Flatiron Café signals new promises for future Mt Auburn business district

Cincinnati’s first hilltop neighborhood, Mt Auburn, began in the early 1800s as an affluent, suburban retreat from the crowding and chaos of the city’s urban core. Conveniently located to both downtown and uptown institutions, Mt Auburn is home to The Christ Hospital, one of the region’s largest employers, and still boasts an impressive assemblage of diverse historic homes.

But the neighborhood’s population has dwindled over time. In 1950, Mt Auburn’s population was close to 17,000 residents; it now clocks in with fewer than 7,000. And, unlike most of its uptown neighbors, Mt Auburn does not have its own hallmark business district with amenities to meet the needs of its residents and visitors.

A few years ago, there was no clearer example of this lack of amenities than the crumbling condition of the landmark flatiron building at the top of Sycamore Street, where Sycamore winds past Dorchester Avenue and then widens into Auburn Avenue.

But, after years of community advocacy and both public and private investment, the once-neglected building has a new lease on life. Its renovation and the recent opening of the Flatiron Café are a success for the neighborhood’s stakeholders and evidence that trusted partnerships can spell progress for a community that needs a boost.

The flatiron building is no longer a reminder of Mt Auburn’s decline. It is now perched triumphantly as a crown of the community.

When a community has had enough

Carol Gibbs has been with the Mt Auburn Community Development Corporation (MACDC) since 2015.Carol Gibbs is proud of the new café in Mt. Auburn.

Gibbs has been with the Mt Auburn Community Development Corporation (MACDC) since its genesis in 2015. A longtime Mt Auburn resident, she had a front row seat to the flatiron building’s deterioration over the years.

She’d always hoped to see something good come of the flatiron building, but she describes one particular turning point about seven years ago--

“It was snowing, and I was stuck inside on social media,” she remembers. 

“The building was in terrible shape with the roof caving in, covered with tarps. I posted on the Mt Auburn Facebook page saying something like, ‘I wish someone would care about this building,’ and I got a hundred hits in an hour.”

The social media conversation that followed refueled community interest in the building and reinforced her belief that the building’s restoration and development was something worth pursuing.

So, she started the push.

Many partners, one goal

Philip Denning serves as Executive Vice President for The Port.When the Mt Auburn Community Development Corporation stepped in to advocate for the flatiron building, it got the ball rolling. But the building’s journey from a derelict eyesore to “restored architectural landmark” would be far from simple.

Even for properties that have fallen deeply into neglect and disrepair, there is a lengthy process to pursue either litigation against the owner or a transfer of ownership to a responsible party. It involves the complicated synthesis of legal proceedings, community advocacy, and strategic planning.

Philip Denning, Executive Vice President of The Port, explains that the flatiron building’s development had obvious community support, but the community alone can only accomplish so much without outside partners and investment.

This is the reason so many other buildings are still vacant, awaiting development. The relationships have not aligned, he explains, to work toward the same goal.

“The hidden part of this equation is the network of trust, at the very beginning, between the city’s legal and building department, the land bank, the community, and a developer who has a high appetite for risk,” Denning says.

Trust is the key element because, as he explains, “once they take the first step, it’s a risk all the way down.”

In this case, everyone was willing to take the risk.

In 2018, The Port (Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s port authority) took ownership of the building and moved forward with its stabilization with the help of Structural Systems Repair Group (SSRG). But stabilization was not enough. The building still needed a new owner who could activate a new plan for the property.

The right owner, the right plan

Tom Neyer is Chairman and CEO of Neyer Holdings Corporation.Carol Gibbs knew exactly who to call.

Before her role with the MACDC, Gibbs worked for a human services agency called ACT. That was how she met Tom Neyer, who was a Hamilton County Commissioner at the time. They’ve worked together in various capacities since then.

Neyer is currently Chairman and CEO of Neyer Holdings Corporation, an “advisory, investment, and development group.” He also owns a set of beverage business that include Corkopolis on Main Street downtown and Hyde Park Gourmet Food & Wine on Hyde Park Square.

Neyer knew the building. He drove past it on a regular basis and understood both its significance and its potential for the community. When Gibbs asked him to consider buying it, he decided it was worth the investment.

“As the head of the community development corporation, Carol [Gibbs] has been trying to solve this puzzle for a long time,” acknowledges Neyer, “but it was a very heavy lift.”

He says the project required the expertise of The Port, the commitment of the community, the follow-through from the City, and his own “entrepreneurial foolishness” to develop an asset that he admits was “literally in danger of rolling down the hill.”

He trusted the other parties at the table. So, in 2018, he signed a purchase agreement for the building and the plans for its development went into action.

Over the past few years, the flatiron building has gone through an extensive restoration and renovation. It now houses stylish townhome Airbnb rentals on the upper floors and the Flatiron Café coffeeshop and wine bar below. The building also boasts a rooftop deck over the garage and a garden-level rathskeller that’s available for private events. As it stands today, it barely resembles its former self.

Only the beginning

The opening of the Flatiron Café in June of 2022 looked like the start of something new in Mt Auburn, but it’s more like a hard-won victory years in the making.

None of these things happen overnight.

Back in 2010, Mt Auburn stakeholders began a plan for the future development of a business district along Auburn Avenue.

Adopted in 2017, the Auburn Avenue Corridor Strategic Development Plan includes a comprehensive analysis of the .6 mile stretch of Auburn Avenue that extends north from the five-point intersection (where the flatiron building stands). The plan includes goals and opportunities for residential and commercial development along the corridor.

It notes the Sycamore & Dorchester intersection and mentions the flatiron building as “the most notable landmark.” That intersection, it says, is “an opportunity for historic buildings and new infill development to come together for a dynamic Neighborhood Business District.”

Flatiron is only one café in one building. But preserving this single community asset was a huge leap toward actualizing some of the goals of the community plan. Among those goals is: transforming the corridor into “a neighborhood serving business district.”

Tom Neyer is now the owner of both the real estate at 1833 Sycamore Street and the Flatiron Café, where residents and visitors can get their first taste of the new, in-the-works business district at Auburn Avenue’s southern gateway.

“Mt Auburn is changing and growing,” Neyer says. “And when people are looking for a new place to live, the first thing they want is a cup of coffee and the second thing they want is a drink.”

Now they can find both in the same place and it’s only the beginning.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

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.