Putting polish on the Crown in OTR

On any given Saturday or Sunday, one can find hordes of enthusiastic shoppers and families descending on Findlay Market, Ohio’s oldest public marketplace (circa 1855), to sample its many wares, stock up on foodstuffs, walk the dog(s), listen to music, and/or simply sit outside and quaff some beers.

And for those who choose to quaff their beers in the Biergarten at the west end of the market, a remarkable transformation is taking place across the street. The gorgeous Crown Building, with its unique stone masonry facade (in a neighborhood dominated by brick), is being restored back to its 1885 glory days.  

Long marred by a slew of sub-par storefronts on the ground floor (Anyone remember “Baba G’s Steak & Lemonade”? They had neither steak or lemonade), it was clear that, like countless empty structures in Over-the-Rhine, the sturdy building still has the requisite “good bones” underneath.

“Good bones” are exactly what attracted Kevin Pape and his wife Kimberly Starbuck to embark upon “one family’s personal journey through their contribution to the revitalization of a historic neighborhood.”  

Pape, of historic preservation consulting firm Grey & Pape in OTR, and Starbuck, a historic documentation photographer for 25 years, are well known in OTR as passionate preservationists and advocates for the neighborhood. 

Indeed I once stood on a very chilly McMicken sidewalk in December 2011 in a failed attempt to prevent the demolition by Cincinnati Public Schools of 142 E. McMicken. At that time, Pape and Starbuck actually came forth with an offer to purchase the building in order to prevent its demise.

Bowed but not beaten by the preservation bruises of 2011, Pape and Starbuck have returned with what they hope will be an anchor for activity and residential development in NoLI, the much less-thriving (when compared to its gaudy and bustling blocks to the south) section of OTR, north of Liberty.  

The Crown Building is being renovated into ground floor restaurant/retail space (5,700 square feet), with offices on the second floor (3,000 square feet) and four residential apartments above. The $1.176 million project will be LEED Silver certified and is aided by a combination of federal and state historic tax credits that cover approximately 45 percent of the total cost.

Starbuck, who has been going to Findlay Market since the 1970s, says it was interesting to note how, while the market itself improved steadily over the years, the occupancy in the buildings in and around it have declined. She, along with many observers were puzzled as to why so few people actually lived in the market's immediate vicinity. Especially considering the scarcity of housing south of Liberty, where apartments are snatched up in a matter of hours. Findlay Market after 6 p.m., on the other hand, can get very ghost-town-like very quickly.

Pape and Starbuck went through more than 100 buildings to find the right fit for their vision. Finally, during an espresso-fueled stroke of brilliance at Dojo Gelato, they gazed across the street at the Crown Building and had their “eureka” moment—a building they envision as a stimulator for residential activity and a gateway to Findlay Market. 

They purchased the building in April 2012, were awarded tax credits in December of last year, and have been in the construction phase for almost a year now. If all goes well, they should be ready for occupancy in September of this year.

Pape and Starbuck have a family of five (four daughters and a son)—four of whom are married with growing families, and two of whom are currently in Brooklyn. A large part of the inspiration for the project is to show them, as Starbuck says, that “if you live here, you can have ownership that you can never have there.”  

So far, one couple has returned from New York and is living on Broadway in Pendleton. The son-in-law, a native New Yorker, was “not keen on the idea of Cincinnati,” but is now working from a home office and commuting to New York City once a month, where his business is located. According to Starbuck, although he was once a skeptic, “he now embraces OTR wholeheartedly.”

It would be hard to argue with any in-laws luring you to OTR with the Crown Building, as the apartments are simply some of the coolest and most unique living spaces anywhere in OTR. The four units (two two-bedroom and two one-bedroom) range from 850 to 1,990 square feet, with unique floor plans and a bevy of stunning architectural features.  

According to Findlay Market CEO Joe Hansbauer, this is exactly the type of project the neighborhood needs. "I truly believe that the Crown OTR will be the ignition for a residential market north of Liberty," he says. "For those looking for apartments and either are unable to find a space south of Liberty, or are priced out of the market a few blocks to our south, the Findlay Market/Brewery District area could be a perfect fit.”

While residential in the immediate vicinity has been somewhat scant, there is the distinct whiff of more activity in the air. This March, Chris Wiedeman and business partner James Hagen's Markt Haus Flats on nearby Findlay Street sold out almost immediately. 

Starbuck adds that three investors recently purchased four buildings to the north of the Crown on Elm Street, just past the Globe Furniture building.

While the Crown Building has yet to land a tenant for its retail space, Starbuck says they are looking for a “strong anchor.” With 14-foot ceilings and wide-open spaces that overlook Findlay Market, the possibilities for the space are endless. Some classic, OTR-style rathskeller-like basements could also be incorporated into the concept. Maybe it's finally time for someone to roll out German-influenced, yet contemporary-style cuisine in Cincinnati?

In any event, as Hansbauer observes, the Crown will be a “beacon for the neighborhood as development continues to expand from commercial on Market Square to just off the square, and it should serve as a bellweather for other projects that are just getting started in the neighborhood.”  

“Ignition.” “Beacon. “Anchor.” 

A perfect recipe to meet the apartment-starved appetite of OTR, in addition to being a well-needed gateway to Findlay Market and NoLI. See you at the ribbon cutting in September.
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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.