A 'sleepy little town' awakens with new housing and community gathering space

Cincinnati’s first-ring suburbs face unique challenges. Changing demographics, economic stability, and issues regarding resources and security are common threads among these jurisdictions. 

The ways the 49 Hamilton County cities, villages, townships, and municipal corporations not only adjust but thrive is the focus of this series, First Suburbs—Beyond Borders. The series explores the diversity and ingenuity of these longstanding suburban communities, highlighting issues that demand collective thought and action to galvanize their revitalization.

Delhi Towne Square, a new suburban downtown built on 14 acres in that west side community, is a microcosm of the evolution of the township itself.

Decades ago, the site was a family farm, the Huenefeld farm, known for selling Christmas trees during the holiday season and produce the rest of the year. As the west side suburb grew, the farm acreage was sold to developers, and discount retail pioneer Kmart brought its blue-light specials and low prices to the site. When the Kmart years ended, local “hypermarket” Bigg’s opened there and a retail strip mall emerged surrounding the superstore. When Bigg's folded, it became a Remke supermarket, which closed about six years ago, putting the property back on the market again.

When township officials got word of a self-storage outfit planning to purchase the land, they decided to take matters into their own hands. The township agreed to buy the property for $2.9 million -- a bargain by today’s valuations -- so it could control its destiny.

The purchase had been encouraged in part by a comprehensive community study completed a few years earlier. Called “Plan the Pike,” the study, led by international design and planning firm Stantec, focused on the potential of the Delhi Pike business district to be transformed into a center of township life, with new housing options, shopping and dining spots, and public space, all available by walking.

That document, developed after a series of meetings involving the public, envisioned Delhi Pike as a revitalized business district. It outlined a vision for the township that included “expanded housing options that serve young and old; improved parks and public spaces; increased employment opportunities; and opportunities to walk within a Main Street environment and meet friends.”

The township is on its way to realizing the vision. In July, it will hold a formal ribbon cutting and community gathering to mark the opening of Delhi Towne Square, a $70 million project nearing completion at the former site of the supermarket strip mall. It is a mixed-use development that includes housing, a recreation center, public space, and a preschool. Township leaders say it will be a catalyst to bring energy and residents to a bedroom community that experienced rapid growth decades ago, but has stagnated since then.

“We used to be, and we are, some people still say, what they call a sleepy little town,” says township trustee and 45-year resident Rose Stertz. “But you know, people liked it that way. We're a nice community and a quiet community. But you know, those quiet communities die. And we want to make sure that we’re a vital community and meeting the needs of our residents.”

Key to the development is 180 market-rate apartments built by Cincinnati-based PLK Communities. Some are already occupied, most of the rest are pre-leased, and only a handful remain available for lease, Stertz says. Rents start at $1,275 for one bedroom to $2,040 for three bedrooms.

The new residents will help support new and existing businesses. “It's great for our business owners,” Stertz says. “We've not had an influx of new housing like this in over 50 years.”

A recreation center, the Delhi Athletic Club, will be a membership-only space with a regulation-size pool available for competitions, cycling, yoga, a dance studio, weights, cardio equipment, and exercise classes.

The Oak Hills Local School District will operate preschool classes in the development under a long-term arrangement that is likely to encourage young families to move in. The township offices will also move to the development.

At the entrance to the complex is a public space of roughly one acre now called The Lawn. It will feature a stage and greenspace for events and hanging out. An outdoor bar and Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area (DORA) is planned, as is space and facilities for food trucks.

The Lawn features public greenspace and a stage.“This is essentially new park land for us,” says Township Administrator Skylor Miller.
Of the $70 million total investment in the community, about $46 million will be borne by the township, and financed in a variety of ways: municipal debt, a tax increment financing reserve fund, general fund reserves, and county, state, and federal grants, Miller says.

With this major undertaking, Delhi Township is responding to a demand for a return to pedestrian-friendly, connected, community spaces. The township once possessed a rural character, like the Huenefeld family farm, and traces of that still remain, such as its hills and its links to the Ohio River and the Anderson Ferry. Delhi was once the home of more than 50 independent flower growers, a thriving business that led to the nickname it still carries, “The Floral Paradise of Ohio.” In 2006, the township opened Floral Paradise Gardens, a public park with a variety of gardens, to pay tribute to its botanical history. But one of the largest and last remaining growers, Delhi Garden Center, moved to Butler County in 2008.

Delhi grew rapidly in the ‘50s and ‘60s along with the post-World War II demands for new homes with yards, driveways, and two-car garages. Since the ‘80s, its population has remained relatively stable at around 30,000. Its open spaces led to retail development of big-box stores with huge parking lots, and strip malls that one had to drive to, separated from the residential areas and disconnected from the fabric of the community.

Delhi Towne Square, an idea started nearly 10 years ago, is the beginning of a move back toward development created on a people-oriented, community-based scale.  As nationally known planner David Dixon, who led the Stantec team that worked on the Delhi plan years ago, wrote, suburban downtowns such as Delhi Towne Square “succeed in the marketplace by satisfying a growing demand for places that offer the benefits of being part of a community. Put another way, they increase economic value by creating social value.”

Township leaders say the development can be the beginning of an effort to keep empty nesters living in the community, and to encourage their children and families to stay or move back.

“I think it's just the beginning,” Stertz says. “We are going to see an influx of new people potentially. It's just the catalyst, and that's exactly what we wanted this project to be.”

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including the Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.