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.