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Righteous Room operators opening "neighborhood bar" in OTR

Cincinnati bar entrepreneurs - Four Entertainment Group (4EG) are spreading to the Gateway Quarter of Over-the-Rhine late this summer in the form of a 900 sq ft pub called The Lackman.

The eighth project on a list that has included The Righteous Room, The Stand and Mount Adams Pavilion, The Lackman is intended to be a "neighborhood bar" for the growing community in the Gateway Quarter, 4EG partner Bob Deck said.

While many of their other projects feature dance floors and bustling weekend crowds, The Lackman will be styled as a classic corner pub with wood trim, televisions for sporting events, a selection of craft beers and an "eclectic jukebox," Deck said.

"It's going to be a corner bar that we hope will anchor the progression of that neighborhood," Deck said. "The kind of place you can meet friends for happy hour or sample a couple of beers and watch the game."

Deck said he hopes the bar will provide a sense of place for those who live in the OTR gateway quarter and also play off the success of Senate, an eatery that opened there this spring, to attract more visitors to OTR.

"Hopefully the places that are going in down there will feed off of each other and encourage people to come to the area," Deck said. "It's set up to be a destination area."

The pub will be located in The Lackman Lofts Building, which was recently renovated and parceled into condominiums. It once housed a brewery and pub during the golden days of OTR, Deck said. The Lackman will be the second establishment, after Senate, to open in the Gateway Quarter with the financial and logistical support of 3CDC, the development group that is driving a massive redevelopment of that area, 3CDC development manager Adam Gelter said.

He said his group approached 4EG about the project after they worked together to open the Righteous Room in downtown Cincinnati last year. In both projects 3CDC provided a loan, assisted with planning issues and helped to secure necessary permits, Gelter said.

Gelter said 3CDC is in the early stages of playing the same role for other bar and eatery projects in the Gateway Quarter.

Writer: Henry Sweets
Photography by Scott Beseler

$45M Mercer Commons development to transform large swath of Over-the-Rhine

In December 2009, the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) landed $4.2 million in historic tax credits from the State of Ohio.  That money will cover almost 10 percent of the $45 million development project that will restore 19 historic buildings and build three new mixed-use buildings, and 14 townhomes.  The project will include approximately 15,000 square feet of first-floor commercial space, 155 residential units and a four-level, 275-space parking garage.

The 2.2 acre Mercer Commons site has long been a sticking point in Over-the-Rhine.  Negotiations to sell the land from Cincinnati Public Schools to 3CDC took some time, and the scale of the site has made it a difficult development prospect for a neighborhood still in the midst of a dramatic urban revitalization.

Officials at 3CDC are hoping that with the tax credit and recent momentum in the immediate area, that now is the time to move forward.  New designs have been released and the debate is shifting from whether the project will happen, to how its impact will be felt in the historic neighborhood.

"The Mercer Commons project has the ability to infuse dramatic change through Over-the-Rhine with its large footprint and modern aesthetic," described Greg Meckstroth, Urban Designer with RW Armstrong.  "Ironically, the projectís transformative nature has given way to the neighborhood's traditional urban forms, something that is reflected in the plan's urban design.  Ultimately, this is the project's greatest achievement."

The plan calls for a new structure along Vine Street with a modern appeal that will stand in stark contrast with the existing 19th Century building stock nearby.  The new above-ground parking garage will be hidden behind a mixed-use building constructed along Vine Street.  Meanwhile, historic structures will be restored throughout the site while new infill structures are mixed in to fill existing open lots.

"A great aspect of this urban design is its respect for the current traditional form while still infusing the neighborhood with a modern aesthetic," Meckstroth explained.  "There is little to complain about this design.  It's urban, compact, contextually sensitive, and handles the parking garage beautifully, tucking the structure behind the street wall and forcing it towards the center of the block."

3CDC President Steve Leeper has stated that the goal is to include both market-rate and affordable housing units in the completed project, while also leaving as many buildings intact on the site as possible.  But as far as design goes, the envelope seems like it will once again be pushed in Over-the-Rhine as new infill projects mingle with historic structures in one of America's greatest urban neighborhoods.

"This design, along with 14/v and Trinity Flats, is truly raising the bar for high quality urban design in Cincinnati," Meckstroth continued.  "As these condo and apartment units continue to fill up, solidifying this model of urbanism as a solid financial investment in the City, expect even better, higher quality urban designs in the future."

