Walnut Hills / E. Walnut Hills

On The Ground: Residential developments inspire conscious change in Walnut Hills

Residents of Walnut Hills have witnessed a lot of changes in the last decade and the momentum won’t be slowing anytime soon.
Millions of investment dollars have poured into the community in recent years in an effort to pull the neighborhood out of its latter-20th-century decline. As Walnut Hills begins a new year with increasing economic viability, it welcomes a diverse swath of rental and real estate opportunities.
In all, the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation estimates more than $100 million worth of investment for Walnut Hills in 2017. The neighborhood is consistently listed among Cincinnati’s “next big things,” and with that designation, the issue of housing becomes more urgent. As concerns about rising housing costs and residential displacement persist, community leaders and residents seek ways to secure a diverse, stable future.
New developments on the horizon
One of the largest residential developments in the works for 2017 is at the former Baldwin Piano Building on Gilbert Avenue near downtown, I-71 and Eden Park. The $39 million redevelopment led by Neyer Properties & CASTO will result in The Baldwin Apartments — 190 one- and two-bedroom units featuring exposed brick, high ceilings, column capitals and other preserved characteristics of the 1920s-era piano factory.
The project will also feature a lounge/bar area, fitness center and residential storage. An outdoor pool deck will showcase the city skyline. Neyer will bring the adjacent office building up-to-date, with additional plans to develop a hotel and restaurant on nearby vacant land. Neyer has partnered with Columbus-based CASTO for the residential conversion.
“The (Baldwin project) was the chance to bring a historic landmark back to its original vibrancy,” says Neyer marketing specialist Amanda Kladakis. “The opportunity to restore a historic building to its original grandeur, as well as the impact on the Walnut Hills neighborhood, means that this redevelopment is one of those projects that is once in a lifetime.”
When Neyer Properties purchased the property, Kladakis explains, the building that will house the apartments was a 98 percent vacant office building. This residential conversion will bring approximately 300 residents back to the Walnut Hills community.
Elsewhere in Walnut Hills, Indianapolis-based Milhaus Properties recently announced plans to construct a $13 million mixed-use building in the vacant lot by Fireside Pizza on E. McMillan. The project will include 90 apartments and 5,000 square feet of retail space. Milhaus properties recently finished its first project in Cincinnati, The Gantry, in Northside.
South Block Properties owns three buildings in the 700 block of E. McMillan that were recently awarded Ohio Preservation Tax Credits and city funds for a project that will ultimately add 13 apartments and 2,000 square feet of retail. In that same corridor, Solica Construction Co. is overseeing the renovation of another 12 market-rate units and three new storefronts at the corner of Concord Street and E. McMillan.
On Morgan Street near Five Points Alley, the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, in cooperation with the Hamilton County Landbank, will construct three new/modular homes and three renovations as a part of the Rehab Across Cincinnati and Hamilton County program. The formerly vacant, blighted homes will be converted to 1,600-square-foot, energy-efficient units.
Thea Munchel of the WHRF considers the REACH project one of the most exciting things coming in 2017.
“This project is exciting because it expands homeownership in the neighborhood, introduces a new housing type into the region and builds on the existing fabric of the neighborhood,” Munchel says. “The idea is to rebuild the housing market in that quadrant of the neighborhood. The intended outcome is to restore equity into the homes of long-term residents and the benefits of increased value in their homes, such as better access to bank loans.” 
Ensuring a place for everyone
After a 20 percent drop between 2000 and 2010, the population of Walnut Hills is slowly on the rise. Some fear that investment and influx will raise housing costs and displace longtime residents. In a historically diverse community with a strong cultural identity, this is a concern that leaders take seriously.
In 2016, the WHRF, together with the Walnut Hills Area Council, initiated a community-based planning process and neighborhood study. The resulting Reinvestment Plan, published in September 2016, outlines current business and residential development in the neighborhood as well as future goals and priorities.
“Through our research, we learned that 24 percent of housing in Walnut Hills is subsidized,” Munchel says. “As we continue our work, we want to maintain that percentage of affordable housing while increasing the total number of housing units. The projects that we are working on currently trend in the 75/25 range, and we are comfortable with that right now.” 
A few of WHRF’s current projects are being designed with this goal in mind.
The Paramount Building at the corner of Gilbert and W. McMillan avenues is an iconic Cincinnati structure. The WHRF is partnering with local developer Model Group to bring the currently vacant property back to life with 39 apartments — eight designated as affordable units — and 50,000 square feet of commercial space.
At the same time, the WHRF is also working with Model Group on two low-income projects. One is a scattered-site project near the new Martin Luther King Drive interchange; funds will go toward rehabbing and maintaining existing low-income units in the neighborhood, many of which are in disrepair and distress.
Another development, the Cincinnati Scholar House, will provide 45 subsidized units for single parents enrolled in college. It will include on-site childcare and other services for residents. (In 2015, Model Group completed a similar project in Northern Kentucky.)
Despite these positive developments for low-income families, there are many working-class Walnut Hills residents who do not qualify for subsidized housing, yet cannot afford rising market rates. This demographic — households that earn either 30-60 percent or 60-120 percent of the average median income — is often the most vulnerable for displacement.
“Existing residents at this income range are most at risk of being priced out of the neighborhood,” Munchel says. “They don’t have the rental subsidy that the extremely low-income units have, and they are vulnerable to market rents rising as investment increases. This problem is not unique to Walnut Hills or to our city. We need to work together to utilize financing tools that maintain housing options for these groups as well.” 
Intentional ministers forge bonds in Walnut Hills
Katy Dietz is a part of a different group of residents that is working to create diverse housing opportunities in Walnut Hills. Christian mission organization I-58 is a branch of the international organization The Navigators.
Dietz and about a dozen others reside in an intentional Walnut Hills community called Love Your Neighbor. Residents live together in a few buildings purchased by I-58 back when the market tanked 10 years ago. Since then, the buildings have been renovated to include apartments and a few offices. The group is intentionally diverse. Among them are a few I-58 staff, a couple seasonal interns, one or two longtime Walnut Hills residents and some traditional renters.


I-58’s ministry in Walnut Hills began by focusing on affordable housing. Later, staff and interns tailored their ministry to meet the needs of the surrounding community. They now provide mentorship and entrepreneurial programs at nearby Purcell Marion High School, as well as services for residents reentering the community after serving jail time, aging out of foster care or completing rehabilitation programs. In 2017, they will launch their new social venture Green Man Twist, a soft-serve ice cream truck in Green Man Park.
There is a difference, Dietz says, between co-existing and living together. The difference is in truly knowing each other. Knowing your neighbors happens easily when sharing space, sharing meals and sharing lives. This is what the Love Your Neighbor community offers.
“My hope for the future of the neighborhood is that it doesn’t just become a co-existence of diverse neighbors who live next to each other without knowing one another,” Dietz says. “I am, and continually want to be, living in a community of people who are different from me so I can learn from others. My experience here has shown me it is not enough for me to just believe this is true; I have to take the step outside of my own comfort zone to get to know others.”
The Love Your Neighbor community has become a relational ministry, with staff forging relationships between diverse residents all over Walnut Hills. As the neighborhood evolves, Dietz believes this type of cooperative housing can foster a true sense of community between new and old, rich and poor residents, bridging the gap between people who would otherwise share nothing more than a zip code.
On The Ground in Walnut Hills is underwritten by Place Matters partners LISC and United Way and the neighborhood nonprofit the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, who are collectively working together for community transformation. Additional support is provided by development partners Neyer Properties and CASTO. Data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center. Prestige AV and Creative Services is Soapbox’s official technology partner. 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.