Cincinnati's Sweet Spot

News: 30, March 2018

We visited Cincinnati last month to work with Mayor John Cranley and his team on a range of issues. If you haven’t been, go. The food, architecture and culture are all on par with any great city in the country. It’s a pretty special place, but it wasn’t always so glamorous.

Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine District was, until very recently, plagued by poverty and crime, its tenements run by slumlords who failed to provide upkeep for the district’s low-income residents. At one point, the area was designated among the most dangerous neighborhoods in America.

But something remarkable has happened. Thanks to a focused public-private partnership—a phrase that is often bandied about, but rarely implemented so effectively—Over-the-Rhine bustles with life and is now a desirable place to call home. Once abandoned and avoided at all costs, the neighborhood is being hailed as “one of the country’s most promising food scenes,” with a revitalized central square with technicolor water jets, and cities across the country are reaching out to the people behind this rapid turnaround in the hopes of replicating their success.

Jutting up against the city’s downtown, Over-the-Rhine has long been an architectural wonder. Named for the Germans who settled here in the 1800s, the area brims with brick Italianate and German Revival buildings, together making up one of the most intact urban historical districts in the U.S. Over the years, it fell on hard times and suffered more than its share of problems, which were exacerbated by extreme racial tension. After a police officer killed an unarmed African-American teenager, the city erupted in three days of rioting.

It was a turning point, and the city determined to turn a corner, beginning with a concerted effort to reform the police department and improve relations with the community. In 2003, the former mayor of Cincinnati, Charles Luken, and the City Council decided something must be done to combat decay in the inner city. Joining forces with the city’s wealthiest corporations, including Macy’s and Proctor & Gamble, he formed a group called 3CDC to revive its ailing streets. The nonprofit has leveraged its private capital and public investment over the years to more than $1.5 billion. 3CDC has rescued 160 historic buildings that were in danger of collapse and constructed 48 new ones over the past 12 years, transforming derelict blocks into storefronts for cheesemongers. They buy the buildings, renovate and manage them, and create great spaces to live, work, and recreate.

Every detail of this renovation has been meticulously planned to discourage crime and urban blight — from the installation of bright new street lights to the closing of notorious liquor stores and the development of vacant lots.

3CDC has also sought to ensure the area remains mixed-income and supports its most vulnerable citizens. In addition to adding 320 shelter beds, the group has secured financing for low-income and subsidized housing. Some of these investments have helped local social-service agencies grow — including Shelterhouse, which was able to triple the agency’s footprint to 100,000 square feet with added funding from 3CDC. And because so much of the district was vacant and abandoned, Over-the-Rhine hasn’t suffered the displacement common in other cities from the influx of new tenants into once-blighted neighborhoods.

Unsurprisingly, cities across the county are looking to replicate 3CDC’s success, creating public-private partnerships in the hopes of revitalizing long neglected neighborhoods. In Atlanta, a nonprofit group called Westside Future Fund is joining with corporations like Chick-fil-A and Home Depot to fill vacant buildings west of downtown, provide career education and improve local parks. U.S. Bank has been awarded a $29.5 million federal grant to rehabilitate the Northside of St. Louis, creating new housing complexes and funding social-service agencies, including a micro-loan program.

“We want to make sure that Atlanta continues to be a place that’s affordable to all,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said during the unveiling of plans for the first Westside Future Fund apartment complex. “This is a start.”

As with any ambitious development project, there has been some pushback and claims of gentrification which are crucial issues for the Accelerator and for the nation. Criticism alone must not stop the opportunity to set the standard for equitable neighborhood development. Our colleague and Advisory Council member Angela Glover Blackwell of Policy Link has added greatly to our work on equity in all of our plans.

Cities would do well to consider the many lessons to learn from the way 3CDC took over a neighborhood long in decline: from the way the corporation enticed local businesses to the area to its efforts to improve public parks and pools and add new public transportation.

Loads more affordable housing is on the horizon, too, which should help residents feel included in Over-the-Rhine’s future. The area certainly has the space: Back in the 19th century, Over-the-Rhine was one of the densest neighborhoods in the Western world and home to an entertainment district that was said to rival European capitals. Walking its streets, we got the sense the neighborhood wasn’t far from recapturing its former glory.