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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Downtown Cincinnati needs more residents

Downtown Cincinnati has experienced tremendous progress over the past 10 to 15 years. The Aronoff Center for the Arts was built along Walnut Street which sparked the investment seen in the nearby area now called the Backstage District, two new professional sports venues were built along the riverfront along with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the convention center was expanded, the Contemporary Arts Center was prominently rebuilt, the renovation of Fountain Square sparked millions of dollars worth of spin off investment nearby, and hundreds of new housing units have been developed.


Over this same time crime rates have gone down, population has increased, commercial occupancy rates have held steady, retail spaces have filled up, and the hotels boast the highest occupancy rates in the metropolitan region. But as in any situation, one solution often creates another problem.


Case in point, the Metropole Apartments on Walnut Street are now slated to become a trendy 12c Museum Hotel which will relocate the low-income residents that currently call the building home. This will not only create a difficult situation for the large number of people living there, but it will also take away a large number of full-time residents from the downtown population.


The same situation is shaping up at the Phelps apartment building that fronts onto the picturesque Lytle Park. The 137 apartments there will more than likely be lost to an extended stay hotel that will take advantage of the downtown commercial success, but once again, another large block of full-time residents will be lost in the process.


The interest in the downtown commercial market is very encouraging, but downtown must be able to be thriving both commercially and residentially in order for it to become that 24-hour downtown we all hope it will become. The apartment conversion of the historic Enquirer Building will help offset the aforementioned residential loses, but an apartment conversion of the historic Bartlett Building would also do wonders for the residential component of downtown.


The Banks is slated to add hundreds of new residents to the urban core, but there are also great opportunities for residential density at 5th & Race, 7th & Vine, Court & Walnut, and Court & Elm/Race. A residential strategy should be employed to best maximize the use of these areas – high rises at 5th & Race and 7th & Vine, midrise at Court & Walnut, and a mixture of townhouses/rowhouses at the Court & Elm/Race area would seem to be a good strategy off-hand that would create different price points and unit options that would appeal to a wide variety of people.


To become a truly vibrant downtown beyond the hours of 7am to 8pm, Cincinnati must develop a downtown residential plan that will massively grow the downtown population base and infuse the area with a mixture of young people, families, and retired individuals. If this can be achieved, then the retail and nightlife mixture we all hope for will follow.


Phelps Apartmens photo by Mark Bowen of the Cincinnati Business Courier.

26 comments:

BQ said...

To me, adding residential to a downtown area such as Cincinnati is one of the easier things. Adding commercial is the challenge. I live in downtown Indianapolis and we don't have the density Cincy does. I drool over your city in some aspects.

Cincy has some amazing residential potential downtown, and if they were apartments, I don't see them NOT selling out. So where are the developers?

5chw4r7z said...

Don't forget 4th and 5th between Central and Plum, those blocks are PACKED with people.

Jason said...

I would look at the conversion of the Metropole and Phelps building into hotels as a very positive thing for downtown as a whole. The Metropole especially. Though you are technically taking "residents" out of downtown, you're forgetting that these are section 8 housing units. They essentially do nothing for the local economy and in return pull down property values and make it less likely that other, full tax paying and working residents would actually want to move there.
The hotels will provide an economic boost to our struggling city and make Cincinnati a more desirable place to visit, especially with the casino and streetcar coming. All of these positive changes make Cincinnati a more desirable place to live which will help attract developers and residents to all of our amazing buildings which are currently begging for renovation and repopulation.
I think things are moving in the right direction and if the momentum continues Cincinnati is going to start looking really good in the upcoming decade.

Leiflet said...

I have a slightly different take than Jason does. I do think the Metropole conversion is a really good thing for the urban aspect (and anyone who has tried to find a good hotel in Cincinnati will probably agree).

But i am a bit discouraged over the habitual eviction of section 8 "residents" (as they were referred to). People who are poor are still people, and they still have a connection to the city. I wish that in addition to the new conversions, there could be more emphasis on mixed housing (such as the new units by the Museum center).

In my experience, "Urban" does not have to be the equivalent of "financially sound". Poorer people make up the urban landscape, too.

Randy Simes said...

