CINCINNATI - Cincinnati's South Fairmount neighborhood is gearing up for a massive dose of government intervention, now that regulators have granted final approval for a $276 million package of construction projects aimed at bringing the city's aging sewer system into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.
The plans include the $192 million Lick Run project, which could bring back to life a buried creek and transform the area west of the Western Hills Viaduct.
"Talk about a fascinating neighborhood," said Liz Blume, executive director of the Community Building Institute at Xavier University. "Part of it feels like you're out in the country. Part of it has this Italian heritage. Part of it is a little scary."
Blume is working with the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority to apply for a Choice Neighborhoods grant that could pump millions into the neighborhoods of North and South Fairmount and English Woods. Avondale won $29 million from the federal Choice Neighborhoods program last year.
And that's just the start. Consider:
Cincinnati's Department of Transportation is spending more than $13 million on road improvements in the neighborhood. A four-mile, $7.6 million upgrade of Harrison Avenue near Queen City is already underway.
The $6 million conversion of Westwood Avenue to a two-way boulevard is tentatively slated for 2016.
Beyond that, city officials are working with the Ohio Department of Transportation on a $200 million replacement project for the Western Hills Viaduct.
All of these investments aim to capitalize on the $192 million Lick Run project, the largest attempt ever to "daylight" an urban stream.
"Suddenly, we're on the rise," said JoAnn Metz, vice president of the South Fairmount Community Council. "And for the strangest reason of all: sewage. I just shake my head. I can't believe it."
Lick Run Flowing To Daylight
MSD wants to separate rainwater from sanitary sewers to reduce pollution.
So, it is planning to build a man-made creek and wetlands system in South Fairmount that would double as a public amenity. In theory, that will attract commercial real estate developers, new residents and businesses.
The project will require the demolition of several city blocks west of the Western Hills Viaduct, where a 19½-foot sewer pipe replaced a natural creek in 1907.
Walking trails, recreation areas and scenic water views would replace the blighted buildings, fast food restaurant and light industrial tenants that now occupy the corridor between Queen City and Westwood avenues west of the Mill Creek.
In one sense, this is history repeating itself.
The 1907 sewer enabled the neighborhood's initial development by freeing up land for homes and businesses. By the 1920s, South Fairmount had peaked at a 15,000 resident population. Suburban sprawl, the loss of major employers and the conversion of Queen City and Westwood avenues to one-way thoroughfares caused South Fairmount's inexorable decline.
Population dropped to 2,368 in the 2010 census. Per capita income in South Fairmount was just $13,911, or 35 percent of the national average.
Metz grew up in South Fairmount, moved away then came back to be part of the neighborhood's rebirth. She says private investors are starting to pay attention to the wooded hillside village that serves as a gateway to the city's western suburbs of Westwood, Covedale, Delhi and Green Township.
"It's a beautiful valley," she said. "Maybe it's not Mt Adams. But on the other hand it's close enough to the city that you could bike to the city from here." She added she thinks the condominiums would sell well in the area.
There are definitely no upscale condos yet, but there is some evidence of a fledgling recovery in South Fairmount. Hamilton County property records show 25 properties sold through March 31 at an average sale price of $46,000. That's nearly triple last year's average sale price of $17,000.
Data from Zillow.com shows South Fairmount average home values increased 9 percent in the last 12 months to $47,500. The median list price in the neighborhood is up 27 percent to $19,000. Both numbers are down considerably from pre-recession levels and they are well below Zillow's national averages.
Next page: Not everyone is on board with the changes
Not everyone is sold on MSD's plan for renewal through sewer improvements.
"It would remove 32 businesses and 560 jobs and roughly $56 million in (business) assets," said Elliott Ellis, former president of the South Fairmount Community Council. "To promote their drainage ditch, they'd clear cut everything in the center of Westwood and Queen City avenues."
Ellis favored a different approach, developed on a speculative basis for the neighborhood council by Hargrove Engineering. It prescribed a treatment plant that would convert sewage into energy and potable water. The plan also called for new housing and an industrial park in South Fairmount. It would have kept many existing businesses in tact, Ellis said.
The MSD and Hargrove proposals ignited a community debate in South Fairmount that led to the ouster of Ellis from the community council after 20 years, all but two of them as president.
A new board of 13 was elected. Ellis and another supporter of the Hargrove proposal finished 14th and 15th. The new board has yet to take a formal vote on the MSD proposal, but its leaders say they support the MSD plan. Ellis has no complaints about the election, saying the process was fair. But he maintains the MSD approach will do more harm than good.
"We need to get something from it," he said. "They keep saying ‘community betterment.' But they're not showing us anything."
MSD has spent almost $3.7 million to acquire 13.6 acres for the Lick Run project. It works out to approximately $268,000 per acre, said Dennis Smith, owner of Paper Products Co. on Queen City Ave.
"We're in negotiations with them, as almost every business down here is. Either they've sold or they're in negotiations," Smith said. "We're ready to go. We just have to find a (new) place. It's not easy running a business and knowing this is hanging over your head."
Regulatory Approval Announced
The EPA issued a June 3 press release confirming its approval of the Lower Mill Creek Partial Remedy, a package of 19 construction projects that includes Lick Run and will reduce combined sewer overflows by 1.78 billion gallons.
"This plan is good news for the residents of Cincinnati and for communities along the Ohio River," said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. "Not only will this innovative plan ensure that significant volumes of polluted stormwater and raw sewage are kept out of local waterways, but it will also cost less than more traditional approaches, saving money for ratepayers and the city."
MSD is facing a 2018 deadline to reduce overflows because of a 2010 consent decree that settled a U.S. EPA lawsuit alleging Cincinnati's centuries-old sewer system violated the federal Clean Water Act. Because storm water and waste share the same sewer pipes, raw sewage sometimes overflow into creeks and streams, contaminating them.
MSD has already completed 82 consent decree projects at a cost of $186 million. Those projects reduced overflows by 880 million gallons.
MSD Director Tony Parrott said the utility has locked up 60 percent of the land it needs for the Lick Run project. He thinks the remaining acreage can be acquired without the use of eminent domain, which involves lawsuits, takes more time and is often more expensive.
But Parrott still faces one more hurdle before work can begin on the Lick Run project. All MSD construction projects were frozen by Hamilton County last month because of contracting rules passed by Cincinnati City Council last year. The dispute involves "responsible bidder" rules that promote higher wages and expanded apprenticeship programs.
An MSD spokeswoman said Parrott is "working closely" with City Manager Milton Dohoney and County Administrator Christian Sigman to resolve the issue.
‘Enjoyed And Enjoyable'
For environmental activists like University of Cincinnati Professor Mike Miller, resolution of the approval can't come quickly enough.
"It should restore a segment of the city around a water feature that will be enjoyed and enjoyable," said Miller, an aquatic biology professor who has worked for years to restore Cincinnati's Mill Creek.
Miller said Cincinnati has more than 600 miles of creek that runs through sewer pipes. For much of the last 100 years, the Mill Creek was an open sewer. But the Mill Creek Conservancy District is bringing new life to segments of the creek with cleanup projects and man-made erosion controls on its banks. The projects come with big paths and walking trails that Miller hopes will connect to South Fairmount via Lick Run.
"They're already halfway to the Western Hills viaduct," he said. "If they can connect the two, bikers will be able to make a loop around Lick Run Creek and have a trail that goes all the way up to Caldwell Park. That's a 13-mile loop that'll be bikeable all through the city."