Sunday, February 9, 2003

East End eyes development warily

Builders leading upscale push for community, but long-time residents concerned they'll be ones shoved aside

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

East End is just a few miles from downtown with snapshot views of the Ohio River and Cincinnati's skyscrapers. That's prompted housing developers to mine the riverfront community in pursuit of sites to build upscale condos and penthouses side by side with modest - even ramshackle - homes.

Brian Breneman, president of East End Area Council, says developers are working to ensure community concerns are addressed.
(Gary Landers photo)
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The latest is Urban Equity Partners' 68-unit, mid-rise condo project that could include a restaurant, a small store and "live-work" spaces blending a home and small office.

Bob Little Sr., who is building the six-story project with his son, calls the East End an emerging community for young professionals and empty nesters seeking a new home close to the arts and entertainment of downtown. His project follows condo and townhouse developments by Jerry Imbus and former Taft High football coach Dave Imboden along a crooked nook of Eastern Avenue near LeBlond Recreation Center.

"I think we're reviving a neighborhood that once was there," Mr. Little said. "It's a great location in the city, well-positioned as it relates to East Walnut Hills, Mount Lookout and Hyde Park."

Even though the developments have brought East End a fresh image, some long-time residents eye change warily.

  From the 2000 Census:
• Total population: 2,752
  White: 87%
  Black: 7%
  Hispanic: 2%
• Avg. household income: $45,631
• Poverty Rate: 20%
• Occupied housing units: 1,138,
• Vacant housing units: 181
• Home ownership rate: 49.6%
•   *Includes part of Linwood
  Source: U.S. Census Bureau
True, the new housing makes East End an example of what the city can do to attract newcomers and lift its dismal 38 percent homeownership rate. And with the likes of City Manager Valerie Lemmie now calling East End home, it's brought political clout to a place many residents say has long been ignored by City Hall.

Yet there's lingering suspicion that development has the potential to push out residents - some of whom have lived there five to six generations.

"This is Cincinnati's oldest neighborhood," said Dee Fricker, a resident. "You're talking about the Hatfields and McCoys here. The Appalachians in this community don't leave, and there's a concern they'll be displaced."

Too costly to live in

Not only does the anxiety center on developers buying and bulldozing homes and rebuilding the sites for half-million-dollar homes with gated garages, sundeck terraces and Jacuzzis. The development also has the potential to make the area too expensive for people to live in their own homes.

While most newcomers who buy the new homes get property taxes abated for a decade under city-approved agreements, long-time residents must pay for rising tax bills.

Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes recently notified community residents that their property values jumped 9 percent. (Adjacent neighborhoods such as Columbia Tusculum and Linwood - both also attracting new development - were among the city's biggest property value gainers, up 16 percent and 18 percent respectively.)

Some residents also worry about cultural and class clashes that can surface. In a neighborhood where one of five households lives in poverty, many used a Laundromat on Eastern Avenue that closed last year. The building was converted to an office.

"Of course, there's a concentration of low- and moderate-income people who live here," said Melissa English, manager of the Pendleton Heritage Center. "Some don't have cars, so it's a hardship."

Neighborhood developers recognize the impact of these projects, and are working closely to ensure problems are addressed, said Brian Breneman, president of East End Area Council.

"We want to make sure nobody feels like they're being excluded," said Mr. Breneman, a Michigan native who moved to a new East End condo in 1999, joined the East End council and became president last year.

Among the initiatives the council's tackled: ensuring the community newspaper is distributed to all households. Now it's handed out in a scattered approach - given to McKinley Elementary students, who are expected to pass it on to their parents, or hand-delivered to certain households.

Breneman stressed that the development also reaps positive results for neighbors. The city now is more apt to listen to community concerns, which improves quality of life for all.

"It has been very good for political influence, to get the city to pay attention to the neighborhood," he said. "The redevelopment that has been happening down here is really going to improve the worst areas of our neighborhood."

For example, the public bathrooms at city-owned Schmidt Field are rarely open, so many patrons of the park's softball field or public boat launch often urinate in the bushes, he said. Nearby homeowners complained of the stench, and the community council relayed complaints to park and recreation officials.

City paying attention

Even long-time community advocates concede that the city seems to more be responsive to East End.

"They are excited to see the city pay attention to this community," said English, adding some are disappointed it took newcomers to capture the attention of city bureaucrats.

One of the neighborhood's most pressing challenges is striking a balance between the wealthy penthouses and the need for low- and moderate-income housing, said John Van Volkenburgh, a consultant for a neighborhood development group. "Let's spend some time and energy to make sure we don't run people out of the neighborhood," he said.

As an example of how developers can work closely with community residents, Van Volkenburgh pointed to how parents and community groups persuaded Cincinnati Public Schools to reverse its decision to close McKinley school.

Instead, CPS agreed to build a new school with a health center, museum and a YMCA. The police department is seeking funds to open a substation there, too.

More development inevitable

Van Volkenburgh said it's crucial that developers work with community residents because more housing and commercial projects in East End, Columbia Tusculum and Linwood are inevitable. He knows at least two housing developments being planned that will bring 70 units.

Also, commercial developers are planning projects, including Al Neyer Inc.'s Columbia Square that will bring an office building to the northwest corner of Columbia Parkway and Delta Avenue and shops and a restaurant to the southeast corner (currently a YMCA).

When Imboden started developing homes in East End more than a decade ago, many Cincinnati residents wouldn't even consider living at the riverfront community. Indeed, many of his early sales were to out-of-towners.

Now, the neighborhood is developing a new identity, Imboden said, in part because of his developments.

"A lot of people stayed away from East End," Imboden said. "That's not the case anymore. Now people are looking for view properties."


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