I too find the conversion of the Metropole to be a very positive development since the building will receive a much needed renovation and the boutique hotel concept will work perfectly in that spot downtown. With that said I agree with Leiflet regarding Section 8 residents. They too are people and deserve a place to live. Most Section 8 residents are working class citizens, and are a valuable part of our community. We should be welcoming of people from all walks of life because a socially and economically diverse city center makes for an exciting urban environment.

5ch24r7z,

Good call, I briefly forgot about the lot at 4th & Plum that would also be perfect for a midrise residential development, and you also can't overlook to two large lots at 8th & Sycamore. If we can fill these in, along with the ones mentioned in the post, then we will have a very vibrant downtown with lots of residents and virtually no surface lots. That is an exciting prospect to say the least, but we need to start with a plan for making the most out of our residential development opportunities.

5chw4r7z said...

Which is why we should leave comprehensive planning to trained professionals instead of voting on capital improvements.

Jason said...

First, I have nothing against section 8 residents or the like and I agree that they are obviously people too and deserve a place to live. It was not my intention to sound as if I thought otherwise.

However, I suppose I'm not very sympathetic to the relocation of the section 8 units because of the fact that Cincinnati is already so heavily saturated with such housing projects. OTR is packed full of low income housing projects and other social service agencies. I live right next to a very large one. In fact, my building is sandwiched between a section 8 building and a tender mercies building. If you live downtown or in OTR now you know that we have way too many such housing projects already. What we need in order to make a good "mixed housing" environment is more of the middle and upper income residents. Right now I would venture to guess that OTR is 80-90% low income/subsidized housing and the rest middle to upper income housing. Its time that Cincinnati stops packing all of its low income residents into one neighborhood. I have no problem with public housing projects, so long as they are not unfairly grouped into one location (traditionally downtown and OTR). This was obviously done intentionally to keep the poor out of the suburbs and I think its time we reverse that process and make the city a place where there are more than just low income residents.

Randy Simes said...

I would say that it is much more complicated than that. Section 8 housing is market driven in terms of its location, meaning that it is up to the building owner to decide whether or not to accept Section 8 Housing Vouchers from tenants looking for housing who are eligible for the vouchers. This is different from government placed low-income housing many people understand that stems from the urban renewal era where low-income housing was created on a massive scale.

With this said, Section 8 housing is often regulated to staying within the urban core and inner ring suburbs due to the exclusionary zoning techniques used in suburban communities looking to avoid rental housing units that could potentially be used as Section 8 housing should that owner so choose.

Lauren Bishop said...

What's the latest with the conversion of the old Enquirer building into apartments? Haven't heard anything about that project for a while. (Even though I work in the current Enquirer building, I still don't know.)

Randy Simes said...

Lauren:

The last I heard was that the project received some historic tax credit money. There has also been a commercial building permit posted in the first floor window for some time now.

MED's plans were to start with the commercial build out and the parking garage portion, then move on to the apartments in the upper floors. The apartments would certainly make up the majority of the project in terms of both cost and generated revenue once complete.

MED has a track record of flying under the radar and then all of sudden popping out a finished product. I haven't heard back from them lately, but I'll see what I can track down because many people have been asking about the status of this project including myself.

Lauren Bishop said...

Cool, thanks for the quick response! Needless to say, I would LOVE to live there. :)

Randy Simes said...

The interior of the old Enquirer Building is absolutely wretched for office space, but would be wonderful for apartments. Add in the fact that they sit almost in the dead center of the urban core and have great proximity to transit, entertain, dining, jobs and nightlife then you can see why the location is to die for.

I'm with you...I would also love to live there as I'm not looking to buy anytime soon. Unfortunately the CBD is severely lacking in many available rental units. Last time I checked the CBD had something like a 90+ percentage occupancy rate with rents averaging around $1 per square foot.

Lauren Bishop said...

I've never been inside, but I believe it. Apartments in that location would rent out in a heartbeat. I actually own a place now, but I'd seriously consider selling it to live there because of both the location and the history.

John Schneider said...

The good thing about residents, as opposed to corporations, is that a neighborhood is unlikely to demand concessions and incentives to keep it from moving to Kentucky.

