Walnut Hills / E. Walnut Hills

Walnut Hills residents fight for diversity and resist developments that decrease affordable housing

Diversity is in Walnut Hills’ DNA by design. So as the Walnut Hills community goes through significant changes and invites a sweeping wave of new development, preserving the culture of diversity is a top priority to both community leadership and residents.

Maintaining racial and socio-economic diversity in a transitional neighborhood is hard because every new project changes the fabric of the neighborhood. An insensitive developer can shift the balance almost instantly.

This is the sort of thing Walnut Hills leadership is trying to avoid.

Finding balance between new and old amidst the constant change

When the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation (WHRF) was created in the 1970s it addressed, specifically, the issue of low-incoming housing. In the 2010s, it was reinvented as a nonprofit CDC (community development corporation) whose goal is to secure a “vibrant, safe, healthy, and inclusive” Walnut Hills. In the past few years, it’s been working proactively to help bring new development to the area, serving as a kind of liaison between developers and the community.

The WHRF has made diversity a foundational commitment to its vision for the neighborhood, which is good. But finding a balance between the needs and desires of the neighborhood and the economic realities of the market is hard. They don’t just want new projects to feel good; they want to make sure they will work.

When the WHRF sensed an increase of interest in the neighborhood from outside investors, they knew it was time to put a formal redevelopment plan into place.

“We recognized the need to develop a more intentional strategy for reinvestment, recognizing new stakeholders and longtime residents, the need for extensive community engagement surrounding the neighborhood’s future, and so that we can be more intentional moving forward,” explains Samantha Reeves, interim executive director of the WHRF.

The redevelopment foundation created a formal community reinvestment plan that provided a baseline for reinvestment in the community as well as strategic steps to address residents’ desires and needs. It provided clear action steps and goals, such as maintaining 30% of the available housing units as designated low-income (based on current area median income — AMI — and HUD affordability scales). But the plan doesn’t end with low-income housing.

“The reinvestment plan recommends maintaining low-income housing,” Reeves says, “but simultaneously diversifying and offering for a broader share of the market that wants to be in neighborhoods like Walnut Hills.”

As it stands — including projects in predevelopment stages — housing numbers in the neighborhood are on track with the plan. Thirty-four percent are low-income affordable; 63% are market rate; 4% are priced for “workforce” affordability (those under 120% of AMI).

This reinvestment plan is now a few years old and still guiding the WHRF’s work with outside funding and contractors interested in further developing property in Walnut Hills. It helps the community find investors and contractors that align with their neighborhood culture and vision.

Large developments mean big change

Model Group is one of the developers working side-by-side with the redevelopment foundation to bring new residential and commercial development to the neighborhood. Model Group now has offices in Over-the-Rhine but was originally a Walnut Hills business — their headquarters had been in Walnut Hills since 1990.

Vice president of property management Matt Reckman says Model Group has had a hand in developing the neighborhood since his father began renovating property in the 1980s. Then, though, the scale of development was nothing like what is is today. The original wave of urban redevelopment was done building by building; now it’s done by the city block.

Model Group has been the primary financing and construction engine on some of the largest developments in Walnut Hills over the past few years. They were responsible for the $10 million restoration and remodeling of the Trevarren Flats building, and still own and manage it. They are currently working on the $22.6 million Paramount Square development at Peebles Corner (at the corner of Gilbert and McMillan Avenues) and the exciting new low-income Scholar House project.

These large-scale Walnut Hills projects are only a part of Model Group’s diverse portfolio.

“We have never done the same deal twice,” Reckman explains. “We always cater a development solution to the needs of the neighborhood.”

“The mission of our company is to positively transform communities,” he continues. “We lean on the RF and look for their guidance and support. They set the stage for the community at large so we’re aligned with their broader plan for the neighborhood.”

In 2015–2016, while the WHRF and Model Group were working closely on the Trevarren Flats project; a top priority was securing an anchor tenant that felt like it belonged in the neighborhood. Barbeque restaurant Just Q’in was exactly what they were looking for.

Within weeks of opening a location in Newtown, Ohio (in 2011), Just Q’in owner Matt Cuff had left his engineering career to pursue his dream of running a BBQ restaurant as a full-time social enterprise. He had established himself on the east side of Cincinnati; now he felt like it was time to find a second location nearer to the city. Walnut Hills was at the top of his list.

When he started shopping around for potential spaces for an urban location, Cuff recalls getting a tour of the neighborhood from the redevelopment foundation’s then-executive director Kevin Wright and hearing about the RF’s vision for Walnut Hills.

Cuff was drawn to the architecture of the neighborhood and already felt at home — he’d grown up in a similar neighborhood in Cleveland. He’d also already run the numbers and he knew the Walnut Hills (and East Walnut Hills) area was a great place to invest.

Wright didn’t have to work hard to convince Cuff.

He remembers, “Kevin was doing this million-dollar sales pitch walking around the neighborhood and I said, ‘Kevin, at the end of the day we’re a barbeque restaurant in a black neighborhood. I think we can make it.’”

He was right. Just Q’in opened on McMillan Street in 2016 and has been a great success, attracting customers from far across the region. Last year, Cuff closed his Newtown location to focus more attention in Walnut Hills and he has now expanded operations into a sauce and rub packing business down the street from the restaurant.

In 2020, the nearby Paramount Building will have its own minority-owned anchor establishment — Esoteric Brewing Co. — the first black-owned brewery in Cincinnati. 

