CINCINNATI – Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood has been transformed from slums into gems. Mostly.
But there’s a stretch of the neighborhood that may be transforming next. And tireless advocates have just won their first big battle to ensure that when developers set their sights there, they’ll honor the character of some prized architecture.
Preservationists and entrepreneurs successfully petitioned Cincinnati’s Historic Conservation Board this week to recommend that a new local conservation district be declared for a small stretch that includes a 19th century brewery and a Vaudeville theater.
My eyes are starting to glaze. What does that mean?
A few blocks bounded by West McMicken and Manchester avenues, Mohawk and Dunlap streets are full of rundown gems. Right now, a property owner who wants to tear down a building or radically remodel is free to do just that as long as he or she doesn’t ask for tax credits to do it.
The new local historic district would stop owners from making big changes to the architecture and, potentially, stripping the area of the kind of character that has made much of Over-the-Rhine one of the hottest neighborhoods in the Midwest.
“These guidelines are intended to make both preservation and development easier," Mike Morgan, a real estate attorney and OTR advocate, said. "And the two things are not at odds.”
Morgan has been working on the designation since 2012. It’s taken this long, in part, because he and colleagues have labored to take the vague instructions out of other historic districts and make guidelines for preservation and redevelopment clear to anybody wanting to invest in the neighborhood.
Older local preservation districts had vague language, he said.
“They use a lot of should, can, may language," Morgan said. "That has resulted in an extraordinary amount of inconsistent rulings (on proposed rehab or demolition) over the years. That’s bad for everybody.”
“We tried to make approval easier,” he said. “It’s not easy to do the wrong thing, but it’s easier to understand what you can and cannot do.”
Two prized properties
The area includes one of the most intact brewing complexes from Cincinnati’s storied brewing tradition, the Hamilton Brewery built in 1845 and expanded upon repeatedly.
It grew and changed names to Sohn Brewing, Clyffside Brewing and Mohawk Brewing, continuously brewing one beer or another from 1845 through the 1950s.
A colorful side note: According to Steven Hampton, president of the Brewery District redevelopment corporation, the brewery kept on secretly producing alcoholic beer through prohibition until federal agents raided it and chased fleeing beer trucks with gunfire.
Just down West McMicken, the 104-year-old Imperial Theater lay in disrepair but remains largely intact. The theater was built for performances on the Vaudeville circuit, then modified to become a movie theater.
“At heart what we’re doing is utilizing the assets that we already have,” Hampton said. “These buildings were built generations ago. It’s something that’s already here that we can’t recreate.”
A few blocks south of the proposed district, the Findlay Market area is thriving with restorations, many completed by Model Group.
Bobby Maly, a Model principal, doesn’t know details about the proposed new district but welcomed the attempt to make the rules clear.
“Clarity is a great thing,” Maly said. “The question is how restrictive the new restrictions are and whether they will create an additional economic burden. If they are not more restrictive than (federal preservation) guidelines and are more clear, generally that is a great thing.”
Long but promising road ahead
Now that the conservation board has recommended the district be created, the city planning commission will consider the proposal. And after the planning commission, the City Council decides.
Morgan said the fight is worth it.
"The designation is going to be important. This is one of the most intact sections of OTR. I think it’s really important for the long-term property value,” he said.