OTR kids speak out to save basketball courts

Posted at 12:47 PM, Sep 24, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-24 12:47:20-04

CINCINNATI – For Kiki Harris, it's more than just a safe place to play. It's a place to meet friends and catch up on the day. It's a place to socialize, a place with plenty of space to run free, the way every 12-year-old should be.

To the outside world, that place, located on the fringe of Over-the-Rhine in Mount Auburn, may just be a series of six basketball courts, but "these basketball courts," she says, "mean a lot to me."

A proposed residential development at East Clifton Avenue and Main Street – where those courts now sit – could change that forever. So Harris and several of her peers are fighting back. It's a fight that landed on the doorstep of City Hall this week and is the latest in a battle over what the future of OTR should be. 

At the center is NorthPointe, a real estate investment group that wants to build Rothenberg Row: 21 single-family homes on a 76,000-square-foot plot currently owned by the city of Cincinnati. The structures are expected to be priced at $400,000 and above.

Among its positives, the project would bolster homeownership in the area, which is one of the reasons both Over-the-Rhine and Mount Auburn community councils voted to support it earlier this year. But tension has lingered largely over the fact that it would raze the six basketball courts used by children living on surrounding blocks. And community advocates are pushing for the project to include at least some element of affordable housing.

That message rang loud and clear at City Hall this week. Leaders with groups like Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, Peaslee Neighborhood Center and Rothenberg Preparatory Academy, where most of the children attend school, say they've been unable to work with the developer to save the play space and add a wider range of price points to the proposal. NorthPointe has said it would transform a vacant building on the plot into eight workforce housing units, but Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, said those one-bedroom apartments would be priced at $900.

"Nine hundred dollars a month is not affordable," Spring told WCPO. "The city owns this. That means the city owns the leverage in any sort of transfer of property, and we believe it would be a wonderful opportunity to say to the proposed purchaser, 'If you want this property, it comes with some conditions.'

"Another interesting exercise," Spring added, "if you ask folks who have lived in Over-the-Rhine for awhile, specifically south of Liberty Street, they say one of the biggest changes they've noticed is that there are now less children. You see less children playing on the sidewalks, you hear less children laughing or crying. And it's because of changes like this, that this developer is proposing. We still have a lot of children in this part of the neighborhood that we're discussing. It's just another way to look at it. Do we want our children here or not?"

Many of those children spoke out at City Hall this week. In particular, a group of 10 kids ages 10-14 years old, participants in a Peaslee Neighborhood Center summer program called "Agents of Change," presented a short stop-motion animated video in which they discussed how private development has affected them. Cincinnati Vice Mayor David Mann called it a "powerful" tribute. xxxx

"We don't want to live in a world where money is everything," says one kid in the video. "We think everyone deserves a place to play," and "the right to feel welcome," says another.

The children also presented 560 signature postcards collected from neighbors opposed to the development. Tied together with string, they stretched the width of council chambers. Lastly, a petition garnered 439 of its needed 500 supporters as of Wednesday morning.

"We don’t need to use city-leveraged subsidy to encourage people to develop in Over-the-Rhine anymore. That is over," Jen Summers, executive director of the Peaslee Center, said. "People are dying to come here and develop, so we should use that leverage to do the things we're missing in our community and that the market can't."

City leaders, Mann and three other council members that make up the neighborhoods committee, which heard the presentation, didn't offer up any particular resolution but were hopeful that all interested parties could sit down in the near future for a full follow-up; both Kevin Flynn and Yvette Simpson said they've had "early" conversations with the developer. A NorthPointe representative, meanwhile, was out of town and didn't provide further comment.

"I think the developer would want to take this into consideration," Flynn said.

Mary Burke Rivers, director of Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, is looking forward to the opportunity. She presented several statistics supporting the need for more affordable options; in Hamilton County, she said, 121,000 households qualify for the approximately 26,000 assisted housing units available. In Ohio's First Congressional District, 25 percent spend more than 50 percent of their income each month on rent. Any number over 30 percent is considered "rent poor."

"The need far exceeds supply," Rivers said. "As a city, it needs to hold its developers accountable to do things differently going forward so all of us can be a part of this (area's) energy. There's an opportunity here to use a city asset and encourage inclusive development."