The impact of Connected Communities, part two

In late April, Soapbox reported conversations with engaged Cincinnati residents about the Connected Communities proposal. To recap, in January, Mayor Aftab Pureval and Councilman Reggie Harris spearheaded Connected Communities. Cincinnati City Council and local government has preliminarily espoused the Connected Communities program, with the goal of increasing the city’s quantity of middle housing—small and mid-sized multifamily units, with an emphasis on two- to four-unit buildings in close proximity to neighborhood business districts (NBDs)—in an effort to enhance housing availability and affordability.

Four additional Cincinnati community leaders offer their input on how Connected Communities will impact their neighborhoods.

North Avondale | Walter Koucky
A retired environmental engineer, Koucky serves as the zoning committee chairman of the North Avondale Neighborhood Association (NANA). Throughout the community engagement project, he states Connected Communities advocates haven’t genuinely sought resident feedback.

“At the sessions, the presenters provided discussion subjects using stick-on dots and offered attendees Post-It® notes for questions and feedback.” Koucky said. “They were trying to drive a limited narrative instead of allowing attendees to articulate their own ideas.”

He said the professed goals were developed based on a 2021 Urban Land Institute of Cincinnati Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) report. The organization lists itself as a “nonprofit real estate and land development organization” but its sponsors suggest a pro-development bent; Neyer Properties, Messer Construction, Procter & Gamble, and a consortium of construction and property-management companies, financial institutions, and law firms.

“These are organizations that stand to benefit from higher-density housing and eliminating community participation in the neighborhood zoning decisions,” Koucky stated.

He referenced a National Low Income Housing Coalition April 2023 report reported by the Urban Institute that loosening restrictions to accomplish higher-density housing resulted in a small net gain of 0.8% more available housing, with the only demonstrated benefit occurring to those of above-average incomes.

He points to the decreased city funding to community councils as an indication of disinterest in their input. Koucky noted that city grants to neighborhood councils were reduced from $9,872 for fiscal year (FY) 2023 to $7,375 for FY 2024. The City also substantially raised the fees of the city-initiated Beautification program, where councils pass money back to Cincinnati Parks for services. As a result of grant cuts and cost increases, North Avondale’s Beautification program has paid Cincinnati Parks back more money than the entire City grant for community program operations.

Koucky points to data from the city’s own Connected Communities Engagement Report that indicates the lack of population support for the proposal.*

When the 2023 Connected Communities Survey asked, “Where do Cincinnati residents want to have more housing”, only 29% responded “Along Transit Corridors” or “Near Neighborhood Business Districts.” During the 2023 engagement programs, participants were given the opportunity to state a preference for where changes to density, building height and setback changes should occur.  For the choice of single-family zones, 55% of participants favored “No Change” in density, 70% favored “No Change” to building-heights restrictions and 65% of participants want “No Change” to setbacks (the required distance a building must be set back from the sidewalk). 

“It appears the 2023 participants in Connected Communities outreach soundly rejected the zoning changes that are being remarketed in 2024,” Koucky said.

Joe SimonMt. Lookout's Delta Avenue
Mt. Lookout | Brian Spitler
Brian Spitler has been a Mt. Lookout resident for 20 years (the entirety of his tenure in Cincinnati) and has served on Mt. Lookout’s Community Council for twelve years. He vividly recalled 2022’s high-density housing proposal, advocated by former Councilwoman Liz Keating, which died in committee. It excluded single-family housing zoned areas, which account for more than three-fourths of the city.

He said that, although the parameters of the new proposal are different, he still thinks the proposal is one-size-fits-all. “The city wide opposition clearly expressed that different neighborhoods have different challenges and needs, and that they should be considered. I wish that the Council Members would have followed up over the last two years with communities on what they heard in response.”

“Zoning changes will not fix the city’s problems,” he said. “We hear over and over how we need more housing, but we don’t hear data specific to this city about the benefits of this proposal. It might work in some neighborhoods, but it won’t be effective in ours.”

Further, Spitler said that the Mt. Lookout Community Council (MLCC) had been personally invited into one conversation during Connected Communities’ evolution, a kickoff meeting approximately 18 months ago.

One reason the 12-member MLCC doesn’t feel the proposal is beneficial to the neighborhood is that they have already achieved the embodiment of mixed housing the city wants.

“We already have a very significant number of multi-family units, and Mt. Lookout is a nearly 50:50 split between rentals and owner-occupied properties in the area targeted for legislation,” he said. “So, it’s not like we’re a monolith of single-family housing that is excluding those seeking the rental market.”

Another major snag is taking away parking minimums. Anyone who has ever gone to Lookout Joe’s for coffee or Zip’s for a burger knows precisely what a premium parking is in Mt. Lookout Square.

He cited increasing Mt. Lookout’s already frequent traffic congestion with this takeaway:
“In 2022, three pedestrians were hit and killed by vehicles, and we frequently replace trees on our sidewalks that are taken out by cars,” said Spitler. “Traffic and pedestrian safety are prime concerns and we continue to collaborate to rectify these concerns.”

