Unleashing Uptown's Inner Dynamo

Standing at the intersection of Vine and Calhoun, one sees a jumble of functional but dated buildings, into which people trickle to stock provisions and leave. Once upon a time, however, the neighborhood surrounding the University of Cincinnati's campus was a go-to destination, where Cincinnatians flocked to dine, play and pray.

Along the way, the area fell into disrepair, sapping the mojo from this once vibrant slice of town. While it may have lost its former status, Uptown is economically a heavy hitter. As a host to more than 80,000 jobs, the district generates the second most money of any Cincinnati neighborhood, following downtown. Members of the Uptown Consortium  - which include UC, Children's Hospital, and the Cincinnati Zoo among others - have a collective payroll exceeding $1.4 billion and churn out an annual economic impact topping $3 million.

Thankfully, as in much of Cincinnati today, renovation for Uptown is just around the corner. Over the past five years, a group of caring stakeholders - representing UC, the Uptown Consortium, Short Vine Business Association, Corryville Community Council and the City of Cincinnati - have vowed to put Uptown back on the map. And if artistic renditions and mapped zones are something to go by, they're aiming high.

Stretching from University Plaza and Short Vine to Old St. George and a graduate housing project in the 'old town' section at Clifton and Calhoun, a large swath of streets are about to get a healthy dose of renewal. In the process, the plan's masterminds hope to solve a host of niggling issues for the area in one great stride.

"This project aims to change common perceptions about Uptown," says Matt Bourgeois, director of Clifton Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (CHCURC), the group that is responsible for resurrecting Old St. George. "We want to create the feeling of an open air mall, a more pleasant place for visitors in general. Massive shifts in perceptions can even be triggered by doing simple things like installing more trash cans in areas that are known to overflow with trash due to a lack of infrastructure."

Plans include a boutique hotel in a converted church, state of the art shopping and office complexes dotting the intersection at Vine and Calhoun, a curbless "festival streetscape," ready-made for block parties and outdoor dining, on Short Vine and a pleasing blend of local and national chain restaurants and other businesses peppered throughout the area. Another big piece will be the anticipated start of construction this summer on Kroger's brand new store at University Plaza.  The new Kroger will double the size of the current store, including building a new, adjacent Walgreens, and fill an important niche for urban shoppers.

Adding to the excitement, the timeline for all of this development roughly coincides with the opening of a proposed streetcar stop at University Plaza. Yet, conflicting reports on streetcar funding have loomed from the word go, emblazoning a question mark in the progressive metropolitan psyche about what shape the finished project will take.

"Losing the streetcar funding would be a disappointment and missed opportunity, but I do not believe it would impact the Calhoun Street developments or the University Plaza redevelopment," says Beth Robinson, president and CEO of Uptown Consortium. "I do believe, however, that the development of the streetcar would accelerate pace of other developments on Short Vine, so it would be a deep disappointment if it is not built."

As reflected in the spirit of the streetcar project, which has been sustained thanks in part to grassroots support, collaboration is one of the key themes behind this redevelopment plan. This democratic approach to urban planning proves itself effective to those involved with the Niehoff Urban Studio located on Short Vine

"The key to making this project successful is developing an overall strategy that involves the people who live in and lead the surrounding communities in a meaningful way," says Frank Russell, Director of the UC Community Design Center and the Niehoff Urban Studio, and an Adjunct Associate Professor of Practice in Planning and Urban Design. "Through this collaborative process, we can then address both the needs of the students and the community, giving them all a better environment."

By drawing on ideas from the community, Russell and others at the Niehoff Urban Studio have already launched several programs, which were implemented by students at low rates, "occasionally pro bono, but largely of a technical nature, which have helped community groups around town actually get things done." While this grassroots approach is a significant piece of the puzzle, money still talks. And for better or worse, developers know that development comes with a hefty price tag.

"Urban redevelopment is always difficult, but it has been even more challenging the past few years during the economic downturn," Robinson says. "Attracting capital to finance projects has been particularly challenging."

According to Robinson, the coalition has capitalized on available resources, including federal New Market Tax Credits. In one noteworthy instance, the Uptown Consortium funneled $20 million worth of NMTC and member investments into the new Hampton Inn Hotel, which opened in January 2011, at the intersection of Vine and Martin Luther King. She adds, "We anticipate the hotel will help attract people to Short Vine and jump start private investment."

In order to land coveted investment funds, developers and backers of this project have been forced to adopt a mixed approach between nursing local start-ups that show promise and the more surefire bet of summoning a stream of nationwide chains to corporatize the area. A certain catch-22 is inherent in this either/or thinking.

In a nutshell, the catch is as follows. A bank won't loan funds to build a building until a certain level of commitment and backing exists. Therefore, a national tenant pulls more weight than a local upstart in terms of funding, which makes national chains a near necessity to secure the level of funding that keeps an overall development alive. Building on existing restaurants, for example, Bourgeois points out that a common development trend is to build slightly upgraded restaurants with similar characteristics as the restaurants being replaced - like fast food 2.0. For example, Panera Bread in place of McDonalds. And if a strong enough case is made, local startups get a chance too. And a really good local startup can just as well expand and ultimately take the country by storm. Burrito bowl fusion restaurant Currito, for example, began in University Park. Now they have ambitions to go national.

"You make a deal with the devil when you deal with developers who want generic stuff that will work in the marketplace," Russell says. But with enough startups of the Currito variety, Uptown has a strong chance of retaining its distinctive edge yet."

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Old St. George interior
New shops on Calhoun
Sidewalk view down Short Vine
Bogarts and Kroger on Short Vine
Beth Robinson
Future site of U-Square between Calhoun St. and E. McMillan St.
Matt Bourgeois

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