Writer: Randy A. Simes
Rendering Provided
Stay connected by following Randy on Twitter @UrbanCincy

Cincinnati casino could set bar for urban casino design

Cincinnati leaders expect Ohio's first casino to be developed on the Broadway Commons site located on the edge of downtown Cincinnati.  Developers hope to break ground on the $350-400 million project later this year, with a grand opening planned for sometime in 2012.  One issue in Cincinnati is the design of the casino and how it fits into the surrounding historic neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton.  Luckily for Cincinnati, Rock Ventures, developers of the casino, appear willing to design a casino that engages the neighborhood.

"Cincinnati could set the bar for what an urban casino could be," said Aaron Renn, Urban Policy Analyst from Chicago, during a panel discussion at the 2010 Commercial Developers Power Breakfast.  "The developers will have to make something that engages the community though."

During the discussion Renn emphasized that the plans sound great, and that if Rock Ventures follows through on their promises, Cincinnati will get something truly special and unique.

Matt Cullen, Principal of the Cincinnati Casino and self-described "city guy," highlighted the project and discussed how Rock Ventures wants to work with the community to deliver a great product.  Cullen also described their interest in developing an urban casino.

"Cincinnati is a city of outstanding neighborhoods, and we bought the ultimate fixer-upper and prepare to give it the ultimate makeover," said Cullen in describing the troubled Broadway Commons site.  "A successful region in this global economy must be built around a great urban core," Cullen explained.

Once complete, the Cincinnati Casino is estimated to generate close to $21 million for the City of Cincinnati, $12 million for Hamilton County and $14 million for public schools annually in tax revenue.  Neighborhood proponents are excited about thousands of new temporary and permanent jobs, an estimated 6 million visits annually and new investment spurring from the development that will be more than typically seen with an inward-facing casino design.

"We've been getting a lot of calls from people who own property in the area who are ready to do something with it," said Patrick Ewing, Interim Director of Cincinnati's Economic Development Division.

Cullen stopped short of promising a truly urban design, but did commit in writing to work closely with the City, County and State; engage in local and minority hiring practices; work with the local business community to increase economic impact; and to use existing local hotels.

"This will be the first great urban casino in the United States," exclaimed Cullen.  "We plan to fill 90 to 95 percent of the jobs with Cincinnati-area residents, and we want to be a part of downtown and drive business to local hotels, restaurants and bars.  We don't want to be an island...if we wanted that we would have been on another site."

Writer: Randy A. Simes
Rendering Provided
Stay connected by following Randy on Twitter @UrbanCincy

Bold design sought for Brent Spence Bridge replacement

In the coming weeks six design alternatives for the Brent Spence Bridge replacement will be narrowed to three.  From there Ohio and Kentucky's respective Departments of Transportation will decide on the final bridge design.

The new bridge will eventually cost somewhere between $2-3 billion and relieve traffic from the existing congested and unsafe river crossing.  The OKI Regional Council of Governments estimates that some $400 billion worth of commodities travel across the bridge every year presently, with an estimated $815 billion crossing annually by 2030.

As the project moves forward in the coming weeks and months, some project members are concerned about the lack of public engagement thus far given the large scope of the project and the long-standing impact the bridge's design will leave on the community.

"This bridge will leave a major impact on the region for decades to come," said Miguel Rosales, President, Rosales+Partners.  "I am glad the city leaders and residents will help guide the selection of the final bridge design in the months to come."

To date, the cable-stayed bridge designs have been the most popular in online voting along with an arched bridge design similar in appearance to the Daniel Carter Beard "Big Mac" Bridge that carries I-471 traffic across the Ohio River on downtown Cincinnati's eastern edge.

"This is the number one priority for our region because the Brent Spence Bridge is a safety hazard and a major choke point for two interstates," said Brian Cunningham, OKI spokesperson, in a previous interview with Soapbox Media.

Once engineering and environmental studies are completed, the construction and development of the new bridge will take several years and create the largest double-deck bridge in the world, and one of the highest capacity bridges anywhere.  The new bridge will carry six driving lanes on each of the two levels of the bridge for I-75 and I-71 traffic over the Ohio River.

Writer: Randy A. Simes
Rendering Provided
Stay connected by following Randy on Twitter @UrbanCincy

Cincinnati City Council approves $64M in bonds to fund modern streetcar system

Cincinnati City Council's Budget & Finance Committee voted 6-2 to approve $64 million in bonds for the city's proposed streetcar system on Monday, May 10th.  The move is the first bold commitment from City Hall in terms of financing for the project to date, and is seen as a strong signal to the Federal government that there is local support for the project.

