Editor's note about Changemakers: This is part of a continuing series of stories and columns about people and places fostering change in our communities.
MADISONVILLE – Where empty lots and storefronts sit today in this East Side neighborhood, planners have long envisioned dozens of new apartments, coffee shops, restaurants and more.
If all goes as planned, leaders in Madisonville say 2016 is poised to be the year many of those dreams become a reality as the hard work of the last decade begins to pay off.
By the end of this month, nonprofit community developer Madisonville Community Urban Redevelopment Corp. expects to unveil the transformation of a long-vacant former FifthThird Bank building at the corner of Madison Road and Whetsel Avenue into a street-level restaurant space and two second-story apartments.
By Spring, as many as six new retailers and businesses are expected to announce openings in the neighborhood, said Matt Strauss, real estate and marketing manager for MCURC.
Among the incoming storefronts: Two yet-to-be named coffee shops and Lalas Blissful Bites, a bakery and dessert shop that’s expanding from Downtown.
“We’re hoping that this is the initial push that really starts the momentum,” Strauss said.
The incoming apartments and new retailers, Strauss said, could be just the beginning of tens of millions of dollars of new investment hitting the neighborhood this year.
As early as February, another "major" deal could be announced, he said. This plan would transform at least three Madisonville blocks along Madison and Whetsel into more new apartments and shops.
“It’s taken some time for everything to begin to come together, but that’s because everyone is working hard to get it right,” Strauss said.
Building a Vision, One Property at a Time
The incoming businesses and projects are the culmination of years of planning, patience and negotiating as neighborhood leaders worked to bolster and build a vision for a remade business district in Madisonville.
Even as the economy hobbled along in the last decade, neighborhood and city planners chipped away at the effort – spending more than $4 million to buy up vacant and decaying buildings along Madison and Whetsel.
Last year, the city of Cincinnati tapped the Ackermann Group and St. Francis Group to oversee redevelopment plans for the three-block business district, which is located less than a mile from affluent suburbs of Indian Hill and Sycamore Township.
At countless community meetings, residents weighed in with big wants for their remade entertainment and shopping district, said Sarah Sheets, executive director at Madisonville Community Urban Redevelopment Corp.
“People want a place to go on a date night and places to run their routine errands, and unfortunately -- right now – you have to leave Madisonville to do most of that,” Sheets said.
For now, Strauss said, final details of that development agreement are still being negotiated between the city and Ackerman.
“They’re nearing completion, and when they do, they’ll come to the neighborhood for approval,” Strauss said. “We should know something very soon.”
Elsewhere in Madisonville, Investment is Building
Nearby on Red Bank Road, plans are underway for a more than $35 million apartment community. Last year, Dolce Hotel & Resorts also unveiled a $124 million plan for a 217-room hotel that would include a conference center, specialty retailers and restaurants.
The projects are helping build a buzz among developers eyeing prospective space in Madisonville and even potential home buyers “who want to be close to the city,” Strauss said.
Home values in the neighborhood steadily climbed in 2015, rising to a median sale price of $72,000 from $46,000 in 2014. Homes are selling quickly, too – with an average house staying on the market for just 41 days.
“The private market here is very strong, which is great, because it’s really allowed us to focus our efforts on the business district,” Sheets said. “Things really do seem to be heading in the right direction.”
But the progress isn't without challenges.
In 2015, as gun violence peeked to a nine-year high in the city, Madisonville was the scene of the fatal shooting of Cincinnati Police Officer Sonny Kim in June. The shooting -- which garnered national attention -- contradicts other trends, Strauss said. For much of 2015, Madisonville's crime rate hovered around 5.1 incidents per 1,000 residents, ranking it with the 15th lowest rate in the city, according to data from the Cincinnati Police department.
"Safety, of course, is a top concern, and even the perception of crime can be a big challenge to overcome," Strauss said.
Back on Whetsel, Strauss says part of the neighborhood's strategy has been to target problem properties, including shutting down a “rooming house” where police calls had been frequent.
"Community-building" events have also been key to getting neighbors to mingle and drawing in visitors, Sheets said.
In the warmer spring and summer months, the community has launched "Music on Madison." The outdoor festivals, held at the corner of Madison and Whetsel on the fourth Friday of each month starting in May, boast local beers and food and attract hundreds of attendees. In October, a jazz and beer festival at the same location drew in more than 1,000 visitors, Sheets added.
"There's a pent-up demand for community gathering places here," she said. "People see the investment that's being made; they feel the momentum and they want to be a part of it."