to use these structures as anything else. Even if there were market demand – which there is – for a retail shop downstairs with a residence upstairs it’s forbidden by the authorities. So the old storefronts are reinvented as open concept loft style living rooms. This is clearly better than letting these buildings rot, but it’s a classic case of the “orderly but dumb” approach to land use regulation.
I’m going to loop the Apple Street Market dynamic back to why I no longer own property in the area. Back in 2014 when I first started to explore Cincinnati I had a lot of romantic notions about charming historic neighborhoods that just needed some love. I bought an uninhabitable shotgun shack for $15,000 cash. But just like the folks attempting to open a grocery store down the street I was overly ambitious. I didn’t understand the larger forces at work. I lacked the technical skills, the political skills, the social skills, and ultimately the desire to engage with any of the prevailing authorities which were never going to approve my little second story addition. My critics were right. I was an idiot for even trying such a crazy stunt.
My instincts were accurate in terms of future market demand. This property was flipped in 2017 for $87,000 and then given a second flip more recently. A little paint, some new appliances, a quick skin job… I know what was wrong with this house when I owned it: the cracks in the foundation, corroding iron sewer pipes, spongy wood, leaking roof, faulty electrical systems, mold… My design/build team felt strongly that all these things needed to be properly addressed and the only way to amortize that kind of investment was to double the size of the home with a second floor addition. And that’s where things went terribly pear shaped with the authorities. What subsequent owners did instead was put lipstick on a pig and pass the deferred maintenance on to the next guy. Honestly, they did the right thing given the administrative and economic parameters. They were smart where I was foolish.
Many of the neighborhood properties have since been renovated and are now worth real money. The dominant conversation among locals is no longer about blight and poverty, but gentrification and displacement. Sooner or later there will be enough money in town for a Whole Foods to open up in one of the new Gantry style buildings. So be it.