"This project can help us grow our tax base without growing our tax rate," described Brad Thomas, founder of CincyStreetcar.com.  "The approval of these bonds will send a clear message to Washington D.C. that Cincinnati is serious about this project, and will strongly position Cincinnati for the next two rounds of Federal funds."

Specifically, the vote approved three separate bonds that were made up of $11 million from the Blue Ash Airport sale proceeds, $28 million from General Capital sources and $25 million from Tax Increment Financing (TIF) sources.  The General Capital and TIF bonds were strengthened with proceeds from the sale of the Blue Ash Airport.  Beyond the technical proceedings, several young people spoke about the future benefits the project will have on the city and its citizen's quality of life.

"I'm really excited about what I'm seeing in this city, and I'm very excited about the prospect of urban living and more transportation options," said Xavier University student Adam Clark.  "It's very important that we provide these options, and I'm looking forward to riding the streetcar soon."

During Council's deliberations, Council member Jeff Berding asked Cincinnati Budget Director if the Blue Ash Airport sale proceeds could legally be used for cover the City's pension fund or close the City's Operation Budget deficit.  The City's Budget Director proceeded to give a direct and clear message that those funds could not be legally used for the City's pension.

The meeting heard 10 public comments that ranged from local entrepreneurs, students and residents in support of the Cincinnati Streetcar project.  Tim Mara, a lawyer representing Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending & Taxes (COAST) member Mark Miller, was the one public comment in opposition to the project and threatened a lawsuit against Council member Chris Bortz should he vote on the issue.  On April 19, 2010, City Council voted to approve $2.6 million in bonds for the project and had 29 public comments in favor of the Cincinnati Streetcar project with just three in opposition.

The meeting was once again defined by the participation of young people in the political process with several of the public comments coming from young professionals and students alike.

"This has been one of the single issues that has involved a diverse group of people, and has involved more young people in the decision making process in the future of Cincinnati," Council member Laketa Cole stated.  "People always ask me where the young people are, and I can say that young people have been up in the front on this issue from day one making their voices heard.  That is something I'm excited about."

Chris Bortz, Jeff Berding, Roxanne Qualls, Laure Quinlivan, Cecil Thomas and Laketa Cole voted in favor of approving $64 million in bonds while Chris Monzel and Charlie Winburn voted in opposition.  Leslie Ghiz was not present.  The vote will go to the full City Council meeting on Wednesday, May 5th for a final vote where it is expected to pass by a similar vote.

Writer: Randy A. Simes
Stay connected by following Randy on Twitter @UrbanCincy

XU MBA's have a plan for Main Street revitalization

Fresh eyes are bringing fresh ideas for how to make Main Street in Over-the-Rhine anything but Main Street USA.

A team of Xavier University MBA students is partnering with the OTR Chamber of Commerce to help develop a business plan that aims to revitalize Main Street north of Central Parkway, imagining a progressive and balanced district that is a hub of IT commercial opportunities, blended with retail and entertainment destinations.

Early in 2010, Brian Tiffany, President of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce, reached out to students in a course called "New Venture Creation," an entrepreneurial-focused capstone in Xavier's MBA program, and described how students might assist the Chamber. Tiffany explains why the student-involvement was so attractive to him, saying "We need fresh ideas. If I say this is my idea, it can automatically put [Main Street stakeholders] on the defensive."

Eight weeks after Tiffany's presentation, a student team of Joel Willis, Jesse Martinez, Scott Armacost, and Madhukar Srivastava presented a 36-page proposal of ideas to Tiffany, covering issues of Vision, Organization, Marketing, and Best Practice Sharing.  The students were drawn to what they saw as a common cause. "Entrepreneurship and business-skills in general don't always have to focus specifically on financial profit," Willis says. "The same principles can be applied to increase the economic value in a region, translating into a higher quality of life."

Ongoing development success on Vine Street in OTR both demonstrates that increased economic value is attainable and provides inspiration for what Main Street can and could be. Martinez believes, "[Main Street] needs to differ from Vine, but it has the opportunity to be part of a bigger family."  While Vine and Main could each benefit from a potential symbiotic relationship, Main Street Revitalization efforts might be able to get off the ground even faster than the rapid growth that has occurred just blocks away. 

"It's going to be a lot closer to the [Broadway Commons] casino," Martinez says. "Cincinnati has an opportunity to take advantage of that exposure."  With millions of investment dollars tied to the casino, the team specifically recommends exploring partnerships with proven, well-known business that might want to piggyback on that exposure and development by expanding into an additional location on Main Street.

