Sunday, April 2, 2017

What Baltimore and Cincinnati have in common

When in 2010 the Urban Land Institute dispatched an Advisory Service Panel under guidance of former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy to Baltimore's ailing Westside, one of the panel's recommendations was to look at Over the Rhine in Cincinnatti, OH as a precedent how a large downtrodden area can be revitalized. That was early advice in 2010 when the success of Over the Rhine was far from sure, it was even prescient in the context of civil unrest as we shall see a bit further down in this article. Last year Politico wrote a long article about the transformation of the Cincinnati neighborhood:
Painted boards instead of windows: Not yet rehabbed
property in Over the Rhine (Photo: Philipsen)
It’s a transformation that’s happened in a blink of an eye, turning a neighborhood that in 2009 topped Compton in Los Angeles for the “most dangerous” title into something that looks and feels like Greenwich Village (Politico).
Over the Rhine with its 262 acre area declares itself to be America's largest historic district and and got its name from the fact that so many Germans settled in the bottom area north of downtown below Uptown and Clifton Hill (where the University of Cincinnati has its campus), that the natives (not the Germans) called it "over the Rhine", a bit a put down especially for Germany's Rhine River which in some parts equals Cincinnati's Ohio River and not that since covered canal that separated the neighborhood from downtown.

Then, the Germans fell out of favor in WW I and even more so in WW II. Like many old cities that thrived in the 19th century, Cincinnati declined in the 20th and just like Baltimore lost a significant portion of its population. (It is now less than half of Baltimore's current size with just under 300,000 residents, clinching a very slight growth between 2010 and 2015). It turns out, Cincinnati is an interesting comparison to Baltimore in more ways than one neighborhood even though its smaller and its demographic diversity is more balanced (49% white, 44% black).

Cincinnati didn't dodge the bullet of urban freeways in the same way as Baltimore did (its has several of them, including the sunken I-71 which separates downtown from the Ohio River). Instead it dodged the public housing superblocks, although a proposal for razing historic areas for them had been prepared. Somehow the city never got around doing them. Cincinnati's brandnew riverfront redevelopment is no Inner Harbor, nor is the University of Cincinnati a Johns Hopkins, nor is Over the Rhine a Fells Point. But the Ohio border city has succeeded in not only fixing up its ailing downtown, its waterfront, but with Over the Rhine has embarked on an economic development project addressing equity and approaching its poorest area in innovative ways. Over the Rhine had gone from prospering German immigrants evading prohibition with stealth brewery tunnels to becoming first an Appalachian and then an African American poverty district marred by abandoned factories, warehouses, churches, breweries and shops up and down Vine and Race Streets. In many parts the district looked like a mixture of Baltimore's Mulberry Street and Pennsylvania and North Avenue: past glory still visible, but neglect obfuscating or even destroying it.
Poverty map of Cincinnati 2015. Over the Rhine is still #3 (Source Cincinnati CityLink Center)

Like Baltimore, Cincinnati is also characterized by a long history of civil unrest. The most recent case actually predates Baltimore's 2015 unrest by 14 years also c. In spite of its small size caused by police brutality and a series of young black men dying at the hands of police. The locus of Cincinnati's 2001 unrest: Over the Rhine.

Over the Rhine indeed, is a great precedent for Baltimore to study for its own efforts of neighborhood reviatlization, not just the Westside. The beauty right now is that one doesn't have to dig deep in faulty memory the past which wasn't glorious. About the only good outcome was that the decay that had befallen the area helped to preserve buildings that in better off areas would have been bulldozed as outmoded. Today one only needs to go far enough north of Liberty Street (which is a barrier a bit like North Avenue between Bolton Hill and Reservoir  Hill) to still see what a derelict area looks like.
Activists decry displacement in the successful south area, even though it appears to still be quite diverse in its uses, the housing price-points, the type of retail and restaurants and the population milling the streets. Any direct comparative study has to be done fast, because the renovation-rehabilitation train is already moving north. Dilapidated houses with signs announcing renovation are numerous,  especially near the famous historic Findlay Market, one of the oldest public markets, it is still in its original structure from 1852.
Findlay Market, Over the Rhine (Photo: Philipsen)

