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.

305 W Fifth Street

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.

309 West Fifth Street, photo via Cincinnati Preservation Association

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.

Demolition of 309 W. Fifth St., pic by Bill Slone. Facing west, buildings in foreground are on Plum St.

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…”

For more on the ZBA, click here and here. If you’d like to contact City Council, contact information is here.

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.

625 Main St, Bay Horse Cafe

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.

142 E. McMicken Ave. before senseless demolition by Cincinnati Public Schools

142 E. McMicken after senseless CPS demo

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.

Another example is the Bavaria building that once stood at 100-104 E. Court Street at northeast corner of Walnut and Court Streets. It was demolished sometime after 1996. Via UC DAAP library:

Bavaria building, 100 E. Court Street, Cincinnati

Bavaria building, 100 E. Court Street, Cincinnati

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?

12 Responses to “The Gradual Hollowing Out of Urban Cincinnati”
  1. Eric Douglas says:

    On the Bay Horse Cafe, the semi’s that come in for shows at the Aronoff usually have a lot of trouble getting to the loading area from Gano St. off Main St. and sometimes even hit this building. Would I be right that the Aronoff/Cincinnati Arts Association is behind the demolition which is basically just the widening of the road detracting from the pedestrian street that is Main St. to accomodate Broadway shows? And if this is the case, shouldn’t this have been better planned by the engineer? The Aronoff has frontage on three streets and takes up half of the block, you think they could’ve sacrificed some square-footage to meet their loading needs. My guess is that the building’s demolished and the lot owner leases the space as a drive, instead of parking, to the Aronoff.

    Also, I think your Detroit reference is appropriate. I was raised in Detroit and the really latched on to urban renewal in the 60’s and are suffering for it now. Vacant lots do not lead to economic development or revitalization. All they lead to is parking lot.

  2. It’s going to take more than facebook support and blog posts to put a stop to this trend. The masses that are crying out need to starting putting money where their mouths are. If you don’t want the buildings to disappear, then buy them, renovate them to the quality with which you see fit and keep them from being torn down.

    Case and point on 5th street: $45K for the purchase of that building is an exceptional deal that just about anyone can afford. Why didn’t anyone secure this property?

    I have done this myself. I believe in the historic value of the urban core. I have waged a significant investment to preserve this on my own accord.

    There are those that “do” and those that “critique” in this town. The latter far outweighs. Before we go pointing fingers at business men for making a profit, look 6-12-24 months down the road and find some properties that have the potential to meet the same fate. Put an offer on them. Purchase them. Rehab them. Make them an asset instead of an eye-sore and rickety soap box for preservation. One could argue that not everyone is cut out for that type of a project but collectively, the amount of voices that are “outraged” can band together on these projects to get them done, preserve and make a decent monetary return on the historical investment at the same time.

    • Eric Douglas says:

      That’s B.S. A new owner coming in and rehabbing a historic building is not the only means of preventing it from becoming a parking lot. That’s why we have historic preservation.

      Why don’t the current business men owners of the properties do what you’re suggesting? Or why don’t these current business men owners seek out people like you that do rehabs and form a partnership? It seems like the trend in Cincinnati and other cities is that vacant historic buildings aren’t going to be rehabbed until someone else comes in. Most of these building owners have no interest in rehabbing buildings, only to sell them at a profit to someone who’s willing to do the work. The point of the article is that these buildigs are being demolished for parking. That’s it.

    • unclerando says:

      Terrific points, Andrew. The work that OTR A.D.O.P.T. is doing is terrific, and should be supported more heavily. Cincinnati needs more people to start ponying up the money to get the out-of-state property owners sitting on the vacant properties out of the way so that more historic properties aren’t put in harm’s way.

      And while these demolitions are terrible occurrences, it certainly is not the “Detroitification” of Cincinnati. Heck, it’s not even the “Clevelandification” of Cincinnati. It’s just not close.

      • OTR says:

        It’s the unabated proliferation of surface parking lots that are replacing historic structures – but that’s a bit too long to use as a post title – and the way 142 E. McMicken was brought down, for example, was dishonest and felt like something that would happen in Detroit.

        OTR ADOPT does great work but this post is concerned with the dysfunctional procedues by which this city chooses to deal with its historic building stock.

    • OTR says:

      Thanks, Andrew. It’d be nice if all the critics entered the arena. Alas, that won’t happen and even if it did the city would still have a poorly executed historic conservation strategy. I think the point here is the city’s system is not working. It is retarding the aspirations of too many authentic small businesspeople/rehabbers while allowing a steady stream of demolitions to make way for surface lots.

      I agree that the “outrage” gets old and that’s why I’m trying to learn how the system works so hopefully I can articulate a better vision and direct people to that end.

      I hope we can all agree that more surface parking lots are not a viable way forward if Cincinnati is to have a vibrant downtown.

  3. Bob Lambert says:

    I am a preservationist as much as anyone but some of these buildings are hopeless after years of neglect and ill advised renovation. They are full of asbestos, lead paint and organic hazards. Why not redirect some of your efforts to building codes and appearance regulations of any new buildings constructed in a historic district? We don’t need another brick and steel box with dropped ceilings and tile floors and drywall. It’s really the look and design of history we are trying to preserve. These buildings were originally built by businesses for doing business and that is no different than what people are trying to do today. Make a design plan for new construction and make it stick through law. Have you seen Main Street at Disney? Its the best of new construction techniques with the look of 19th century America. Some purists will hate me but let’s face reality and preserve the look and feel of downtown not the bricks and mortar. Let’s educate people on the craftsmanship that went into these buildings and recreate that look with new materials. All of these buildings were new at one time also so new is not always a bad thing.

    • Eric Douglas says:

      That’s true, but the buildings shown in the article were not health hazards and were not torn down for redevelopment. They’ve been torn down for parking with no plan or prospect for a new building. That’s why Detroit is referenced in the title.

    • OTR says:

      Bob, I agree. New is not always a bad thing, but all too often it is. Some new infill is absolutely stunning. The goal of the HCB, ZBA, Planning, etc. is to find the highest and best use (or at least a higher and better use). In my opinion (and the opinions of many other Cincinnatians), surface parking lots are not a higher and better use than historic buildings in an historic district.

  4. Dominique says:

    “Detroitification”? Seriously? I usually enjoy reading the OTR Blog, but in this case, I find the article title offensive. Detroit obviously struggles these days, just as many other major Midwestern cities do, but we also celebrate many successes.
    I hate to see the character of a city compromised by indisciminate demolishment of buildings, but even more so, I fail to see how using my hometown’s name as a derogatory term is a productive way of addressing your concerns about Cincinnati.

    • OTR says:

      Dominique, you make a good point and I did not think of the term in the context of the city of Detroit. I think I’ll change the title so as not to contribute to the disparagement of Detroit and the furthering of harmful terminology. Thanks.

      • Dominique says:

        Thanks for addressing and respecting my concern with the original title. I’m not oblivious to Detroit’s problems, but we’ve got some real success stories as well. Places like the Guardian Building, the Fisher Building and the Argonaut Building here are real Detroit gems…despite all of the Detroit “ruin porn” you see.
        Hoping to get back down to Cincinnati one of these days to explore more of your city’s great gems as well. The Carew Tower is on my must-see list, and I totally fell in love with the Roebling Bridge last time I was there (written about it several times myself).

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