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Will gentrification keep climbing up Over-the-Rhine's Vine Street?

“There's been a ton of tremendous development around the Findlay Market area...so it's getting there."
Vine Street
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-08 17:02:54-04

CINCINNATI — 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.

Vine Street, mere steps away from the site of Timothy Thomas’s fatal shooting in 2001, is a central location that tells a tale of two Cincinnatis.

South of its intersection with Liberty Street, Vine is almost completely gentrified with an array of shops, restaurants and new housing options for the area’s newer, affluent residents to enjoy. However, north of the intersection, Vine is home to a stretch of vacant, dilapidated buildings and illicit activity that have plagued the area long before Thomas’s death.

"Kind of reminds you of what we used to have down here,” said Steve Leeper, the president and CEO of 3CDC.

The problems of the past haven't all been resolved.

“A lot of the behaviors in this area have continued for years,” said Alisa Berry, executive director of Cornerstone Renters Equity, “with the kind of the hanging out and the loitering and some of the criminal behaviors.”

The gentrification that took place on Vine south of Liberty can be explained as an attempt toward social reform triggered by Thomas’s killing. However, experts WCPO spoke with shared a number of reasons as to why Northern Vine has remained in its distressed state despite the area’s transformations nearby.

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This scene from the 2001 unrest sparked by Timothy Thomas's death took place at 12th and Vine Street.

Anthony Palazzolo, a retail specialist of the Onsite Retail Group, said developers are gradually revitalizing Downtown and Over-the-Rhine in pockets because of limited financing and manpower. These pockets of development attract crowds who will shop, live and work in the area, then give developers leverage and momentum to expand into untapped parts of the neighborhood. Because of this, experts say it is only a matter of time before the northern section of Vine Street is redeveloped just like other parts of Over-the-Rhine.

“There's been a ton of tremendous development around the Findlay Market area as well, and you're seeing that start to creep over east to Vine Street as well. So it's getting there,” Palazzolo said.

Andy Hutzel, the director of resident services at Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, also explained that rehabilitating old buildings that dominate OTR comes at a hefty price. That hefty expense is another roadblock for developers trying to forge projects in the neighborhood.

“The cost to build and renovate these historic buildings is pretty significant,” Hutzel said. “And so, for groups like us trying to develop, you know, we have to get multiple layers of funding to pull something like that off.”

CEO of the Model Group Bobby Maly explained further that crime and the vast number of vacant, dilapidated buildings dominating the large neighborhood overwhelmed developers.

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This scene from the 2001 unrest took place at approximately 1329 Vine Street near 14th Street.

“There were huge challenges geographically and huge number of properties to address. And you can't do them all at once. And I think a lot of the efforts that failed in the past were disconnected,” Maly said. “And so when you have a project that scattered throughout, and then surrounded by other blight, it doesn't have the same impact that you see, with things that start at 12th and Vine, where you have one project that's adjacent to another project. And now one plus one can equal more than two.”

Experts project that the urban core’s rapid development in recent decades likely will not slow down as it moves into the northern portion of Over-the-Rhine. Last month, local stakeholders began meeting with 3CDC as a steering committee to forge plans to revitalize Findlay Playground, along with a number of other amenities nearby Vine Street.

“I think the goal would be to finish up the work that we're doing here south of Liberty. We only have a few things left here,” Leeper said. “And then focus on north of Liberty and a comprehensive [project], both in terms of comprehensive uses: recreational, commercial, office, residential. But also looking at making sure that there's a great mix from an income standpoint, as well.”

3CDC is also working with the Model Group on Willkommen, a project reconstructing historic properties around Vine and Liberty Streets to widen access to affordable housing. Expanding access to affordable housing is a key concern for local residents.

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This scene took place nearby Vine Street at approximately 1630 Race Street.

Maurice Wagoner, who passes through Vine Street every day, says longtime, vulnerable residents are disheartened to see how they have been left out of much of Over-the-Rhine’s transformation. Unlike real estate experts, Wagoner says much of the neighborhood north of Liberty has been neglected up until this point because it has a significant Black population. He also says that redevelopment and revitalization were the wrong approach for social reform.

“We still have the problems. We still got record number shootings and killings in our city. And they have not been addressed.”

Wagoner says vulnerable residents are hungrier for amenities like laundromats, social spaces, and food establishments that they can afford. More than that, he says these residents are afraid of being displaced, and that investing in affordable housing will be key to protecting vulnerable residents like those living on or near northern Vine from the drastic changes to come. To him, passing an amendment to invest $50 million into the city’s affordable housing fund is the way to offer that protection.

“It's good for the city that we have mixed income, diversity housing in our community so that African Americans can be a part of this revitalization.”

Officials at 3CDC and the Model Group refrained from giving a specific time frame as to when Northern Vine could be flipped. However, residents at OnSite Retail Group suggested that Over-The-Rhine could see its next transformative stage of gentrification within the decade.

PODCAST: 'That could've been my family ... that could've been me': Timothy Thomas' death still aches Listen to the full conversation in the podcast player above.

Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.

If there are stories about gentrification in the greater Cincinnati area that you think we should cover, let us know. Send us your tips at moveupcincinnati@wcpo.com.