SoapDish for August 12: A new Soapbox in town

Ah yes, ‘tis Tuesday morning once again…the time of the week when your intrepid Soapdish columnist turns his steely gaze to our fair city’s urban streets, its hearty inhabitants, its bon vivants….its neighborhoods…and, as of last Wednesday’s little reception at Bang nightclub, its, um, “Soapbox District”?  That’s right folks, apparently some enterprising and eager entrepreneurs on West 4th Street decided to designate their little corner of downtown the “Soapbox District.” [note of disclosure: is in no way connected to this nascent and plucky new “Soapbox District,” other than as an interested observer and booster, of course]

Now any Cincinista with comprehension skills exceeding that of your average 2 ½  year old is well aware that the concept of “branding,” and everything it entails, is mighty big business here in Cincinnati.  Hence we continually find ourselves eagerly doling out spunky monikers for just about any new project that comes down the pike with the hopes that one or two of them will stick to the wall of our collective civic consciousness.  The “Gateway Quarter/the Q” in Over the Rhine and the Banks are but two such obvious  examples.  Some stick, others slide by the wayside (“Mulberry Hill” anyone?), the jury is still out on some (hello “Brewery District”), while a few churn along like an overly hyphenated and politically correct surname (see, e.g. Liberty Hill-South Mt. Auburn-Prospect Hill historic district).  

Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the name “soapbox,” in fact, it is indeed catchy and vaguely familiar, but I struggle a bit to see the connection with the downtown district which has historically been referred to as West 4th Street.  Josh Heuser of Troika Development, one of the impresarios behind this whole branding exercise, originally explained that the “Soapbox District” name derives from the fact that the neighborhood is shaped like a bar of soap, and, according to Downtown Cincinnati, Inc.’s press release, the name was also a convenient nod to Cincinnati’s well documented and sudsy past.  Perhaps recognizing that just about any neighborhood downtown could be interpreted as being shaped like a bar of soap with a sudsy past, Heuser went further, noting that the title is meant to evoke the “speaker’s corner” derivation of Soapbox, i.e. a place where young professionals can get involved, open businesses and get up on their soapbox to tell you about it.  All well and good, and regardless of the genesis, there can be no denying that this little section of downtown is primed to take off. 

West 4th Street, er…the Soapbox District, is chock full of some beautiful and historic architecture, but on a much more intimate and modest scale than many other parts of downtown.  With minimal setbacks on both sides of the street, and few open spaces (ignoring the surface lot at Plum and 4th), the area has retained a traditionally cozy and dense urban streetscape.  Throw into the mix a nightclub (Bang) a few neighborhood bars (Tina’s and Plum Street Cafe), a new scenester art gallery (AVS Art), an uber-hip new skateboard-inspired street-wear retail store (unheardof), an old school mainstay Italian restaurant (Campanello’s, “Just 3 blocks from the beach!”), and, speaking of mainstays, a new not-yet-opened live music venue at the corner of 5th and Plum to be called, well, Mainstay—et voila, a viable, walkable and livable downtown neighborhood.  Heuser and his comrades, including (but not limited to) Chad Reynolds and former nightclub curator Andrew VanSickle, are a few of the driving and more visible forces behind Bang, AVS Art, unheardof, Mainstay and the in-progress Boss Cox, a $1.7 million gastro-pub that will reportedly seat 175. Suffice to say they obviously have some skin in this “big Bang theory” of urban evolution playing out on West 4th.

Mixed in with all this, residential pioneers both big and small are continuing to put their mark on the neighborhood.  Middle Earth Development’s striking Parker Flats, at the west end of 4th, is putting the finishing touches on its 55 units of glass-walled urban loft living, while, on a much smaller scale, Conrad Oppt and Jack Glazer are moving forward with the seven unit McFarland Lofts, a somewhat more modest loft renovation in the 137 year old former wagon warehouse of Cincinnati Gaslight & Coke (just behind and to the East of AVS Art).  According to Oppt, the model at McFarland should be ready in 6 or 7 weeks, and they will custom finish-to-order the units (most of which will range from $195K to $250K) as they are sold. 

Add to all of this the “vision” presented at last week’s reception, replete with narrowed cobblestone streets, gaslights, cast iron benches, planters and more, and you can readily see that this could be an extremely vibrant new quadrant of downtown. Imagine meeting for drinks at Twist, strolling over to an art opening at AVS, walking across the street for dinner at Boss Cox, and then closing it out at Bang before heading home, and doing all of this within a two block strip.

Regardless of the name, be it West 4th, the Soapbox District, or, um, say, The Gateway to Northbound Interstate 75, it is clear that this is yet another downtown district on the upswing.

Photography by Scott Beseler
Soapbox District unveiling
Josh Heuser giving a presentation about the District
AVS Gallery showing Robert Kelly's work

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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.