They're harder to build, but much more sustainable.

Ron Tunning said...

I think it’s important to really define what it means to be a 24-hour city. Quite frankly, I’m not aware of any such place, although New York probably comes closest in the U.S.

But even in Manhattan, around the clock activity is rare, and most late night activity occurs in residential areas of the island such as Greenwich Village, Chelsea, the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side. It’s true that the Theatre District surrounding Times Square is extremely active around the clock, but that’s largely a consequence of the presence of Broadway Theaters and thousands of hotel rooms catering to tourists, and the fact that Times Square is an essential transportation hub for both subways and buses.

You could fire a cannon down Wall Street after 9 p.m. and not hit a soul. The same, for the most part, is true along Sixth Avenue (The Avenue of the Americas) once one moves north of the Village until its terminus at Central Park South.

Cincinnati’s best opportunity to create a dynamic city attractive to the creative class is to focus on developing strong, diverse residential neighborhoods of considerable density. Over-the-Rhine provides a perfect location close to downtown, and is replete with historic buildings that can be converted for high-density residential use, as well as ground-level retail and entertainment use.

The conversion of both the Metropole Apartments and the Phelps Apartments into luxury hotels can be a real stimulus for more residential development as they will both increase the amount of pedestrian traffic and could lend considerable support to entertainment venues in and around the central business district. I do not see the loss of 350 residential units as a calamity given that there’s ample amount of space available in the Central Business District for additional residential development, and even more available in Over-the-Rhine, the West End and along the Riverfront.

One key element that’s missing in Cincinnati is a good public transportation system. The proposed trolley would be a tremendous asset, connecting a young, and relatively affluent population in Uptown to downtown and Over-the-Rhine. It’s critical that people have a means to get about short of using a car, and that retail options be available without having to travel to the ‘burbs.

But for public transportation systems and retail establishments to be economically feasible, it requires density. I’d discourage the construction of any townhouses or low-rise buildings, and opt instead for mid-rise to high-rise residential structures with ground level retail.

As much as people lament the so-called exodus to the suburbs from Cincinnati, it should be noted that there are more occupied households in the city today than there were when Cincinnati’s population peaked during the 1950s. It’s just that there are fewer people living per household.

One should also note that Manhattan, and San Francisco for that matter, have a relatively low concentration of families and a high concentration of singles and young couples without children. Both are also powerful tourist destinations, offering world-class cultural facilities, incredible restaurants, diverse collections of entertainment venues, and great public transportation options. And both are welcoming of diversity.

Randy Simes said...

Ron:

I agree with you that the conversion of the Metropole and Phelps present good opportunities for downtown Cincinnati, but as you also said, we need to identify our opportunities elsewhere for residential density.

As for the argument for only mid- and high-rise buildings I would argue that density doesn't always create vibrancy. Walking around the streets of downtown Miami illustrates this quite clearly as the high-rises actually create a barrier between people and the streets. Conversely, some of the most vibrant places I have been have been high density areas built at a more modest level like rowhouses.

OTR is a great example of this as you pointed out. There are no high rises in OTR, but the neighborhood has the best opportunity to become the most lively area of the city due to its design. A design that is more commonly found in East Coast and European cities.

David Ben said...

Ron

You mention that NYC and SF are powerful tourist destinations with culture, food, entertainment, and transportation. Cincinnati also boasts some fantastic cultural, artistic, and entertaining things to go anlong with a robust convention scene. True, we lack the public transportation infrastructure necessary to thrive, but let's not sell ourselves short. We need to continue to highlight our atributes.

Paul Wilham said...

I think you have to walk a fine line. Indianpolis added 40,000 plus residents downtown. At the same time they have expanded and attracted retail and hotels which fuels a thriving convention business.

The problem is now, that Indy downtown is seriously overbuilt with condos. There is a 4 year supply of condos between 250-750k and several projects are sitting empty or bankrupt. The foreclosure crisis has caused condo owners to be sitting as much as 200K upside down on their property. All it takes is 2-3 foreclosures in a project to dramatically drop values. Single family on the other hand is very saleable and stable by comparison.

