Why can’t the West End be Cincinnati’s next breakthrough neighborhood?

As hypercharged development in Over-the-Rhine and the urban core continues to attract new residents, many prospectors and long-time residents find themselves looking around for the “next hot neighborhood.”

The search is, in part, a byproduct of the upward pressure on prices as well as yearning for somewhat greener, less developed pastures, albeit still within the urban core. Single-family homes are in short supply in OTR, after all, with the vast majority of structures built for higher density occupation.

Many have pointed to Walnut Hills, deservedly so, as the next “up and coming” affordable neighborhood close to downtown.

Perhaps more under the radar yet still in the downtown basin is the sprawling and multi-faceted area known as the West End — more precisely, the Dayton Street Historic District. Conveniently located just west of Central Parkway and Findlay Market, the area has faced its slew of challenges but appears poised for redevelopment.

First, some history. In Cincinnati, there’s always history.

Once a dense and thriving neighborhood of multi- and single-family homes and businesses, much of the historic West End was essentially eviscerated beginning in 1956, when city officials used federal funds to raze the area in the name of “urban renewal.” Also in the mix at the time was the construction of Interstate 75, which paved the way for the inner city population to flee quickly to the joys of suburbia.

There was a recurring theme at the time across the U.S. that predominantly African-American neighborhoods such as the West End were within the “urban renewal/federal interstate” bullseye. (See also Paradise Valley/Black Bottom in Detroit, which, like the West End, was an unfortunate victim of I-75.)

In 1940, 64 percent of Cincinnati’s entire African-American population lived in the West End, comprising 74 percent of that neighborhood’s population.

The longtime demarcation point for the West End was a street known until the 1850s as Western Row. It’s now Central Avenue, and at one point prior to the 1950s it was a thriving commercial district in its own right.

The WPA Guide of 1943, in predictably colorful and non-PC prose, described a Central Avenue “lined with pawn shops, cheap restaurants and honky tonks. Free meals, featuring pickled herring and pretzels, came with every five cent beer. Children, ducking the spittal of loafers leaning on the rails, ran along the street with tin buckets for the families’ supper beer.” Those buckets, by the way, were also known as “growlers.”

Indeed, at one time in 1890, the City Directory listed 100 saloons on Central Avenue, second only to Vine Street at 136; Walnut and Main clocked in at 55 each. By my estimation, I believe the number of saloons on Central Avenue has been reduced by 98 percent to two.

Gone too is the sub-neighborhood of “Little Buck” at Sixth and Freeman, replaced by pretty much nothing save the Freeman Avenue overpass at Sixth Street, not far from the crumbling remains of the old Hudepohl and Lackman breweries. In the post-Civil War years, Freeman was a bustling thoroughfare employing thousands of tradesman and mechanics, replete with packing houses, breweries, wagon works, planing mills and similar enterprises.

Little Buck, a less sinister cousin to Bucktown on the East Side, was according to the WPA Guide “no bed of roses … its poverty-stricken streets and alleys were filled with ramshackle dwellings, broken fences, and littered yards of Cincinnati’s poorest Negroes. Many of these were industrious and well behaved, but a minority of gun toters, knife wielders, crap shooters, touts, and frail ladies kept things lively for several decades.”

Nothing remains of such “liveliness” today, and traveling north on Freeman past Liberty to Dayton Street — while still in the technical boundaries of the West End — yields a far different landscape.

Initially the area is a wasteland of light industry, freeways, overpasses and a smattering of fast food — nonexistent remains of the former West End sub-neighborhood of Kenyon-Barr.

Like Little Buck, the Kenyon-Barr neighborhood between Sixth and Eighth (much of which was renamed Queensgate after the bulldozers rolled through) was a dense neighborhood full of historic structures that rivaled anything you’d see in Over-the-Rhine today. Replete with Second Empire and Italianate structures, elegant churches and elaborate commercial storefronts, it was completely demolished by urban renewal, a level of devastation estimated at 700-900 structures in total.

