Roberta Brandes Gratz recently wrote that “[p]reservation is one of the most potent tools for city revitalization.” As a resident of Cincinnati, I was gratified to hear our mayor, Mark Mallory, quoted by Gratz in the article. How Cincinnati is revitalizing its core through preservation provides an example that should be examined nationally. The city is proving that preservation can be affordable while providing a stimulus for further preservation and development.
I have lived most of my life in urban environments that provide experience with two distinct types of preservation. Distinguishing between the two and recognizing the difference is important.
I moved to Cincinnati’s re-emerging Over-the-Rhine area seven months ago, after spending 25 years in Mariemont. Mariemont, the John Nolen-designed community just outside downtown Cincinnati, is a historical precedent for New Urbanism. It is one of the models Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk drew upon for the design of Seaside, Florida, and Nolen’s influence can be easily felt. Living in a community that clearly values its heritage and the benefits of an intelligently planned town instilled in me an appreciation for the preservation of the buildings as well as the overarching vision of community, the benefits of walkability, and centrality of place. Mariemont is, and always has been, a community with a clear continuity of purpose. It became a natural move, then, to Over-the-Rhine as the potential to reestablish its urban character and heritage emerged.
Over-the-Rhine, which forms a connecting corridor between downtown and the University of Cincinnati campus and “Pill Hill” hospitals, has been in decline for decades, and has lost 50 percent of the original building stock. The area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 (just four years after Mariemont), listing nearly a thousand contributing buildings. It is comprised of the nation’s largest collection of Italianate architecture, and is believed by some to be the largest, most intact urban historic district in America. Architecturally, Over-the-Rhine is as distinct and significant as New Orleans’ French Quarter or the historic districts of Savannah, Charleston, and Greenwich Village.
At its height, the neighborhood had a population of 45,000 (75 percent of which were German or of German descent) and was the second most dense urban area in the U.S. A number of factors contributed to the decline of Over-the-Rhine, among them the anti-German sentiment following World War I and the Prohibition’s closing of the breweries that made up much of its industry and culture. Over the following decades, a pattern of building toward downtown coupled with the construction of interstate highways changed the focus of development in Cincinnati. Although Appalachians moved in as those of German heritage moved out, Over-the-Rhine’s population declined substantially; by 1990, the population was under 9,600, and 71 percent African-American.
In contrast to Mariemont, preservation in Over-the-Rhine takes on a different urgency and faces many other obstacles. The opportunity for maintaining its rich historic buildings and urban fabric has long since disappeared. The expense of rehabilitating crumbling buildings can be a roadblock to investment just as the poverty and crime that had overridden the area are deterrents to creating sustainable community. However, Cincinnati has taken an approach that is showing rapid and highly successful results. The means to do so was put in place prior to Mayor Mallory’s election, but he spearheaded the successful implementation of a public-private partnership, the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC). The city granted 3CDC the power to work toward a large-scale plan for redevelopment of the area, As a result, 3CDC has acquired key blocks of vacant buildings, moved to stabilize them physically, and made them available to carefully selected teams of developers and architects at a cost that makes development feasible. In less than five years, Over-the-Rhine has gone from a blighted area to a rapidly redeveloping community featuring the city’s premiere restaurant district, an arts district that is unrivaled in the area, and a growing residential community.
One of the keys to 3CDC’s success has been its understanding of what it takes to create “community”. The organization has not simply restored buildings. It has strategically developed neighborhoods and streetscapes, and has worked to diligently bring in the right types and mixes of business. For its part, the city has committed to infrastructure improvements that include underground utilities, a streetcar line, and enhanced public safety measures. Over-the-Rhine’s Washington Park, for years derelict and crime-ridden, has been redeveloped as a centerpiece of the community. Nearly double its original size, the park is built in part atop a parking garage that can serve patrons coming to Music Hall along its western edge. The Hall is the city’s architectural jewel. At the park’s southern edge is the stunning new School for the Creative & Performing Arts, the only public K-12 school of its kind in the nation.
The park’s vibrancy and connection to the rest of the neighborhood are fostering further revitalization. The park is full of a diverse populace every day, with 3CDC-programmed events nearly every night and weekend. The city recently played host to the first U.S. occurrence of the international World Choir Games, with many of the venues in Over-the-Rhine. The momentum has swung in the right direction.
The history of Over-the-Rhine is far different from that of the planned community of Mariemont. It has had a far more organic growth and decline, and its character has been determined by a myriad of forces. Its European character comes from its 18th century heritage of narrow streets and dense building patterns. As our country again embraces walkability and the advantages of urban life, Over-the-Rhine is a nearly ideal framework for building a successful urban community.
A Brookings Institution analysis of census results indicates that most large American cities are growing faster than their suburbs for the first time in almost a century. Cincinnati is no exception. Much of the new population of Over-the-Rhine is comprised of young professionals, families, and empty nesters, but 3CDC, the city, and organizations such as Over-the-Rhine Community Housing have worked to assure a place for current residents by maintaining mixed-income and affordable housing. Trying to revitalize a deteriorating neighborhood without succumbing to or relying on complete gentrification is a balancing act, to be sure. But that diverse and eclectic neighborhood character is what remains appealing to so many.
Preservation may in fact not be a broad enough a term to describe what is happening in Over-the-Rhine. It means more than simply preserving buildings before they crumble and allowing them to be viewed for what they once were. It also means creating new uses for them—giving them a new life. It means innovating new models for bringing life into an old collection of amazing structures in order to allow them to host a thriving community once more. It is an exceptionally creative form of preservation, and, I’d like to think, one whose time has come.
“Preservation is one of the most potent tools for city revitalization,” says Gratz. We are fortunate in Cincinnati to experience a renaissance based on preservation. The center city and Over-the-Rhine are the only areas of Cincinnati that have had a population increase. Clearly, creating neighborhoods by preserving our history is something we can and should do.
Gallery: Rebuilding and Preserving Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine Neighborhood
Photos by Karen Monzel Hughes
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Karen Monzel Hughes is an Associate Professor of Design and former Associate Dean at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. She is the author, designer, and photographer of Seaside: A Town By Design, which received the Chris Award for Best Interactive Design in the Columbus International Film and Video Festival (2003), and most recently was creative director and designer of Mariemont: A Pictorial History of a Model Town, by Millard Rogers (Ohio University Press, 2011).
Header photo by Karen Monzel Hughes.