Op-ed: The Mt. Adams landslide is the latest reason to re-examine hillside development policies

Op-ed: The Mt. Adams landslide is the latest reason to re-examine hillside development policies
Posted at 6:00 AM, May 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-27 06:00:32-04

Eric Russo is executive director of The Hillside Trust, a Cincinnati-based not-for-profit that works to protect the region's hillsides. 

The May 3 landslide in Mt. Adams is the most recent of three significant landslides that have impacted the city of Cincinnati and its residents over the last half year.

Eric Russo

From an historical perspective, this landslide is part of bigger story dating to the 1970s. At that time, the Ohio Department of Transportation authorized the excavation of the toe of the Mt. Adams hill for the I-471 access ramps. A catastrophic landslide ensued, resulting in the eventual construction of a $22 million retaining wall in the early 1980s.

Multiple buildings were condemned because of the original landslide, as well as a number of others that were torn down due to the construction of the retaining wall. These buildings were located primarily on Baum and Kilgore streets. The lower side of Kilgore was eliminated for the retaining wall. The vast majority of land between the upper side of Kilgore and the lower side of Baum became dedicated greenspace.

The ’74 landslide led to a major reconstruction of the Mt. Adams hillside.

For years, a number of formerly developed lots between the upper side of Baum Street and the lower side of Oregon Street remained vacant. Although the base of the Mt. Adams hillside had been effectively retained with the massive wall, questions lingered about the feasibility of rebuilding on the hillside.

This began to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s when builders started reconsidering the benefits and costs of doing business in this area again. On the one hand, there are tremendous views and walkable access to downtown, translating into impressive profit potential. On the other hand, there are fundamental engineering questions, involving potentially expensive solutions.

For its part, the city sees this hillside as an attractive location for professionals who want to live close to downtown. In the last decade and a half, more new homes have been returning to the hillside.

So what are the implications of this recent landslide?

I have written before that Cincinnati could do more to tighten its hillside development regulations through its upcoming new zoning code. It could, for example, require a geotechnical engineer to be on site during all phases of earthworks and structural engineering.

In light of this recent landslide, which occurred during the earthworks phase, I think it is also reasonable for the city to require developers to post performance bonds when working in hillside areas. This would compel developers to really consider the merits of their engineering and design solutions, as they would be responsible for addressing any mistakes that may result.

It is important to understand that the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky region is prone to landslides. This is the result of our topography and problematic soils. In addition, we are experiencing an increasing frequency of excessive rainfall episodes. High volumes of stormwater runoff on steep slopes with problematic soils leads to increased landslide susceptibility.

It's time to rethink how we administer the development of our hillsides all across the region. This is not to suggest that hillsides cannot be developed. Rather, it is to acknowledge that more proactive measures need to be undertaken to ensure slope stability and the protection of public and private property along with human safety.