Over-the-Rhine's vacant buildings are filling up

But there's still plenty of work to be done

CINCINNATI -- Now that the streetcar is up, running and providing easy access from Downtown Cincinnati to the now-trendy Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, many people who haven’t been to that area in years are discovering the historic area's ongoing renaissance.

The former German settlement, believed to be the largest urban historic district in the United States, is in the midst of a major economic development project coordinated by Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, more commonly known as 3CDC.

And although much of that development follows the streetcar route from the Washington Park area, also known as the Gateway Quarter, north to the Brewery District, passengers on the Cincinnati Bell Connector won't necessarily see all shiny storefronts along the way.

When the private nonprofit 3CDC was formed in 2003 to jumpstart development of the city's urban core, there were 500 vacant buildings in OTR. Today, there are 278 vacant buildings in the neighborhood. (This number, however, includes only the buildings that the City of Cincinnati has ordered to be vacated due to safety concerns.) 3CDC was unable to share how many vacant buildings it owns now in OTR.

Streetcar advocates expect the new Cincinnati Bell Connector to help spur even more development in Over-the-Rhine.

Since 2004, the nonprofit has spurred the investment of $926 million in redevelopment projects in OTR and Downtown, including the $48 million renovation and expansion of Washington Park. Some of 3CDC’s largest completed projects include the renovation of Fountain Square and the 21C Museum Hotel. The group is also responsible for turning many dilapidated or vacant buildings into commercial and residential spaces and for developing new homeless shelters.

Cincinnati’s Buildings and Inspections department orders properties to be vacated if they find a number of code violations that make a property unsafe to occupy. Some of these violations include lack of sanitary plumbing, electrical system hazards, unstable structures, roof leaks, heating, ventilating and air conditioning malfunctions, and similar conditions. The buildings can become habitable again once the owner corrects the cited violations and the building is inspected again and approved.

Instead of being concentrated in certain sections of the neighborhood that are as yet untouched by gentrification, the vacated buildings in OTR are spread throughout the community. About 20 percent of OTR's vacated properties lie on the streetcar route.

Sharon Suder, who has worked at Suder’s Art Store on Vine Street for 32 years, recalls when the neighborhood that is now full of entertainment and commerce was once full of people loitering amid drug trafficking in the streets. She said that while this has not completely gone away, it is not as blatant as it used to be.

"I know other cities are looking at (Cincinnati) wanting to know how we’ve managed to do this," Suder said. “It’s interesting. I’m happy for it. I love the historic buildings and don’t want to see them just falling to the street, which is where a lot of them are headed."

Over-the-Rhine, which is known for its historic architecture, is thought to have the largest collection of Italianate architecture of any city in the country. But many of the buildings had been left to ruin in the last half-century, leading the National Trust for Historic Preservation to list Over-the-Rhine as "endangered" just 10 years ago.

Today, 83 of the vacated buildings are marked as historic.

The City of Cincinnati lists the historic structures in most dire need of repair and maintenance online in order to encourage repair of the properties. The compilation lists buildings as "at-risk," "improving," "stable" or "rehabbed." A total of 20 buildings in OTR are listed as "at-risk."

"Given all of the activity and investment in the OTR area, we expect many of these vacant buildings to continue to be repaired and reoccupied and stand ready to work closely with developers who are investing in the area," said Cincinnati's Director of Buildings and Inspections Art Dahlberg.

Suder said she's confident that the remaining vacant buildings in OTR will be developed one way or another.

But, she said, "I don’t want to see the neighborhood completely gentrified. I think that we need a mixed community."

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