By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer
For as long as there has been a Cincinnati, people have been elbowing each other out of the way for the best of the panoramic scenic views from the hills that ring the downtown basin.
There is the long distance view from Price Hill and the cityscape that sprawls in front of those who stand atop the Fairview hill and Mount Auburn. But nowhere has the view been more coveted and more fought over than in Mount Adams, with its head-on views of downtown and its magnificent, sweeping vistas of the Ohio River as it twists and turns out of sight.
For decades, residents of the densely populated and upscale enclave of Mount Adams have fought one battle after another over development projects that they say threaten their views. It is those views that have attracted the well-to-do to seven-figure homes and have afforded the visitors and residents alike gorgeous eye candy as they walk and drive the cobblestone streets.
But today residents are hopeful that changes in the city's 40-year-old zoning code and a growing concern at City Hall for preserving Cincinnati's scenic views may bring the wars to an end. Or at least reduce them to an occasional skirmish.
"You get tired of fighting these battles all the time," said Malcolm Bernstein, the Mount Adams Civic Association president whose own home on St. Paul Place offers a long view of the Ohio River. "It's very tiresome to be endlessly going to the planning commission, endlessly fighting with developers. It needs to stop."
There is, Bernstein said, reason for hope.
Cincinnati's zoning code is undergoing its first major rewriting since 1963. If approved by council this year, it may contain a provision that could end, or substantially slow down, the construction of large-scale, view-blocking multifamily complexes on Mount Adams and other Cincinnati hillsides.
The guiding principle of the new zoning code in hilltop neighborhoods, said Steven Kurtz, the city's land use management administrator, will be that "you as a developer are entitled to the same consideration as your neighbors when it comes to new construction."
"You can do pretty much what you want as long as it conforms to your neighbors," Kurtz said. "That means it shouldn't be built higher than the next guy and block out his view."
The new rules would create a residential zoning class allowing single-family houses to be built on 2,000 square-foot parcels, instead of the 5,000 required under the 1963 rules.
What that will mean is the creation of more single-family homes on small lots like those in Mount Adams, which will discourage developers from building large-scale, multi-family complexes. It will have an impact too, Kurtz said, in other high-density hilltop neighborhoods like Price Hill and Westwood.
It is those large-scale development projects that have triggered most of the scenic-view wars in Cincinnati. In most cases, those trying to preserve views have lost.
In the early 1960s, when Mount Adams was still largely a quiet enclave of Irish and German families in small hillside homes, a battle erupted when developer Marvin L. Warner came to Mount Adams. He wanted to build Highland Towers, a modern, upscale apartment complex that Mount Adams residents thought was out-of-character with the neighborhood's 19th century, Italianate homes. Residents thought it would be an eyesore when people on the river, in downtown and in Northern Kentucky looked up at the hill.
It was built, and today the Mount Adams skyline is dominated by Highland Towers, which author John Clubbe described in his book Cincinnati Observed as "the ugly high-rise in Mount Adams' Victorian pond."
In the early 1970s, many Clifton Heights residents were alarmed to find that a developer planned to build a large apartment on the bend of Clifton Avenue. The project was built; and, today, as motorists drive down the Clifton Avenue hill, they see a building instead of a panoramic view of downtown and the Ohio River.
In the 1980s, the battle in Mount Adams was over the Adams Landing luxury housing built at the foot of the hill; the project ended up restricting the view for some Mount Adams residents.
And, last year, some Mount Adams residents lost a battle over the construction of four luxury condominiums at the hill's very summit on St. Gregory Street. The condos, sold for $425,000 to $1.1 million, have excellent views of the river and Kentucky bluffs, but obscure the view for property owners farther up St. Gregory.
The latest flap has erupted on Carney Street.
There, two developers, Craig Liebel and Michael Warner, want the city to sell them portions of Perpendicular Alley and Carney Street that are no longer used as public right of way for $21,000 so they can build a house on three lots they own.
Some residents say development of the lots would block one of the hill's best scenic view corridors. But it is not at all clear how high the developers would like to build.
"Nobody really knows whether this Carney Street project would make an impact on the view or not, because nobody has seen any plans," said Eric Russo, executive director of the Hillside Trust, a 27-year-old organization dedicated to conservation of Cincinnati's hillsides.
If there were an actual plan, Russo said, the Hillside Trust has computer software that could construct a three-dimensional image of the building and show exactly what its impact on the Carney Street view corridor would be.
But the Carney Street project probably could not go ahead without the $21,000 purchase of the city-owned property and it is not at all certain that city council will allow that to happen.
Councilman David Crowley grew up on Mount Adams; the view from Carney Street of the Ohio River and the Kentucky hills beyond is one the prime memories of his boyhood.
He does not think the city should be involved in obstructing scenic views by selling property to developers.
"The views we have from the hills belong to everyone in the city," Crowley said.
Recently, Crowley asked the city administration to give council a report identifying the city's "public view corridors" and an inventory of what city-owned land lies within those corridors.
The city, Crowley said, is trying to sell off its unused land parcels. But, he said, "we shouldn't be selling them to a developer who is going to ruin a scenic view for everybody else."
Crowley said his primary concern is not in preserving the views of other homeowners in neighborhoods like Mount Adams but in preserving the views for the general public.
"It's one of the greatest assets we have," Crowley said. "Cities like Columbus and Indianapolis have nothing like this. They're flat as a board."
But Pittsburgh, which sits at the headwaters of the Ohio River, is not flat as a board. Its downtown is ringed with high bluffs that are home to working-class neighborhoods and upscale communities similar to Mount Adams.
Pittsburgh, unlike Cincinnati, has specific zoning rules about building on hillsides. "View protection overlay districts" and hillside construction rules in the zoning code prevent buildings like Mount Adams' Highland Towers from spoiling the scenic nature of the hills.
"We're not so much concerned about the views from the houses on the hills as the view of the hills from below," said Pat Ford, Pittsburgh's zoning administrator. "We want to allow for development and protect the look of the hills."
Kurtz said that Cincinnati has not seen the need for "view protection" legislation like Pittsburgh's code because every development project in a hilltop neighborhood must go through an "environmental quality" process, which includes public hearings.
If there is a "view" issue, it usually comes up in the hearings and is addressed by the developer, often resulting in scaling back the project.
But Russo said the city should consider adopting some kind of legislation - either in the zoning code or by city ordinance - aimed at preserving scenic hillside views.
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