A New Beginning: An urban neighborhood reimagines its 'downtown' business district

Cities are engines of our local and national economies, and centers of creativity, culture, and entertainment. But they are under more pressure than ever. This is the latest in a monthly series, The Case for Cities, that looks at how Cincinnati and similar cities can grow by becoming places of choice, as well as models of social justice.

When Liz Field was thinking about turning her food truck pastry business into a brick-and-mortar store, there was only one neighborhood she considered: Madisonville.

She goes four generations deep in the east side community. Her great grandfather emigrated from Italy and settled there, opening a grocery store that became a neighborhood anchor.

Mannino’s was known for its hometown feel and for neighborly practices like making deliveries and allowing shoppers to buy on good faith credit. Liz delivered groceries for the family business when she was a kid. When she was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, there was no doubt about where she would set up shop.

“If I’m going to open a shop, it’s going to be in Madisonville,” she said.

But the neighborhood had changed over the years. Its once-healthy business district had suffered a long, slow decline, like those in many other urban neighborhoods.

It got to the point that Madisonville’s traditional crossroads at Madison and Whetsel, just a block from the old Mannino’s store, became a place to be avoided.

Field looked around at her old neighborhood and tried to stay optimistic about her plans. “I kept saying, ‘change is coming, change is coming.’”

Well, change has come to Madisonville.

The neighborhood just celebrated the completion of the final phase of a reimagination of its business district, the culmination of more than a dozen years of community building. Madisonville now has a neighborhood “downtown” again.

It’s the latest city neighborhood to reinvest in its business district, as urban communities re-embrace their walkable Main Streets that were once like mini-downtowns, where you could find most of your needs without leaving the neighborhood. Walnut Hills, College Hill, Avondale, Westwood and other city neighborhoods are seeing the results of renewed interest and reinvestment by City Hall, the communities themselves, and private developers.

Madisonville’s story was similar to that of other neighborhoods: Shopping centers in nearby tonier neighborhoods drew people away from the neighborhood stores. High-speed traffic patterns made the business district little more than a pass through between the richer neighborhoods. White flight hollowed out the population. Madisonville’s population dropped by about half over a couple of decades. But it still had a significant resident base – about 9,000 people – that included a lot of people who cared about the community’s future.

“Madisonville has always been strong,” says Sara Sheets, a 20-year resident. “There’s lots of long-time people living here, but it was missing that center, the business district, a place for people to gather. Rebuilding the business district gives us that community center back.”

Sheets was instrumental in the project as executive director of Madisonville’s community development corporation for six years, as a current board member of the not-for-profit organization, and now as a loan officer with the Cincinnati Development Fund, which assisted with the financing of the $90 million project.

More than 300 new apartments form the core of the project.The linchpin is more than 300 apartment units, with retail and office space on the ground level, on three of the corners at Madison and Whetsel. The apartments, which now house roughly 500 people, provide a density of population necessary for locally owned businesses like Liz Fields’ Cheesecakery to make it. On the fourth corner, a strip mall was refurbished with a new façade, and a Cincinnati Health Department medical clinic has relocated there.

The project was a collaboration among the nonprofit Madisonville Community Urban Redevelopment Corp. (MCURC), a private developer, and public entities, including the city of Cincinnati. It’s the kind of collaboration that allows the public to have a voice in how the neighborhood is redeveloped, essential to maintaining neighborhood integrity in the face of what can be development pressures from the private sector.

“There was a vision,” Sheets says. “The community came together around a vision to create a quality-of-life plan. We did that before a developer was in the picture.”

The vision dates to 2008. That was when City Hall commissioned a study by the Brookings Institution called GO Cincinnati (GO for Growth and Opportunities), which was meant to find ways to increase economic development, jobs, and tax revenue in the city. The Brookings plan honed in on three neighborhoods, outlining recommendations for growth for each. One was Madisonville, where the consultants envisioned “a complex employment/retail/high density housing concentration …  a "driveable sub-urban" office product … mixed with walkable urban places.”

The study prompted the city to begin acquiring property in downtown Madisonville, some of which was vacant. MCURC, with the Cincinnati office of Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), began holding community meetings, complete with facilitators, whiteboards, and Post-it notes, to get an idea of what kind of development residents wanted there.