So, how did all this rehabilitation in Over the Rhine happen? Politico explains:
And it didn’t happen by accident. Virtually everything that’s occurred in Over-the-Rhine—from the placement of the trees in the park to the curation of ground floor businesses—has been meticulously planned and engineered by a single, corporate-funded and decidedly non-governmental entity.
The non governmental non profit this refers to is locally known as 3CDC (the Central Cincinnati Development Corporation). It was created 2003 by former Mayor Luken and a bunch of corporate types in response to the city's race riot of 2001. (Here an assessment of that unrest by the New Republic written in 2014 before Baltimore's unrest but after Ferguson). How similar the Cincinnatti events of 2001 were to Baltimore's is incredible, even the date: Rioters in Cincinnati looted businesses, burned buildings, and even pulled white motorists from their cars and beat them on April 13, 2001, six days after a white police officer fired a fatal shot on an unarmed young black man, Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken declared a state of emergency, called in the state highway patrol and announced a curfew for 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. The curfew largely worked, and the unrest subsided. After the riots, the ACLU, Cincinnati Black United Front, the city of Cincinnati and police union settled an ACLU law suit with the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement, which made numerous changes to police protocol.

So it wasn't a bunch of greedy investors coming in to pluck a low hanging fruit. It wasn't simply that a city came to its senses through violence and implemented actual change either although there was police reform and a massive investment in an African American neighborhood characterized by abandonment, lack of services and disinvestment. The story isn't simple. The struggles of Over the Rhine (OtR) just like the struggles of Baltimore involve freeways (African Americans displaced by Cincinnati's freeways were pushed into Over the Rhine), it involved a white left leaning liberal activist (Buddy Gray in OtR, Alan Tibbels in Sandtown), and it included complicated struggles over historic preservation and the gentrification that was feared to come from it; a debate that also played out in Baltimore's Fells Point. Gray's fight against declaring OtR a National Register District and to to reserve OtR for poor people, and especially Gray's violent death at the hands of a deranged homeless acquaintance, doesn't have a parallel in Baltimore. Yet, the completely disinvested OtR should serve as a lesson to all those in Baltimore who rather have no investment than gentrification.

Luken, who was Mayor during the 2001 unrest, told Politico:
“The riots completely ended it for me with the Gray point of view,  I was worried about the future of the city. After the riots, it was really like, ‘Will the last person turn out the lights?’ But out of desperation comes innovation.” (former Mayor Luken)
The innovation at the time was that some Cincinnati corporate leaders of the city felt that it was time to do something. They brought in a New York real estate consultant for advice who later also advised DC about the Anacostia River, John Alschuler. He recalls that at the time, everyone was rallying behind a waterfront project that he, in terms of revitalizing downtown, considered doomed to fail. He told Politico

“I said you have to deal with the heart of the matter, which isn’t underutilized land down by the river, but at the heart of the city—at Fountain Square and Over-the-Rhine. The whole city has a stake in Over-the-Rhine.” (Alschuler)
Alschuler advised not to issue "another study". Nothing has come of all the ones released before. Instead, create a private entity with the capacity to deliver change at Fountain Square and Over-the-Rhine, devote capital to it, and hire the foremost talent in the country to staff it. That idea, in fact, he may have taken from Baltimore. It is precisely the recipe from which the Charles Center and Inner Harbor development corporations were created that were later merged to become BDC. But while in Baltimore the big action ended with Charles Center and the Inner Harbor, Cincinnati dealt not only with its downtown but then continued with its big adjacent neighborhood to the north, Over the Rhine. But this isn't the only difference.

The Cincinnati CDC was entirely corporate, to the extent that even the city's planning department had been abolished. Unlike BDC, which is essentially a city agency, at 3CDC not one person from the city sat on the board. This aspect may make many squeamish who don't believe in the general benevolence of corporations even though, in the case of the 3CDC, they put the money where there mouth was. As Politico reports, the Cincinnati business community provided startup funding with a $17 million fund it had set up to buy and improve real estate. The city would support 3CDC with various tax incentives and participant for federal community development grants. 3CDC would seek federal support using New Market tax credits intended for distressed areas. Procter & Gamble and the other corporate players kicked in $50 million to buy and bank properties and committed to a $1.2 million annual contribution for operating expenses. Thus, corporations provided all the direct funding. Over 1,000 properties in Over the Rhine were acquired by 3CDC, including liquor stores to dry them up (an effort attempted in Baltimore through the new zoning code). The organization moved  their offices into the community and developed a strategy of moving rehabilitation north block by block. 3CDC also managed the mix and type of incoming businesses, for example by successfully keeping national chains out.

