It takes a village: Westwood's fun-focused redevelopment

Development organizations, community groups, business owners and residents are all working together to redevelop Westwood’s historic business district, fondly referred to as the “lopsided bowtie” area bordered by Montana, Harrison and Epworth avenues. New businesses like Lillywood Home Decor, Muse Café and West Side Brewing have moved in and have made fast friends with longtime staples Henke Winery and Madcap Puppets.

Together, these businesses are creating a community residents and entrepreneurs can share.

Westwood's Ruehlmann Building c. 1970s

In the 1980s, much of the neighborhood’s historic district fell into disrepair with blighted, vacant buildings and little foot traffic along the main drag. The neighborhood suffered a major population loss and a drop in homeownership and property values, as well as an increase in crime. There wasn’t a lot for people to do in Westwood, and the community knew that if it wanted to get the neighborhood moving forward again, it would need more than building renovations.

“We knew that any successfully redeveloped neighborhood needs to emotionally bring the community together,” says Elizabeth Bartley, executive director of WestCURC, Westwood’s redevelopment corporation. “That community aspect is what makes Westwood.”

West Side Brewing anchors the business district's northern end. The brewery has only been open a handful of weeks, but it’s already made a name for itself as a central communications hub where people can meet at all hours of the day to build relationships.

“We really wanted to be part of an up-and-coming community where we could help shape the landscape,” says co-owner Brian Willet. “Westwood shows lots of potential and has a good community backing. Locating ourselves in the middle of the central business district will place us in a spot that one day turns into a thriving location with all kinds of entertainment and foot traffic.”

That day is coming soon, and business owners and residents can already feel it.

Building a strong community takes all kinds

A major effort to revitalize started to coalesce in 2013 when WestCURC received a sizeable grant from the city and gained control of the former Cincinnati Bell Exchange building; it then transferred the building to Madcap Puppets, which is now in the midst of renovating it into a puppet theater and arts education facility.

The 20,000-square-foot building will house puppet-themed workshops and opportunities in music, dance, art and acting; the new center will also host puppet festivals, summer camps and community events. Earlier this year, Madcap merged with Cincinnati Landmark Productions to bring added experience and expertise to its vision.

“I think that expanding Madcap’s programming to include larger-scale theater productions will be a tremendous opportunity for us and for Westwood,” says Dylan Shelton, Madcap’s artistic director.

Madcap is currently housed in a former bank on Glenmore Avenue but needed a larger space. It’s called the west side home for about 40 years, and organizers wanted to stay in the area.

“We’re thrilled to be part of something new happening,” Shelton says. “For the first time, we will be able to welcome people into our home to experience puppet theater. The idea that Madcap will get to introduce audiences to puppet festivals and new works, and offer educational opportunities in the arts is inspiring, to say the least.”

ArtWorks mural at Westwood's main business intersection at Harrison & Montana avenues

Filling in the gaps

A few doors down from West Side is the Ruehlmann Building, which is full for the first time since the ‘80s. This is the direct result of hundreds of hours of community meetings, lead by the Westwood Coalition — a group of representatives from the Westwood Civic Association, WestCURC, Westwood Works, the Westwood Historical Society, business owners and residents. 

This group helped flip the narrative about Westwood, and things began to happen. The Coalition started to work with the City to bring about the change we see today in the historic business district.

At the start of the redevelopment process, the Coalition sent out a number of community surveys asking residents what they wanted to see or needed in the business district, and a café or coffee shop was at the top of the list.

Muse Café is filling that void, serving coffee during the day and wine at night. Before it opened earlier this summer, there wasn’t a place for people to grab a cup of coffee or sit down and enjoy a quiet night out in the historic business district.

Bartley says all of the new businesses have been great additions to the neighborhood, but it’s not a random assortment.

“The new business owners are passionate people who are committed to the success of the neighborhood. They’re all working together to be successful and sustainable in the long run.”

The community aspect of Westwood is inspiring. Willet says that the business community has been tremendous — he’s received gifts, visits and phone calls from other business owners offering their support and wishing them luck.

“Everyone has been absolutely amazing, and we can’t wait to take advantage of opportunities moving forward to give back,” he says. “We really want to get ingrained in this neighborhood and be there one day looking back at everything that has happened with a great big smile on our faces.”

Westwood’s Town Hall Park has been the linchpin in the neighborhood's transformation.

“This development has created the community buy-in, buzz and excitement that we were looking for,” Bartley says.

In 2015, WestCURC received an award from the city to start the design and planning process, which has included a lot of community involvement. Plans include a dog park along Montana to complement Fuzzybutts Dry Goods, another new addition to the Ruehlmann. The store supplies dog owners with food, treats and other necessities for their furry family members.

Construction won’t start on the park until this fall, but the pieces are starting to fall into place.

Taking the long view for lasting development

The historic district isn’t the only area of Westwood receiving a facelift, although concentrating redevelopment efforts around the park was deliberate. It’s a large area that's bordered by the Cheviot city line stretching down to Kling Avenue. WestCURC is taking it one block at a time and continually looking for opportunities for growth.

Westwood and East Westwood recently participated in the 90-day NEP, which focused on creating safe places for people to congregate throughout the two neighborhoods. One of the NEP projects was Jubilee Market, located at the corner of McHenry and Harrison avenues.

The market sells fresh produce from Jubilee Urban Farms in Bracken Woods and operates as a thrift store on the weekends. The Jubilee Farms property was owned by WestCURC and donated to the group to make a positive impact on the neighborhood.

“We’re working wherever we can, building relationships and partnerships in other parts of Westwood, although the historic business district is the main focus,” Bartley says.

This summer has seen a huge opening boom in Westwood, and there’s more coming. WestCURC is working to put a family-friendly restaurant in the historic firehouse specifically to complement Madcap’s vision. Ideally, it will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, and plans are to have the opening coincide with Madcap’s projected completion date of fall 2018.

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Read more articles by Caitlin Koenig.

Caitlin Koenig is a Cincinnati transplant and 2012 grad of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. She's the department editor for Soapbox Media and currently lives in Northside with her husband, Andrew, and their three furry children. Follow Caitlin on Twitter at @caite_13.