They sought out developers, and only two responded, Sheets says, an indicator of how risky the private sector viewed the neighborhood. One was Cincinnati-based Ackermann Group, which was selected to lead the development.

“They bought into the vision the community created for a walkable district,” Sheets says.

It took years to create the plan, acquire property, find a developer and assemble the financing. During that time, MCURC worked to turn the block into a community gathering place again. It organized Music on Madison and the Cincinnati Jazz and BBQ Festival. “We knew we had to get people coming up to Madison and Whetsel,” Sheets said.  “All we heard was it’s dangerous. People wouldn’t even drive through Madisonville.”

People showed up. “We filled up the streets on a Saturday night after dark,” she says. “It was kind of radical at the time.”

Keep Cincinnati Beautiful pitched in with its Future Blooms program, boarding up vacant buildings with attractive, colorful representations of windows and doors, signs of things to come. “It sounds small, but it showed that someone was paying attention to this neighborhood,” Sheets says.

The first phase of the project, 104 apartments, was completed in 2018.

The plan wasn’t without controversy and debate, as most transformative community developments are. The apartments, with rents ranging from $1,199 to $1,919, have done little to address the city’s shortage of affordable housing. Some residents saw the project as bringing gentrification to the community, as several blocks of the core of the neighborhood were demolished.

“Folks, understandably, felt a little nervous,” says Kristen Baker, the director of LISC’s Cincinnati office. Shortly after she began working at LISC a dozen or so years ago, she was assigned to Madisonville to help with the community engagement process and creating the quality-of-life plan. Matching the community’s desires and expectations with economic realities can be a difficult line to walk, she says.

 “Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand what is economically feasible for their neighborhoods,” she says. “It’s hard for neighborhood folks to see under the hood sometimes.”

But over more than 10 years, the community took what long-time resident Bill Collins calls "a nearly dead business district," and recreated it. "We had to figure out how to leverage what we already had," Collins says. "We took that asset and we turned it around."  

Although much of the new retail space remains vacant, Sheets has had discussions with potential tenants, and the public library is planning to move its Madisonville branch into one of the ground-level spaces.

Liz Field at the The CheesecakeryBusiness is returning to the business district. On the northeast corner of Madison and Whetsel, Bad Tom Smith Brewing moved its brewpub into a 19th century bank building, relocating from East End. Liz Field opened not one, but two shops featuring cheesecakes, cupcakes, coffee and other treats. Then she opened what every neighborhood should have: a creamy whip, the Whetsel Whip.

Seeing new life in the neighborhood, other businesses have opened nearby. Mom and Em opened its second coffee and wine bar a couple blocks away at Whetsel and Bramble. Also at that intersection, Mande Goods is a Black-owned store selling trendy home goods, accessories and jewelry. Walls of Wellness is a locally-owned boutique that offers holistic health products.

“The hope of the Madison and Whetsel development was always that it would catalyze other development,” Sheets says. “We’re seeing that now.”

Revitalizing neighborhoods often starts with reinvestment in their business districts. “Having a vibrant business district with lots of options for neighbors is the centerpiece of a healthy neighborhood,” says LISC’s Baker.

And it’s about more than business.  It’s about neighborhood identity, pride, and connection with neighbors, says Vikas Mehta, a professor who had studied business districts at University of Cincinnati’s School of Planning. “The idea that you can be in a social space while going about your daily routines, that is very rewarding,” he says.

The suburbs are recognizing that, as some try to recreate town centers with businesses, greenspace, and gathering spots. “They want to replicate what our city neighborhoods already have,” Baker says.

In neighborhoods like Madisonville, the opportunity is already there. It takes community vision to begin to make it happen, Sheets says, then working with partners such as city departments, the Port Authority, lenders, other not-for-profit organizations, developers, and an active community development corporation.

As Baker says, “It takes nurturing attention and support to make those business districts healthy and viable.”

You can read earlier articles in The Case for Cities series here.

You can view and listen to The Case for Cities conversation series here.

The Case for Cities: Cities of Choice are Cities of Justice series is a partnership between UC School of Planning and Soapbox Cincinnati, made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation.

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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.