Blending old and new: 3CDC faces challenges with new construction in historic Over-the-Rhine

'Society and life have changed'

CINCINNATI – Preservationists and developers alike love Over-the-Rhine for its hundreds of Italianate structures built in the neighborhood’s 19th century heyday.

But as Over-the-Rhine’s rebirth continues, developers have started constructing more new buildings among the historic properties.

That’s not easy. Neighborhood residents and advocates have strong opinions about new construction and how it should complement Over-the-Rhine’s historic fabric.

“The biggest challenge is that there’s never going to be a consensus on this stuff,” said Adam Gelter, executive vice president of development for Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., or 3CDC. 

City officials tasked 3CDC with Over-the-Rhine’s redevelopment, and the nonprofit has invested more than $315 million in the neighborhood since 2004.

New Projects Under Development

3CDC’s two new developments in the works both include new construction.

A project at 15th and Race streets encompasses the southern two-thirds of the block bound by West 15th, Race, Pleasant and Liberty streets.

The design calls for building a 300-space parking garage in the middle of the site that would be hidden by historic buildings and new construction facing the streets. The final project would have 57 new housing units and 15,000 square feet of commercial space.

 

The second project includes four existing buildings and the empty lots between them at 15th and Vine streets. The goal is to redevelop those separate buildings and lots into a single five-story property that will have about 30,000 square feet of office space and 10,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space.

Both projects require selective demolition of the rear portions of historic buildings on the sites.

3CDC has presented early designs for the projects to Cincinnati’s Historic Conservation Board for review. Its members eventually will vote on whether the final designs for both projects meet the city’s guidelines for construction and renovation in Over-the-Rhine.

That process itself can be a challenge, Gelter said, because public discussion at those meetings sometimes goes beyond the historic guidelines and delves into whether people like the design or the project itself.

“One thing that’s a challenge for us is just separating those two things out,” Gelter said. “Getting an approval from the voting body when there are people who come to the meeting talking about issues that are important but not related to whether the building follows historic guidelines.”

Concerns About The Projects

Some neighborhood residents and advocates already have expressed concerns, particularly regarding the bigger project at 15th and Race streets.

Downtown lawyer Tim Mara, who lives on Pleasant Street near the development site, said he objects to the garage being such a big part of the project.

He noted that 3CDC’s $63 million Mercer Commons project a few blocks away has a 340-space garage in the center of that development, too.

“I think they’ve found themselves a formula they like, and they’re going to keep repeating the formula, no matter what the community wants,” Mara said.

He noted that the garage means the residential units wrapped around the parking will be shallower and won’t have windows on the rear of the buildings.

“The idea seems to be ‘we need the parking, and whatever’s left over, we’re going to put some lipstick on this pig by enveloping the garage with residences,’” Mara said.

‘Society And Life Have Changed’

But Gelter said the garage is needed to serve future development in the area, too, probably including the office development planned for 15th and Vine streets.

 

He added that the more shallow residential units planned for the development are similar to those at Mercer Commons, which Gelter said are “selling well.”

“Over-the-Rhine can’t become the Over-the-Rhine that it was at the turn of the century exactly like it was because society and life have changed,” said Alan Weiskopf, managing principal of Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff + Goettel, the Pittsburgh architecture firm designing the project.

“The needs of residents have changed, especially in the use of the automobile,” he said. “It’s a fact of life.”

The proposed parking in 3CDC’s plan would be the third large garage in a small part of Over-the-Rhine, said Danny Klingler, a board member of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation. The site is just a few blocks away from the Mercer Commons and Washington Park garages.

“I am worried about what it means for the overall character and sense of place of a very special place if we build a whole lot of infill that turns out to have been not very sensitive,” he said. “I would include in that the parking garage.”

About 50 Over-the-Rhine residents, business owners, church leaders and developers crafted their own vision for the development site at 15th and Race streets. That plan, called the “Pleasant Street Vision Study,” goes all the way up to Liberty Street and includes land that 3CDC doesn’t own.

Over-the-Rhine Community Housing commissioned the study, and Mara said he thinks it’s a better plan for the site.

For his part, Gelter thinks the 3CDC plan has a lot in common with that study. But 3CDC can’t make plans for land it doesn’t own, he said.

Should New Designs Be Plain Or Dynamic?

There’s also the matter of how the new buildings look.

Most people agree that new construction shouldn’t try to imitate historic structures too closely.

“You don’t want it to mimic,” Gelter said.

But there’s a school of thought that any new building should be “plain and subservient, so it lets the historic buildings be the focal point of design,” he said.

“We probably have a little bit more of a dynamic view of what the neighborhood could be,” Gelter said.

3CDC has asked the architects on these projects to design good buildings that don’t detract from the historic structures around them but are clearly from the 21st century.

 

“You can’t build like they did in 1893,” said Chantelle Noble, a founding partner of City Studios Architecture, an Over-the-Rhine firm designing the 15th and Vine streets project.

“We really want to make a building that when you look at it, it looks like it’s built in 2014,” she said. “We are trying to make a contextual building. But we’re also trying to make a contemporary building.”

Of course, design is pretty subjective, Gelter acknowledged, and it’s nearly impossible to get everyone to agree.

Klingler, for one, said he has a gut-level response that the new construction in the two projects could be more sympathetic to the surrounding historic buildings.

“I’m not opposed to 3CDC’s work,” he said. “3CDC’s amazing at financing projects and finding ways to get stuff done. But on historically appropriate infill, I think we can do better.”

Gelter stressed that 3CDC continues to meet with neighborhood residents and organizations to listen to their concerns.

And Weiskopf said the architects, as trained consensus-builders, will listen and do what they can to address people’s concerns.

But he added that he wishes people would focus more on the fact that the 15th and Race project, in particular, will fill a large area that’s now vacant with a vibrant development.

“This is a real asset to the community,” he said. “There’s a mouthful of missing teeth here, and we’re filling them back.”

In the coming months, 3CDC and the architects will continue to refine the designs for the two projects and go back to the city’s Historic Conservation Board.

A date has not yet been set for that meeting.

For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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