CINCINNATI -- Look, there are tons of great neighborhoods in the Tri-State; it's one of the things, I think, that sets us apart from other places. Sometimes, newcomers see it as provincial, but it's really not: People here just have a lot of pride in the places they call home.
So it wasn't easy narrowing this list down to just nine places. If yours isn't mentioned here, just realize that my boss made me keep it to nine -- so, you know, don't shoot the messenger and whatnot.
And here's why I picked these places specifically: They're either finally getting things rolling or are on the brink of rapid change.
In no particular order, these are the neighborhoods to watch in 2016:
1) Anderson Township
This east side suburb has always been home to a lot of traditional families -- you know, 2.4 kids, white picket fence, the whole shebang. But as consumer preferences shift, Anderson is taking a cue from other second-ring suburbs (see: Dublin, Ohio) and realizing it has to be more than a car-centric sprawlville if it wants to continue thriving in the next 30 to 40 years.
That's not to say anybody's trying to take away your car -- it's just that, for the better part of two decades now, township officials have been working to reshape Anderson into a much more walkable place (and they've smartly figured out that means more than simply throwing in some sidewalks).
Though walkability has been part of the township's plans since 1999, lately, it's becoming reality at an accelerated rate. Take the redeveloped Anderson Towne Center (expected to be complete in 2017): Plans call for street-facing storefronts, with sidewalks out front and parking in the rear (a shift from standard suburban design). A revised street configuration will create streets pedestrians can cross to storefronts between Five Mile Road and Towne Center Way, and a main draw will be a Carmike Cinemas movie theater complex, which got approval for a dine-in and liquor license. Kroger, which is expanding its Anderson store to be its largest in the nation, was part of the planning process for downtown Anderson, so expect its designs to complement, not compete with, the area's walkability. Car lanes will get narrower on Beechmont; sidewalks will get wider.
Township leaders have also been pushing ahead (and so far, winning) on plans to build One Anderson Place, a luxury apartment complex within walking distance of Anderson Towne Centre, designed to attract young professionals and empty-nesters (the same demos that have made Over-the-Rhine housing such a hot market since 2010).
And, even though nobody's about to take away your car, you probably could live in Anderson and get rid of it, if you're so inclined: Any day now, work should wrap up on a 3-mile extension of the Little Miami Scenic Trail, making it easier to travel by bicycle to a job or entertainment in downtown Cincinnati. (And since all Metro buses have a bike rack on front, it'd be pretty easy to get back home in the event of bad weather or an overly indulgent night out.)
2) Downtown Covington
Yeah, Mainstrasse is great; it's been great for a while, and if you're looking for a great dining scene, cheaper rents and less, uh, yuppiness than OTR, Mainstrasse is probably your place. But in 2016, expect to see more attention on downtown Covington, just outside the typical Mainstrasse haunts.
A $21 million renovation of the old City Hall into Hotel Covington is underway at Seventh Street and Madison Avenue, Braxton Brewing Company opened just down the street, and historic buildings are being rehabbed into hot residential property. Next door to the Madison Theater, Madison Live, a new music venue, adds even more to the area's nightlife.
If you haven't been lately, walk down Madison from Fourth to Seventh; it might remind you a bit of OTR circa 2008 or 2009. They say smart people get in early, and 2016 might be the perfect time to stake a claim in downtown Covington.
3) College Hill
Located in Cincinnati's northwest corner, this traditional neighborhood of tree-lined streets and sturdy single-family homes has struggled since the 1990s for a variety of reasons, disinvestment and crime chief among them. Since 2000, the neighborhood has lost three of its biggest anchors at its main intersection, North Bend Road at Hamilton Avenue: A Kroger store and retirement community closed on the northwest corner, and Schuller's Wigwam, a family-owned restaurant, closed on the northeast corner after nearly eight decades.
