Cincyopolis is going around town collecting development stories, what’s working in our neighborhoods and what isn’t, as the building boom ripples out from the city center to other parts of town. I met Ollie Kroner, president of the Northside Community Council, at this year’s Neighborhood Summit and asked if he would be willing to share his perspective.
Ollie is deceptively low-key. He has a quiet voice and pauses to think for a second or two before he answers a question. He’s an environmental scientist four days a week, the rest of his professional life split between Porch Swing Properties, specialists in the renovation of historic buildings, and Cincinnati Bio-diesel Initiative, a company that makes a cheaper, cleaner alternative to diesel fuel. But Ollie’s real claim to fame is as Quincy’s dad, the little boy who went viral because of his passion for garbage trucks and the men who man them, this year’s Grand Marshall of the Northside 4th of July parade.
Standing in the order line at Melt on Hamilton Avenue with Ollie a few weeks ago, I felt like everybody else in the room already knew each other. “Is that beard itchy?” asked the little, gray-haired lady in the line behind us, reaching out to touch his face. She and her friend chatted with the handsome young Community Council president about neighbors they all knew and the Farmer’s Market. Later, while we were eating lunch on the patio, a group from a nearby table apologized for interrupting our conversation more than once. They were celebrating a big new partnership they’d just landed with UC after years of work and wanted to share their triumph with a fellow environmentalist. Everybody had to make a particular fuss over their 93-year-old associate who had just finished running his most recent half-marathon and was still wearing his medal.
So often when I talk to the individuals who are active in their neighborhood development issues, there’s a lot of frustration in their dealings with big developers. They feel like the community’s voice isn’t being heard. But that hasn’t been Ollie’s experience.
“Of course it’s not like the big developers are lining-up to get into Northside,” he admitted, explaining that interest is growing, especially among smaller developers who don’t require layers of public financing, but a lot of the progress in his neighborhood has focused on in-fill projects rather than the mega-deals that get all the attention. He raved about how effective their Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (now called NEST) under the leadership of Stephanie Sunderland has been in focusing on problem areas, completing 20 pivotal properties and helping to obtain gap financing for individuals and businesses. “Stephanie’s an encyclopedia of local information,” he said, “and great at navigating city bureaucracy. ”
Northside is unique in so many ways, a niche artist community in one of the best preserved historic districts that is truly walk-able, close to the universities and hospitals. There’s something for everyone with the median home price around $140,000, 50% of the neighborhood available for rentals. Young couples are moving in to be part of a close-knit community with affordable houses where you don’t have to get in a car to grab a cup of good coffee or go listen to a band.
But maybe the issue that really sets Northside apart from a development perspective is that when all the other neighborhoods jumped on the Tax Increment Financing District bandwagon ten years ago, Northside leaders opted not to participate on moral grounds, and is now one of the few areas that can’t offer TIF subsidized goodies to attract new projects. Ollie mentioned that as he’s watched other neighborhoods use TIF funds to improve their communities, sometimes he’s been a little jealous.
Even without that option, new developments are popping-up faster than they have in the last hundred years: the conversion of the American Can building into apartment lofts, the Gantry, a 130 unit apartment building on the corner of Blue Rock and Hamilton, and the most recent announcement was a 54-unit apartment for low-income seniors being developed by the Episcopal Retirement Homes at the corner of Knowlton and Mad Anthony. There’s lots of new food and music venues, burger joints, more than one barcade, Northside Distilling, bunches of taco possibilities, and the oft-talked-about Littlefield is a big draw. Technology companies have also been attracted to everything Northside has to offer.
Yes, Ollie, a Tax-Increment-Financing District could have attracted more development action to your corner of the Cincinnati landscape, but faster development, bigger development, is not synonymous with the kind of place that makes real people commit to a neighborhood with their hearts, stay loyal, raise families, and start small businesses there. Slowly, steadily Northside has been building the kind of special place that can’t be bought with taxpayer subsidies. People are moving to Northside because it’s Northside, weird, more-imagination-than-money, Lawn Chair Lady, tattoo-rich Northside, the kind of neighborhood where the librarians at the local branch know patrons by name, one with an independent hardware store that nobody who has ever been inside can ever forget.
Absent one of the most popular tools in today’s public financing arsenal, Northside hasn’t missed out on anything that really matters. Instead of a vision imposed by big, for-profit corporations that too often includes chain restaurants with lots of parking, the future of this community is being determined by neighbors who care about each other and inclusive values that don’t always register on the bottom-line. The rest of Cincinnati should be jealous of Northside.