An eco-industrial vision for Queensgate

No history of Cincinnati is ever complete without a description of the role the Mill Creek valley played in the city’s evolution. The valley and the neighborhood of Queensgate inside it are a vast swath of flat real estate between the hills to the east and to the west, real estate devoted almost exclusively to commerce since the 1800s.

In fact, Queensgate is Porkopolis.  Hog slaughtering started here in the early 19th century and the butchering business continued throughout the 20th century, nearly until today, giving the city one of its oft-quoted nicknames.

Manufacturing is what made Queensgate a vital piece of Cincinnati history. The city was the largest manufacturing center in what was considered “The West” in the mid-19th century, and Queensgate was where it was happening.  Drawn there by the transportation nexus of the Mill Creek and the railroads, the industries of slaughtering, metalworking and garment-making thrived in the neighborhood.

But manufacturing’s sustained decline took a toll on a neighborhood that was largely built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And while there’s still a lot of commerce being conducted there, large blocks of real estate have been left vacant or are under used, and have been that way for a long time.

And that’s exactly what makes it just about perfect for a visionary transformation into the next generation of manufacturing, says a team that studied recharging economic development in Cincinnati.

The study, known as GO Cincinnati (for Growth Opportunities), was conducted by a group of economic and real estate experts led by The Brookings Institution. Its mission, set out by the City of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati USA Partnership, was to target economic development strategies that would pump up the city’s tax revenues and increase jobs. It made three “place-based” economic development recommendations, the boldest of which is a call to transform the broad Queensgate and South Mill Creek sector into an eco-industrial park.

It would be the first of its kind in the Upper Midwest and would be a way to attract companies committed to reducing their ecological footprint, a growing part of the industrial sector, the authors say. Developers would seek out companies researching ways to minimize the environmental impact of manufacturing, and who have committed to reduce emissions, working toward a goal of zero emissions. Only buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council as meeting its LEED standards for sustainability would be developed. And a primary goal would be the environmental restoration of the Mill Creek, a waterway runs through the heart of Queensgate and has taken its share of industrial abuse over the decades.

It’s visionary and it may be a key to the city’s economic future, says Chris Leinberger, a consultant from Brookings who led the study. “This country is dividing into two types of metropolitan areas,” he says. “Those that are firmly on the path of the 21st century economy, and those that aren’t.” A major commitment to redevelop a 19th century-era collection of properties into a place where the next generation of manufacturing can be developed is a way to get on the path, he says. Green manufacturing, he says, “is a 21st century economic base.”

The study team calculated that realizing the strategy would mean a net gain of $13.6 million to the city’s general fund over five years.

The team looked around Greater Cincinnati and saw some muscle power that could help make this happen.  Industrial giants General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Toyota and Duke Energy all have major operations in the region and they all have put big money into researching and developing ways to be more environmentally friendly. GE, for example, recently announced its plans to double its investments, to $4 billion by 2010, in renewable energy technology, such as wind, solar and geothermal.

Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest burners of coal, has gone before congressional committees and lots of other places seeking rational regulation of his industry so it can plan for a greener future. “A clean economy and a healthy environment are not mutually exclusive,” he told a House subcommittee last year.

Those types of major players will be looking for green sites to conduct green research into new green products, says Shyam Kannan, a GO Cincinnati team member and a VP with consulting firm RCLCO. “Why not Cincinnati?” he says. “Step out in front; create the receiving ground.”

So why Queensgate? What makes this neighborhood the right place for a green industrial park?  Essentially, the same things that made it so attractive to 19th- and 20th century manufacturers: its access to major transportation routes (now Interstate 75 and the rail lines); and its proximity to the central business district and, importantly for this initiative, to the University of Cincinnati and the area’s other universities.

Queensgate is sort of a vast commercial umbilical cord of the city, daily transporting some of the stuff that sustains economic life here: a major CSX yard is a rail hub for the Midwest; Metro’s bus operations center is here; millions of letters and packages are processed at the main post office, and Union Terminal, once the locus for every passenger train that arrived and departed here, now houses the Cincinnati Museum Center and its traveling exhibits, the historical society, children’s museum and other intellectual assets.

“It’s transportation and water that made the valley so important,” says historian Daniel Hurley of the Cincinnati Museum Center. The water is the Mill Creek, probably the most maligned waterway in Greater Cincinnati. In the 19th and 20th century, the Mill Creek served as a route to the Ohio River and the commerce taking places on its waterfront.  It’s also been a dumping ground for industrial wastes. But the study team sees the Mill Creek as an essential piece of the eco-puzzle, and calls for working with environmental groups interested in cleaning up the Mill Creek and improving access to it.

A park of the sort envisioned by the GO team might be a first for the region, but there are models and pioneers out there. The most well-known is probably Ford Motor Co.’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich. There, Ford hired sustainability architect William McDonough to redesign an 85-year-old, 1,200 acre facility. The centerpiece of the project became the Dearborn Truck Plant, where the assembly plant was covered with a low-growing ground cover to create a “living roof.” The ground cover, sedum, retains and cleans rain water and moderates the building’s internal temperature to save energy. The rainwater treatment system can clean 20 billion gallons of water a year, saving Ford millions that it would have spent on a treatment facility.

“It transformed manufacturing from a dirty enterprise to a tourist attraction,” Kannan says.

It’s also happening in Greater Cincinnati, just not on such a massive scale. One of the most notable examples is the Perfetti Van Melle office and plant in Erlanger, Ky., where Airheads, Mentos and other sweets are made. There, a geothermal system used for heating and cooling saves $20,000 a year in energy costs; a photovoltaic system saves $4,000 a year in electricity; retrofitting the lighting saved $9,000 a year and a closed loop system saves a million gallons of water that would have otherwise gown down the drain in the manufacturing process.  They’ve also set up a recycling system that is saving $300,000 a year in candy that was previously discarded.

The European-based manufacturer has woven those practices into its U.S. facility in Erlanger. “It’s part of our corporate philosophy,” says Perfetti Van Melle USA President Ronald Korenhof.

The Melink Corp. in Milford designs renewable energy systems for commercial clients and designed and built it LEED-gold certified headquarters in 2005. The company has committed to making it a zero-energy building by 2010.  It also leases a fleet of hybrid vehicles for its national network of employees and provides incentives to employees to buy renewable energy improvements for their homes.

There are undoubtedly resources in place in the region to begin to realize the vision.  What it takes is action, team leaders say. Chief among their recommendations to make it happen is the creation of a “catalytic development corporation,” a not-for-profit organization that would assemble the land, assist in remediating the sites and, in general, be a champion of the strategy.

Corporate leaders are already on board with green strategies, Leinberger says. “The question is, do you, the people, have the intention to be partners in this, or just go about your business?”

What’s at stake? “It’s your future,” he says.

Photography by Scott Beseler
Solar panels atop the Perfetti Van Melle plant
Queensgate overview
Perfetti Van Melle geothermal system
David Reed, quality manager for Perfetti Van Melle
Mill Creek near Hopple
Perfetti Van Melle office lighting

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