As revitalization projects go, the Court Street Streetscape is hardly one of the largest seen in downtown Cincinnati. But it is indicative of the kind of teamwork that’s driving Cincinnati forward, despite COVID-19 and an economic downturn.

While urban development and revitalization projects in other major metropolitan areas across the country are either on hold or falling off drawing boards, Cincinnati is forging ahead thanks to its unique ability to forge public/private partnerships, balance business interests with public concerns and bring together all stakeholders to form compromises that everyone agrees upon.

The Court Street Streetscape is an obvious and most recent case in point.

This month, construction will start on the $8.8 million revitalization project, which will impact as much as $145 million in current and future surrounding development. The project includes widening the pedestrian sidewalk and increasing areas for outdoor dining and entertainment. It will also allow for outdoor art displays, connect to Fountain Square, increase parking and accessibility for existing business and create a new destination neighborhood for downtown Cincinnati.

But it all started with a wide-open idea.

With 67% of the storefronts vacant, pavers along Court Street beat up and tree roots bulging walkways making them dangerous for pedestrians, action needed to be taken.

“This all started when Mayor (John) Cranley and Councilmember (Chris) Seelbach decided to form a taskforce back in February of 2019 to create a more inviting and engaging pedestrian experience and return vibrancy to this block of Court Street,” says Joe Rudemiller, vice president of marketing and communications for the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC). “They wanted all options on the table. That meant everything from doing nothing to completely shutting the area off to vehicular traffic and making it a pedestrian plaza.

“One of the things we contemplated was expanding outdoor seating for dining areas, which we thought was a good idea from the start, but even more necessary now, given everything we have seen and what we are dealing with related to COVID-19.”

The pandemic didn’t even exist as the taskforce started its planning last year—talk about fortuitous insight.

Mayor Cranley and Councilmember Seelbach called on former mayor Roxanne Qualls to spearhead the new taskforce.

“Then 3CDC provided staff support,” says Rudemiller. “The whole process was really pretty seamless.”

Especially considering the wide breadth of varying viewpoints the taskforce had to consider.

“It was actually a very engaged group of people, many of whom had extensive experience with downtown and other projects,” says Qualls. “As people shared their ideas with consultants, they would come back with new designs based on the ideas they heard.

“So it was a constant iterative process of adjusting. As a result, we came out with a plan that achieves our goals in terms of supporting and creating a vibrant space in which we can live, work and play, and where residential and retail establishments can grow,” Qualls adds. “But in addition, the plan was also adapted to accommodate the needs and concerns of some of the long-term businesses in the area.”

According to Rudemiller, there were some businesses that expressed concerns. Among them was an attorney with clients who faced physical and accessibility challenges. The other was Avril-Bleh Meats and Deli, which caters to customers who might need to load up vehicles, requiring parking that was close by.

“One of the key things we did throughout this process was to do a real world parking study, where we actually blocked off some spaces in the area to determine whether or not parking was actually going to be an issue,” says Rudemiller. “So we worked with the city on blocking off spaces, and put together a report.

“What we came up with was a compromise that included adding in loading zone spaces and creating handicapped parking so customers with accessibility issues can park close. It’s a good mix that allows for enough parking while expanding sidewalks.”

There was already a lot of good parking in the general area, Rudemiller notes.

“As one of the developers of the new Kroger On-The-Rhine, we operate a parking garage, which includes some spaces that are reserved for Kroger’s customers,” says Rudemiller. “Other spaces are reserved for tenants of the 139 apartments that are a part of that development. That leaves about 420 open spaces for the general public. Then, there used to be a Monroe Muffler store in a vacant lot just north of the Court Street Condos, which we just wrapped up. We got control of that site, which is now another 36-space surface lot, serving Kroger customers who just need a quick in and out.”

While relatively small in terms of its scope, the Court Street Streetscape is still very important to the renaissance of our entire downtown.

“Even smaller projects like Court Street are critical to future growth,” says Qualls. “These smaller projects build upon successes like Washington Park, Ziegler Park, Fountain Square and other major investments in public space. Cities are about people and bringing people together. It’s important that we create spaces that encourage people to use those spaces to conduct their daily lives.

“So this is an investment that will be transformative for the surrounding retail and for the surrounding residential that already exists there. But it will also support the expansion of more retail and residential coming into downtown.”

The fact that this section of Court Street is bracketed by Kroger’s headquarters and its new 52,000 square-foot urban format store also created a sense of urgency.

“This project is also a recognition that Kroger is a very important corporate member of our community, which is an understatement to say the least,” adds Qualls. “But certainly, one of the things that Kroger would like to do is not just support residential development, but also support this public space by encouraging their employees to use it. The vibrancy of any space is how many hours during the day you can have people living in the space and enjoying it—whether it’s actively or passively.”

With two major facilities in the neighborhood, Kroger was among the first to jump on board with the concept.

“Kroger is heavily invested in Cincinnati, including our new Kroger On-The-Rhine grocery store located on Court Street,” says Erin Rolfes, corporate affairs manager, Cincinnati-Dayton division, Kroger. “We believe the Court Street Plaza Revitalization project will continue to take Court Street to the next level with vibrant new businesses and restaurants—and we’re enthusiastic about all the possibilities the redesigned plaza holds.”

