CINCINNATI – Riverside resident David Zelman will be the first to tell you. The Ohio River Trail West, if it's ever built, will be more than just a greenway. Sure, the proposed hiking and biking path – one of more than a dozen projects proposed under a citywide property tax on November's ballot – would better connect West Side neighborhoods like his to Downtown. But it's more akin to a lifeline than anything, he says.
It's a sentiment shared, too, by students at Oyler Community Learning Center, a K-12 school in nearby Lower Price Hill. Juniors Tracey Gray and Toby Crawford say having a trail would allow for a safer trek to Evans field, where kids play baseball, softball and basketball after school. It could be a key training tool for the school's newly formed cross-country team, one of only two fall sports fielded this year. And for an isolated area with little amenities, it's access.
"On the West Side, there are tremendous challenges," said Zelman, who also co-chairs the River West Working Group, a community organization spearheading the trail efforts. "We have a lot of disinvestment, we have a lot of underdevelopment, and probably most importantly, we’re losing population. We have for 60 years; this isn't news. But for the folks living here, this trail is about being able to get to groceries, being able to get to jobs centers, simple stuff like kids knowing they can access the river
"We see an impact that’s way beyond recreation," he said.
A $1 Million Boost
Ohio River Trail West has been a multi-year effort, although studies for a hiking/biking trail along the city's western riverfront corridor date back to the 1960s; Zelman has the maps to prove it. Today's version of the trail includes more than 20 miles – to be built in several phases – starting Downtown and ending with a loop around Shawnee Lookout, near the Indiana border and just inside Interstate 275.
This year, bolstered in part by a more than $1 million federal grant, which Zelman says "put them on the map," Ohio River Trail West was included as one of 16 neighborhood projects in the upcoming Cincinnati Parks tax, or Issue 22, that voters will yea or nay come Nov. 3. The tax overall would raise more than $5 million annually for capital improvements, maintenance, acquisitions and upgrades and provide permanent park support. Initial key initiatives include Wasson Way, a trail that would run through Avondale, Oakley and Hyde Park, the completion of a marina at Smale Riverfront Park and the creation of a 26.2 mile off-road bike trail in Mt. Airy Forest, among others.
Specifically, for the Ohio River Trail West, the tax could mean the bulk of funding necessary for a roughly six-mile stretch of greenway from Downtown to Anderson Ferry, connecting neighborhoods like Riverside, Sedamsville, East Price Hill, Lower Price Hill and Queensgate to the city center.
"When the mayor approached us and said, 'We'd like to put this in the levy,' we thought of it as tremendous opportunity," Zelman said.
"For our more disadvantaged citizens, it's almost impossible to ride a bike from Lower Price Hill to Downtown. And you can see it out your window. It's right there," he added. "The Eighth Street Viaduct has a dedicated bike lane, and that's fantastic, but you wouldn't take kids on that thing. And River Road, there's a sidewalk, but you need a set of pruning sheers to get through. So here we have a community, next to the river, with a population where 50 percent don't own a car,and they can't get Downtown."
Crawford, who, along with Gray, is a member of the school newspaper, The Oyler Griffin, has made that journey Downtown via bike before, or to Newport on the Levee, specifically, to do movie reviews. It meant a lot of twists and turns and asking for directions. He said he would "definitely" use the trail if it were available.
"It's not as bad as it seems" to get Downtown, he said. "But when you're crossing the street and people are acting stupid while driving…they start yelling at you when you're in the right and they're doing something wrong."
"The trail would help us be healthy and would make us feel more safe when we're trying to workout and stuff," Gray added. "If we had the trail, I think me and my friends could easily just go instead of taking the bus."
The River West Working Group has had eyes on the riverfront since 2006-2007, when it helped fight – successfully – a barge terminal project in Lower Price Hill. Since, Zelman and others have proposed Price Landing, a natural riverfront park along the Ohio River to be located in that same spot. A final framework plan has been drafted, and leaders say the park will serve as an important stop along the Ohio River Trail West – not to mention another sign that the West Side is on the rebound.
Zelman says Sedamsville, the smallest of Cincinnati's 52 neighborhoods, boosts a unique, historic charm. Riverside has its views. Queensgate and its Business Alliance continues to promote and recruit new industry. And East Price Hill and Lower Price Hill, in particular, have seen renewed investment.
This summer, for example, more than 200 volunteers built a new playground on Hatmaker Street, right across the street from Oyler school.
And even though BLOC Ministries, which works in a handful under-served communities, closed its neighborhood pizza parlor, BLOC Pizza, after the venture proved unprofitable, it recently cut the ribbon on its BLOC Arts Building at 714 Neave St. There, students and adults can participate in a variety of programs like drawing, photography and drama workshops.
"I think it represents all the positivity and recreation going on here," Gray said. "It's not all bad; there's actually more positivity than there seems. I think it will attract more people. If there's a trail, I think people would come down and ride their bikes or go for a nice little walk or something."
Neither Gray nor Crawford can vote. And opponents of the tax have been increasingly vocal. Some of the selected projects, they say, exploit the parks and open them up for development. The city has greater priorities. Others are wary because the tax would be permanently written into the city charter. It would cost homeowners more: roughly $35 a year on a $100,000 home.
"A major criticism is, 'How were these projects chosen?'" Zelman said. "We were not involved in that, but looking across the board, there was a lot of thought into distribution economically, demographically, geographically. When you look at neighborhoods like ours on the West Side, we're not talking about a bunch of wealthy voters who are banging down the doors of City Hall. We have serve a lower population than a Wasson Way, but we're serving a different purpose. That biking (trail) is a lifeline."
If one-mill tax doesn't pass, Zelman says they'll still move forward, albeit building smaller pieces of trail over a longer period of time. But he said the benefit for the community doesn't change.
"I think the trail would be very useful," said Sandra Smythe, a volunteer at Oyler. "This is a pretty isolated area. And it's hard; there are not many services or businesses open here. Anything that would open up this community would be a benefit."