CINCINNATI — Long-anticipated demolition work began Monday on the blighted Millennium Hotel at Fifth and Elm streets, making way for what will be another improvement in downtown Cincinnati's ongoing facelift.
The former hotel closed in 2019 with plans to bring down the aging building last year, but work was delayed, in part, by COVID-19. While specifics of the building that will replace it remain unclear, here's what is clear: If the pandemic has kept you away from Downtown for the last year, you might not recognize it when you return.
"Everything's under construction right now by design," said Mayor John Cranley in an interview with WCPO. "Because of remote work, we've taken advantage of this to dramatically expand outdoor dining. Sidewalks are doubling all across Downtown. We're closing down streets to make permanent entertainment districts at The Banks and Over-the-Rhine."
The outgoing mayor has spent much of the last twenty years at City Hall working to attract big development contracts to the city. He said he anticipates this year's will be a "summer of Cincinnati love" as the pandemic begins to wind down.
"When people come back for the summer, vaccinated and safe, for Reds games, [FC Cincinnati's] new stadium, they're going to be just blown away by the vibrancy," he said.
Walking tour of a new Downtown
Walk one block west from the old Millennium to Race Street, and even a short stroll will showcase multiple ongoing Downtown development projects: The former home of apparel retailer McHahns at the corner of Race and Seventh streets is being renovated into a Towneplace Suites hotel, and the Kinley Hotel -- home of the acclaimed restaurant, Khora -- opened last year just across the street.
Walk a few blocks south and you'll find Fountain Place, the former home of Downtown's Macy's department store and soon to become The Foundry, which will house a mix of office space and street-level retail space. Once the project is completed, the Skywalk that spanned over Fifth Street will be gone, and sidewalks will have expanded along Fifth, Vine and Race streets.
Continue further toward the river, and you'll find the long-anticipated Fourth and Race development near its final form, where there will be more than 260 apartments and a public parking garage with nearly 600 spaces.
Before continuing down toward The Banks, be sure to look left down Fourth Street corridor, which is seeing its own renaissance lately.
Take Race all the way to The Banks, and you'll find the Andrew J. Brady ICON Music Center, one of two venues that soon will open along the urban core's riverbanks.
The new apartments and hotel rooms are just the beginning, according to retail and real estate experts, especially as companies that once rented Downtown office space might reconsider their leases now that the pandemic has shown just how real a possibility remote working can be for so many businesses.
"I think what we'll see is office buildings being repurposed as either apartments, condos or even hotels," said Josh Rothstein with OnSite Retail Group. "So the strong office buildings will stay strong and all the other stuff, instead of sitting there and collecting dust, will be repurposed and continue to trend that we see Downtown of collecting density."
One example of this can be found at Seventh and Vine streets, where the former Provident Bank and office building has transformed into apartments as The Provident. Three blocks away, at Fourth and Vine, PNC Tower will be restored and repurposed into residences, too.
That's not to say, though, that office vacancy is on the rise during the pandemic. According to CBRE Research, Downtown's vacany rate remained steady at just above 14% throughout 2020.
Push for convention hotel
While momentum seems to be building toward more people moving to Downtown, there also is a push for getting more people to visit. That's why replacing the Millennium Hotel -- which sits directly opposite the region's largest convention hall, the Duke Energy Center -- with a new facility with more meeting space is such a critical project, according to Julie Calvert, president and CEO of Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"The standard is 10,000 square feet of space for every 100 rooms," Calvert told WCPO 9, pointing out that the Millennium Hotel had about that much space but for nearly 900 rooms. For an 800-room hotel, 80,000 square feet of meeting space would make Cincinnati "very competitive" for attracting meetings and conventions, Calvert said.
Watch WCPO 9 News anchor Evan Millward's live conversation with Calvert in the viewer below:
"That really puts us right on par with Columbus, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh," she said. "It will open us up to all sorts of different meetings of different sizes. We could host multiple meetings at a time either here or at the Duke Energy Convention Center, at different hotels, so it's a game-changer for Cincinnati. That's for sure."
Calvert estimated a new convention hotel would bring an additional $18 million in economic activity to the central business district each year.
Rising tides lift all boats... and costs of living
But the new developments do come with a cost: namely, swelling rental rates. According to the real estate marketplace, Zumper, the average cost to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Downtown is $1,445 per month; the average for a two-bedroom is $2,095. That's high -- especially for two-bedrooms -- when compared to similar apartments in downtown Indianapolis and downtown Columbus.
The city's need for affordable housing has never been greater, according to advocates with the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, who have successfully petitioned city voters to place an initiative on November's ballot that would establish a $50 million annual affordable housing trust fund.
"It's about Cincinnatians using our tax dollars, that we pay in, to benefit Cincinnatians in our neighborhoods," said Joshua Spring, the coalition's executive director.
Lann Field heads up development for the Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation, also known as 3CDC. She said the group is working to bring a mix of market-rate and affordable housing units to its work throughout Downtown and neighboring Over-the-Rhine.
"I think it's important that we provide a wide range of housing options for all different income levels, but there has to be also acknowledgment of the challenges of doing that and the realities of the cost of development and things like that," she said.
It's a feather Cranley has pinned to his cap.
"All of our solutions get easier if we continue to grow jobs and people in the city," he told WCPO. "Bottom line is, you're growing or you're dying. For 70 years, the city was essentially dying in the sense that it was losing population and jobs. Now it's rising again."