Twenty years ago, in the early morning hours of April 7, 2001, Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach shot and killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in an Over-the-Rhine alley. Thomas was the 15th Black man killed by police since 1995, and his death sparked days of unrest that highlighted a deep divide between Cincinnati’s Black community and the police. That mistrust, along with lawsuits accusing the department of a decades-long history of racial profiling, helped shape the Collaborative Agreement. We hope our coverage online, on air and on all streaming platforms will start a conversation about what led to the unrest, what has happened since and what work still needs to be done.
CINCINNATI - The next big thing in Over the Rhine is shaping up to be a lot like the first big thing the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. accomplished in the neighborhood: a civic space, re-imagined in a way that makes city leaders gloat and 3CDC critics glower.
“We have this romantic view and we are going to reach for it,” said Steve Leeper, CEO of the 17-year-old nonprofit that won city council’s blessing in October to “oversee design and development of recreation improvements in and around Findlay Park.”
That assignment came almost 10 years to the day after council approved five separate agreements to enable the $48 million renovation of Washington Park, an 8-acre green space that includes an underground parking garage east of Music Hall.
Like Washington Park, completed in 2012, and the $32 million rehab of Ziegler Park, finished in 2017, the Findlay project is intended to be a catalyst for new investments in the city blocks around it.
“We were uniquely positioned that we had all of these civic spaces in a neighborhood. We didn’t utilize them in the past. We had an opportunity to change that,” Leeper said. “They’ve become a melting pot and bring the community together.”
Urban renaissance or gentrification?
WCPO 9 has been studying 3CDC’s impact on Over-the-Rhine as part of our team coverage marking the 20th anniversary of the police shooting death of Timothy Thomas. The wave of civil unrest that followed the shooting led to major Cincinnati reforms in law enforcement, economic development and education. Nowhere is that change more evident than in the work of 3CDC, which sparked $1.6 billion in real estate investments in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine since its 2003 inception. Much of that investment was concentrated within a 10-minute walk of Washington Park.
“Fortunately we had a business community, we had Procter and Macy’s and Kroger, we had all these companies stand up with City Hall and make a commitment to do something about that neighborhood and the results are still paying off today,” Former Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken told WCPO 9 Anchor Tanya O’Rourke. “Over-the-Rhine went from the highest crime neighborhoods in America to now they write stories about it in national publications about what a great urban environment it is. That does my heart good.”
But it also brought heartache to low-income residents forced out of the neighborhood by rising rents and the relocation of social service providers like the Drop Inn Shelter and City Gospel Mission.
“Around Washington Park at least 50% of Black people that were there a decade before are no longer there,” said Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition. “What we’ve done as a city over the last more than a decade and a half in Over-the-Rhine is the very definition of gentrification.”
There is data to support that view.
Census stats show OTR had 7,638 people in 2000, 77% of them African-American and 19% white. In 2019, the demographic tracker, statisticalatlas.com, estimated OTR’s population at 6,697, 49% Black and 40% white. Based on these numbers, OTR’s white population increased 83% over 19 years, while the number of African-American residents declined 44%.
A 2015 study by Xavier University’s Community Building Institute showed Over-the-Rhine lost more than 2,300 housing units since 2002 that were affordable to the neighborhood’s poorest residents: people who made 30% or less of Cincinnati’s Area Median Income.
But 3CDC also has numbers showing it replenished affordable units in OTR. In the last five years, 3CDC has directly developed or assisted in the creation of 445 affordable units. That brings the total number of affordable units in OTR to 1,367, according to 3CDC’s “inventory of affordable housing” provided to WCPO.
“Much of our early work was related to developing condos to increase the market-rate housing in the area, as well as encouraging more home ownership,” 3CDC Spokesman Joe Rudemiller said. “In recent years, we’ve been able to shift our focus to creating more affordable housing.”
One key difference between 3CDC’s numbers and those compiled by Xavier is that 3CDC counts units affordable to those who make up to 80% of Area Median Income, as opposed to 30% in the Xavier study.
“We believe it is critical to provide a wide variety of housing options, so there are different levels of affordability that cater to the jobless, the working poor, as well as workforce housing for those who wouldn’t be classified as poor but still can’t afford market-rate housing,” Rudemiller said.
View from 13th Street
Thus, the Over-the-Rhine of 2021 is a far different place than the neighborhood Timothy Thomas inhabited. Consider the last steps Thomas took, while running from police. If it happened today, the chase would have taken him past Venice on Vine, the Lackman and three upscale clothing stores, Kismet, Homage and Idlewild, not to mention condo units now being offered at $190,000 to $469,000.
“A lot of the minority community in general cannot afford to live down here," said Music Producer Kick Lee, founder of the OTR-based Cincinnati Music Accelerator. "That’s just how it was built, unfortunately.”
Lee has generational ties to Over-the-Rhine. It’s where his mother lived while Lee was raised in foster homes. He recalls taking the bus Downtown and walking to Washington Park to visit his mom, who suffered from mental illness and lived in supportive housing owned by the nonprofit Tender Mercies Inc. Lee said the trips made him nervous, especially during Cincinnati’s year of civil unrest, when Lee was 13, six years younger than Timothy Thomas.
“Visiting her, coming down here, it was not safe,” Lee said. “But unbeknownst to me, folks already knew me because they knew my mom. And they would say, ‘That’s Wilma’s son. He’s OK. Don’t worry about him. Look out for him.’”
