Soapdish: Demolishing the Dennison would be unconscionable

Two people stand on a sidewalk in downtown Cincinnati staring at a once-majestic but now sadly decaying building. Citizen No. 1 says, “Tear it down.” Citizen No. 2: “Save it.”

And so it goes. Yin, yang, up, down, the distant drumbeats of demolition morph into jackhammers and wrecking balls, and, as ever, Cincinnati is at the center of a save-the-building debate. Despite hundreds of historic structures aching to be restored, the pre-eminent enzyme in downtown development formulas always boils down to the unrestrained need to tear down one of these beloved buildings, eradicate an indelible slice of the past and replace it with (ta-da!) a parking lot.

It’s a Manichaean-meets-Main Street dichotomy, inevitably portrayed in the media as a black-and-white battle between well-meaning-but-naive preservationists and business-minded capitalists. But it’s never that simple.

We’re talking about the Dennison Hotel, right?

Actually, no. This was an excerpt from a column I wrote for Detroit’s Metro Times in February 2003 — I just switched the reference point to Cincinnati.

Back then, a powerful downtown Detroit landowner, Little Caesar’s pizza panjandrum and Red Wings/Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, had an itch to plow under one of his many historic buildings, claiming he was “master planning” his downtown development holdings. After a few preservation skirmishes, the buildings were demolished, to be replaced by a surface parking lot that exists to this day.

Sound familiar? Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as they say.

Hot on the heels of the Historic Conservation Board’s sanctioned demolition of one of the oldest historic buildings in Cincinnati’s designated Main Street Historic District, 721 Main St., the bullseye has now shifted squarely across the street to the Dennison Hotel at 716-718 Main St.

In this case, the powerful downtown landowners are suburban car dealer magnates and Mayor John Cranley next-door-neighbors the Joseph Group (through the entity Columbia REI), who seek to demolish the 1892 Samuel Hannaford structure in order to add a few spaces to their mammoth surface parking lot in the middle of a national and city-designated historic district.  By way of context, from 2012 to 2015, the Joseph Group — through personal, family and corporate donations — contributed $26,900 to Cranley and $15,000 to his “Yes on Issue 22” parks campaign for a total of $41,900 in political support.

The Dennison matter was initially slated to come before the Historic Conservation Board on April 18.  A few days prior to that hearing, however, the HCB staff and Urban Conservator Beth Johnson issued a comprehensive and damning report recommending denial of the requested demolition.  As a result, Columbia REI attorneys desperately scrambled for a hasty adjournment in order to address the numerous flaws and holes in their request, many if not all of which were highlighted in the HCB staff report.

“Looking at the block as a whole, 716-718 Main Street (the Dennison) is the most substantial and architecturally ornate building on the block making it a significant contributing building to this otherwise substantially continuous and intact block face,” the staff report noted. “The property also has importance significance within the Main Street Historic District, as well as within Cincinnati as a whole, for its association with Samuel Hannaford. The architecture of this building, while not one of Samuel Hannaford’s monumental buildings, such as City Hall or Music Hall, represents the breadth of Hannaford’s works and is a strong visual example of Cincinnati’s late 19th century manufacturing heritage that was centered on Main Street.

“Samuel Hannaford is Cincinnati’s most prominent architect, having designed significant buildings including City Hall and Music Hall. Hannaford designed the building in the 1890s for an ironworks plant, G.B. Schulte Sons and Company, which produced metal parts for carriages. While not one of (his) most intricate buildings, 716-718 Main Street is a good representation of a commercial and manufacturing building. 716-718 Main Street strikes many similarities to the National Register Individually listed property (known as) the Hopper Building at 139-151 W. 4th Street. It has multiple and symmetrical bays with Masonry courses dividing the building into several vertical components, strong belt courses, and the use of large Romanesque arches.”

Ironically enough, demolition proponents have sought to diminish the Hannaford link, arguing that it isn’t a particularly notable Hannaford, which is akin to calling it a “lesser Picasso.” That sentiment was echoed last weekend by The Cincinnati Enquirer in a rather slavish and fawning editorial titled “It’s Time to Let the Dennison Go.”

A curious bit of pandering editorial idolatry, the Enquirer opinion lauds the Joseph Group for its leadership downtown and heaps praise on CEO Ron Joseph for his vision in “transforming a relatively quiet pocket of downtown into a magnet for new economic activity” (i.e., surface parking). What The Enquirer fails to mention anywhere, however, is that the Joseph Group is reportedly the newspaper’s #3 source of advertising revenue. Sources confirm that the Joseph Group threatened to pull its advertising from The Enquirer, furious over a news story earlier that week on internecine familial squabbles, but remained in the paper once the pro-demolition editorial ran.

Enquirer leadership did not respond to multiple requests to either confirm or deny this reported quid pro quo. A spokesman for the Dennison Hotel ownership group denied that the Joseph Group threatened to pull its advertising.

As the Enquirer advertorial noted, “there’s a fine line between honoring our past and being weighed down by it.” It’s apparent what side of the line they’re on.

Let’s take a closer look at the boldly imagined “Fortune 500 Headquarters” plan envisioned for the Dennison site and an adjacent surface parking lot. Initially, the demolition proponents trotted out some dusty, rudimentary renderings that were circulated a few years ago when they were pitching to build the downtown GE headquarters.

What nobody has ever seemed to address, however, is why the sliver of land that the 1892-era Dennison occupies is at all critical to this “Fortune 500 HQ” dream. A review on CAGIS reveals a surface parking lot behind the Dennison spanning 1.47 acres, while the Dennison lot is .13 acre. By way of comparison, GE’s new office building down on The Banks is .93 acre.  Exactly what is so critical about that .13 acre currently occupied by the Dennison?

Now let’s take a quick trip in the wayback machine to Jan. 14, 1987. In an Enquirer article entitled “Downtown Block Razed: Columbia Development May Build Office Space,” we have the origins of the aforementioned 1.47 acres of surface parking lot blight in the heart of our downtown historic district. It should be noted that, even in 1987, the article said the property will be used for parking until a development deal can be put together.

So here we find ourselves now — almost 30 productive parking years later — and we’re still chasing imaginary development deals with illusory Fortune 500 corporations, tilting at windmills while tipping over buildings.

This type of blatantly speculative demolition of historic structures in designated national and city historic districts is unconscionable. We don’t need to clearcut our historic timber based on hopes and wishes. There are plenty of surface lots downtown available if and when that coveted Fortune 500 HQ comes a’calling.

As I stated in last month’s column, “Cincinnati’s downtown and Over-the-Rhine have seen an economic resurgence in large part because of its historic architecture. People want to live, work and play in walkable historic urban districts. It’s one of the resources we have that sets us apart from and puts us ahead of peer cities.”

Since then, that column has been read and shared far and wide, in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Norway and Cleveland, Milwaukee and Missoula, Louisville and St. Louis, Phoenix and Boston, Buffalo and Manhattan (to name just a few).

It’s apparent that people are, in fact, watching Cincinnati. Let’s show them that we support historic preservation in our city’s historic districts, that this is not the “same old Cincinnati” where powerful friends run roughshod over right and wrong.

The hearing on the proposed demolition of the Dennison Hotel is 1 p.m. May 26 in Council Chambers at City Hall.
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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.