Sunday, January 30, 2000

Union Township's visionary plan: 'A new version of small-town America'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

A Marriott Hotel under construction gives a face to the western section of the business district.
(Dick Swaim photo)
| ZOOM |
        UNION TOWNSHIP — An innovative Tristate community taking shape along I-75 could set the local standard for 21st century living by borrowing from early 20th century neighborhoods.

       The leaders of this fast-growing Butler County community are determined to avoid the overdevelopment sprawl that overran other Tristate communities. They are keeping tight reins on developers, making them stick to a detailed master plan designed for small-town atmosphere amid booming growth.

        Union Township's visionary plan, centered around more than 1,000 acres of prime real estate at the new Union Centre Boulevard/Interstate 75 exchange, is beginning to come into focus.

Map of development
        Modeling it after some of Greater Cincinnati's historic and most livable communities, such as Mariemont, Union Township officials are creating a mixed-use development they hope will give the community a distinctive identity and feel.

        It "will bring home the new version of small-town America," said Union Township Trustee President Jose Alvarez.

        Township Administrator David Gully rattles off sample provisions from the master plan, aimed at avoiding the cluttered over-development that characterizes Tristate locations such as Colerain or Beechmont avenues:

        "You won't see a mile of automobile dealerships. It will be pedestrian-friendly with plenty of green space," said Mr. Gully.

        Other anti-sprawl features will include:

  Union Township is Butler County's fastest-growing community, with its population increasing from 39,000 in 1990 to more than 59,000 today.
  Also growing are the township's affluence and educational levels, according to officials from the Union Township Community Improvement Corporation, the community's economic development agency:
  Average annual household income is $83,874, and 23.6 percent of township residents have a bachelor's degree with nearly 13 percent having earned graduate or professional degrees.
  By the end of 1998 there were 14,114 housing units in the township with 84 percent of those owner-occupied and 16 percent renter-occupied.
  More than 72 percent of the total number of housing units in the township were constructed between 1985 and 1997.
  Boosted by the opening in 1997 of Ohio's first new diamond-shaped interchange in two decades — Union Centre Boulevard at Interstate 75 — Union Township's commercial development continues to boom.
  Since 1997 more than 7 million square feet of commercial construction and more than $600 million in new investments have been made in the township.
  More than 5,000 new jobs have been created, said CIC officials.
        An absence of gaudy, towering signs that mark most other highway interchanges. All signs will be uniform and relatively unobtrusive.

        Wide roads with broad shoulder areas, for easier expansion if needed for future traffic volume. Feeder roads to the area are also being expanded.

        An extensive mixing of commercial, retail and residential housing, whose variety will guarantee developers a constant pool of workers, shoppers and residents. High-density, upscale apartments and condominiums will be intermixed with a variety of shops and restaurants.

        Unlike most modern commercial parks, each firm will not have separate driveway access to main roads. Few driveways will connect numerous firms, cutting down on impediments to traffic flow.

        Networks of pedestrian trails and bike paths combined with centralized parking areas, all encouraging people to abandon their cars while in the area. Lakes, ponds, brooks and fountains will add to a natural setting that encourages strolling.

        Earlier this month, officials with Columbus-based Continental Real Estate Cos. announced plans to build an open-air mall complex — estimated to cost $110 million to $150 million and scheduled to open by fall 2001.

        Details surrounding Continental's plans, including a residential community on the east side of the interchange, are still undetermined but will likely include high-density, upscale housing, said Judy Carter, Union Township director of planning and zoning.

        Apartments, condominiums and possibly some single-family homes, designed to attract upper-income, professional singles and families, would sit atop or near shops in the open-air mall development. That's meant to fashion a self-sufficient neighborhood that encourages residents to get out and walk instead of jumping into their cars.

        Mr. Gully evokes an imaginary ice cream cone in describing the features and philosophy behind the village center.

        A village resident, shopper or office worker craving that ice cream cone will be able to stroll a short distance to the local creamery.

        “After that, they'll be able to walk a reasonable distance to sit on a bench” in a park-like setting to enjoy the frozen treat, he said. “And if they spill their ice cream, they'll be within a walking distance of a dry cleaner.”

        Throw in quality retailers, movie theaters, specialty shops and grocers, he said, and the proposed village center “will provide a pedestrian-friendly environment that is aesthetically pleasing.”

        Ms. Carter said the chance to transform cornfields into an innovative community is “a professional planner's dream ... To be given a clean slate like this, it's exciting.”

        “Also, this helps identify West Chester. This is our character struggle of trying to define who we are,” Ms. Carter said.

        In March, Union Township voters will decide whether to formally switch the township's name to West Chester, the name more commonly used by residents.