As you may have surmised from the “Mount” in Mt. Lookout’s name, the community has peaks and valleys. Mt. Lookout Square is in a valley at the confluence of Linwood and Delta Avenues. When heavy rains occur, such as those we sustained recently, the Square is prone to flooding. Spitler said that overflowing stormwater drains remain an ongoing problem, and that greater building density would increase pressure on the community’s drainage and create additional flood risk.

In late April, the MLCC voted unanimously to formally oppose the Connected Communities proposal after receiving feedback from more than 130 community residents, all but one of whom were in opposition. Points of contention cited include:
  • Overcrowding of Kilgour School, which many children living in Mt. Lookout attend. The school has a target capacity of 450 students, but Kilgour currently serves approximately 550 pupils. Increased housing density would eventually translate into an even larger student population.
  • Connected Communities higher-density goals and the subsequent construction and vegetation removal would likely entail works seemingly in opposition to the Green Cincinnati plan drafted last year, which stipulates expansion of the city’s tree canopy.
  • The current zoning code allows for a myriad of procedural paths, such as variances, special exceptions, and site-specific rezoning, to cultivate higher-density housing. According to the MLCC, Connected Communities legislation would effectively eliminate the opportunity for communities to be heard.

“We want to continue to actively work with city officials to accomplish mutual goals but are concerned that Connected Communities would make engaging on development issues more difficult,” Spitler said.

Joe SimonApproximately 60% of Clifton residents live in rental housing. Given UC’s professed increased enrollment goals, Ben Pantoja worries housing demand and Connected Communities proposals will significantly raise the rental percentage.
Clifton | Ben Pantoja
It’s reasonable to perceive Clifton’s neighborhood character to be as irreversible as our pairing of chili and spaghetti: heavy multi-family and trendy retail and restaurants interspersed with upscale single family. Similarly, some might think such a firmly-entrenched neighborhood would be unfazed by a zoning change such as the Connected Communities proposal.

Ben Pantoja disagrees.

The retired manufacturing process engineer has lived in Clifton for 40 years. He previously served as president of Clifton Town Meeting and is currently on its housing and zoning committee. Clifton has long maintained a consistent character, but it hasn’t evolved in a vacuum. The University of Cincinnati is the predominant progenitor of Clifton’s culture and economy, and its plan announced last October to grow its enrollment by roughly 10,000 students by 2030 profoundly impacts the neighborhood.

Those additional students will have to live somewhere. Pantoja foresees a substantial surge in an already dense rental market. Ludlow Avenue, the main artery of Clifton traffic, qualifies as a major travel corridor, and he notes, “We have a good mix of housing stock, but about 60% of our current residents rent. The demand for increased student housing combined with revamped zoning through the Connected Communities (proposal) will make it easy for a developer to buy a single-family property, tear it down and create a four-family unit with no parking. A consequence of this would likely be a reduced rate of homeownership and a rental rate over 70%.”

Pantoja said even greater housing density would adversely affect the Clifton business district, with reduced parking availability deterring those outside the neighborhood from patronizing Ludlow Avenue businesses. Pantoja added another concern he has heard voiced repeatedly - decreased property values triggered by increasing density.

The Clifton Town Meeting hasn’t adopted an official position or drafted a response to City Hall regarding Connected Communities. At its monthly May 1 meeting, Pantoja said that approximately 60 attended and that it “often become heated.” He said that, in his advocacy for Connected Communities, Reggie Harris seemed to not understand the proposal’s parameters.

“Reggie made the common error of assuming the Clifton Business District would have reduced parking premiums, rather than be eliminated. Being with a half-mile of Ludlow, one of the defined major corridors, parking minimums would thus be removed.”

Attendees made a number of comments and suggestions:
  • Delay the June vote to give community councils more time to engage property owners and revise the program based on Councils’ feedback.
  • Institute pilot tests within neighborhoods with the most pressing need for increased density.
  • Prioritize affordable housing in areas with a high concentration of vacant units.
  • Require that four-family units be owner-occupied.

“The city is trying to force every community into a uniform system, when every community has its own needs,” Pantoja said.

He appreciates the need to reduce vehicular traffic as a motivator to eliminating minimums, but that eliminating minimums along the major corridor in every business district is too heavy-handed. One alternative Pantoja suggests is eliminating parking minimums for affordable-housing developments, where he said residents are less likely to own vehicles.

Joe SimonMultifamily housing that exists in Paddock Hills was built before zoning and is in suboptimal condition, Orr said.

Paddock Hills | Lina Orr
One of the smallest neighborhoods within the city, Paddock Hills is a unique enclave with approximately 1,000 residents and the sizable Avon Woods Nature Center that 23-year resident Lina Orr refers to as “an oasis.” The community was founded in 1919, and most of its early-era English Tudors built from the mid-1920s to late 1930s still stand.

