Oakley's balancing act: Embracing growth while managing challenges it brings

Community Council, planners to formulate plan
Hustling, bustling and managing growth
Posted at 7:00 AM, Nov 06, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-11 09:06:53-05

CINCINNATI -- Busy and bustling already, Oakley is trying to prepare for even more growth.

The Oakley Community Council and Cincinnati planners are about to start work on a new neighborhood plan that will guide development and community decision-making. The kick-off meeting is 6:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Oakley Recreation Center.

"People talk about development in Oakley, the development that has happened. You can see that," said Community Council member Evan Nolan. "I think the real question is: How do we manage the development that's coming?"

The growth in Oakley is easy to see.

At the north end of the community, the big developments of Oakley Station and Center of Cincinnati are home to a massive Kroger store, Cinemark, Meijer, Target and chains such as Raising Cane's and Olive Garden. Anthem relocated to Oakley Station, where a public parking garage is being built, while down in the established business district at the south end of the neighborhood, new local shops, including MetaModern Music and Ombre Gallery, have opened.

And then there's MadTree 2.0.

Since February, when MadTree opened its $18 million production facility and taproom on Madison, just north of the railroad tracks, the growth has been even more visible.

Pedestrians arrive at the brewery with kids and dogs in tow from the south-end businesses such as Aglamesis Brothers and Deeper Roots Coffee and the established residential areas of Oakley. People also walk over from new apartments around Oakley Station. The public parking lot behind the building is full more often than not, and it's not uncommon to see someone dash across Madison.

Being a community hub always was the intention, MadTree co-founder Kenny McNutt said. He and his partners have lived in Oakley for years -- McNutt serves on the Community Council -- and community is part of the brewer's mission.

"It's fun to see the number of pedestrians out," McNutt said. "This is perfect. It's an anchor that truly draws people up the district."

JC Connor, MetaModern Music owner, said he chose to open his record store in Oakley because of the concentration of young professionals in the neighborhood, many of them MadTree regulars.

Ombre Gallery owner Jenna Shaifer bought a home in Oakley because of its vibrancy and walkability. She opened her contemporary art jewelry gallery on Allston Street earlier this year for the same reasons.

To take advantage of the increased pedestrian traffic, Ombre and other businesses restarted the Oakley Art Walk this fall. The next one is Nov. 9

"There's always the question of main street business and how are we going to support that," Shaifer said. "We wanted to remind people that there's shopping here, too. You can eat, drink and shop in Oakley."

With so much happening in Oakley, what might not be as visible is the amount of property still waiting to be developed.

Community Council members estimate there are about 50 acres ripe for development in the neighborhood. The city is seeking development proposals now on a 4.2-acre site on Ibsen Avenue. Large properties in Oakley, including the former Milacron plant, have been floated as potential sites for an FC Cincinnati stadium. Residents have watched proposals for the former Fifth Third bank property on Madison closely, and council members are meeting with developers interested in property along Robertson Avenue.

"We've got to be very conscientious looking at these projects," McNutt said.

Growth can be a positive thing, increasing property values, building business, giving people more places to go and things to do. MadTree, while it boosts other businesses' foot traffic, also is benefiting from the boom.

"It makes Oakley more of a destination instead of a random off-ramp off (Interstate) 71," said Mike Stuart, MadTree director of people and social strategy. "The overall expansion has definitely helped us."

But growth can cause problems, too.

J.C. Connor wanted to open a Cincinnati record shop with a San Francisco '60s-'70s kind of vibe, so he launched MetaModern Music in Oakley. (WCPO file photo)

As anyone who has tried to snag a parking spot around Sleepy Bee on a Sunday morning knows, parking already is at a premium in Oakley. Community Council members and business owners all said they were concerned about finding ways to meet both parking and pedestrian needs. A plan for improved pedestrian bridges across Madison is in the works.

And increasing property values can price people out of a community, as Casey Gries, who lived in Oakley for four years, recently discovered.

Oakley always has been a part of Gries’ life. Her dad once was a bartender at Habits. She grew up going to Aglamesis for ice cream and goes there still with her husband.

"The neighborhood has stayed the same in that there's always been so much going on, so much to do, but it's nice because there are these new places, too," Gries said. "It still is Oakley."

Gries is the education director for Visionaries + Voices, and when the arts nonprofit decided to expand with a retail shop and art studio, she was excited to find a home for it in the neighborhood. The Visionarium is taking over the space that was home to Blue Manatee Children's Bookstore.

But when Gries and her husband went to buy their first home, they found the prices were too high. They ended up buying a house in Pleasant Ridge.

"I thought, 'I've been gentrified out of my own neighborhood!' " Gries said. "I hope this neighborhood is able to maintain the population that has made it what it is."

Arts nonprofit Visionaries + Voices is expanding with a retail shop and art studio in Oakley. Called The Visionarium, it is taking over the space that was home to Blue Manatee Children's Bookstore. (Photo provided)

Voluntary Tax Incentive Contribution Agreement, or VTICA, payments, made possible by recent legislation, will go toward affordable housing in neighborhoods, said Greg Huth, interim director of the city's Department of Community and Economic Development. Those funds could be used to address that need and ensure a mix of housing in the neighborhood.

First, Oakley will come together to create a comprehensive plan. The challenge, Nolan said, will be allowing for inevitable growth while maintaining the character and positive attributes that drew people to Oakley in the first place.

"It's nice," Nolan said. "You have a walkable community, and on the occasion you need to get in the car and make a quick trip to the grocery or Target, you can do that, too."