I’m standing in the parking lot behind Trevarren Flats on McMillan Avenue in the heart of the Walnut Hills business district, a project that will result in 30 new market rate apartments combined with street-level retail. Kevin Wright, Executive Director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, is giving me a tour. The architect for the job is discussing details with Thea Munchel, WHRF’s Director of Real Estate & Economic Development. A couple of workmen in yellow hard-hats are laying masonry for a very expensive elevator running up the outside of the 119 year-old Victorian building (extra money nobody anticipated until it was too late). This is the project that has consumed the last 3 ½ years of Kevin’s life, kept him awake more nights than he likes to admit. His development-partner, the Model Group, decided they couldn’t make the numbers work more than once. Kevin was sure he was going to have to to be the one to make the call to tear the building down. The roof had collapsed. There was significant water damage.
But here we are, late April of 2015, four months into the construction process. My companions are so proud, so excited. Then we walk inside the smaller five-story structure to the right. “Be careful,” they warn me frequently. There’s not much to see in the dark. Until I look up. And see daylight. From the ground floor. I’m looking up through holes in all five floors to the sky. Every single joist has to be replaced. Trying to maintain an outward demeanor of enthusiasm, inside my head, I’m wide-eyed, my mouth agape and I’m screaming, “Oh my god, this is POMPEII.”
In Walnut Hills the current wave of transformation started with a grant to focus on safety. Rather than figure out how to put more people in jail, the Redevelopment Foundation decided to take a place-based approach. Like a lot of older neighborhoods close to the core, Walnut Hills features an alley system, narrow little brick-paved roads that weave behind and between the buildings on the main thoroughfares. Theirs was disgusting, littered with used condoms and discarded needles, even the occasional dead dog. People ran down them doing bad things.
One spot where five of those allies converge was surrounded by a fence with overgrowth so thick nobody could see the triangle of green space hidden inside. Kevin rented a dumpster for a couple hundred bucks and volunteers got busy cleaning. Their first pop-up beer garden in the fall of 2012 drew 40-50 people, friends asking friends, “What’s 5 Points? Are you going?” This Sunday at 3pm, the first Five Points Alley Biergarten of the season will feature live music, a bike valet and draw hundreds of young creatives from all over the city. While the beer’s great, the real attraction is the secret clubhouse culture that’s about believing in your city, an excitement no amount of money can buy. Recently a coffee house leased one of the empty storefronts that backs onto the alley. Other retailers are looking at spaces nearby. (Check out Andrew Strahlke’s amazing video, Urban Resurrection, to see the real thing. All his documentation of the Walnut Hills experience is worth watching.)
Walnut Hills is hot right now, in the news on a regular basis. But the rebirth of this neighborhood didn’t start with a mega-development like U Square or the corporate backing of a 3CDC. It started with faith. It started with people. Every single one of us should have to stand in the middle of a building crumbling from years of neglect and listen to the war stories of the people who take on the task of rebuilding our spirit from the bottom up. Only when I looked through the floor-boards and saw sky could I appreciate how hard this work is and all that it takes to honor what it is that makes Cincinnati unique.
EVERYBODY really should get the opportunity to do a little development tourism. With that in mind Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation has agreed to be the first in a series of cincyopolis field trips next September. Stay tuned for more info.
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