        The “clean slate” consists of the more than 1,000 acres on both the west and east sides of the Union Centre Boulevard interchange designated by township officials as the community's new “Central Business District.”

        As designated by the township's binding master development plan, an offshoot of a 2012 Vision Plan adopted in 1992, the western section of the business district will consist primarily of new commercial and retail developments including a Marriott Hotel, restaurants, shopping centers and corporate offices.

        The eastern business district may feature the township's new village center, centering on a recently announced development of 120 acres just east of the interchange that would include an unusual mix of retail, residential housing and office space and movie theaters in an open-mall setting interlaced with small parks, ponds, walkways and bike paths.

        The Continental open-air mall, or retail village, is the third such project planned for Greater Cincinnati. In August, Rookwood Commons, a similar but much smaller version of this type of development, will open in Norwood as an expansion of the Rookwood Pavilion. Another open-air center is being considered by Madison Marquette Realty in a tract in Union Township's western business district, north of Union Centre Boulevard and west of Muhlhauser Road.

        Ms. Carter estimates that most of the area surrounding the interchange area will be developed within five years.

        David Kass, vice president of commercial development at Continental Real Estate Cos., said his company's project will provide a “sense of place” at Union Centre Boulevard.

        “What we're trying to do is make this a little community,” he said.

        Mr. Kass said Union Township officials have already said they don't want big-box retailers such as Meijer and Best Buy. He also said the zoning regulations are tougher than what Continental normally deals with.

        “In some areas you have 50 property developments out for their own interests, and the community wants the tax dollars,” Mr. Kass said. “Union Township won't let that happen. I think it's a community that's driven to not having a Tricounty-type atmosphere and feel.”

        Though mixed-use, open-air mall developments are becoming more popular elsewhere in the nation, especially in warmer climates, it has been decades since such a community was attempted locally, said Jim Duane, executive director of the Ohio/Kentucky/Indiana Regional Council of Governments.

        “We're a little late to see that sort of development in our region,” said Mr. Duane. He praised the proposals for developing the Union Township area and described it as indicative of “retro-development” where new communities are created while borrowing from the best of historically popular communities such as Mariemont.

        Stuart Meck, senior researcher for the Washington, D.C.-based American Planning Association, said developers in Union Township are wise to try to duplicate such well-designed communities that have maintained high levels of livability, without sacrificing roadways, retail and pedestrian-friendly ambiance.

        Mariemont in eastern Hamilton County was a 1920s experiment in comprehensive town planning that now is hailed by city planners around the nation as a model for smart growth. The popular village of more than 3,400 residents is on the National Register of Historic Places and routinely ranks among the highest in livability surveys of Greater Cincinnati communities.

        The community was designed and built beginning in 1923 by noted planner John Nolan and is a rare example of a community development in the first half of this century.

        Based on the designs of an English garden city, Mariemont's landscaped central square acts as the community's hub to spokes of curved streets extending outward and featuring smallish lots.

        Governmental buildings, schools and stores were planned within walking distance. Emphasis on quality-of-life features, such as tree-lined streets, parks and general green space were prominent.

        Mr. Meck, author of Ohio Planning and Zoning Law, said the Union Township development can be different from “what typically happens in Cincinnati,” where often developers lead the way and local officials then try to put together a community plan after the fact.

        But taking a big picture approach doesn't guarantee the community will be immune to traffic congestion and overdevelopment, said Glen Brand, head of the Cincinnati chapter of the Sierra Club.

        Mr. Brand criticized the Union Centre area development for paving over more of Greater Cincinnati's dwindling farm land in the increasingly popular I-75 corridor north of Interstate 275 to the Ohio 63 interchange in Monroe.

        Developers are interested in building a big mall near Monroe that would require a new highway interchange off of I-75 at Kyles Station Road. It would cover 1.7 million square feet with 340 shops and an entertainment complex.

        Mr. Brand has dubbed the proposed Monroe mall the “Mega-Sprawl Mall.”

        He did say, however, that he was slightly encouraged to see that Union Township's CBD development would include residential housing within the greater commercial and retail community.

        University of Cincinnati Professor David Varady, a housing and community development expert at UC's School of Planning, said he was impressed overall with the Union plan. But Mr. Varady has concerns that roadways could eventually prove inadequate if the township's population continues to grow and the retail features of the CBD become a shopping magnet.

        He was impressed with the emphasis on making developers adopt the “neo-traditional principles” of a Mariemont-type of community.

        Victoria Alvarez, however, is unenthusiastic. Ms. Alvarez has operated an artist retail and gallery shop for 11 years in Olde West Chester, off of Cincinnati-Dayton Road near the proposed CBD East development.

        “Township officials have wide-open arms for newcomers and big developers. Then there's the rest of us. It would be nice if they could highlight the historic area, too,” she said.


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