Indeed, stability and longevity are key goals for both the OTR Chamber and the students' proposal. While Main Street briefly exploded into Cincinnati's premier nightlife destination in the mid-2000's before shrinking back to a handful of still-successful nightspots, Tiffany and the student team imagine a new Main Street that grows steadily through balanced investment, with the food and entertainment options complementing the forthcoming casino, and retail options and office employment spurring daytime-vitality. 

Tiffany sees a Main Street with dual identities between business hours to after-hours, and says that the opportunity to achieve that is ripe, thanks to previous development efforts and the Chamber's current Business First grant program, which offers rent subsidies and matching grants for improvements and signage.  He states, "The infrastructure is there, and it's attractive financially."

Adopting elements of the proposed plan into a development strategy will come next, and Tiffany believes the source for the plan can help win over local stakeholders, thanks to the objectivity and creativity of the students.  "This plan comes from people not even from Over-the-Rhine," he points out. "With some brains behind it."

Writer: Jeremy Mosher
Photography by Scott Beseler

$10M Parvis Lofts project nearing completion in historic Over-the-Rhine

The first three phases of concentrated investment in historic Over-the-Rhine's Gateway Quarter are now complete.  Totalling close to 200 new housing units, of which 61% have been sold,  the Quarter also boasts 47,000 square feet of commercial space with 19 spaces leased out of a total 33.  That success is now rolling into the fourth phase with its first project, Parvis Lofts.

The $10 million development was funded through a combination of City grant funds, State and Federal historic tax credits, New Market tax credits and a loan from the Cincinnati Equity Fund.  Parvis Lofts is located in the 1400 block of Vine Street near recent infill projects like Trinity Flats and Fourteenth & Vine.  The block of historic structures extends along the majority of the block all the way to the buildings that house Smitty's which were recently ravaged by fire, but saved from the wrecking ball.

Joining Parvis Lofts in the Phase IV of Gateway Quarter development is Saengerhalle and Westfalen Lofts on Race Street and the large Mercer Commons project.  Altogether the projects represent $70 million in development costs and will create an additional 200 housing units, 63,000 square feet of commercial space and 300 parking spaces.  Parvis Lofts, being developed by NorthPointe Group, will be the first apartments developed to date in the Gateway Quarter.

"Up until now there has only been for-sale product developed in the Q, and we have received numerous requests for rental options," explained J.T. Barse with NorthPointe.  "Like the Gateway Quarter as a whole, the project is aimed at attracting people that want to live in and embrace Cincinnati's urban core."

The completed project will create 32 one- and two-bedroom apartments ranging from $600 to $1,800 a month.  Along Vine Street, 600-4,500 square-foot commercial spaces are being created that are also for lease.  Based on previous successes, Northpointe is excited about the Parvis Lofts project and their two other Phase IV projects - Saengerhalle and Westfalen Lofts.

"NorthPointe has been an integral part of the Gateway Quarter from the very beginning of the project," said Barse.  "Together with HGC construction we have developed Duncanson Lofts and Mottainai, both of which have sold out."

The first six units of Parvis Lofts will be complete by June 1, 2010 with the rest being completed by September 1, 2010.  According to NorthPointe officials, the project has been underway since October 2009 and has employed several hundred people along the way.

Units within the Parvis Lofts project include hardwood flooring, washers and dryers, Cincinnati Bell fiber-optic service, "dramatic" window openings, secure off-street parking and a landscaped outdoor area with a grill behind the structure.  Those interested in living opportunities can schedule a tour, or submit applications now by calling Karen Malone at (513) 835-2110.

Writer: Randy A. Simes
Photography by Tiffani Fisher
Stay connected by following Randy on Twitter @UrbanCincy

Cincinnati celebrates new Green Learning Station in Avondale

The Civic Garden Center in Avondale was the gathering point to celebrate the groundbreaking for the Green Learning Station.  The $1.2 million project will eventually transform an old gas station into a learning station that will be a "state-of-the-art laboratory for sustainable practices to gardens and the systems that support them."

The facility - the first of its kind in the Cincinnati region - is striving for LEED-Gold certification.  As a result, the groundbreaking celebrations attracted local leaders like Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, Brenda and Jim Tarbell, the Board of the Civic Garden Center and even Ohio First Lady Frances Strickland.

"I am thrilled to be here to support the development of the Green Learning Station," said First Lady Strickland at the groundbreaking ceremony on Friday.  "I applaud the Civic Garden Center for pursuing this initiative to provide a free, interactive green gardening and stormwater management learning opportunity for students and the community in southwest Ohio."

