The Gradual Hollowing Out of Urban Cincinnati
*Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published under the title “The Gradual Detroitification of Cincinnati.” The term “Detroitification” was used to mean “hollowing out” or “demolition of urban fabric to make room for vacant lots.” In order to be clear and not perpetuate a negative term, the title of this piece was changed.
The title might seem extreme, especially in light of Cincinnati’s newfound “progressive urbanism,” but it’s true. By fits and starts, the Queen City’s complexion is changing for good and for ill. The once complete urban landscape suffered the throes of disinvestment, earthquake-like highways, wanton urban renewal and decades of successive design fads that left the city blemished and pockmarked. Remarkably, parts of Cincinnati fared much better than almost all of its peer cities and most cities in the country.
But now, with the promise of catalytic developments swirling around Cincinnati’s urban basin, there lurks a new, dark pall that is slowly changing the face of the Queen City and while many have noticed, few have spoken up. Cincinnati is losing its irreplaceable historic structures at a steady pace. The charm of these buildings, taken in aggregate, plays an essential role in warming the hearts of visitors to our city. However, there seems to be an almost institutional antagonism to these defining local landmarks. The mechanisms by which the city is supposed to regulate demolition and preserve historic districts are fatally flawed. As one successful small businessman with multiple popular establishments in historic structures throughout the center city said, “The point of the Historic Conservation Board is to halt progress on projects. I have worked on three (that were attempting to revitalize historic buildings) that they rejected for arbitrary, ridiculous standards, while stuff like this [demolition] continues…”
Case in point: 305 and 309 W. Fifth Street in the West Fourth Street Historic District. Via City Hall:
The West Fourth Street Historic District survives as the finest intact remnant of Cincinnati’s turn-of-the-century downtown streetscape. It reflects the height of expansion of residential, wholesale, retail and industrial activities within the Central Business District between 1870 and 1927. The architecture is primarily Italianate, Second Renaissance Revival and Commercial.
On August 13, 1979 the boundaries of the West Fourth Street Historic District were amended to include an area generally bounded by W. 5th Street and Perry Street between Central Avenue and Plum Street and 4th Street between Central Avenue and Race Street
The building at the left is gone. The building on the right is being demolished at this time.
On November 1, 2010, the owner of 305 and 309 W. Fifth Street applied for a demolition permit for 305 W. Fifth Street. It was granted and 305 was brought down in January 2011.
At the time the Cincinnati Business Courier provided these details in a story titled “Downtown Cincinnati building makes way for parking, renovations”
It provided the following details:
The building that was demolished, 305 W. Fifth St., was torn down to make way for a nine-space parking lot. Sean Buschmann, vice president of development for Kulkarni Construction and Development Group, said the building next door, 309 W. Fifth St., will eventually be redeveloped with first floor office or retail space, and the other three floors will become residential space.
Both properties were purchased by an affiliate of Kulkarni, 305-309 W Fifth Street LLC, in April 2010 for $45,000.
“They were good deals, so we bought them,” Buschmann said.
The 7,200-square-foot building, built in 1914, requires a complete renovation, Buschmann said. But he does not have a cost estimate at this time and no timeline for starting the project.
“We want to get the parking lot done, then worry about the existing structure,” Buschmann said.
The nine parking spaces already have been claimed by surrounding businesses.
The Kulkarni Construction and Development Group has the nerve to use a picture of 305 and 309 W. Fifth on its website. Supposedly, 305 was demolished to make room for a parking lot to complement the renovation of 309. Now, it’s 309’s turn to become a vacant gravel lot.
According to the Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA), the Historic Conservation Board (HCB) denied the demolition permit for 309 W. Fifth St. but the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) overruled the decision.
This demo has generated a lot of discussion on facebook with 100% of commenters opposed to the demolitions and the way in which it was approved. Some have suggested that the owner’s political connections enabled the coup. Here are only a few of the many comments, all from different people:
“Interesting that so many of us have FB Friends on City Council yet not a single one of them has chimed in on this outrage. wtf? There’s a similar absence of City Council voices on the pending demo of the Bay Horse Cafe building.”
“I was recently in Europe, and despite the fact that they fought two vicious World Wars they still preserve their historic buildings better than us.”
“This block is what a lot of people see when coming into downtown. The urbanity and density is what separates us from the other guys. We should not allow that block to be a surface parking lot.”
“I find this reprehensible. It makes no sense at all. Why would the city allow this to happen. No plans other than more paved surface will be created in the heart of the city. We have no need for additional surface parking in this area. We will now lose yet another potential multi-use building with nothing but a gaping hole to replace it. 625 Main Street is also slated for demolition. Bought by the city. We talk of creating a vibrant inner city and yet continue to level useable historic structures that can not be replaced.”
“The ZBA has been overturning lots of things lately. This is disappointing as the building next to this was demolished to be the parking lot for THIS building.”
“Cincinnati needs serious reform and it needs to come from the top down because that’s the only way ZBA will change. The continued demolition of historic structures for surface lots in the city is disgusting, senseless, irreversible and detrimental to the life of the city. Something is very wrong here.” (mine)
“No more surface parking lots! We have too many…”
Sadly, these two buildings aren’t alone. Other historic buildings that contribute to Cincinnati’s streetscape are in danger, like the four-story Bay Horse Cafe building which helps form an alley wall at 625 Main Street. More information on that building’s history can be found at Digging Cincinnati History’s post “Not Just the Bay Horse Cafe.” CPA says the Bay Horse Cafe application for demolition will go before the HCB sometime soon.
Total reform of the demolition/conservation process is necessary. The HCB has proven itself strong enough to halt the renovations of historic buildings by well-meaning and proven small businesspeople, but too weak to stand up to the pressure of larger, politically connected entities. Cincinnati Public Schools’ hasty demolition of 142 E. McMicken comes to mind.
Like 305 and 309 W. Fifth St., the destruction of 142 E. McMicken was especially egregious because it was also replaced with only a vacant lot. If the city approves the demo of 625 Main, it will find the same fate.
Although it wasn’t at its prettiest when it came down, it was still beautiful and had loads of potential. Imagine if it was there today, sitting proudly across Central Parkway from OTR. Instead, it came down and we’ve inherited this beautiful parking lot:
And from the ground:
A question for the assertive citizen, is there any excuse for the ceaseless replacement of our inherited built environment with surface lots?