"Come my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!"
Almost seven years ago, in this very virtual column, we took up the mantle of Walt Whitman’s 1865 ode to manifest destiny in surveying a few of the urban pioneers staking their proverbial claim on our city’s fair landscape. With the passage of time, and the white-hot speed of redevelopment in the basin, it makes sense to check in on a few more pioneers — and in this case, they are actually next door neighbors.
At first glance, Pat McCafferty and Vada Hill seem like an unlikely pair of urban homesteaders, particularly when you view their Over-the-Rhine block of choice: the previously abandoned and forlorn-looking section of Wade Street that spans from the Elm/Liberty streetcar stop to the Central Parkway protected bike lane.
These two settlers arrived on the Western fringes of OTR from vastly different points of origin — McCafferty, a CPA living in suburban Montgomery, and Hill, a former bi-coastal marketing wunderkind who resided in a D.C. brownstone for 15 years — and seemed an unlikely pair of stylish urban newcomers on a desolate street once better known for impromptu stoop drinking and illicit drug use in abandoned breezeways.
Scratch a bit below the surface, however, and these new residents start to look, as Hill asserts, like “two of the smartest guys in the city right now.” And their timing could not have been more perfect.
Full disclosure: As vice president at Urban Expansion, an OTR/West End real estate development and construction company, and the developer for both renovation projects, it behooves me to disclose my fairly intimate knowledge of Hill and McCafferty’s homes, from the initial purchase in Dec. 2013 to the final sale of the two renovated 1870s-era townhomes.
It also behooves me to say that if I were asked back then to speculate on who would end up owning these two homes, I’m not sure I would have envisioned either Hill or McCafferty.
Sitting down for lunch in the soaring, three-story main area of Hill’s home, however, not unlike the puzzle of Wade Street itself, things start to make more sense. Hill informed me at the outset that it was my story in the Dec. 2014 issue of Soapbox that piqued his interest in the project.
“Someone has to be a little visionary to move here,” my quote went. “All you have to do is look at how much OTR changes in a span of months. Places you thought no one would live are now occupied.”
Hill is a Walnut Hills graduate who started his career at Procter & Gamble before moving on to politics, advertising and CMO positions at Taco Bell, Fannie Mae and Jackson Hewitt, among other posts. He’s a self-described “comfortable urban homesteader,” who, in the course of relocating back to his hometown (primarily for family reasons) was “solving for artwork, furniture and wine.”
He could see himself as the “visionary” described in that article. When he saw the soaring renovated space at 221 Wade, he admits, “I got it.” It didn’t hurt that the three-story main living area offered a perfect setting for his collection of African American fine art and Israeli sculpture.
McCafferty, on the other hand, was a single dad in a sprawling suburban home in Montgomery. When his last child graduated and his kids left the family nest for the more urbane locales of downtown L.A., Manhattan and Boston, he figured moving to OTR was the best way to get them to visit. Add to that the inherent walkability, the streetcar (“a big attraction”) and the ability to avoid the depressing slog of commuting via I-71, all of which — combined with the historic architecture — was too good a deal to pass up.
Both homes are LEED Silver certified, which means they are built to provide cleaner indoor air, use less energy and water and lead to savings on utilities. LEED-certified homes also maintain better value over time and afford the owner a tax abatement to the pre-improvement value of the property for 10-15 years.
In addition to the two Wade Street properties, Urban Expansion has renovated a number of LEED-certified, single-family homes in OTR; two more LEED Silver townhomes (at 1008 and 1010 Elm) just hit the market, with another project in the pipeline in Pendleton.
Hill was quick to emphasize the value inherent in these homes. He has friends familiar with historic renovation projects in D.C. and New York, but what he found here amazed him.
“This was a contemporary renovation with preserved historic detail and square footage that you cannot find anywhere else,” says HIll.
Hill looked at other neighborhoods in Cincinnati, including Walnut Hills’s Woodburn and North Avondale’s Rose Hill, but he felt a connection with OTR that other places just did not have.
“A lot of Cincinnatians crave safety, security and nothing changing,” he notes. “That’s not me; that’s not this area. And while some are explorers, others like to stay close to home. OTR is a way to keep those explorers closer to home.”
Hill found the diversity at Walnut Hills High School critical in preparing for his experience in a multicultural and vastly spread out socio-economic corporate world. Leaning in, he says: “If you find diversity threatening or if you don’t like unpredictability, then OTR is not for you.”
The pair of residences on Wade are buffered to a certain extent by the Elm Street Health Clinic to the south and Chatfield College to the north — pillars of health and education, respectively, in a rapidly evolving urban neighborhood.
Chatfield recently renovated, relocated and reopened its campus in the restored 1870 Windisch-Muhlhauser Lion brewery stable.
On the other side, Hill notes that the health clinic, housed in a converted 1890s-era public school, is an “excellent neighbor.”
While some might view proximity to these very public-facing institutions with hesitation, both McCafferty and Hill see it a draw, not a drawback. McCafferty even teaches classes at Chatfield (as well as at Miami University), to many first-generation college students.
It should be noted that Hill has assumed with gusto his unofficial role as a Wade Street ambassador; he is currently preparing to host a brunch for up to 200 fellow Walnut Hills alumni as part of their 40th reunion. The event will, in part, introduce a whole new demographic to this part of the city. Later this year, he will host a wedding in his home for a niece from D.C.
While McCafferty and Hill are currently the only residents on this block of Wade, both having arrived in late 2016, the pair’s solo status may not last long.
Brothers Rob and Luke Bennett, via their group Karvoto Construction, are putting the finishing touches on the Hillman Point development, whose buildings were in rough shape when they acquired them in early 2016. “Rough shape” is pretty much par for the course for many on this block: missing roofs, rotted ceilings and joists, wholesale missing floors, etc.
The first phase of Hillman Point consists of 10 total units — five new builds and five historic rehabs. The total cost for the project is $5.96 million, and two of the units are currently pending. Every unit will be LEED Silver certified.
McCafferty and Hill both appreciate the fact that, although still in the heart of OTR, their little pseudo-side street offers them a modicum of privacy that they would not have if situated on something of a more main drag.
Even with another 10 units coming online, that dynamic won’t be threatened anytime soon; also uncontested will remain the duo’s status as the modern-era “Pioneers of Wade Street.”