As part of the transformative project, the asphalt parking lot of the former SOHIO gas station will be replaced by pervious paving, bioswales and rainwater harvesting units that will capture most of the rainwater that falls onto the surrounding ground.  There will also be three types of green roof systems installed on the Green Learning Station in addition to the region's first sloped green roof on the neighboring Park District building.

The Green Learning Station (map) itself will be used to "educate and inspire school children and their families about sustainable practices" through its green systems in place and by demonstrating affordable technology solutions that can be implemented at home.  Officials with the project also note that home builders, developers and public officials will be able to use it as a demonstration site on how to incorporate green technology into residences, businesses and public spaces.

Green building and sustainability industries have been taking off in Cincinnati recently with the opening of several new businesses and the incorporation of several progressive sustainable technologies that are helping position Cincinnati as a green building and sustainability leader nationally.

Cincinnati-based HGC Construction is building the $1.2 million project and its expected to be complete and open to the public by fall 2010.  The project has been supported financially through a $2 million fund-raising campaign for education by the Civic Garden Center.

Writer: Randy A. Simes
Photography by provided
Stay connected by following Randy on Twitter @UrbanCincy

University of Cincinnati starts new bike share program just in time for Bike Month

Just in time for Bike Month this May, the University of Cincinnati has rolled out the region's first bike share program.  The Bearcat Bike Share program debuted on Earth Day, and is available to all UC students, faculty and staff.

"The idea of a bike share program had been bounced around by students for the past couple of years," explained Shawn Tubb, UC Sustainability Coordinator.  "In December 2009 we completed the bike plan and the bike share program was a big part of it, and it just seemed like a logical first start and something we could easily implement."

The program has started out with 30 bicycles at four different locations on both East and West campuses in Uptown.  In large part, the program was made possible thanks to support from Huffy Bicycles, UC Undergraduate Student Government Association who contributed $7,000, the UC Foundation, Reser Bicycle Outfitters, UC College-Conservatory of Music Tribunal, UC Facilities Management and UC Planning+Design+Construction.

The majority of the bicycles are found at the Campus Recreation Center (CRC) and can be checked out much like books at a library.  The bicycles can then be used on- or off-campus, but must be returned by the end of the CRC's business hours.  Bicycles are also stationed at University Hall and the Central Utility Plant on East Campus, and University Paviliion on West Campus.

The pilot program is scheduled to last approximately six months. Officials hope to expand the scope of the Bearcat Bike Share Program to include more bicycles and additional resources.

"We're hoping to encourage some more faculty and administrators to use bikes to go back-and-forth between East and West campus," said Tubb.  "It's a good way to decrease automobile use and get people more comfortable with cycling in the city."

Tubb also described how the Bearcat Bike Share program does interface with the City's Bike Plan, and could eventually work together with future plans for a city-wide bike share program comparable to those found in Washington, D.C. and Paris.  In the mean time though, Tubb is hoping to expand upon the initial $18,500 program by implementing a shop where bicyclists can come for repair work and other needs to help create a stronger bicycling culture.

"The bike plan UC did helps to incrementally change the culture in Cincinnati about the city not being a good city for bicycling," Tubb explained.  "When we put the survey out to students we got 2,100 responses with most saying they weren't comfortable when it came to riding safety in the city, so we want to give them the tools on how to do it safely.  The more bicycles there are on the road, the safer it will get."

Across the United States there have been about 80 colleges and universities to institute similar programs.  In addition to the new program, UC will also be hosting workshops as part of the university's free Sustainability Workshop Series.  The first such workshop will focus on urban riding and safety tonight at 5pm at the Catskeller on UC's West Campus (map), with the second focusing on repair and maintenance on Tuesday, May 11 - also at the Catskeller at 5pm.

Writer: Randy A. Simes
Photography by Scott Beseler and Dottie Stover
Stay connected by following Randy on Twitter @UrbanCincy

Cincinnati MSD sustainability efforts getting national attention

It has been 30 years since the federal government called for the elimination of sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) and a reduction of discharges from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) through the Clean Water Act.  Many cities are still trying to solve their SSO and CSO problems, but Cincinnati's efforts are fairly unique among other municipalities.

The crux of the issue in Cincinnati deals with combined sewer overflows - when a pipe carrying both solid waste (what goes down your toilet) and excess water runoff is overflowed by heavy rainfall.  The rainfall causes the two elements to mix, resulting in solid waste flowing in local waterways that provide our drinking water, and where our wildlife and ecosystem survives. 

