A new library will serve as community gathering space and a spark for further development

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. 

Founded in the 1950s, Forest Park came of age in the ‘60s, grew big enough to become a city in 1968, and today, with a population of nearly 20,000, ranks as the second-largest city in Hamilton County after the city of Cincinnati. 

Its growth spurt 50 years ago expanded its population and business base, but left it with a common problem among first-ring suburbs: an aging, built environment of tired retail and deteriorating strip malls, as well-to-do businesses locate farther out in wealthier, newer suburbs. In Forest Park, nowhere was that more evident than in the city’s central business corridor along Northland Boulevard.

“It’s been going downhill,” acknowledges City Manager Don Jones.

A few years ago, city officials embarked on a plan to energize the community’s main business corridor. They began acquiring properties and demolishing outdated, blighted buildings. Including an adjacent park, the city eventually assembled 22 contiguous acres of land for redevelopment. Its plans call for well over $100 million in development, including new, market-rate apartments, as well as office space, retail, and a renovation and reimagining of the city park.

Last year, the ambitious plans got a jump start from an unlikely source – the library. The Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library is building what will be its largest branch facility, a 26,000 square foot “Big Next Generation Library” on Northland Boulevard. With a four-acre footprint, plenty of parking, lots of meeting space, and areas for all ages to peruse the library’s voluminous collections, it’s expected to attract people not only from Forest Park, but also from surrounding communities, and spark further development of new housing and retail in the acreage city leaders have assembled.

“We see this as a catalyst for this new neighborhood,” Jones says. “The library is a destination that will bring people into the neighborhood.”

The new Forest Park branch, scheduled to be completed in 2024, is one of the largest projects in the library’s 10-year facilities master plan. Under the plan, which was made possible by funding from the tax levy that voters approved in 2018, all 40 branches as well as the Main Library downtown will see improvements.

In Forest Park, library leaders decided to build a new branch from the ground up. The current branch, built in 1969, already draws people from surrounding communities, but was considered too small, lacking in dedicated space for young children and teens, and needed major updates to its electrical system, lighting, and windows. An expansion was needed, but available land at the site was limited and it is not served by public transportation.

Forest Park officials saw the possibilities in a new, bigger library and proposed a solution: a land swap. It proposed giving the library four acres of the property it had assembled on Northland Boulevard. In exchange, the city would get the old library on Waycross Road.

“Forest Park was very much on board with wanting a new library, and they came up with a land swap idea,” says Kathy Bach, the library’s public services director. “So we were able to expand our footprint for the site and build a bigger library than what the current facility would support.”

When the library moves into the new space, the city will take possession of the old library. It plans to keep the building, and discussions have begun about how best to use it.
“We see it as a blank slate,” Jones says. “It will need some updating, but it’s a good, strong, structurally sound building. We think it’s something the community will be able to use.” Initial ideas include a satellite site for a university, a job training center, a black box theater.  “We see it as a community asset,” Jones says. “People are used to going there.”

The new "Next Gen" library will feature large community rooms and several small study rooms. “Our current space is nice and cozy; I call it the living room,” says Shaun Davidson, the Forest Park branch manager. “But adults, kids, teens, are all in the space together. It will be great to have a dedicated youth area where we can have story times or a teen area for after-school or homework help.”

The larger meeting rooms will enable more events with organizations like the Cincinnati Art Museum or the Cincinnati Observatory. A makerspace will contain a 3D printer, a laser engraver, a vinyl printer, a book maker and other tools for school projects, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations.

A rendering of the new library's interior It will be a convening space and a gathering space for Forest Park and the surrounding communities. “Increasingly, our public spaces are shrinking,” Bach says. “It's really important to have that third space. We heard a lot of that from the community.”

The $20 million library will be an anchor, as well as a model, for surrounding development, Jones says. It will try to match the design, construction and architecture in the surrounding development, he says. Most importantly, it will provide a sense of confidence to developers and potential businesses and residents.

"Having a public element as part of the plan can be a key to redevelopment,” he says. “The library is publicly oriented. It’s not going to go out of business tomorrow.”

Forest Park has secured a developer, Cincinnati-based Sanders Development Group, to lead the surrounding mixed-use project. If all goes as planned, the project will attract new, working residents, which should attract new businesses. All of which will improve Forest Park’s financial picture. “Having a bigger tax base allows us to provide more services and continue the services we have,” Jones says.

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Healtha Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentuckythe Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; 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.