Old school's transformation into funky apartments is another milestone in Walnut Hills' resurgence

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati's urban core is full of diamonds in the rough. So if you're a developer, how do you choose where to risk your money?

For Core Redevelopment, which just completed transforming a vacant Walnut Hills school into 44 eclectic apartments, it's more art than science.

"This is gut. It's just driving around, talking to people, absorbing what's going on," Eric Seal, a Core developer, said.

 

Core's gut -- backed by a lot of research and experience building in Indianapolis and elsewhere -- led it to convert an 1888 school into Windsor Flats. It's a departure from cookie-cutter new construction with apartments carved out of old classrooms, an attic that features enormous wooden beams, and, most unusual, an apartment that takes up an entire gym and stage.

The first few tenants moved in this month, and 35 of the 44 apartments have been leased. Rents range between $900 to $2,059 for the behemoth 2,730-square-foot gym unit.

Its location on Windsor Street just off Gilbert Avenue puts it within walking distance of Eden Park and a few minutes from Uptown neighborhoods and "ridiculously close to downtown," as Seal put it.

Most apartments feature huge windows, original hardwood or concrete floors and lots of built-in cabinets. Spaces for school supply storage or coats are now huge walk-in closets. Original chalkboards grace the walls. 

Want a conversation piece? How about the cast-iron incinerator in a ground-floor unit? 

An old incinerator graces a ground-floor unit. Phil Didion | WCPO Contributor

Or the original gymnastic rings hanging from the ceiling of the gym?

A view of the gym-sized apartment from the stage. Phil Didion | WCPO contributor

Modern amenities like granite countertops, Nest thermostats and stainless steel appliances are part of the package, too.

How Walnut Hills landed the project 

The conversion is a key component to Walnut Hills' continuing resurgence, but the project launched in 2014 when Core bought the school and an adjoining empty lot.

The lot next door helped seal the deal. Core is moving dirt now to build 51 new apartments scheduled to open in the fall.

Future site of a 51-apartment complex adjacent to Windstor Flats. Phil Didion | WCPO Contributor

Seal said Core scouted sites throughout the city for its second Cincinnati project. The first was Alumni Lofts, 142 apartments in the former School for Creative Performing Arts (and former Woodward school) building on Sycamore Street in Over-the-Rhine.

That large-scale project made it possible for Core, which is based in Indianapolis, to hire permanent Cincinnati staff to implement new projects.

Seal said the Windsor building was chosen in part because of support from the city of Cincinnati and from the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Corp. Some cities and some neighborhoods offer little support or are even resistant to new projects for a variety of reasons, he said.

"(Walnut Hills Redevelopment Corp. Executive Director) Kevin Wright and those folks are really good at what they do. And that's the kind of stuff as a developer you look for. He gave us a lot of confidence," Seal said.

Wright said his group did little concrete work on the project beyond helping Core to get the building designated as a historic site to quality for tax credits. 

"What we are is a confidence boosters for groups like Core. When they come into town and look at neighborhoods and sit down and see all the work that we're doing, it gives them more confidence to move forward than if we weren't here," he said. 

Wright's group helped Seal and Core get the lay of the land, pointing out the importance of Eden Park and new restaurant and bars being developed along East McMillan and Gilbert. 

"Adaptive re-use projects are really marketable. It's pretty cool to live in an old school. It's kind of cool to live in an apartment with chalkboards," he said. 

Amenities like those tend to push a project like Windsor over the top compared to similarly attractive buildings that are farther away from walkable attractions, Wright said.

Seal said the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority buying buildings along East McMillan Street for redevelopment also increased the upside for choosing the Windsor School.

Finally, Core secured federal and state historic tax credits and a tax rebate from Cincinnati to make the financing work.

Young professional appeal 

Seal said projects like Windsor Flats are being driven by a big change in what some young professionals desire. Where previous generations in their 20s and 30s wanted to buy their own homes with lawns, lots of young adults are opting instead for apartments in the middle of the action in places like Over-the-Rhine and Downtown.

Now, the action is spreading to Walnut Hills and other nearby neighborhoods.

"Mathematically, it might make sense to buy a house, but they're just living differently," Seal said. "It's kind of changing all these neighborhoods."

Bob Driehaus covers economic development. Contact him and follow stories on Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

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