German Brewery Workers & Restaurant Roulette in Cincinnati
I spent part of the holidays in the Cincinnati region and visited some of the most rapidly redeveloping urban neighborhoods in the nation, generally north of the city’s traditional Central Business District (CBD), although there are a number of places Downtown experiencing a lot of reinvestment as well. Over the Rhine (commonly written as OTR) is a national treasure, containing the largest amount of Italianate architecture in the United States and with nearly 1,000 contributing structures, it is believed to be the largest, most intact urban historic district in the country. This neighborhood, originally settled by primarily German immigrants and home to a major pre-prohibition brewery district, covers dozens of city blocks and is one of the U.S.’s most well preserved historic areas, often cited as possessing a similar character to New Orleans’s French Quarter or historic Charleston, South Carolina, although distinctly early-American in style.
Once the location of some of the most persistent blight in the metropolitan region, OTR has now transitioned into an area experiencing rapid reinvestment, creative adaptive reuses and renovations, and even major infill development, including a recently announced $75 million multi-phase project. OTR has helped link existing regional assets, like the University of Cincinnati, Findlay Market, and Cincinnati Music Hall, to the CBD, traveling along Vine Street and feeding other areas of recent redevelopment, like Fountain Square in the heart of Downtown as well as to the Banks project on the riverfront, situated between the Reds and Bengals stadiums. Recent investments include adding a bicycle sharing program called Red Bike, a streetcar line slated to open soon, and a $48 million renovation of Washington Park in OTR, which reopened in 2012. By all accounts OTR is one of Cincinnati’s recent success stories and garnered the city deserved national attention.
But while I was there, a local newspaper article documented an experience I’ve navigated a handful of times before – the article dubbed it “restaurant roulette.” Simply, OTR’s success has become so widely known throughout the Cincinnati region, even to the point of drawing out-of-towners like me whenever I’m visiting, many of the quaint restaurants that line Vine Street post 2 to 3 hour waits for a table; further, many do not take reservations. The idea of “restaurant roulette” is to then split up your dinner party and place your name on multiple restaurants’ wait lists simultaneously, and then take the first one that opens up – even then, the waits can be long and the strategy has created complications and frustrations to both diners and proprietors alike.
This phenomenon made me think about OTR’s unique (and rapid) success story and the interesting dynamic that just about the same amount of startups and small businesses actually fail at their first significant period of rapid growth and expansion as they do in their early, fledgling stages. Simply, growth often smothers a rapidly growing small business, not the lack of customers.
I see similarities with a new startup venture and a neighborhood revitalization effort like OTR. The earliest examples of reinvestment started small, carried the highest degree of risk, and in the short-term, were a bit of a grind with low rewards. Then seemingly one day everybody knew about OTR and everybody – whether a business owner, or real estate developer, or consumer – wanted to be a part of that success. OTR now faces growth management as one of its central challenges.
So what role does urban planning play in ensuring continued success in this situation?
Planners do often work with the consequences of fast, uncoordinated growth and how the short-term benefits may not outweigh their long-term negative impacts (i.e. an unbalanced land use mix and its tax burden impact on homeowners). But we typically address this dynamic in rapidly developing suburban or exurban areas that are churning through greenfields and farmland.
But these challenges carry a lot of similarities – how can OTR continue to develop, but do so strategically in a way that preserves its recent successes and builds on those accomplishments? How does it handle unique challenges, such as a nationally-precious but finite supply of historic structures, and ensure that each project is professionally completed with a focus that maintains past quality? How can the community balance the demand for more restaurants and more projects more quickly, against ensuring that future projects are not done so focused on the short-term, they ultimately undercut the long-term viability of the neighborhood?