But if you continue on Freeman, passing the former Sands Montessori school at Poplar (a 1912 structure now being redeveloped and restored as senior housing), the industrial element begins to diminish and the built environment evolves into handsome single-family homes, smaller apartments and historic commercial storefronts. Approaching the intersection of Dayton and Freeman is a dormant commercial strip just ripe for redevelopment, and the impressive stock of vacant historic elementary schools and individual single-family homes is unparalleled in the basin.

The current iteration of our West End in no way resembles its historic cousin, physically at least. Part-industrial-tract-bleeding-into-Queensgate, part-projects, part-historic, part-new-development, the area has multiple distinct sub-neighborhoods (City West, Laurel Homes and Brighton) as well as the distinct historic enclaves of Betts-Longworth and Dayton Street.

Given its downtown-near proximity, Betts-Longworth has remained a relatively stable and occupied, albeit tiny, oasis of historic preservation and tidy infill development. It is Dayton Street that — while somewhat orphaned due to the excessively wide street cleaving of Liberty, Linn, Bank, Central Parkway and I-75 — has seen some renewed progress of late by homesteading pioneers. That’s in large part because of its intact and impressive stock of affordable, architecturally significant and vacant historic housing.

Many of these homes are empty and many are in disrepair, but overall the quality is what I would characterize as “not that bad.” I have seen far, far worse historic shells renovated all over Over-the-Rhine. And the all-important affordability factor that’s rapidly vanished from Over-the-Rhine is still evident to the west.

Many are familiar with the 800 block of Dayton Street, dubbed “Millionaire’s Row” a long time ago. It’s a block of stately mansions that were once the grand manors of brewers and other titans of industry whose “industries” were, for the most part, within a short walking distance of their homes. The Hauck Brewery (now Kaiser Pickles) was a few short blocks from the many stately Hauck family homes on the north side of Millionaire’s Row. They’re now within a block of Hook Fish & Chicken.

Dayton Street initially started building up in the 1860s, but it was in the 1880s that the “Millionaire’s Row” moniker took its shape. The facades of earlier homes were given enhanced ornamentation, while new homes were built in the elaborate style of the Italian Renaissance Revival. Many were populated by brewers and their progeny — the aforementioned Haucks at 812, 816 and 842, while the Windisch and Wetterer brewing families (also with nearby breweries) staked claims at 808, 835 and 847.

From 1900 to 1920, however, the tides changed. The wealthy families left the West End and were replaced by middle and lower income families, and by the 1920s Dayton Street had roughly 30 houses that were home to 72 adults, many carved into single rooms and flats. Only seven actual single-family homes remained on the street, a trend that reversed slightly post-World War II. The 1950s and ’60s saw the West End’s razing, and occupancy plummeted.

Yet in the 1960s, in the wake of so much rubble, the winds of preservation started blowing through the West End. The Miami Purchase Association (predecessor to the Cincinnati Preservation Association) made Dayton Street both its headquarters and its cause célèbre, buying a number of houses and renovating or selling them to those interested in restoration. The John Hauck House at 812 Dayton is still owned and maintained by the CPA, which hosts educational programs regarding historic preservation and renovation from time to time (the next one is Jan. 30).

While it appears that demand for single-family historic homes in the basin is increasing, locating a willing seller in the Dayton Street Historic District isn’t easy. There’s a decent supply of vacant buildings, and tracking foreclosures, monitoring the Hamilton County Auditor’s site and basic cold-calling are just a few of the tactics at your employ.

Two recent OTR emigres, Joe Creighton and Rom Wells, partners at Cheapside Cafe, were both able to find single-family historic homes to renovate — coincidentally on the same block. Creighton has been working on his project for six weeks or so and estimates another three to four months to completion. Wells, a few doors down, was able to find a willing seller through cold-call letters his wife Emily sent out. After living on Liberty Street in Over-the-Rhine for the past seven years, they’re hoping to move into the 3,000-square-foot home around the beginning of March if all goes well.

Aside from the inherent affordability (particularly compared to OTR), the lure of the Dayton Street area for both was its “neighborhood feel.” It’s the feeling that you’re getting in on something at the front end and immense potential is just waiting to be unlocked.