There are a couple ways to go about solving this problem, with many communities taking the concrete solution of building additional, separate pipes for the two different elements.  Cincinnati's problem, primarily along the Mill Creek Corridor, is one that local officials are looking to solve with a green solution - one that is getting noticed nationwide.

Cincinnati officials contend that if you reduce the amount of stormwater runoff, you will reduce or eliminate the overflows in the existing network.  As a result, engineers and planners are examining how this might be done through rain gardens, wetlands, green roofs and other green solutions along the Mill Creek Corridor.  A tangible example of this is the new Wastewater Engineering Center that MSD has built in Lower Price Hill along the Mill Creek Corridor, that includes the latest green building techniques.

The payoff is potentially huge both financially and environmentally.  Environmentalists have longed for the reclamation of the Mill Creek Corridor which is already underway through efforts like the Mill Creek Restoration Project, Revive I-75 Vision Plan and the GO Cincinnati report which recommends an economic future of green businesses and industries along the corridor.

In spring 2007, Cincinnati City Council even passed a motion requiring Municipal Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) to form a test project that would determine the effectiveness of such green strategies in reducing stormwater runoff in an urban setting, with the ultimate goal of reducing the volume of stormwater going into sewer pipes and reducing overflows.

Cincinnati MSD is currently working on a sustainable infrastructure plan with the help of Denver-based engineering firm CH2M HILL.  The plan is still in the preliminary stages, but officials hope to make significant progress on the development of the plan over the next six months.  The ambitious, trail blazing plan is one that will certainly not be easy, but it may turn out to be the most progressive solution to solving the CSO problems that the majority of older cities in this country face today.

Writer: Randy A. Simes
Photography by Randy A. Simes
Stay connected by following Randy on Twitter @UrbanCincy

Newport Gangster tour operators start walking tour that highlights OTR's history

When Jerry Gels put on the first Newport Gangster Tour two years ago, he struck a chord with people in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky who wanted to explore a glamorous period in their city's past.

That tour began as a two-day fundraiser, but soon boomed into Newport Walking Tours LLC, which brought 4,000 people to Newport, KY last summer.

This year the company is expanding to Over-the-Rhine, a place where hundreds of historic buildings still stand even if their stories are rarely told.

Beginning on Memorial Day weekend, a tour called Queen City Underground; Bosses, Brewery's and Burials will take guests through Over the Rhine to learn about the characters and events that shaped Cincinnati from the 1810's to the 1950's. Gels said it is not a crime tour, but tells the story of Over-the-Rhine and the people who shaped Cincinnati.

"The story of Over-the-Rhine really is a story of immigrants, you know, it is the story of America," Gels said. "And so many key things that shaped our city's future happened there. Over-the-Rhine's history really is Cincinnati's history and you don't realize it until you start reading the stories."

The tour will tell the exploits of infamous George "Boss" Cox and will cover the beer-brewing history in the area, but Gels said the much of the information on the tour is stuff that has lived on in relative obscurity. For instance, the idea for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was born in a beer hall on Vine Street; Harriet Beecher Stowe and Levi Kaufman both ran schools in Over-the-Rhine, and world heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles trained there.

Gels said nearly all of the buildings in which the stories transpired still exist, a testament to Over- the-Rhine's designation as the largest historic district in the country.

"I've been on walking tours all around the world, and at most of them you're lucky if a few buildings are still standing." Gels said. "In Over-the-Rhine we found 30 or 40 buildings that we could incorporate on the tour: places where Wild Bill Hickok used to perform and places where Charlie Chaplain used to perform - and these structures are still there, they're being preserved."

Gateway quarter merchants and 3CDC were instrumental in helping to get the tour launched this summer, Gels said. The first tours will run Thursday May 27 through Memorial day as a fundraiser. This summer the tours will run every Saturday. The tickets, which will cost $15, will be sold at Mica, 1201 Vine St.

Writer: Henry Sweets
Photography by Scott Beseler

AJ Creations opens new bakery in downtown Covington

Two and a half years ago Amber Jones and her family decided to purchase a dilapidated historic structure in downtown Covington with the goal of eventually moving there.  During the renovation work, Jones said that her husband suggested it would be a good idea to open a bakery in the street-level space of the structure.

The growing dream became reality a little over a week ago when the Jones family opened AJ Creations inside the renovated 1,000 square-foot retail space along Pike Street in downtown Covington.  The family lives in the two floors above the bakery space and is enjoying their new city lifestyle after previously living in the suburbs.

