Neighborhoods gain new life as historic buildings find new purpose

Breweries, pubs, restaurants seeding a renaissance

CINCINNATI -- Michael Cappel still marvels at the turnout for Brink Brewing Co.'s Feb. 14 grand opening in College Hill.

So many people showed up for the microbrewery's opening that its owners had to close for two weeks afterward to make more beer.

"That was crazy," said Cappel, president of the College Hill Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation. "That was an insane type of situation."

Brink's owners leased their building at 5905 Hamilton Ave. from the redevelopment corporation in February 2016, ending a three-year search for a location. The redevelopment corporation had purchased the long-neglected property, which is part of a section of 1920s-era buildings at Hamilton and Cedar avenues known as Dow Corner, in 2014 as part of a plan to revitalize College Hill's central business district.

Brink building, then (photo courtesy Hamilton Co. Auditor site) and now (Phil Didion, WCPO)

"The key for us was finding that new destination place," Cappel said. "We needed a regional destination like Brink."

The redevelopment corporation's plan is one example of how the redevelopment of historic buildings into successful entertainment venues benefits both business owners and the neighborhoods they're in, according to Margo Warminski, the preservation director for the Cincinnati Preservation Association.

For would-be business owners and community groups like the College Hill redevelopment group, local, state and federal incentives are often available for neighborhood revitalization efforts, and a building's history and architecture can become assets that help distinguish the venture. And for the communities, thriving entertainment venues can help attract new visitors and residents and spark a renaissance where empty buildings once stood.

"It's the kind of thing that feeds on itself," Warminski said. "As the neighborhoods become more populated, more redevelopment occurs, which is really a good thing for a lot of reasons. It's not a new trend but has accelerated in the last few years."

A seed to make neighborhoods grow

In Brink's case, the College Hill redevelopment corporation not only gave the brewery's owners discounted rent, the group also built a new parking lot and improved streetscape features like planter boxes.

Brink also encountered a supportive community, head brewer and co-owner Kelly Montgomery said.

"College Hill wrapped their arms around us," Montgomery said shortly after the brewery's opening. "It definitely feels like home now, for sure."

Cappel said the benefits for the redevelopment corporation's ongoing revitalization efforts were almost immediate. Brink continues to draw thirsty drinkers from surrounding neighborhoods, such as Mount Healthy, the West Side, Finneytown and Downtown. That traffic, in turn, has attracted other entrepreneurs wishing to open businesses in College Hill.

"They are chomping at the bit," Cappel said. "They see how packed Brink is. It is awesome marketing."

The redevelopment corporation has gone from not owning any properties three years ago to now owning 10, Cappel said. Northside developer South Block Properties is renovating many of those College Hill sites, including the former National City Bank and Marquet buildings near Hamilton Avenue that the redevelopment group purchased in March.

South Block now owns the Dow Corner building where Brink is located. The developer has specialized in repurposing long-neglected historic buildings into new entertainment venues and residential housing since 2008.

"They are really good at figuring out all the needs, tax credits, financing and loans for these projects," Cappel said.

Building on history

Michael Berry said he formed South Block Properties with business partner Chad Scholten after recognizing a demand for new housing and entertainment venues while working with nonprofit Northsiders Engaged in Sustainable Transformation and the Northside Business Association.

"I raised two kids there," Berry said. "I think part of (the demand) has to do with the buildings themselves, the architecture -- there are great pieces of architecture. I think part of it, too, is the neighborhood. I believe there is demand out there for different types of restaurants and unique experiences in other neighborhoods, too. We are anticipating growth and opportunity in those neighborhoods."

As a Northside resident and member of NEST, Berry watched as Cincinnati-based developer Bloomfield/Schon converted the 180,000-square-foot American Can Co. factory, at 4101 Spring Grove Ave., into 110 apartments anchored by Ruth's Parkside Cafe in 2011.

American Can Factory building, then (photo courtesy Ohio Development Services) and now (Phil Didion, WCPO)

The factory, built in 1921, had sat empty since the late 1970s. The $20 million rehab of the building began in 2005 when Bloomfield/Schon purchased the factory for $500,000. In 2006, the developer received a $750,000 Clean Ohio Assistance Fund grant to address longtime environmental issues, and in 2008 the state's historic preservation program awarded the project $4.5 million in tax credits.

South Block furthered redevelopment in Northside in 2014, when it turned an 1870s-era house at 3930 Spring Grove Ave. into the Littlefield, a bourbon bar and boutique restaurant named after the family who first lived in the building. Two years later, South Block opened the Second Place bar at 3936 Spring Grove Ave. The two-story structure built in 1912 had been vacant since the 1980s.

Littlefield and Second Place buildings, then (photo courtesy Google maps) and now (Phil Didion, WCPO)

South Block is renovating the former Central Trust Bank branch at 1535 Madison Road in East Walnut Hills into an upscale restaurant. The bank, which was built in the 1920s, has not been occupied since the 1960s. For both the Central Trust Bank and Second Place projects, South Block utilized the Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credit program to help offset remodeling costs. (The Littlefield received local financial support but is not on the state's list of historic buildings.) Second Place received $71,608 in tax credits, while the Central Trust Bank project received $196,007 in tax credits for the estimated $1.2 million project, according to the Ohio Development Services Agency website.

Other entertainment projects in Cincinnati awarded state historic preservation tax credits include the renovation of the Cincinnati Color Building in Over-the-Rhine, where Japanese gastropub Kaze is located, and more recently the Globe building near Findlay Market, which is home to chef Jean-Robert de Cavel's French Crust Cafe and Bistro.