There just aren’t a lot of historic free-standing single-family homes in Over-the-Rhine, whereas Dayton Street and the surrounding blocks are rife with them. I’d also guess that there are more alley-fronting carriage houses on these blocks than anywhere else in the city. While many are in disrepair, the attraction of a backyard buttressed on the alleyway by a potential income-producing rental carriage house can’t be diminished.

Cindy Zulla, who works in the Hyde Park office of Sibcy Cline, lives between the Wells and Creighton projects on Dayton Street. She’s lived in the area for just over four years, and in her words, “I love being close to OTR/Findlay Market, but I like the separation from all the chaos that is Vine Street sometimes. Dayton Street is relatively quiet. I can walk my dogs with hardly encountering another person.”

Echoing the sentiments of soon-to-be newcomers Wells and Creighton, Zulla notes that “it has a family neighborhood vibe. I find myself lately wanting to keep our street my own little secret; but I also want more services (like a walkable coffeehouse!) so I know growth will have to happen.” Note to Cindy: Contact your new neighbors about that coffeehouse.

Any commercial presence would be helpful in the West End aside from, say, pickling facilities and active slaughterhouses. Still, the immediate neighborhood population would need to increase before any discernible uptick in retail presence would arise — although it should be noted that some DIY art galleries as well as the eclectic Rake’s End bar in Brighton are just two short blocks away. Just as on Vine Street in OTR, the old adage that “retail follows rooftops” remains solid, and in this case there are plenty of rooftops though perhaps not enough occupied (just yet).

That said, there are two 800-lb. gorillas nearby that could help provide the proverbial tipping point in the retail/rooftops balance: the vacant yet still architecturally significant Heberle (circa 1929) and Lafayette-Bloom (1915) schools, located just one block apart on Freeman and Baymiller streets. Both buildings were bought at auction in 2012 for $60,000 a piece by the Zada Development Group out of New York.

The “big plans” for the parcels were announced a little over a year ago. The Heberle School conversion calls for 59 senior housing apartments plus 5,000-6,000 square feet of commercial space, with Lafayette-Bloom slated for market rate apartments. The last news on the projects was this Urban Cincy article a little over a year ago, and recent requests for comment and an update from Zada went unanswered. Questions to various city officials primarily yielded a “no idea” response in return.

In the interests of full disclosure, my office is in the old multi-use warehouse across Freeman Street from the Heberle school. I can look out onto Corn Alley from my window balcony and see Heberle to the left and Lafayette-Bloom to the right.

Barbeque empresario Eli Leisring and some partners acquired the building in early 2015 and are currently exploring options for development. I commute there every day by bicycle via the Central Parkway protected bike lane and, in the process, witness firsthand how much potential is waiting to be unleashed.

This somewhat intact architectural historic district, close to downtown and OTR in the basin, has the secret ingredient that can’t be replicated in other city neighborhoods. It’s unique and irreplaceable, and for this reason I always scratch my head when city officials claim that we need to spread the wealth and give some “wins” to other neighborhoods like the success we’ve seen in OTR.

While that’s indeed a noble thought, the fact is that development success is dictated by geography, not to mention topography. There is only a limited supply of in-the-basin, near-downtown historic districts with a plethora of vacant structures, and the list starts (and pretty much ends) with the Dayton Street Historic District and the West End.

We now live in an era of what can be characterized as “Reverse Manifest Destiny.” Those (or their offspring) who fled the city on interstate freeways of the 1950s through 1980s for the sanctity of suburbia now crave the true walkable density that only historic neighborhoods can provide.

One of the main reasons that Over-the-Rhine has been so hot is that it’s rich with historic architecture adjacent to downtown. Sure, you can find historic buildings all over the city, but it’s not so easy to push a stroller or ride your bike to Findlay Market from, say, Price Hill or Westwood or Newport.

The freeways that paved the way for a city to quickly flee run both ways. And the Dayton Street Historic District, in one of the remaining segments of the West End that wasn’t plowed under by those freeways and urban renewal, is uniquely situated to take advantage of this emerging demand.

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