Instead of moaning about the problem, neighbors seized the sites as an opportunity: They could help shape the future of 7.5 acres of land at their most important intersection -- and figure out what would be the best fit paying the highest dividends. They ponied up $10,000 to be one of four test cases for a form-based code, or a way of zoning the properties that focuses on how new buildings at the sites would fit in with their surroundings, rather than what, specifically, goes into those spaces.
The recent news is that Downtown-based Saint Francis Group signed on as the preferred developer for the project, called College Hill Station (a nod to the intersection's history as the northern terminus of Cincinnati's once-vast streetcar network). If Saint Francis comes up with a viable development plan, it could make a deal with the city and eventually buy the land outright. The overall plan is for a mixed-use development -- possibly a medical office building on the old Schuller's site and retail and residential where Kroger and the retirement community once stood.
Also helping College Hill: Recent upgrades to the Hamilton Avenue corridor just to the south of the College Hill Station site, including a program to improve the facades and expand parking.
4) Dayton, Kentucky
The small river city just east of downtown Cincinnati has been on our radar for a while, mostly for the $400 million Manhattan Harbour project that's just recently begun opening up after a decade in the planning process. The home prices at Manhattan Harbour -- $995,000 to $1.9 million -- might seem steep to some, but they've got unparalleled views of Cincinnati's riverfront and the wooded hillsides above and below Columbia Parkway. Eventually, there'll be condos, apartments, restaurants and shops -- making Manhattan Harbour a development of nearly the same scale as The Banks in Cincinnati (even morseo when you consider how much smaller Dayton is compared with its neighbor to the north).
But city leaders aren't banking on that one massive development; instead, they're also trying to show young families (the majority of whom probably can't afford Manhattan Harbour's price point) that Dayton also has affordable housing, parks, a riverfront district and schools on the upswing.
The city also just landed north of a half-million dollars ($530,000 to be exact) for a portion of the Riverfront Commons development, an 11.5-mile trail eventually linking Fort Thomas to Ludlow. Dayton's portion of a $4.5 million overall grant will go toward building a ramp over a flood wall, connecting O’Fallon Avenue to near Berry Street.
5) East Price Hill
It shouldn't be any surprise that this West Side neighborhood has been getting the love from City Hall in recent years: East Price Hill has some of Cincinnati's best views, it's a quick commute to Downtown and real estate is way cheaper than similar spots like Mount Adams or Liberty Hill.
East Price Hill is also where now-Mayor John Cranley made his mark as a developer, bringing new life into the area with perhaps the most impressive overlooks, at Matson Place and West Eighth Street. The Incline Public House, with its sweeping views of the basin below, capitalizes on what Price Hill's earliest settlers probably never got to see themselves (what with all the coal soot and smog).
There's also the 229-seat Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, which redeveloped a surface parking lot and hosted its first season in 2015, along with BLOC Coffee Co., a few blocks west on Price Avenue (with probably the finest hot chocolate in Cincinnati, a friend insists). The neighborhood also benefits from housing rehabs by Price Hill Will, a nonprofit focused on, among other things, improving outdated housing stock in East, West and Lower Price Hill.
Because of its age as an early-20th-century neighborhood, East Price Hill is super-walkable -- and a bike commuter can easily make it into the basin, then back up with a lift from Metro's No. 33 bus line.
6) Walnut Hills
For the better part of three years, people who know about these things have told us that Walnut Hills is the "next" Over-the-Rhine -- in other words, a place that's just about ready to skyrocket with new development, new residents and new energy.
There are promising signs of the building momentum: The Paramount Building, a neighborhood icon at Peebles Corner (once the heart of Cincinnati's "second downtown"), was purchased by the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation in October, with plans to restore it and anchor the first floor with retail, along with office space above.
The Trevarren Flats project, a $10 million rehabilitation of three buildings on East McMillan, is expected to wrap up this winter and bring more fresh retail space and market-rate apartments to the neighborhood. Already opened is Fireside Pizza, a popular food truck that made its bricks-and-mortar home in a long-vacant neighborhood firehouse on McMillan starting in 2014.