"We had been looking at small homes to renovate, and we've always liked downtown Covington, so after checking out this building we fell in love," explained Jones.  "We really like living here and we haven't had any problems.  It's nice being so close to MainStrasse and being able to walk down the street for dinner or just go out for walks."

Part of what made the location more appealing was the progress the Jones family saw being made in the area.  Following the purchase the family performed about 80 to 90 percent of the renovation work themselves with private financing and with the assistance of a facade improvement grant from the City of Covington that went towards a new paint job, a sign, doors and windows on the front of the structure.

"They've done wonders cleaning up the area, and we have felt really safe and comfortable here," Jones described.

The bakery itself is a bit of a dream realized for Jones who said that baking had always served as a way for her to relax, and that it was originally going to be a retirement goal of hers.  Obviously way ahead of schedule for Jones, the bakery's products are reflective of her passion for baking.

"My husband jokes that the reason we ended up doing this is because we got tired of giving away all the excess food I would bake," said Jones.

Inside the small bakery space customers are greeted by a small table that seats two, a couch and another chair.  Boston Stoker coffee and teas from Republic of Tea are offered inside the small bakery operation. Jones sees AJ as a place where people can pick up products on their way home, or order for a catering event more so than a bakery cafe where customers might linger for hours.

All of Jones' products are gluten free while many are also dairy free.  The menu changes weekly and offers items like fresh biscuits, scones, cookies, muffins and eventually cheesecakes, pies and breads.  Jones describes the bakery's candies as something customers must try, including their homemade caramels, buckeyes, peanut butter fudge and marshmallows that cost 75 cents a piece.  Once in season, the bakery will also be selling local honeys and jams.  The rest of the prices at the bakery are all under $2 per item in an effort to keep prices low and affordable for nearby residents.

AJ Creations is located at 212 Pike Street (map) and is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 7am to 2pm and Saturday from 8am to 2pm.  Those interested in placing catering orders can contact the Bakery at (859) 322-8434, by email ajcreationsonline@yahoo.com or even by leaving a comment on the bakery's Facebook page.

"People don't have to choose off of a special menu.  We can make what they want and I'm really big on special orders because I realize that everyone has special tastes."

Writer: Randy A. Simes
Photography by Tiffani Fisher
Stay connected by following Randy on Twitter @UrbanCincy

Cincinnati Parks working to green city's unique neighborhood business districts

Following the renovation of Fountain Square, the City of Cincinnati needed someone to manage the plantings on the public plaza.  After a competitive bidding process the Cincinnati Park Board's Greenspace Program emerged as the best organization to handle such a project.  Since that time, the program has expanded considerably throughout Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, and more recently into eight of Cincinnati's neighborhood business districts.

"The Park Board competed for the landscaping contract against private companies and eventually won," described City Council member Laure Quinlivan, Chair of the Livable Communities Committee.  "The City was excited to hand this platform off to a group able to do this, and we are really fortunate to have one of the best park departments in the country that was able to step up to the challenge."

The initial contract at Fountain Square has led to other opportunities for the Park Board's Greenspace Program.  At the end of 2007, City Council looked at eight business districts that recently had streetscaping projects completed, or had existing landscaping in their business districts. The goal was to find out what it would take to design, install and maintain three seasonal displays annually.  The Greenspace Program fit the bill and also maintains the sidewalk cutouts that include tree plantings in those business districts.

"We really enjoy the opportunity to do this work in neighborhoods throughout the city," said Dave Boutelle, Service Area Coordinator for the Greenspace Program.  "It has added a new dimension to our program and we are encouraged by all the positive feedback we have been receiving from the neighborhoods where we have been working."

Neighborhoods where Greenspace has been working include Westwood, Bond Hill, Roselawn, Evanston, Northside, O'Bryonville, Mt. Washington and Pleasant Ridge.  The work has been ongoing since 2008 with a two person crew maintaining the landscaping in these areas to keep them looking beautiful.

"Our Greenspace Program concentrates on public areas that are not parks, but do have landscaping like highway ramps, parkways, neighborhood gateways and other park-like settings," Boutelle explained.  "And we are fortunate to have talented people that do tremendous design work that has been able to keep the areas colorful year-round."

The program costs the City no additional money and expands the work of the Cincinnati Park Board; which in the end is something Quinlivan is very proud about.

"My goal is to create a cleaner, greener and smarter city, and what better way to do that than through a partnership like this," she said.

Writer: Randy A. Simes
Photography by Tiffani Fisher
Stay connected by following Randy on Twitter @UrbanCincy

Christian Moerlein to move brewing operations back to Over-the-Rhine's historic Brewery District

Just months after announcing his intention to open the Moerlein Lager House in 2011 at the Cincinnati Riverfront Park, Christian Moerlein President and CEO Greg Hardman has made another huge step in solidifying the Moerlein legacy.