With the completion of the 139 apartments on top of the new Kroger store and its Court Street condos close by, it’s clear that 3CDC is heavily invested in the area. When Kroger closed its redundant store on Vine Street five blocks away last year to make room for its new store on Court Street, the nonprofit economic development corporation took over the Over-the-Rhine property, converting it to a parking lot. There are now plans to redevelop that site into yet another mixed use building within the next five years.

“In terms of our other downtown projects, we’re still in construction of our Fourth and Race project,” says Rudemiller.

It’s another mixed use, $116 million project in the southwest corner of the central business district that includes 22,000 square feet of street level commercial space, 584 parking spaces and 264 apartments.

“And we just wrapped up some office projects in Over-the-Rhine, which include street level commercial space,” he adds.

It’s obvious that 3CDC is bullish on mixed-use development.

“When you do a mixed-use development, you are essentially doing two things,” says Rudemiller. “You are building up residents, but you are also supplying them with amenities in the commercial space, which could be retail or restaurants, that are right in their own building. And for small businesses that move in, they have a built in customer base.

“We also try to incorporate a parking element to our projects as well—and that has been the key to our success so far. Pairing residential with commercial space drives more feet on the street, which also means a safer neighborhood—so it all works together.”

While 3CDC is heavily committed to the Court Street Corridor, the organization feels the whole area is on the rise, says Rudemiller.

“One of the key components of this project is that if you are at Fountain Square and walk up Vine Street, there is a section at Sixth or Seventh where you get up to Over-the-Rhine that is a bit of a dead zone. What we are trying to do is connect those two neighborhoods,” says Rudemiller. “So that when a visitor comes in and catches a concert on Fountain Square (once COVID is over) they can walk up Vine and it’s a positive seamless experience all the way up.”

In terms of OTR, 3CDC is focused on creating more affordable housing.

“When we first started our work in 2003 and 2004, there was very little home ownership—only about 4%,” notes Rudemiller. “A lot of our projects there are now about providing market-rate housing to bring our homeownership rates up. We are at a place in Over-the-Rhine where economic forces have allowed some other developers in the area to come in and do their own condos like the ones we were doing.”

Two affordable housing projects from 3CDC are currently under construction, Rudemiller notes. These include the Perseverance project and the Willkommen project.

Perseverance includes 32 units of affordable housing with street-level commercial space on Vine, which is being co-developed with Over-The-Rhine Community Housing. The project includes the renovation of three existing historic buildings and infill construction on one vacant lot at the western 1500 block of Vine Street. The project includes the development of residential apartments—100% affordable units, available to people making 50-60% of the Area Median Income and five street-level commercial spaces. Perseverance is part of the larger Affordable Housing strategy 3CDC is executing with several partners, and is also the organization’s first development partnership with OTRCH.

The development will provide a huge visible impact to the northern portion of Vine Street south of Liberty Street, and the historic and new construction buildings will also achieve Enterprise Green Communities Certification (renovation) or LEED silver certification (new construction).

For its part, Willkommen is a mixed-use, mixed-income project consisting of 16 historic rehabs and four new infill buildings scattered throughout four different project sites in OTR. Part of a larger affordable housing strategy between 3CDC and several of its partners, the project is being co-developed with the Model Group.

The project required a complicated financing structure that included 13 different funding sources, including federal and state New Markets Tax Credits, federal and state Historic Tax Credits, Opportunity Zone investments, conventional debt and city funding. It will include a total of 163 units—69 apartments available to people making 50-80% of the Area Median Income and 94 market-rate units. The apartments range from efficiencies to three-bedroom units.

In addition to the residential component, the project contains nearly 20,000 square feet of first-floor commercial space. The historic buildings will be Enterprise Green Communities certified while three of the four infill buildings will achieve LEED silver certification.

Those are but a few of the multi-million dollar investments being overseen by 3CDC.

“From the start of our operations in 2003, our projects account for more than $1.5 billion in development,” says Rudemiller. “Last year, we also merged with Downtown Cincinnati, Inc., so we manage downtown for bids in our special improvement district.

“But we are really excited about Court Street and not only the huge impact it will have on the area in terms of placemaking and beautification, but also with the events and programming we envision. It will turn into a great destination area over the next couple of years as we finish up all these projects.”

Cincinnati is lucky to have a nonprofit economic development engine like 3CDC, but the organization wouldn’t be possible without the cooperation, support and partnership of government and business.

Clearly, 3CDC was formed here because of city leadership. The city’s political leaders often stay involved in the community well after they leave office, like former mayors Qualls and Charlie Luken, says Rudemiller. “Then there are the major corporations and their corporate leaders, like George Schaefer, former CEO of Fifth Third Bancorp, and A.G. Lafley, former chairman, president and CEO of P&G. Without this kind of corporate leadership an organization like 3CDC would simply not exist.

“The major corporations in Cincinnati contribute their finance as well as their time to our work, and I think that’s what really sets apart from other cities. It’s our civic pride.”

So is it just 3CDC, the city’s unique business and government partnerships and corporate civic pride that are driving downtown development?

The easiest answer is no. There are key market forces at work as well

“I think Cincinnati’s strength are numerous,” says Qualls, who is also a real estate executive with an eye for emerging markets. “No. 1, we are very affordable. But two, we have also invested a tremendous amount of time, talent and money in making our city a place where people want to visit. Our residential sector, retail sector and entertainment sector are all best in class for any city our size, and I would argue for many cities that exceed our size as well.

“We are simply best in class, and we’re getting better every day.”