Over-the-Rhine (OTR) is Cincinnati’s oldest and most historic neighborhood, strategically located between the city’s two biggest employment centers, the central business district and the Uptown medical and university community. 3CDC’s redevelopment work in OTR is focused on 110 square blocks from Liberty Street on the north, Central Parkway on the south and west and Main street to the east.
HISTORY & BACKGROUND
Over-the-Rhine (OTR) is Cincinnati’s oldest and most historic neighborhood, home to the country’s largest collection (943 buildings) of 19th-century Italianate architecture. Those buildings earned the entire 360-acre OTR neighborhood a 1983 distinction as an historic district listed in the National Register of Historic Places.The neighborhood’s name comes from German immigrants who built and settled there. Bridges over the Miami and Erie Canal separated the neighborhood from downtown Cincinnati, where many residents traveled everyday for work. In honor of their homeland, the area became known as Over-the-Rhine with the canal they crossed daily symbolizing the Rhine River in Germany.
Throughout the 19th century, especially in the 1830s and 1840s, OTR became the port-of-entry for German immigrants. Residents spoke German, published German newspapers, worshipped in German churches, and socialized in German beer halls. By 1850, German immigrants reportedly made up 27% of Cincinnati’s population with Irish-born immigrants following at 12%. Early residents built Music Hall, Washington Park and Findlay Market, important Cincinnati landmarks which remain today, as well as the beautiful Italianate housing stock that is still standing today.
The 20th century brought changes for OTR. During World War II, there was a backlash against the neighborhood’s German roots and German street names and organizations were “Americanized.” After the war, people new to the city and trying to make a better life for themselves were attracted to OTR because of its affordable housing and cheap labor opportunities. The neighborhood became a first stop for those looking for new beginnings in Cincinnati.
OTR IN THE 21ST CENTURY
By the beginning of the 21st century, OTR had become one of the most economically distressed areas in the country with a poverty rate of 58%, an unemployment rate of just over 25% and a median household annual income of less than $10,000. Despite its prime location between the city’s two largest employment centers – the central business district and the Uptown medical and university community – OTR was becoming Cincinnati’s urban center for crime, poverty and a large concentration of social service agencies.
The troubles in OTR spilled over to destabilize the surrounding communities, particularly the central business district. This unstable environment prevented growth and investment in the city’s core, which in turn impacted the health of the entire region. In the absence of a major turnaround, the region was in danger of losing some of its largest employers.
CITY & CORPORATE COMMITMENT TO OTR
The turnaround is underway. In 2003, the City of Cincinnati and the City’s corporate leaders made a joint commitment to jumpstart economic development in Cincinnati’s urban core. Together they created the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC). A 110-square block area in OTR became one focus area for 3CDC’s work. That area is bounded by Central Parkway to the south and west, Liberty Street to the north and Main Street to the east. When 3CDC started its work, there were 500 vacant buildings, 700 vacant lots and 1,667 vacant housing units within these boundaries. One of 3CDC’s first steps was to invest $27 million to land bank more than 300 buildings and lots so they would not suffer from further deterioration before redevelopment could occur.
Beautiful, historic buildings are now being renovated into single-family homes, condominiums, apartments and commercial spaces. New businesses are opening and offering multiple new job opportunities. The arts community, which includes the Ensemble Theatre, Know Theatre, Cincinnati Art Academy, Music Hall and the public, K-12 School for Creative & Performing Arts, is thriving. This is happening because of a focused and concentrated effort on the neighborhood led by 3CDC, in conjunction with the City of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati corporate community.
Since 2004, 3CDC has invested over $315 million in OTR. That includes over $53 million in public support from the City. The rest of the funding is from the CEF and CNMF loan funds managed by 3CDC, State and Federal Historic Tax Credits and other private sources. These investments have or will result in:
- Restored or in process of restoring 103 historic buildings
- Developed or in process of developing 466 new and rehabbed residential units
- Developed or in process of developing approximately 155,000 SF of new and renovated commercial space
- Developed or in process of developing 846 public parking spaces in OTR lots and garages
- Improved streetscapes throughout OTR area of development
- Renovated an 8-acre civic green space
As of July 2013, 100% percent of the 195 completed units in OTR are sold and 99% of the completed commercial space is leased. In addition, the $48 million renovation and expansion of Washington Park has had a truly transformative effect on a neighborhood suffering from decades of disinvestment. The Washington Park renovation included a 450-space underground parking garage, a performance stage, civic lawn, event plaza, interactive water feature with lights and sound, children’s playground, dog park, restored historic bandstand, seasonal planting beds, and a half-acre of meandering pathways through beautiful, mature landscaping. Instrumental to the success of this project is the ongoing management and programming of the garage and park. With the help of the city, corporate and private partners, and the Park Board, 3CDC implements a maintenance and security plan, as well as a seasonal program schedule including music, movies, intramural sports, children’s activities, festivals, markets and much more. For complete park information including an event schedule, visit www.washingtonpark.org.
The positive community impact of the Gateway Quarter on the neighborhood can be measured in many ways. The redevelopment in Over-the-Rhine is resulting in an increase in home ownership, the opening of new businesses to serve residents and attract visitors, the creation of construction and other job opportunities and a significant drop in crime.
Improved public safety has been one of the most important benefits to OTR. 3CDC undertook three main efforts in regard to public safety: purchase and secure abandoned property in the targeted area; purchase nuisance properties, particularly carry-out liquor stores; and redevelop the properties through mixed-use home ownership developments to bring stability to the neighborhood. Between 2004 and 2013, overall crime in the area has dropped 50%.
The obvious benefit is the improved safety itself and the comfort that brings to all residents. Another benefit is making the neighborhood more attractive to business owners, which prior to 2004 had largely abandoned OTR as a potential business destination.
THE NEXT PHASE OF DEVELOPMENT
3CDC’s work in Over-the-Rhine is unfolding in phases with Phases I-IV complete and Phase V underway.
Phase V includes Mercer Commons, a $63 million, three-stage project encompassing 19 buildings and 26 vacant parcels on 2.695 acres yielding 96 market rate apartments, 30 affordable apartments, 28 condominiums, 17,600 SF of commercial space and 359 parking spaces.
In addition to Mercer Commons, Phase V includes the renovation of another 18 buildings on Race, Elm & Republic Streets yielding 74 condos, 14 apartments, and 8,100 SF of commercial space for a total project cost of $23.2 million.
3CDC’s investment in Over-the-Rhine has transformed one of the highest crime neighborhoods in the entire metropolitan area into a place where people of all ages, incomes and backgrounds choose to live, work, shop and play. An OTR Work Group, led by Joe Pichler, retired chairman and CEO of the Kroger Co. and made up of more than 30 people representing various OTR stakeholder groups, meets with 3CDC on a quarterly basis. 3CDC staff members also serve on a wide variety of OTR committees. 3CDC’s projects are guided by the OTR Comprehensive Plan adopted in June 2002 and contribute to the goal of creating a safe, vibrant, diverse, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood.