The Mystery of Lytle Park

It wasn’t long after we moved into our condo that I noticed a strange, nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach about our new neighborhood.  Part of the reason we picked the location was because it was quiet, but Lytle Park seemed too quiet, especially for an urban setting.  Everything was very clean and safe, but nobody ever went in or out of a lot of the historic buildings on the perimeter of the park because they were empty.

When the Taft Museum asked School Amici, my husband’s Italian language school, to create an event to complement their exhibit of Italian landscapes, it seemed like the perfect excuse to do a little sleuthing.  I ran across the park to the Eagle Reality offices in the old Guilford School and asked who to talk to about using their empty space for Cincinnati Dreams Italy, a show of local artists working with Italian themes.

Now why in the world would a big corporation like Western & Southern ever agree to give a perfect stranger the use of their buildings for free?  Well, with a name like San Marco, Mario’s long-time secretary thought the president of the real estate division would have an interest in the tie to his roots.  Besides, we were right in the middle of that public relations nightmare over the Anna Louise Inn – and I suggested a classy neighborhood event might bring everybody together and change the tone in the press.

There were several times I was sure Mario was going to throw us out of his buildings.  I’d insisted that the Anna Louise Inn be included and he’d call me complaining about finding their pamphlets in his buildings.  “It’s disingenuous,” he said in his sternest, most authoritative voice – and I could see his point as Western & Southern was doing everything possible to derail the renovation of their property in the courts.

But Mario stuck with me.  In fact, he did more than that.  He gave me the use of his maintenance staff and they moved rooms of furniture to storage for us, installed 2’-4’s at ceiling height to facilitate the hanging of paintings on the old tile walls of the Police Station on Broadway, power-washed sidewalks and put in fresh plantings. Western & Southern contributed $2,000 to the $6,000 bocce court I talked the Park Department into installing in the park, then bought a roller to help maintain it.   They loaned me their public relations staff and printed all our promotional materials for free.  One of the busiest, most powerful business executives in Cincinnati stopped what he was doing to personally line-item edit my slap-dash schedule of events.  (Never try to put on an art show with over fifty different artists in 3 different buildings in less than two months.)  “We want to make sure this is as good as it can be,” he told me.  Mario and his wife, Kathy, even attended the opening.  Nobody could have been kinder or more generous of spirit.

Even so, I never figured out why the buildings were empty – and why Western & Southern very clearly wanted to keep them that way.  After more than twenty-years in sales, I’m pretty good at getting people to open up, but Mario was even better at keeping secrets.  “You’ll hear about it someday,” he’d answer coyly when I asked about their plans for the area.

On Monday, March 18, 2014 everything suddenly came into focus.  As property owners, my husband and I got a notice from the City of Cincinnati Department of Planning & Building for a public hearing on the redesignation of the Lytle Park Historic District.  Until we opened the envelope we assumed it was permanent.  Our notice said that Historic Conservation would recommend the District be redesignated  without change and included a map that showed the same thing, but when Larry Harris, Urban Conservator for the City of Cincinnati, flashed the slide of their proposal on the screen, the boundaries had been re-drawn with over a third of the property removed from protection.  Staff tried to minimize it, calling the impacted buildings “non-contributing.”  But to the standing room only crowd of property owners in the room who were hearing about this for the first time, we understood very clearly what the new map implied.

Now it all made sense.  The empty buildings.  The ugly broo-haha  over the Anna Louise Inn.  We might not have known that the Historic District had an expiration date, but Western & Southern obviously did and they had been patiently waiting for this moment for a very, very long time.  They had big plans and that’s why they were willing to endure years of vilification in the community.  A  non-profit devoted to helping indigent women did not fit with their new vision.

That night I stayed-up until 3am, combing the internet for clues as to the intentions of the biggest property owner on the park.  What was our neighborhood going to look like when Western & Southern was done, especially the 5 buildings referred to as the “Woodford Building” between 4rth and 5th Streets, the removal of which was obviously crucial to getting a new district passed?    It didn’t take long to figure it out.

On May 14, 2013, Josh Pichler reported for The Cincinnati Enquirer, “John F. Barrett says redeveloping the Anna Louise Inn is the critical component to unlocking the potential of W&S’ significant real estate holdings around Lytle Park.  He envisions up to seven new restaurants eventually coming online, a new garage with housing on top, and a new headquarters that would complement W&S’ existing space, which is bulging at the seams.”

“We’ve got a great restaurant and housing hub in Over-the-Rhine,” Barrett stated for the record.  “You’ve got a very interesting thing on The Banks, with lots of housing and bars, some restaurants. Fountain Square is sort of the center of town, but maybe not the center of business anymore. The center of business has moved east. And I look at this end of town as being your business hub.”

Out to snap a few photos of the Woodford Building after the public meeting so I could post them on Facebook, I happened to notice Mr. Barrett as he was coming out of the hotel Western & Southern owns at the Phelps. After I introduced myself, he happily volunteered that Western & Southern intended to tear down the buildings between their current headquarters and the Literary Club and that the new buildings will be of a size similar to the Twin Towers at Procter & Gamble Headquarters across the street.  He said they hadn’t decided yet about how big the residential/office tower/garage on the other side of the park will be.

As with all worthy mysteries, the case is never really solved.  One question leads to the next which leads to five more – all of them complicated and fascinating.  As a city, how do we make the development decisions that establish a new “business hub” for entire blocks of a community?  Who decides?  How long do these decisions take?  What kind of public money is involved?  Since that day in March when I so innocently stumbled into a simple public meeting, that’s what I’ve been doing with the bulk of my time, almost every day – even now when I’m over in Italy for the summer – I’m trying to educate myself about one of the most complicated issues I’ve ever studied.  It’s that important.   Because the citizens of Cincinnati will have to live with these decisions for generations to come, and as taxpayers we will help finance them.  This is one very big mystery we cannot afford to leave unsolved.




5 thoughts on “The Mystery of Lytle Park

  1. Bonnie J. Speeg

    I read your entire letter-statement as to your experience involving Lytle Park/Western Southern. My spirit sank with each new circumstance you described encountering along the way. You did a great job relaying the events and the conditions surrounding them. I’ve long been involved through the University of Cincinnati’s Planning Department, with re-development tactics and strategies; the head of the department is my former partner—Harvard teaches Planners how to ‘think’ about an entire community before pulling out all the stops for the ‘guys with the big money’. I’ve seen and learned much about corporate take-overs, gentrification to the max, and redevelopment tactics and strategies that would leave any normal person sleepless for months. So when I saw your FB letter title, I immediately opened it to read. You have my understanding and support for the ‘mystery’ of dear Lytle Park, you’ve conveyed in your writing.

    On a personal note: I researched the Guilford School block for five years ’95 to 2000. I was in the Eagle Realty buildings, the carriage house, the Arch Street houses; kind of begging to be let in for my research (it wouldn’t happen today is my bet). I gave presentations at Betts House, Taft Museum. I know my material and history of Arch Street, Iola Alley, Ludlow Street, the ‘fort’ monument there. I love it much; and so do many people, including historians, writers, researchers and others who’ve been given my details I researched.
    In 2010 I started working at the Taft Museum. I remember the Amici School event. At times we were uncertain of who was doing what with the art exhibit, the bocce field, etc. We didn’t have a problem, and joined in the event as needed with our participation…and all was really well; we knew the Lytle Park ‘situation’ was touchy regarding WS and Anna Louise Inn all too well (though neutrality is the name of a museum’s game). I will not relay to you here how much I’ve been affected by some of the people and entities you’ve mentioned in your letter. Too damaging. But I’ve seen the ‘writing on the wall’ with WS for many years.
    In frank terms, what’s happening to the little district of Lytle Park is more than a crying shame; it’s a travesty. No corporation should behave as if public property and residential neighborhood is their personal ‘Country Club Estate and Grounds’…which is how I refer to it.
    I’m currently in communication with Kathy Holwadel who’s keeping me on board with interesting historic facts and anecdotes that may lend credence to the heritage that will be lost with Arch Street being taken. Please contact me if you are so inclined.

    Bonnie Speeg

    1. Barbara Hammel

      Bonnie, Is your research available somewhere? As a resident of the park area I would enjoy reading it. Thanks so much.

  2. Nancy Willman

    My heart sank when I read Kathy’s blog.
    My husband and I spend a lot of time in Lytle Park , with our dog Zoe, after evening
    yoga classes. To hear that these buildings are to be replaced with large sky scrapers is unthinkable. This is a beautiful part of the city where we bring visitors to see the green scape, flower displays & Abraham
    Lincoln sculpture- to be replaced with more buildings for dining, parking etc. takes away the charm of what this city has to offer. This is what makes our city unique!
    Keep us posted on what needs to be done to protect this area!


  3. Gea

    There is an old musical about money running the world. It is true in Cincinnati too. The markets of ideas and projects are mostly closed and it is bhehind the closed doors deals that are struck by the City politicians and corporatations and developmers. There are tax deferrals, tax abatements, LEEDs and all kinds of other deviceds that transfer money from the pockets of working Americans into rich crowd with the help of the,locals and sate politicians who are bought by their money and power. C’ete la vie!

    The poor are given dole and the rich are squeezing more money from the taxpayers by their schemes., su ch as 3CDC redevelkopment in the OTR and by Southern Western. It started 40 years ago when city council and the mayor started believing that the rich falks’ ideas for the city are the best ones. We had lost over 40% of population wkith such foolish “inverstments” of taxpayers money on those rich folks “bright” ideas of gentrifying the city and making it into an entertainment center of casions, music and hotels. The rich folks know who to game the system legally ,while the working middle class people keep working., The poor are taught by the “communicty organizers” how to get on the dole. Therefore America is becoming more dysfunctional, and the working independent Americans who do not like to exploit others are squeezed from both sides.

  4. Pingback: Why am I willing to look like such a Doofus? | cincyopolis

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