And to boot, the neighborhood's redevelopment foundation, like its peers in other neighborhoods, also puts together a slate of events to keep neighbors engaged and talking -- something anybody focused on neighborhood redevelopment will tell you is critical to success.
In a neighborhood as large and populous as Westwood, it'd be easy to lose focus. At 6 square miles and about 30,000 residents, it's twice the size of, say, Norwood, and has roughly 50 percent more people. In other words: It could be a city in its own right. (In full disclosure, it's also where I grew up and where I bought a home when I moved back to Cincinnati five years ago.)
There's a little bit of everything in Westwood, from sprawling, suburban-style commercial strips to compact, walkable neighborhood business districts (yes, districts - plural).
For now, momentum is building to revitalize the heart of Westwood, near Harrison and Epworth avenues. Westwood Town Hall -- literally, as the name implies, the original town hall from before Cincinnati annexed the neighborhood -- anchors the area, along with Westwood School, Westwood Library and the historic Bell Building, once owned by Cincinnati Bell, then used as library storage and now being converted into a theater for Madcap Puppets. An old, historic firehouse could get new life as a restaurant, and, as soon as this spring, a coffeeshop is expected to open along Harrison (something as mundane as a coffeeshop might not seem like much, but for turning a neighborhood around, it can be a jump-starter).
Plans call for traffic calming on Harrison near the Town Hall, possibly turning the curb lanes into full-time parking (a move that seems to work just fine in the adjacent Cheviot business district, which has held onto its restaurants, bars and shops even as Westwood's business district was hollowed out).
The neighborhood also benefits from several community-minded groups, including the Westwood Civic Association, Westwood Works and Westwood Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation, who work together on organizing beer gardens, art shows and other events to bring residents together year-round.
It seems a little strange to have a neighborhood like Northside on a list of neighborhoods to watch in 2016. But in truth, I'm writing this on deadline, and my boss told me to include it.
And in truth, he's right.
Look, my argument was that Northside has been "up and coming" since at least 2000; why would it be on this year's list?
But, after decades of neglect, the neighborhood had a lot of rebuilding to do. That doesn't just happen overnight. So it seems right to point out some of the big things happening this year.
First, there's the Gantry, a $13 million mixed-use project at the neighborhood's main intersection of Hamilton Avenue and Blue Rock Road. Residents fought a proposal to put a Walgreens at the site, envisioning something bigger and better (and fitting in better with the neighborhood's historic and urban character).
What they got was the 130-unit building constructed from the ground up on the site of an old railyard ("gantry" is a nod to this past -- it's a term for a moveable overhead framework often found in railyards). Leasing is underway, with an official opening in the coming months.
As construction on the Gantry wraps up, work on a new transit center will start nearby, at Hamilton, Blue Rock and Spring Grove Avenue. It's an overdue improvement, considering Northside's the highest transfer location in Metro’s system, second only to Government Square. Construction should begin later in 2016 on the hub, which will feature shelters and real-time destination screens; it should be open to passengers in 2017.
9) Liberty Township
It's 64 acres, 1.3 million square feet and cost $350 million to build. I'd be foolish to leave Liberty Township off this list, what with the massive Liberty Center officially opening just a few months ago and more retail tenants opening by the week.
Oh yeah, this too: The developer is already eager to get the second phase started.
The mixed-use complex at Interstate 75 and Ohio Route 129 is expected to be an economic boon for the area midway between Cincinnati and Dayton: A study from the University of Cincinnati found the Liberty Center could have an annual operating impact of $459 million.
And another mixed-use project is already being planned not far away -- not to the same price tag or scale, but still significant. The Muncy Farm project would bring office space, retail shops, town homes and apartments to 48 acres between Millikin and Kyles Station roads. Though it wouldn't be complete until 2019, developer Schumacher Dugan's interest shows that Liberty Center might be a tipping point in driving developers to rethink their approach -- even in the exurbs.
WCPO.com's Lisa Bernard-Kuhn and Pat LaFleur, as well as Laura A. Hobson, Brent Coleman, Jenny Burman and Thomas Consolo, contributed to this report.