On April 16th, Hardman announced that Moerlein will bring back brewing operations to Cincinnatiís historic Over-the-Rhine Brewery District.  Although the company had yet to establish its own facility - Moerlein contract brews its brands at Lion Brewery in Wilkes Barre, PA -  since the April 2007 launch of OTR Ale the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company has helped open eyes to the importance of local, craft beer in Cincinnati.

"We are proud to be part of the continued renaissance and economic development of Over-the-Rhine," said Hardman.

Just blocks from the site of the original Christain Moerlein Brewery on northern Elm Street near Findlay Market, the new production facility will be housed in a building that most recently was the Husman Potato Chip plant located at 1621 Moore Street (map) just north of Liberty Street and east of Vine Street.

The company has entered into a lease agreement with an option to buy the former pre-prohibition malt and lager house for the Kaufman Brewery, and plans to bring nearly 25 percent of its "high-end" beer production to the 125,000 square-foot facility by spring of 2011.

Steve Hampton, President of the OTR Brewery District, could not be happier.

"The announcement of the new Christian Moerlein brewery in Over-the-Rhine is a big step not only for Greg, but for the neighborhood as a whole.  He has worked very hard and very diligently to grow not only his brands, but also the Brewery District," explained Hampton.  "Greg gets the "big picture" that success breeds success, and has been committed to being a part of redeveloping Over-the-Rhine.  While there are challenges to working in Over-the-Rhine, there are also greater rewards possible by being part of the history and future of a great neighborhood."

With the recent introduction of locally based Rivertown Brewing, the expansion of Mt. Carmelís brewing facility and the recent accolades for Cincinnati Rock Bottomís Brewmaster Mitchell Dougherty, coupled with multiple local micro-brewery projects on the horizon, Cincinnati is poised to reestablish itself as a brewing center once again.

Writer: Bryon Martin
Photography by TIffani FIsher
Stay connected by following Bryon on Twitter @BryonMartin

New urban garden taking root in OTR to supply historic Findlay Market

Cincinnati's historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood has embraced an increasing trend nationwide to turn under-performing urban lots into urban gardens.  The new gardens help to rid neighborhoods of previously blighted properties, introduce new plant life into the area, put neighborhood residents to work in their own community and even help supply local markets and restaurants with locally sourced produce.

The most recent addition in Over-the-Rhine is a two-thirds of an acre plot of land that sits along Elm Street near Findlay Market.  Over the past two weeks, neighborhood residents and volunteers have been prepping the site that was once occupied by a collection of deteriorating structures and grassy lots.

The transformation of the site will produce over 30 produce offerings that will eventually be sold at Findlay Market as part of its Cultivating Healthy Environments for Farmers (CHEF) project.  The goal is to get vegetables growing as soon as possible, and ideally have them available at Findlay Market's Tuesday and Sunday farmers markets by the beginning of July.

"We have four existing urban garden sites across the city where apprentice farmers work with experienced farmers and receive on-site training from the volunteers," explained Ken Stern, Urban Farm Manager for Findlay Market.  "Once the produce is ready the apprentices will operate stands at Findlay Market and sell their goods just like a business."

Stern explained that the CHEF project focuses on low-income individuals and attempts to not only provide training for them, but also provide access to fresh, local produce.  The apprentices will earn money from their produce sales and have to decide how they will reinvest that money into their garden plots to make themselves successful.

So far, the project has 35 apprentices involved from Over-the-Rhine, the West End, College Hill and St. Leo's Catholic Parish where Guatemalan immigrant and Burundian refugees have been integrated into the CHEF project that has been funded through August 2011 by the USDA's Community Funds Program.

"When we finish with the grant money, we intend to continue the program" said Stern.  "We are helping low-income residents become urban gardeners while also producing more fresh vegetables in Cincinnati's center city."

In the mean time, the individuals working at these urban gardens are in need of critical supplies like shovels, spading forks, nursery hoes, action hoes, weeding/cultivators, wheel barrows, watering cans, pruners and soil knives.  Those that are interested can donate any gently used gardening tools to this effort at Findlay Market (map) outside the Internet Cafe on Saturday, May 15 from 9am to 4pm and on Sunday, May 16 from 10am to 3pm.

Writer: Randy A. Simes
Photography by Tiffani Fisher
Stay connected by following Randy on Twitter @UrbanCincy
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