There are no quick fixes for a struggling community. Several years ago, when Walnut Hills leaders and residents began to formulate a plan for neighborhood growth and viability, they knew it would be a long journey. But for a community so dear to the heart of Cincinnati, with such a strong history and cultural heritage, the goal was worth the work.
Last winter, Soapbox kicked off its On the Ground embedded journalism series with a birds-eye view of the ongoing transformation in Walnut Hills, as well as its efforts to overcome growing pains and the hopes and fears of both long-term and new residents. Since then, there have been some significant developments, and leaders are capitalizing on them for the slow and steady growth toward an equitable community.
Some community members have been (and remain) skeptical of the recent flurry of market-rate development happening around them, but thanks to transparency efforts by Walnut Hills' area council, redevelopment foundation and business association, hopes are high that the neighborhood will remain affordable and accessible for everyone.
Saying goodbye to Kroger
After more than a decade of concerted effort to pull itself out of a long economic slump, Walnut Hills suffered a blow late last year when Kroger announced it would close the neighborhood's only full-service grocery store. The company cited years of losses and the opening of a $20 million store in neighboring Corryville as reasons for the closure.
Leaders at the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation were tasked with breaking the news to residents and finding solutions for the new problem of food insecurity. Over the next few months, community members met to voice their opinions for what should come next. WHRF director of development Thea Munchel saw firsthand the impact of Kroger's decision.
“This was a real blow to long-term residents,” says Munchel. “To see the store close at that moment disproportionately impacted our most vulnerable residents, folks with limited mobility, limited transportation, fixed incomes. Residents began to feel vulnerable to the forces of economics.”
Working in concert with various groups, the WHRF enacted short-term solutions, including a mobile farmstand and free shuttle rides to the Corryville Kroger. But those measures failed to solve one big problem: The move left vacant 2.7 acres of real estate centrally located between the neighborhood's two major east-west thoroughfares. In a community already plagued by vacancy and blight, the empty Kroger represented a symbol of abandonment for many.
But in a happy turn of events, the WHRF recently secured a 42-year lease for the vacant property. While it will take time to define and develop, this is a significant boost that will return control of the lynchpin property to neighborhood leaders and residents who are now well-versed in collaborating to direct the site's future use.
The acquisition — along with another site at the corner of Gilbert and Lincoln avenues — can be attributed to WHRF partnerships with the Cincinnati Development Fund, the Haile Foundation, the City of Cincinnati and the Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority (formerly Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority).
“The building has been a hub in the community for so long," Munchel says. "Any way we can activate the space and bring community together and retain that sense of center, the more success the redevelopment of the site will have.”
In the meantime, the parking lot will be used to stage renovations of neighboring buildings and as commercial parking while the WHRF gathers more community input. The group recently won a Duke Energy grant that it will use to engage residents in the reuse of the site through public workshops and input sessions.
Anchoring Peebles Corner
Two years ago, and with help from the aforementioned groups, the WHRF purchased another significant piece of real estate: the Paramount Building at historic Peebles Corner, which looms over the main McMillan and Gilbert intersection in the neighborhood. The massive building has been vacant for decades, a cultural landmark reminiscent of a time when Walnut Hills residents could find everything from a butcher and bank to a florist and theater, all within walking distance from their homes.
Now, the site will achieve new life as Paramount Square, a mixed-use development that will feature 39 residential units for rent (a representative percentage of them low-income) and 50,000 square feet of commercial space.
Paramount Square will be anchored in part by Esoteric Brewing, the region's first African American-founded brewery, set to open at the end of 2018. The Redevelopment Authority will use a revolving loan fund known as DREAM (Driving Real Estate to Accelerate Microenterprise) funds to finance the project buildout and make improvements to its storefronts for local micro-entrepreneurs.
Esoteric CEO Brian Jackson is new to the neighborhood. He was connected to the Paramount Square project by local business incubator MORTAR, which specializes in supporting underrepresented entrepreneurs.
Jackson has been in the brewing business since he started home brewing more than eight years ago and fell in love with the process. It’s been his dream to open his own brewery, and both Walnut Hills and Paramount Square seem like a perfect fit for him and his business partner, Marvin Abrinica.
“We were looking for a unique building that was close to downtown, but not in downtown," says Jackson. "Normally, breweries are established in a warehouse type of setting for various reasons, mostly because of functionality. But we want to create an experience unlike others in the city. When we saw this building, it made sense.”
Construction on the Paramount will take about a full year, so while the work is being completed, Esoteric is heading into the fundraising phase of the business plan. Once funding is secured, Jackson is excited to bring a new destination establishment to Walnut Hills.
“Besides being a business that will draw revenue to the area, we believe the Paramount building is the cornerstone of the community,” Jackson says. “Our hope is that the style of business we're in will be a catalyst for more small-business entrepreneurs to invest in the community. We're committed to working for positive change in the area, helping to revitalize buildings that have been in rough shape for years.”
Support for the future of Walnut Hills
The WHRF and its community partners are helping direct development and secure community ownership, but property acquisition is only the first step.
For many large-scale construction projects in Greater Cincinnati, the Model Group has been the preferred property developer because of its unique for-profit/community-based mission. Model Group is currently working on the Paramount project.
The CDF is another major driver of local revitalization projects. It has helped finance multiple projects in Walnut Hills and East Walnut Hills, such as the Trevarren Flats on McMillan and 2733 Woodburn, home of popular Myrtle’s Punch House. Together with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, these groups were able to move the Paramount Square project forward.
The CDF's mission is to provide innovative real estate financing for projects that strengthen low-income neighborhoods and improve lives. It helps low-income communities preserve their historic buildings and create vibrant, inclusive neighborhoods. Walnut Hills has been a great partner in this mission.
CDF chief lending officer Joe Huber“As the demand for urban living has increased over the past decade, it is clear that Cincinnati neighborhoods like Walnut Hills are poised for a resurgence," explains CDF chief lending officer Joe Huber. "Business districts that have not seen heavy investment in 30-plus years are now neighborhoods of choice for more developers and residents, in addition to long-time, committed residents and champions of those neighborhoods."
Meanwhile, the Redevelopment Authority's REACH Walnut Hills housing program has built six new homes on Morgan Street and rehabbed two historic shotgun homes in 2016. (All have been purchased at this point.) The new builds employed tools and funding from the Hamilton County Landbank to demolish a long- blighted and vacant industrial property to make way for the new homes.
With strong community partners, developers and investors working together toward a shared vision, first-tier urban neighborhoods can become vibrant, inclusive places for anyone looking to plant roots. As historic buildings are preserved, renovated and reused, they make way for new developments that will improve the quality of life for old and new residents alike.
“We embrace the visions of the neighborhoods we serve, helping them to build inclusive communities with vibrant business districts and quality housing for all,” Huber says.
He says the CDF is happy to support partnerships like that between the WHRF and Model Group, which are both more interested in community outcomes than their own profit margins. He says the common goal is “preserving the past, while focusing on the potential of the future.”