Kaze building, then (Photo courtesy Ohio Development Serves Agency) and now (Phil Didion, WCPO)

The city of Cincinnati has been instrumental in redevelopment efforts, South Block's Berry said. Both he and  Cappel said without the city's assistance -- from property acquisition to tax exemptions to helping secure grants and loans to offering financing through neighborhood investment programs -- many historic-building reuse projects might never happen.

"It's a risky long-term business," Berry said.

Brewery adds to boom

Dave Kassling, co-owner of Taft's Ale House in Over-the-Rhine, said breweries face similar hurdles.

"Breweries are very expensive to build," said Kassling, who opened his first restaurant in New York in 2013. "It's very hard to visualize a good return on investment, especially if you build from scratch."

Taft's Ale House building, then (Photo courtesy Ohio Develpment Services Agency and now (Phil Didion, WCPO)

Kassling opened Taft's inside Old St. Paul's German Evangelical Protestant Church at 1429 Race St. with business partner Dave Williams in 2015. It cost nearly $9 million to rehabilitate the 1800s-era church, which had been boarded up for at least 48 years.

"Without 3CDC, this wouldn't have happened," Kassling said. "They put $1 million in the building before we came around to just save it."

3CDC refers to the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., a private nonprofit formed in 2003 to strengthen Downtown "by revitalizing and connecting the Fountain Square District, the Central Business District and Over-the-Rhine." Kassling said that by saving the church, 3CDC allowed himself and Williams to build a unique brand rooted in local history.

"It's fun to see people walk in and see their mouths drop open for the first time," Kassling said. "The Taft name fits so well with this iconic old building. President William Howard Taft was born here in the mid-1800s. Our location put the two together." 

The historic church's location in Over-the-Rhine also is at the core of Taft's branding, Kassling added.

"It is absolutely everything," he said. "I had no idea what was happening in Cincinnati when Dave invited me there to start Taft's. It blew me away. It's great to see these old buildings being turned into useful, valuable pieces of property. I think it's a model that should be replicated around the country."

Across town in Oakley, city and state support helped another brewery preserve a unique piece of Cincinnati architectural history. With the help of tax incentives and grants, MadTree Brewing converted a World War II-era factory and aircraft hangar at 3347 Madison Road into its new brewery and taproom, which opened in February. With the $18 million project complete, the glass-encased hangar now showcases MadTree's state-of-the-art brewhouse.

MadTree building, then (Photo courtesy Hamilton County Auditor site) and now (Phil Didion, WCPO)

Taft's and MadTree are not the only local craft breweries to establish their brands on historic Cincinnati real estate. In June 2013, Rhinegeist Brewing opened inside the former Christian Moerlein bottling factory at 1910 Elm St. in Over-the-Rhine. At the time, owners Bob Bonder and Bryant Goulding said the brewery's name literally meant "ghost of the Rhine" in honor of Cincinnati's brewing heritage.

Rhinegeist building, then (Photo courtesy Kenton County Library) and now (Phil Didion, WCPO)

And nearly four years later, another nearby 1800s-era Moerlein building, at 111 W. McMicken Ave., is being turned into the Northern Row Brewery & Distillery.

Adaptive reuse stirs renaissance across river

Katie Meyer, executive director for Renaissance Covington, said the adaptive reuse of historic buildings in Covington helps her nonprofit, which is focused on "community-driven social and economic revitalization of Covington's urban core."

"When you have those businesses come downtown, that draws in other businesses," Meyer said, noting that the city has assisted many new businesses with tax abatements and other incentives. "I think that having a good food scene and a good variety of entertainment is a critical part of it. Those food and beverage places become real economic drivers."

Mayer said that culture in Covington's downtown business district is firmly rooted in the revitalization of the city's historic building stock and other long-vacant buildings.

Braxton building, then (Photo courtesy Kenton County Library) and now (Phil Didion, WCPO)

Braxton Brewing, which was converted from a former art gallery and Sears department store into a taproom and brewhouse, has helped attract new visitors and build a vibrant entertainment district in Covington's downtown, Meyer said. Since Braxton opened at 27 W. Seventh St. in March 2015, several new restaurants and bars have opened in the area as well, including the Hannaford, the Globe, Frida 602 and Lisse Dutch Steakhouse. Covington city officials have worked closely with developers for each of these projects, providing tax incentives and helping them seek out state and federal grants.

When Hotel Covington opened in September, general manager Jack Olshan touted its proximity to Braxton Brewing, as well as the architecture of the building, which first opened as Coppin's Department Store in 1910. The Salyers Group, a Covington-based developer, spent $5 million to transform the five-story structure.

Hotel Covington building, then (Photo courtesy Kenton County Library) and now (Phil Didion, WCPO)

The developer also helped the owners of Over-the-Rhine sports bar Rhinehaus and Pendleton's Nation Kitchen and Bar convert a portion of the 100-year-old Mutual Building at Pike and Madison streets, just down the street from the hotel, into the Hannaford cocktail lounge.

Hannford building, then (Photo courtesy Kenton County Library) and now (Phil Didion, WCPO)

"It was really just a shell, so we had a lot of opportunity to do whatever we wanted with it," said Aaron Kohlhepp, one of the Hannaford's owners. 

Redevelopment of the Mutual Building began in 2014 when the city of Covington, the Catalytic Development Funding Corp. of Northern Kentucky, federal and state historic tax credits and the Duke Energy Revitalization Initiative helped finance the project, according to the city of Covington's website.

The last business to occupy the bar's space, a jewelry store, closed in the 1980s, according to the Salyers Group. The developer kept the original tile flooring intact and exposed some of the original wall foundation to reflect the location's history.

The Hannaford opened at 619 Madison Ave. in November, taking its name from famed Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford.

"I think that we are going to see more bigger companies and jobs coming to Covington largely because of our food and beverage scene," Meyers said. "When asked which comes first, business or residents, my answer is always 'Culture comes first.' These places are where people first come to play."