The Nature Center and Avon Fields Golf Course occupy approximately 50% of its land mass, providing an unusually bucolic environment within the city limits. Its central location is proximal to the Norwood Lateral and Reading Road. According to Redfin, the average home sale price in January 2024 is $270,000, a 145% increase over the previous January. Some of that is due to a housing market that tilts decidedly to sellers, but the convenient location and ample greenspace are undoubtedly attributes.

She said that Connected Communities would have a major impact on Paddock Hills. “We’re a small community population-wise and geographically, so with our close proximity to Reading Road [one of the major corridors outlined in the plan], all but small parts of three streets would be impacted by the proposed zoning change.”

Whereas other communities may have vacant parcels of land that would be conducive to building multi-family housing, Paddock Hills has virtually no such availability. She fears any foreclosed single-family homes would be obtained by developers, torn down and rebuilt or retrofitted into multi-family housing. She would, however, welcome the renovation into more livable quarters of many of Paddock Hills’ current multi-family properties, which were built pre-zoning during the 1950s and ‘60s and haven’t aged well.

Orr said that the top of many Paddock Hills residents’ wish list is the development of a walkable business district near the Reading Road-Tennessee Avenue corridor. Orr said that approximately 25% of its area is zoned for commercial use, but the need remains for a greater diversity of businesses and employment opportunities noting “most of our current businesses consist of gas stations and tire shops, so there’s not much employment opportunity here. It would be nice to have a better business district for those that want to utilize it and that would provide jobs for people that want them.”

She noted the neighborhood’s vibrancy has improved in recent years.

“A lot of longtime owners have passed away or moved into assisted living, and their kids and other younger families are renovating these old homes,” Orr said. “We have more kids around the neighborhood than we’ve ever had. We’re a close-knit neighborhood, and we don’t want to lose that character.”

Joe SimonLocated on the corner of Blue Rock Road and Hamilton Avenue, Vandalia Point is a 50-plus unit development providing housing for those with 30-60% AMI.
Northside | Brandon Rudd
Like many Cincinnati neighborhoods, Northside’s population is less than its mid-20th century count, according to Brandon Rudd, a Northside resident who serves as the chair of the Northside Community Council’s (NCC) zoning committee.

“In the 1940s, Northside’s population was around 16,000; today, it’s around 8,000. A lot of that reduced population is due to road construction, largely I-74, some demolition which occurred for the Colerain Corridor that has never been built, and some of it is simply the function of families being smaller today.”

Brandon and his wife moved into Northside in 2019, and he quips, “I couldn’t afford to move into Northside today,” a reference to the appreciation of property values as well as a sellers’ market. His house is on a street that is zoned SF-2, which means the minimum lot size is 2,000 sq. ft. A vibrant commercial district spans Northside’s section of Hamilton Avenue, the section along the southern end of Northside along Dooley Bypass is zoned industrial, and part of the northern section of the neighborhood is zoned SF-4, which signifies a minimum property size of 4,000 sq. ft. The multi-family properties and single-family homes on smaller plots that exist are pre-zoning grandfathered structures. Rudd laments the existing zoning’s prevents the ability to create more affordable housing.

“As zoning currently exists in Northside, we couldn’t recreate some of the older small-lot and multi-family housing that exists here,” he said. “Many are priced out of living in this neighborhood, and we want our neighborhood to be inclusive.

Rudd said that he isn’t concerned about the prospect of removing parking minimums.
“It’s not a ban, it’s just the removal of a minimum,” he noted. “Our commercial district is an essential part of our community, and I think any developer would realize that. A business owner looking for a bank loan will be in a more favorable position if they can show they have sufficient parking for customers. There is flexibility to meet residents’ and merchants’ needs.”

Rudd favors the Connected Communities proposal as a solution both to promote more affordable housing, increased residential stock, and helping communities reduce the impact of climate change.

“It’s important to both increase the viability and adoption of public transit, and to create more pedestrian-friendly communities,” he said. “I don’t think this will be last step in the city’s efforts to provide more affordable housing and combat climate change, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

The Northside community has already embraced constructing multi-family units by seeking variances to construct them. Northside NEST, a nonprofit community development corporation supported by the city via Homebase Cincinnati’s operational support grant, transformed the property at 4145 Apple Street into a 57-unit senior-living facility that emphasizes housing access for LGBTQ+ individuals 55 and over with 30 to 60% of the area median income (AMI). Additionally, OTR Community Housing partnered with Urban Sites to construct Vandalia Point at Blue Rock and Hamilton Avenue, a 52-unit development for individuals in the 30-60% AMI range.

Rudd describes his motivation simply: “I’m thinking about the city that I want my son to inherit.”

View the Connected Communities Engagement Report and appendix:

This is part two of two Soapbox stories to provide more feedback with voices from the neighborhoods about the upcoming Connective Communities legislation.

Publisher / managing editor Patrice Watson resides in North Avondale; Steve Aust resides in Oakley; Joe Simon resides in the City of Cincinnati.

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Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.