Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Blighted area reawakens

Walnut Hills: Historic neighborhood plots a comeback

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

WALNUT HILLS - Jim King sees hope and promise in the abandoned buildings and graffiti-scarred storefronts that mark a blighted section of Peebles Corner.

As director of the nonprofit Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation Inc., King envisions the area as retail and technology hub packed with new businesses.

Rawn Dillingham, owner of Tri-State Concrete, evens out some of the roughly 1200 yards of concrete poured at the Eden Park Town Homes on Fulton Ave.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
The revitalization blueprint for this historic Cincinnati neighborhood of 7,790 residents calls for creating three districts:

• A digital village and technology district in the Peebles Corner area along East McMillan Street. Anchoring the technology district will be an E-Business Technology Center at East McMillan Street and Melrose Avenue.

The foundation spent $800,000 - mostly from an anti-poverty agency grant - to convert a bowling alley into space for computer and other technical training. Medical offices occupy the first floor of the building.

The redevelopment foundation is lobbying Metro to build a bus hub across the street. Plans are to turn an abandoned fire station and vacant lot nearby into an office tower.

• A retail district along Gilbert Avenue. The foundation is trying to acquire space along Gilbert Avenue for a "big box" retailer. The area is already home to small businesses, a car dealership and larger retail chains such as Kroger.

King said the goal is to add more specialty stores. The foundation plans to work with businesses to refurbish facades. Thirty-five trees have been planted along McMillan.

• A cultural district along Gilbert Avenue and William Howard Taft Road.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe House off Gilbert Avenue is seen as the cornerstone of a cultural district that neighborhood leaders hope to tie into the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opens this year on the Ohio Riverfront.

Neighborhood leaders envision a corridor packed with restaurants, arts and crafts shops and other businesses that cater to the heritage and historical tourism niche. Included in this district will be the new Windsor School being built by the Cincinnati Public Schools.

Incorporated in August 1977, the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation has received more than $22 million in tax credits from private investors, public grants and bank loans to restore residential and commercial properties in the last five years.

A number of the eyesores already are gone, replaced with new housing and business developments. The old Ford factory just off Interstate 71 has been turned into a 120,000-square-foot office building.

The Alexandra, a dilapidated building ravaged by fire in 1993, now stands as a plush 83-unit senior living complex on William Howard Taft.

WCPO-TV (Channel 9) is building a studio and broadcast center on Gilbert Avenue.

New condos and townhouses are popping up throughout the neighborhood. Seven townhouses were recently built at Lincoln and Melrose avenues. Eighteen months ago, the community welcomed Steamboat Landing and Eden Park Condominiums - 103 new townhouses and condominiums - on Fulton Avenue near Eden Park.

Charlene Shutt, a Realtor for Comey & Shepherd Inc., said 80 of the units have already been sold - most of them to young professionals.

"We are seeing a renaissance of young people moving back into the community and that's a positive thing going on," Shutt said.

Troubled present, rich history

Once one of Cincinnati's premier and most diverse neighborhoods, Walnut Hills has been torn in recent years by the loss of businesses and battles to preserve historic landmarks such as the Walnut Hills Presbyterian Church at William Howard Taft and Gilbert.

The neighborhood has about 100 vacant buildings and has been rocked by violent crime.

There were three homicides in Walnut Hills last year, including a man who was shot to death while trying to break into an Auburn View Drive townhouse in January. Several of the Cincinnati Police Department's designated "hot spots" for drug and crime activity are in Walnut Hills, and the neighborhood is one of a handful involved in a surveillance camera pilot program aimed at reducing crime.

A new police substation was built on East McMillan last year. However, the number of serious crimes (1,075) - murder, rape, robbery, car theft, burglary and assault - in the first 11 months of 2003 was on pace to exceed the 1,111 recorded in 2002. available.

The community grew in the 18th century around the First Presbyterian Church and was once home to many of Cincinnati's aristocrats. The median household income now ranges from $11,178 to $26,967.

