Re-urbanization: New residents, new spirit bring new vitality to city neighborhoods

For new generation, the core is gaining cachet

This is the first in a series of stories to examine re-urbanization in the Tri-State.

You see it on the weekends in certain neighborhoods and in the evenings when the weather is nice: Folks are walking dogs, jogging, traveling by foot to the latest gastropub, microbrewery or fusion restaurant. They might be younger, and chances are that, though they have a car, they don’t drive it every day.

These are the people spurring the re-urbanization of America, and in particular the communities of Greater Cincinnati. Re-urbanization is a synergistic approach to blending the new with the existing in and around the city core. It applies to businesses as well as residences.

A few decades ago, few people went downtown — to any downtown. There wasn’t much to draw them there. Beautiful suburbs kept everyone’s attention with shopping malls and cinemas, chain restaurants and big box retailers. The times, however, are a-changing.

“We have big-city appeal with a small-town feel,” said Larisa Sims, Covington’s assistant city manager for economic development.

More and more folks are choosing to live where they can walk to work, not to mention to eclectic stores, restaurants, bars, parks and other entertainment venues. Over-the-Rhine’s recent renaissance has rightly been praised and held up as an example of revival done right, but it’s not the only place locally to experience a resurgence.

Stroll down Fairfield Avenue in Bellevue, Ky., to see an example of successful re-urbanization. You’ll find shops and eateries, and on the river you’ll see swanky new condominiums and apartments. The feel of the city is cozy and alive.

In Cincinnati, Hyde Park Square these days bustles with pedestrian traffic, not just the gas-guzzling kind. The beauty of re-urbanization is watching a hipster walk by wearing skinny jeans, a newsboy hat and a handlebar mustache followed by a more grizzled, gray-haired fellow wearing Wranglers, a Stetson … and a handlebar mustache.

Many factors drive the urge to move to a walkable neighborhood. The housing market’s collapse in 2008 started to change the game. Instead of increasingly larger homes being built on increasingly smaller plots of land in the suburbs, the better value was to be found in older homes in older neighborhoods. As more people have moved back toward the city’s core, those homes are becoming more attractive.

C.J. and Cindy Novack lived in Cheviot for 10 years before buying a home in Covington’s MainStrasse Village two years ago. The home is a refurbished former Covington fire station.

“MainStrasse is cool in the spring time,” said C.J. Novack. “Everyone honks and waves. In 10 years in Cheviot, we sort of knew our neighbors on either side of us, and that’s it.”

The Novacks now know not only their neighbors, having coincidentally purchased a home next door to some friends, but know the people who work in the neighborhood and several folks who come down for the entertainment.

In addition to good housing value, as gas prices increased so did the cost of commuting. While fuel prices have fallen dramatically from highs near $4 per gallon, it’s a lesson that people won’t soon forget. Alternative transportation, including newer options like rideshare services and the coming streetcar, has made getting to and from and around downtown both easier and more economical.

“The more we can create an easily accessible community, the more it benefits all of us,” said Covington City Manager Larry Klein. He cited the Red Bike program and the Southbank Shuttle of examples of how getting around in the urban core — of Cincinnati, Covington and Newport – is becoming easier.

“It’s super walkable, and we do Red Bike a lot,” said Cindy Novack.

Between value on homes, cheaper commutes and cool places to spend downtime, what’s not to like about urban living? Well, the same things that spurred urban sprawl years ago.

In a world where a large percentage of us can’t imagine not having a vehicle, more people moving to walkable neighborhoods means less parking there. If you worked on Third Street and lived on Eighth, chances are you would walk, bike, skate or take public transportation to work most days. Because this is the Midwest, though, chances are you still have a car, and a car still has to be parked somewhere. That is cutting down on spots for your suburban co-workers.

Ken Smith, executive director of Price Hill Will, a nonprofit organization geared at community revitalization, said the difficulties of not having a vehicle can be seen in a community where many walks are up steep hills. He said, though, that there are often support systems in place in neighborhoods like Price Hill that can take the place of having a vehicle.

“People have a system where they can function,” he said. “In the suburbs, it’s more auto-oriented.”

Old homes might be wonderful bang for the buck, but that doesn’t mean they come as live-in ready as a brand new, or even a 10- or 15-year-old home in Mason or West Chester or Independence. There are gems in every neighborhood, but there are many more “handyman specials.”

“Historical buildings have challenges,” said Covington’s Sims, “but the advantages outweigh them.”

Especially given the rise in heroin abuse and addiction, one can’t simply say crime is more prevalent in urban areas than in suburban or even rural area. Even so, the perception that crimes against people and property take place more frequently in urban areas persists. That may be changing.

“I feel like I’m seeing as many serious crime stories outside the city as in it,” said Smith. “I don’t think people realize that crime could even happen (in suburbs). It’s very naïve.”

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Read other installments in the WCPO.com series on re-urbanization:

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