A few years ago, WHRF reached out to MORTAR,  an entrepreneurship training hub in Walnut Hills, about helping create a more diverse and inclusive neighborhood, according to development manager Vic Mullins. The nonprofit had already proved its effectiveness in launching minority-owned businesses in Over-the-Rhine and elsewhere.

They were exactly the sort of ally Walnut Hills needed. They’ve helped connect the RF to entrepreneurs and business owners who might normally be overlooked in such a high-stakes period of revitalization — people like Cuff and Jackson.

Both Esoteric Brewery and Just Q’in are minority-owned and operated businesses, but they still appeal to higher-income customers. So, racial diversity isn’t really enough by itself. To build an equitable neighborhood economy, there needs to be a diversity of options for all residents, regardless of income.

Thankfully, in Walnut Hills, there are other places across the neighborhood where residents can eat on every budget. There are even places like Green Man Twist — which is a social enterprise and a MORTAR alum — where a basic ice cream cone is $2, and the Open Door Ministry at the Episcopal Church of the Advent, where coffee and donuts are free.

“We believe that it's really important to make sure that the people who are native to a community are given the opportunity to actively and meaningfully participate in the redevelopment of the communities where they live and work, Mullins explains. “While we can all agree that there are many benefits to community redevelopment, we must be sure that everyone is getting fair and equal access to those benefits.”

Keeping the residential base diverse

Kathryne Gardette

Economic development and new businesses are only one part of the equation. It’s the residents that keep a community alive.

Kathryne Gardette and her husband, Baba Charles Miller, have been fixtures in Walnut Hills since they moved there from Evanston in the 1980s. In addition to operating a community gathering space and gallery, she is currently the president of the area council. It’s her job to keep an eye on everything going on in the neighborhood and help the residents find ways to proactively address any issues or concerns.

“I am a public servant to the community,” Gardette says. “As such, I am connecting people and conversations so that our community develops equitably.”

Just a few days ago, Gardette received notice that a large housing complex in the neighborhood — the Alexandria — had a receivership hearing between the owner and the City of Cincinnati. This means foreclosure is looming.

The Alexandria on Gilbert Avenue was constructed in 1904 and was the neighborhood’s first large apartment building. It is an impressive architectural structure and a registered historic site that is now home to 83 apartments for low-income seniors.

If the building changes hands or the owner loses his housing subsidy vouchers, those residents are vulnerable to displacement and homelessness. They don’t have the luxury of shopping around for another home; they are at the mercy of subsidies.

This isn’t the first time the neighborhood’s low income residents have been in crisis. In 2018, the neighborhood fought to protect residents living in The Alms, a large historic building on Victory Pkwy that was sold after years of neglect and mismanagement. Before a buyer was found, residents feared the building might be developed into market rate apartments or condos. 126 low-income families would have been displaced.

Thankfully, the new owner committed to maintaining the building as low-income housing. But there is never a guarantee and residents feel the tension.

Gardette says this is nothing new. Property owners have always had the freedom to use their buildings however they want. In fact, there are many owners around Walnut Hills who have already sold off two or three buildings or have given up their subsidy vouchers and began renting at market rate.

“This is not just happening in Walnut Hills,” she says. “You know it’s happening everywhere, but there’s no way to stop it.”

At least with these large buildings, she says, it’s easier to catch early on and easier for the neighborhood to voice their opinion.

Fears of gentrification and displacement are common in transitional neighborhoods like Walnut Hills where developers are faced with a variety of opportunities for investment and a market that supports higher-yield investments. It takes a truly visionary investor to consider the unquantifiable yields of their investments alongside the economic ones.

But, what power does the neighborhood hold to stave off development that they don’t want?

Gardette explains that the area council has established a protocol for developers to receive a Letter of Support from the neighborhood. They’re asked to present a project for consideration and then there is a formal conversation about the project and the residents take a month to consider whether or not to support it. This approval process is not legally required for funding or city approval, but it’s a sign of good faith, a way to build trust between the neighborhood and its investors.

So, Gardette is anxiously awaiting further conversations about a large-scale development called Park Avenue Square that is planned for the corner of Park Avenue and McMillan Avenue. It did not receive this neighborhood Letter of Support but appears to be moving along anyway.

Gardette says that neighborhood residents found issues with the size and number of the units, plus parking was an issue. Also, the apartments seems too expensive for the actual “working” residents of the neighborhood. The $29 million project includes 176 apartments, most of them one-bedroom and studio apartments. The projected rental rates are between $950 and $1,650 and it is being marketed as “workforce housing.”

This project is just one more reminder for Gardette and her working-class Walnut Hills peers that, “If we had not invested in our community when we did, we would never be able to buy there.”

“If the city and our neighborhood and our developers do not realize that there are working people living in our city who want to stay in our city, they will be left with only the ‘haves and the have nots,’” she continues. “No one else will be left.”

But now, regardless of their initial lack of support, the neighborhood needs to try to engage without tension. Gardette has no recent memory of a project of that scale moving forward without neighborhood support, so this is uncharted territory. She says they will certainly be discussing both the future of the Alexandria and Park Avenue Square at the next council meeting.

“We are not a community that waits. We are a community that activates,” Gardette says.

“It will be in everyone's best interest,” she says, “to now have a conversation about how to make this [development] an asset to the community.”

The On The Ground Walnut Hills feature series is made possible by a grant from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. / U. S. Bank Foundation.


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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.