Bryant Park in New York is usually named as the national model for a successful urban park redevelopment. But maybe Bryant Park has to step aside as the precedent of choice in favor of Washington Park located on the western flank of Over the Rhine. The make-over of that open space that had become a liability similar to what Patterson Park in Baltimore had once become, cost $47 million. 3CDC worked in collaboration with the city and its parks commission, starting in 2010. The park was enlarged from six to eight acres and fully reprogrammed including adjacent art oriented uses such as the Music Hall and a School for Creative and Performing Arts. The massive intervention was completed in 2013 and from looking at it even on a grey and cold spring day in 2017, the community has taken a hold of it. (Baltimore is trying a similar strategy with its "from scratch" Eager Park in the EBDI redevelopment).

Land banking, business management, housing, open spaces. An additional element is transportation. Cincinnati has only one rail transit line and it is a streetcar that connects downtown with the riverfront to the south a Over the Rhine to the north, an investment that allows residents and tourists easy access to the downtown transit hub. It is called the Cincinnati Bell Connector. The system opened operation late in 2016 after various starts and stops, including two defeated referenda against it, another story by itself.
Streetcar stop in Over the Rhine (Photo: Philipsen)

Not surprisingly, the gentrification of the south half of Over the Rhine has its detractors. The almost reversal of a majority black community to a 60% white community (census) is suspicious, even if one has to account for the fact that a lot more people live there now and that the numbers don't necessarily mean that 30% of the African American community has been displaced. The loss of basketball courts in Washington Park looks suspicious as well. The homeless who camped out in the park are now congregating in north OtR, especially on the steps of the Brother Tim’s friary where the stench of urine permeates the area. Once again, its not that simple. 3CDC also spent $43 million for improving homeless shelters, secured financing for low-income and subsidized housing, and built mixed-income projects throughout Over the Rhine. Their is a local hiring effort for residents for maintenance, cleaning and customer service jobs in the public spaces it manages and other services.

The gradual transformation of Over the Rhine isn't the ultimate solution for the city's extremely high poverty rate of over 30% in 2015. The national average is around 15% and Baltimore's rate is about 20% after a slight improvement in recent years. The search for the perfect way of adding investment, diversity, middle class residents without simply pushing poverty around is still on, in Baltimore, in New Orleans, in Detroit and in Cincinnati. In the end there isn't a silver bullet but a patchwork of best practices that must be cobbled together for each city individually. Purist single-trick-pony approaches (work only for existing residents, build only for the poor, just get as many millennials as possible) have been tried and they almost never worked. Almost all older cities share an astoundingly large set of common systemic problems. What is important though, is to look around and learn and stop simply blaming whatever individuals that happen to be in charge at the moment.  Good leadership is incredibly important in shepherding good solutions, rarely though did leaders individually create the problems.

Over the Rhine teaches that revitalization of a very poor area is possible if it is based on strength (proximity to downtown, historic architecture) and on a systematic approach combined with significant resources. As far as Baltimore's Westside: Over the Rhine shows that small scale retail spaces can be revived and filled without resorting to Starbucks and Chipotle. The most important lesson is how the Findlay Market operates: In municipal hands, leased and managed by a private non-profit which raised significant private funds for renovations, with a strong orientation towards fresh foods, with an architecture that relates to the outside and in tandem with a host of specialty stores expanding on the market theme in the adjacent streets.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
the lessons of Over the Rhine in the last paragraph were added in an update

How Cincinnati saved America's most dangerous neighborhood (Politico 2016)

Photo Gallery (all photos by author unless otherwise noted)

Restored storefronts on Vine Street

Architectural variety Main Street style

German vestiges in Findlays Market

Unlike Baltimore's markets Findlays market spills into the area around it

African American boxing hero mural, bail bond add and abandonment along Liberty Road

Specialty stores next to Findlay's Market

meeting the community needs: Store in North Over the Rhine

Homeless on the church steps

signs indicating rehabilitation is underway

A church that became a brew-house

Old World charm in Over the Rhine

There ist still much abandonment

Aerial view of Over the Rhine (Politico)