Group celebrates 50 years of saving buildings and improving neighborhoods

In a culture obsessed with the newest, biggest and brightest things, some of our most valuable assets can be neglected to the point where their very presence becomes a blight to the community. The Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA) is our city’s local preservation hero, stepping in to speak for historic buildings, artwork, cultural sites and infrastructure that would otherwise be on the slate for demolition.

This nonprofit organization, led by historians and architecture professionals, knows the value—culturally, aesthetically and economically—in preserving the rich history of our city and, together with many other local partners and foundations, the CPA has been instrumental in protecting many of our historic gems.

This year, the Cincinnati Preservation Association is celebrating its 50th anniversary. In the time between its founding in 1964 and now, its mission has grown from protecting particular buildings and sites to preserving (and improving) entire neighborhoods in a way that honors the past and prepares for the future.

Rightsizing for historic preservation, economic vitality and livability

As cities grow and change, the needs of a community change, as well. Demographics shift as the economy ebbs and flows and businesses, institutions and private property owners buy, sell, relocate and build. In areas in flux, the built environment can be outdated or vacant almost as quickly as it’s built. But, in historic areas, the option of simply demolishing and rebuilding as necessary is the least desirable, especially as urban planners have begun to recognize the value of historic architecture and infrastructure.

Across the country, people in both the public and private sectors have been developing strategies for rethinking their current built environment in a way that preserves its historic value while reconfiguring its streets, sidewalks, transportation infrastructure, housing developments and more to meet the needs of a new group of residents and businesses.

Rightsizing,” as they call it in urban planning circles, is a strategy for taking what currently exists and, rather than razing it and starting with a clean slate, redeveloping it in a way that makes the most of its historic value and assets in light of current resident and business needs. Often, it requires smaller and smarter needs-based changes rather than large, one-size-fits all developments. This strategy can be particularly helpful in places like Cincinnati, where the shrinking population in the urban core left a skeleton of vacant properties and oversized industrial developments. Rightsizing is a more human-scale strategy than the sprawl our cities have seen in the past and, with resident input and historic preservationists on board, it can create an almost seamless transition from past to future.

CPA sets its sights on Walnut Hills

In Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Preservation Association has a vested interest in the Walnut Hills neighborhood. As is a hallmark of the city’s first-ring suburbs, Walnut Hills is full of historic properties and landmarks that make the neighborhood an interesting place to explore and an important place in the city’s history. But, similar to many other parts of Cincinnati, Walnut Hills has had its share of economic struggles and population flux that left it littered with vacant properties, which are notoriously susceptible to crime and blight.

Even with the significant amount of progress seen in Walnut Hills over the past few years, the neighborhood still has a high rate of vacant properties, and vacancy is an issue of more than simple aesthetics. Kevin Wright, the executive director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation (WHRF), says that vacant properties affect crime, education, property values and the general economy of a neighborhood. "A neighborhood with a high vacancy rate is not and cannot be a healthy neighborhood,” he says.

With a rise in commercial and residential interest in urban areas across the nation, now seems the appropriate time for implementing a rightsizing plan in struggling historic neighborhoods in Cincinnati. With the evolution of the CPA’s mission into more comprehensive rehabilitation and the strength of partners such as the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, Walnut Hills is a fantastic opportunity for smart, strategic progress.

PlaceEconomics steps in with relocal

PlaceEconomics is a Washington D.C.-based consulting firm that specializes in preservation-sensitive placemaking initiatives. Various members of the CPA were familiar with Donovan Rypkema, principal of PlaceEconomics and respected economist, as well as the firm’s work in various cities across the nation implementing tools for economic revitalization, rightsizing, residential development and historic preservation. The Cincinnati Preservation Association invited PlaceEconomics to Cincinnati to implement a new tool called “Relocal” in Walnut Hills.

In the words of PlaceEconomics’ Rypkema, “Relocal is the data-based evaluation tool to assist in developing rightsizing strategies. We use 70-80 metrics in eight broad categories: environment, engagement, real estate, fiscal, walkability, stability, community character and economic opportunity. ‘Big data’ is used but complemented with an online community survey and an on-the-ground field survey of every parcel in the neighborhood.”

In other words, Rypkema, together with people from Walnut Hills and the CPA, assessed every single building and vacant lot in the neighborhood, recording data that would help them create a historically sensitive rightsizing strategy. This data would guage the present value and assets of the neighborhood using a more objective method than community perception alone could yield. And it would create a more comprehensive strategy for development than would a campaign to save one or two historic buildings alone.

What Relocal means for Walnut Hills

What is the goal of implementing the Relocal process in Walnut Hills? WHRF's Wright puts it simply: “Our hope is that it will give us the data we need to really begin focusing on strategy and solutions with regard to single-family housing in particular, both historic rehab and new construction.”

And Donovan Rypkema gets a little more specific: “We’d like to see decisions made on an objective, rational basis. We are convinced that the decisions on what to do with a particular property should be driven in part by the characteristics of that property (our field survey looked at building character, quality, condition and context within the block), but also the characteristics of the neighborhood. … Relocal identifies those types of variables. There are opportunities in Walnut Hills for rehabilitation, for infill new construction, for moving some houses and for mothballing others. And, yes, probably the need for some demolition. Relocal is intended to aid decision makers as to which alternative is appropriate for which properties.”

The final phase of Relocal’s implementation in Walnut Hills is still wrapping up, as data is being sorted and organized for a final report to the community and its stakeholders. When the data is complete, it will be useful for many different entities in the neighborhood. Rypkema suggests that “private sector real estate developers, the Land Bank, organizations such as Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, other city departments whose focus is not particularly on rightsizing, business advocacy and recruitment organizations, and others” will be able to access and appeal to the data when planning for development in the neighborhood. The method, he hopes, will be a model for all decision-making parties in the future.

The Cincinnati Preservation Association has a similar hope. According to Paul Muller, executive director of the CPA, “Walnut Hills is already seeing a great deal of progress due to the work of WHRF and [the neighborhood’s] inherit qualities. Relocal will provide sound data to help them build on that momentum.”

The end goal, of course, is to preserve Walnut Hills as a historically intact community that is rightsized for its current residents and strategically poised for a more economically viable future.
Learn More
  • To commemorate its 50th Anniversary, the Cincinnati Preservation Association will celebrate with a dinner on November 8 at the newly restored Marriott Renaissance Cincinnati Downtown. Tickets can be purchased on the CPA website.
  • The history of the Cincinnati Preservation Association is on display in a free, special exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center in honor of its 50th anniversary. The exhibit runs through early April 2015.
  • Relocal is just one of the many exciting things happening in Walnut Hills. Check out the Walnut Hills Area Council community website and the Redevelopment Foundation websites for more exhaustive information.
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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.