The experience left Lee with a strong affinity for the neighborhood, which 3CDC deepened by helping Lee’s music accelerator grow. The 3-year-old nonprofit aims to help musicians make a living in Cincinnati by helping them find work and manage their money. 3CDC helped by signing Lee as a tenant and partnering with him on the Street Stage Project.
“We position the musicians around different communities to enliven those neighborhoods,” Lee said. “We compensate the musicians for that time. They get to keep their tips. It builds better awareness and gets them from being so nervous in big crowds.”
The Cincinnati Music Accelerator occupies retail space at 33 E. 13th Street, two blocks from where Thomas was shot and three blocks from Washington Park. Lee calls it a perfect location to be close to his “primary partners,” including 3CDC, Artswave and the Haile Foundation.
“We’re literally right in the center of them,” he said. “Our HQ is a prime location to be more in the know of how we can help and what the problem is.”
When it came time to hunt for housing, Lee looked in OTR but chose Walnut Hills.
“I could have moved to Over-the-Rhine. But I’m already super-embedded in it,” he said. “And I’ll be honest. For what I saw, I was like, ‘I’m not paying that.’”
Another view from 13th Street
Walking west on 13th, past the alley where Thomas was shot, Leeper pointed to improvements made by his nonprofit while emphasizing the diversity that remains.
“The idea was not to make this all a homogenous neighborhood,” he said. “And if you look around here, it’s anything but.”
Leeper said the 30 blocks that served as 3CDC’s original focus area has more than 800 units of affordable housing with restrictive covenants tied to the property to ensure they’ll stay available to low-income residents.
Business diversity is also on the rise. Gone are the corner liquor stores and vacant storefronts that once dominated the Vine Street landscape. In its place are local tenants that 3CDC patiently curated to build a retail district with regional drawing power.
“About 20% of our street-level retail is owned by African American-owned businesses. About 35% is owned by female-owned businesses,” Leeper said. “It’s a good mix. And there are some very interesting establishments that I think are attracting people's interest, because they want to support them.”
In February, the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce documented a 64% increase in Black-owned retail storefronts since 2018, boosting the neighborhood’s total to 41. Beyond retail, the chamber said OTR has 72 minority-owned businesses. That’s up 72% from 2018 and it represents 15% of the 487 companies now located in Over-the-Rhine.
And then there’s Washington Park. As he approaches the public green space built by the city in the 1860s, Leeper reflects on the roughly seven years it took to complete what is arguably 3CDC’s most important project. Leeper things it helped to demystify his organization 3CDC and convinced many of its critics that its strategy was sound.
“It is clearly the most democratic space in the city, particularly in the summertime when the water feature is on and kids are all out there,” Leeper said. “It’s just, it’s a great feel.”
But it was a nightmare to put together, requiring 3CDC to solve the relocation dilemmas of two schools, two homeless shelters and two graveyards while navigating the murky waters of a private company that assumed many of the planning and financing functions that were the city’s domain before 2001.
“This civic space is really both a neighborhood amenity, but it services the entire region,” Leeper said. “The number of people that come down here to enjoy the park, either before an event at Music Hall or see some entertainment, whether it's Friday Flow or the R & B Series or Shakespeare in the Park, whatever the case may be. It has become just really a melting pot.”
That’s also how Leeper sees Ziegler Park, a 4.5 acre greenspace that straddles the border of Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton.
“In 2019, we had 42,000 swimmers in that pool and that’s an integrated pool,” Leeper said. “Last year during COVID we had 250 kids taking swim lessons. People say, ‘Kids aren't swimming anymore, particularly in African-American communities.’ It’s just because they don't have the right opportunities.”
And that’s what Leeper hopes to achieve in 3CDC’s next big park challenge. In his first public comments since council endorsed 3CDC as Findlay Park’s development manager, Leeper said a design team is being finalized and a steering committee has been formed with “20 or so” city and neighborhood representatives.
“We're going to do our best to give them additional opportunities (and) take what is in many instances, a blighted area and turn it into something special,” Leeper said. The new “state of the art community center could have daycare, childcare, could have after school programs, could have late night activities for kids to give them options for things doing on the street, athletic fields, maybe another Aquatic Center (like Ziegler Park). And it could be intergenerational. It could have some senior component to it.”
As WCPO 9 has previously reported, Findlay Playground closed for nearly two years starting in 2018 due to concerns about drugs and violence in the park. Initially, the Cincinnati Recreation Commission planned to renovate the playground and hire a third party to organize special events and recreational programs.
But that changed last fall, when Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley proposed hiring 3CDC to lead the project. Council unanimously endorsed the idea Oct. 14, with an expanded scope to include not only the playground at 1813 Vine Street, but Over-the-Rhine’s Recreation Center at 1814 Republic Street, Grant Park at 73 E. McMicken Ave. and a pocket park on Elm Street north of Findlay Market.
Leeper’s critics, including the homeless coalition’s Josh Spring, are skeptical of the approach.
“Regardless of any intention, 3CDC has less reason to ensure that everybody is a part of something than the local government does,” Spring said. “A private organization doesn’t have to do that.”
Leeper said it’s a chance to remake the northern half of Over-the-Rhine with mixed-income housing and an inclusive slate of civic improvements.
“It would be a nice northern bookend that we can then build back from,” Leeper said. “If you walk up Vine Street between McMicken and Liberty, it kind of reminds you what we used to have down here (near Washington Park). We need to do some work there.”
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