In my opinion, Cincinnati downtown may soon reach 'condo glut' especially at the entry level 125-175K range. There are only so many people who can afford them, or want to live in them.

We need more retail business density downtown and work on development of "close-by" mostly single family residential areas such as , Pendleton Arts, Findlay Market area, Dayton Street, and Betts Longworth as residential not condo. People need housing choices and the ability to move up as time goes by. Transportation will be the big component in sucessfull redevelopment of those areas.

I hate to be the 'realist' here but you have to eventually move the low income housing and the homeless/Addicted problem out of the downtown and OTR. People are kidding themselves if they think you can do major high end development and restorations next to homeless shelters. There is very little low income housing in Indy downtown and frankly that is why Indy is sucessful. Those people have been psushed out to the townships. Not saying thats right, but its the "real world'.

It's a fine line to walk and it's easy to make mistakes if you rush in with too much, too fast, at one price point.

abcdlogistica said...

Downtown of all big cities in Europe, needs more residents too.
I like this blog...

5chw4r7z said...

Lauren,
Parker Flats was a 5-6 year project for MED, so don't expect anything to happen very fast at the Enquirer Building. They do work as the money comes in, which comes in very slowly.

j said...

Agree conversion is a good thing. I acknowledge that may be a slightly short-sighted view, but it may also be short-sited to say we need more residential and less commercial. The truth is, residents FORCE their way into thriving areas regardless of the balance.

Re: section 8, etc.--there are one million perspectives on this because we truly don't know how it affects community, spending, etc. It's an artificial stimulus and the effects of such are completely theoretical despite anyone's best or worst estimation.

Ian said...

why would anyone live downtown? There isn't even an Applebees.

Randy Simes said...

Paul:

I would argue that downtown Indy's success is most tied to the fact that Indy has become the major events and convention town in the United States outside of Las Vegas. This pumps all sorts of life into downtown Indy and is what allows it to have great retail and dining amenities while not necessarily having the necessary residents to support it.

It is very hard to convince a retailer to locate somewhere if the demographics aren't there to support the business...so while building up these close by residential areas with more retail business sounds great, it may be easy said than done until we get the numbers on our side.

I too think that downtown Cincinnati is nearing a condo glut, although I think it is for the condos priced at $250,000 and above (not below), and I don't see many condos being built and sold for less than $250,000 downtown. With that said, I don't think the residential market is nearing total glut as the apartment market is very strong and has been showing signs that it needs to be expanded for several years now. The demand for rentals downtown is so great that I would say you could easily add several hundred apartment units to the downtown market and not cause a negative effect on the valuation of the market or cause severe harm to the overall occupancy rate.

Ian said...

Randy,

Why don't you go to 4th and Plum, some of the apartments on Garfield, One Lytle Place, the old Lazarus building and see if they'll get you to admit their occupancy and concessions? Unless all these are over 90 - 95% occupied with few if any concessions to get move-in's downtown is likely not ready for any new additional market rate apartments, nor are any banks likely to finance their construction. Not to mention the "shadow" condo space probably being rented out by their owners who can't or won't sell.

Until market demand takes over, government subsidized supply will still be required for most new constrution until a fully synergized neighborhood can be achieved through market forces that then increase the demand for these living spaces. Hopefully then will Cincinnati become a preferred destination for those individuals of a limited demographic who prefer/can afford a downtown living environment.

12thstreet said...

New York may not have 24x7 street activity. It's not all Times Square. But it has a pretty dense, diverse and expanding residential base in most areas (not just The Village). It also has a reputation as a progressive place where people are welcome to try to innovate and take risks.

Like it or not (and true or not), to "outsiders", Cincinnati has a reputation as a cliquish, underachieving, inward looking place where, if you weren't born here and if you didn't go to the right high school, you're not worth talking about.

Sure Cincinnati needs more people downtown. Lots more people. But where are they going to come from? And what are they going to do? When people who aren't already living downtown start taking interest in this topic, you'll know that things are looking up. In the meantime... it's just wishful thinking.

5chw4r7z said...

Ian,
The Towne Properties buildings around 7th and Race were always around 95% occupied the 5 years I leved there, The Gramercy was always close to 100%.
I'm surprised they haven't expanded.

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