CINCINNATI -- As building after building transformed from vacant shells into vibrant new homes and businesses in Over-the-Rhine in the last decade, Mount Auburn watched from above, licking its chops.
Now, Cincinnati's first hilltop neighborhood, the boyhood home of President William Howard Taft, is primed for its moment in the revitalization spotlight.
"It has all the bones. It just needs the acknowledgement and the investment that we're giving it now," Dan Schimberg, president of Uptown Rental Properties, said.
Mount Auburn saw virtually no new housing construction in decades. Now Uptown is investing $100 million into new apartments and condominiums, including a 259-apartment complex rising on Wellington Place.
Uptown already completed the renovation of the once-dilapidated 20-apartment 255 McGregor building and the 60-unit 2301 Auburn apartment complex.
Schimberg said eight of the 60 apartments at 2301 Auburn were occupied when Uptown bought it. Now, it's nearly full.
Community leaders anticipate Uptown's investment is just the vanguard of far bigger rehab and a new construction push, and they're taking pains to make sure the neighborhood is home to people of all incomes, races and ages.
The neighborhood is sandwiched between booming Over-the-Rhine and growing Uptown neighborhoods.
"If it weren't for us, there'd be no way to get from Uptown to Downtown," Gibbs said.
Like most Cincinnati neighborhoods, Mount Auburn suffered a long decline of population and property values as many residents headed to the suburbs beginning in the 1970s. The 2010 population of 4,904 plunged from 6,516 in 2000.
Many left, but not all. In fact, Gibbs moved to Mount Auburn 23 years ago, and she stayed, drawn by its proximity to Downtown and sweeping views of the city skyline, OTR and beyond.
She thinks the population decline has reversed itself, with more residents coming.
And with $1.2 million city-view homes being built, existing subsidized housing and lots in between, Gibbs said the neighborhood can grow without compromising its diversity.
"It's just going to be proven over time that people see that the agenda is not to kick anybody out," she said. "We have so many pieces of property that are abandoned and vacant (to rehab) before we ever get to places where people are living."
Gibbs led the successful effort to bring residents, businesses and other community leaders together to create the Auburn Avenue Corridor Strategic Development Plan, which Cincinnati officially endorsed on May 3.
Mount Auburn lacks an official business district, which deprives it of the opportunity to access revitalization grants and loans afforded to other neighborhoods.
The plan calls for Auburn Avenue to become the official business district of the neighborhood, with an influx of the businesses that residents clamored for the most: a coffee shop, a deli, a pizza joint, etc.
Gibbs wants to differentiate the Auburn business district from U Square on Calhoun and McMillan bordering University of Cincinnati by utilizing existing historic buildings rather than tearing them down to create larger new ones.
"We're trying to support the city's efforts for redevelopment," Deborah Hayes, Christ COO and vice president told WCPO. "I would love to see this be a vibrant neighborhood that it once was."
Hayes was a steering committee member of the Auburn corridor plan, a reflection of Christ's commitment to support lifting fortunes surrounding the growing hospital complex.
Around 2010, Christ made the strategic decision to not only remain on its main campus despite the population decline of the urban core but also to expand there.
"We felt that it was important to transform our hospital into a campus to better serve the patients both here in the neighborhood and throughout Greater Cincinnati," she said.
Christ opened its Joint and Spine Center in 2015, dramatically expanding Christ's Mount Auburn footprint.
Gibbs said most Christ workers don't have time for a full lunch hour so are stuck either eating inside the hospital or driving for carry-outs near UC, then searching for a new parking space.
She sees an opening for new restaurants, delis and a coffee shop on Auburn to serve workers and visitors to the hospital, as well as new residents and the 30,000 people who visit the Taft House on Auburn as well.
Room to grow
A market analysis that was part of the study found demand for a lot of growth for the Auburn corridor, including:
At least 5,300 square feet of restaurants, bars and coffee shops
2,700-6,000 square feet of other retail
90-122 affordable housing units
Up to 24 market-rate housing units
4,000-8,000 square feet of old homes remade into offices
The growth is already happening in other parts of the neighborhood, including four luxury homes on Pueblo Street valued between $800,000 and $1.2 million.
Viewpoints on the Hill offer new town homes starting at $659,000.
Gibbs wants to lure more high-income homeowners to build new homes on vacant lots on or near Highland Avenue. If they're built, that may entice more young families to buy nearby run-down homes and rehab them, satisfying the need for middle-income residents.
For the long view, there's no one who has seen more ups and downs than Graeter's Ice Cream, whose headquarters was on Reading Road in Mount Auburn from 1934 until opened a new plant in Bond Hill in 2010.
Graeter's still makes its baked goods and candy in Mount Auburn and keeps a retail store open there as well.
President and CEO Richard Graeter said he's witnessed revitalization coming up from the edge of downtown for 20 years, due in part to medical and office parks that John Schneider developed around Dorchester Avenue and Reading Road.
Combined with the new residential growth on the northern end of the neighborhood, he said retail sales have incrementally grown.
"That corridor has been gradually improving for 20 years. It's just coming from the other direction now," Graeter said. "It's certainly getting progressively cleaner, nicer, with old industrial buildings being converted into office buildings."
The combination of stalwarts like Graeter's and Christ Hospital sticking around with the prospect of new residents have leaders bullish.
"We love Mount Auburn," Hayes said. "We think it's a wonderful community. We look forward to being part of its rebirth."
Bob Driehaus covers economic development. Contact him and follow stories on Facebook, Google, and Twitter.