Over the last 15 years, commercial development along the perimeters of the University of Cincinnati (UC) has been transformational, likely to a scale that few people anticipated could happen. Now the neighborhood is looking at the largest development yet, with both optimism and concern regarding its ultimate impact on residents.
Members of the CUF community (Clifton Heights, University Heights, and Fairview Heights neighborhoods) attended a weeklong workshop held at Hughes High School at the beginning of August to discuss plans for “The District at Clifton Heights.” The host was Indianapolis-based developer Trinitas Ventures, which has acquired the 5.8-acre site of the former Deaconess Hospital medical campus along Straight Street, immediately west of Clifton Avenue and UC’s main gate entrance.
Trinitas is proposing a $300 million project, which would make it one of the biggest budget single-site projects in recent city history. By comparison, the U-Square at the Loop project, which covers four city blocks on UC’s southern edge between Calhoun and West McMillan streets, was budgeted at $68 million.
That difference in scale is causing both excitement and concern for CUF residents, who all live in close proximity to UC.
The Deaconess structures — save for one parking garage — will be gone. Phase One of the project is already well underway, with a residential facility designed for up to 1,000 students under construction on the northwest end of the property, and slated to be ready by UC’s fall semester of 2019.
The rest is three to five years in the making, and the topic of this month’s discussion involved what that will look like and how it will fit in with the existing community.
“I think it’s really important that they get this right,” says Linda Zeigler, the president of the CUF Community Council until her term expired last week. Zeigler has a documented history of major concerns with how the city overall has dealt with CUF over the last 15 years in their desires to try and preserve residential and other traditional aspects of the CUF neighborhoods to help create a sense of community beyond just immediate student needs.
As a homeowner who lives a block away from the new development, she also has close-to-home concerns about whether the project will dwarf her neighborhood — in a literal sense, with two proposed high-rise towers up to 200 feet tall — along with other closer-to-the-ground issues such as street parking overload, a concern that is widely felt all across the CUF neighborhoods.
Trinitas Senior Vice President for Development Aaron Bartels says market research showed obvious initial opportunities for student housing, but also sufficient demand for street-level retail and dining, a potential hotel, office opportunities, and a mix of other residential options.
“With that as our starting point, we engaged in community conversations with neighbors and stakeholders within the community,” Bartels says. That led to the community open-studio sessions that were just completed.
Trinitas heard some specific community concerns regarding how the character of the Straight Street corridor will be impacted, both on the ground and in the air.
“There’s beautiful architecture in the neighborhood, and we want to take advantage of that,” he says. “Part of the feedback was there are a lot of monumental towers or spires of the various churches and Hughes High School, and various architecture from the university. So, if we’re going to have an iconic tall building, how can we embellish what’s there and make it compatible with what’s already there in the community?”
Some residents expressed excitement about the possibilities for rooftop amenities and gardens that would take advantage of Clifton Heights’ status as one of the highest points in the city with unique views of downtown, the surrounding valleys, and the sun setting to the west over the Ohio River.
At the street level, there was support for creating wider pedestrian spaces than what currently exists in Calhoun and surrounding public areas so that dining and retail can share the walkway with visitors. Initial suggestions included a building with a cinema on the upper floors and a bowling alley below, as well as an organic grocery.
Much discussion took place around the overall mass of the proposed buildings compared to how the neighborhood has been defined by the Deaconess buildings. “The hospital was pretty tall to begin with,” Bartels says, “and we may be extending three or four floors above that. But there are ways you can sculpt a building and reorient it, so it doesn’t have a solid face all the way down Straight Street. We can turn the buildings and minimize some of the impact on the street.”
Jack Martin is a CUF Community Board member who attended most of the project discussion sessions. The board has not met since to discuss their official reactions, but Martin saw some things that he believes can benefit the community.
“People are concerned about the density of population and that being too close to them,” he says. “But I’ve always also thought the day would come for our neighborhood that they actually would develop it for real people, and not just for students. And this seems to be the kind of tipping point project, where they are talking about 425 apartments or condos that would be market rate, and we’ll finally be able to sell the views we have in our neighborhood, which are 360 degrees and not just downtown and the river.”
“Some of us,” he continues, “are looking forward to that, where we would actually be a grown-up neighborhood.”