Is this neighborhood the next OTR?

Posted at 6:07 AM, Dec 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-02 06:07:47-05

Editor's note about Changemakers: This is part of a continuing series of stories and columns about people and places fostering change in our communities. Read last week's Changemakers column here.  

WALNUT HILLS – Space and opportunity.

That’s how Allen Woods describes the new frontier unfolding in Cincinnati’s rapidly redeveloping neighborhoods like Walnut Hills. 

Along McMillan Avenue here, new restaurants and businesses are opening in remade spaces as blocks of decaying and long-vacant buildings undergo multi-million-dollar makeovers.

“Our main goal is to connect entrepreneurs with opportunities, and help remove as many barriers as we can,” said Woods, co-founder of Mortar, a small business accelerator that’s helping urban residents launch their own businesses. “For urban entrepreneurs especially, the biggest obstacle can be access to space.”

The men behind Mortar are, from left, William Thomas, Allen Woods and Derrick Braziel.

Enter Brick 939 - a pop-up retail market and art gallery launched in November by Mortar. Housed inside a former Dollar City store at 939 McMillan, the market is hosting a revolving lineup of local clothing vendors, bakers, soap makers, artists, filmmakers and more each weekend through the end of January.

"We hope this completely opens the door for people in the area to participate in the investment that's happening around them," said Woods.

Just up the block, plans are under way for an $18 million renovation of the former Paramount Building into 40,000 square feet of office and retail space. Further South on McMillan, Treverran Flats is set to open in January – delivering new storefronts and 30 new apartments to a once-busted row of aging buildings.

These buildings in the 900 block of McMillan Avenue in Walnut Hills are being redeveloped into 30 new apartments with street level retail space. (Provided)

“This whole area is redeveloping quickly, and we want to help people get in early -- before the neighborhood has completely shifted,” Woods said.

As the renaissance takes hold, investments like those made by Mortar are critical, said Kevin Wright, executive director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, a nonprofit neighborhood developer that's leading the Paramount project and others in the neighborhood.

“To make Walnut Hills great again, we have to have the big multi-million dollar investments,” Wright said. “But we also need make sure there is an element of redevelopment that’s super inclusive, which is why we’re partnering with groups like Mortar to force the issue that as the neighborhood grows the people who live here have opportunities to grow too.”

Back at Brick 939, many vendors are graduates of Mortar’s 9-week entrepreneurship course, where students are teamed with legal and business experts to help them launch and grow their business ideas.

“I was so excited to hear that the market was opening because I live just one street away and I really want to open a storefront here in Walnut Hills,” Jasmine Ford said.

For the last two years, the 23-year-old Walnut Hills resident has delivered her freshly made cupcakes, cheesecakes and pies to a host of clients across the city.

“We really need this,” she said. “There aren’t many places around here that help small businesses out.”

To help spread the word about Brick 939 and build support for the businesses popping up there, Mortar is hosting a pitch and entrepreneurship graduation event the venue on Dec. 15. Dubbed "Life's a Pitch" the gathering will include presentations from local start-ups and attendees can vote on the top business plans. Proceeds from ticket sales - which range from $10 to $20 - will go the top winner.


In the coming months, if demand for the pop-up market is robust Woods says it could become a permanent neighborhood fixture in the neighborhood, similar Mortar’s Brick OTRwhich opened a year ago.

“The last year has been great in Over-the-Rhine, and this could be better if we keep finding the right partners,” Woods said. “It could be amazing.”