Walnut Hills was home to Lane Seminary, a school that played an important role in the antislavery movement. In 1834, students at the seminary held 18 nights of debates that marked a shift in American antislavery efforts from colonization to abolition.

Its first president was the Rev. Lyman Beecher of Boston. His home, called the Stowe House after his daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, still stands at Gilbert and Foraker avenues. Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin.

"We have a lot of rich history in Walnut Hills," King said. "We want to recreate that history."

Working together

Residents from Walnut Hills and neighboring East Walnut Hills have come together to create a redevelopment and revitalization plan for both communities.

The two neighborhoods haven't historically worked together.

East Walnut Hills is known for its historic mansions, which can sell for upward of $2 million. It is home to about 1,805 people - 41 percent of whom are white. Eighty-three percent of Walnut Hills residents are African-American.

A key development for East Walnut Hills is the DeSales Plaza project at Madison Road and Woodburn Avenue. The project, which will be completed this year, includes two restaurants, a coffee shop, a gift shop and three stories of apartments (45 in all) with monthly rents starting at $725.

Calling themselves "The 06 Alliance" after the ZIP code shared by both communities, neighborhood leaders have undertaken an economic development agenda that includes housing development, commercial corridor revitalization, business recruitment, job training and youth leadership development.

About a month ago, the alliance mailed out draft copies of its "Vision 2010" community redevelopment plan to every household in the 45206 ZIP code. The alliance held four community meetings.

"People have told me that they had no idea this kind of work was going on," said Kathy Atkinson, president of the Walnut Hills Area Council. "They are buying into the draft plan and they are wanting to know how they can roll up their sleeves and get involved."

Slow progress

Lillie Taylor attended one of the forums. The 75-year-old Walnut Hills woman said she was heartened by what she heard, but knows that real change will take time.

Taylor said Walnut Hills still has too many empty buildings and rundown houses, which breed larger problems of drug dealing and prostitution. Taylor said there are buildings along Peebles Corner that have been abandoned since the riots in the late 1960s.

"There are historic houses on Lincoln and Melrose (avenues) that they've been working on for the past 20 years and they still aren't finished yet," Taylor said. "I hope I live to see these houses fixed. I think it's going to work out, but it's going to be a long time coming."

Mayetta Reed, who turns 75 at the end of January, said some residents become discouraged when projects take a long time.

"There are a lot of people who no longer live here that would like to come back to the neighborhood, but things are moving so slowly," Reed said.

Reed grew up in a Lincoln Avenue home that has since been torn down. She remembers a thriving Walnut Hills in which most people owned their homes - as opposed to 30 percent ownership today.

"When I was young, we only went downtown at Easter and Christmas," she said. "All the other times we went to Peebles Corner. Walnut Hills was a livable place back then and you could walk anywhere."

Mel Williams has been operating a pharmacy on East McMillan Street for the past 40 years. Williams said he could remember when the block was filled with restaurants, shoe stores, clothing stores and tailoring shops.

He recalled when the Alexandra building across the street was an exclusive high-rise with a doorman. That was before absentee landlords and careless merchants allowed the area to deteriorate, he said.

"Right now we have a golden opportunity to turn this into an ideal shopping place like it used to be," Williams said. "This is a good time and a great place for people who own property here to catch the vision rather than stay where they've always been.

Neighborhoods at a glance


Population: 1,805 *

Age of Population:

24 and younger: 24 percent

25-44: 41 percent

45-64: 15 percent

65-above: 20 percent

Racial makeup:

African-American: 55 percent

White: 41 percent

Other: 4 percent

Household Type:

Households of non-related people: 68 percent

Married w/children: 8 percent

Married w/o children: 12.5 percent

Single: 11.5 percent




Age of Population:

24 and younger: 35 percent

25-44 32 percent

45-64 17 percent

65-above 16 percent

Racial makeup:

African-American 83 percent

White 13 percent

Other 4 percent

Household Type:

Households of non-related people: 56 percent

Married w/children: 7 percent

Married w/o children: 11 percent

Single: 26 percent


E-mail kaldridge@enquirer.com

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