Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Group petitioning council to stop Over-the-Rhine demolitions

Danny Klingler, who once pledged his entire stimulus check to save the Meiner Flats building at 1500 Vine Street, is leading a new group looking to do even more to preserve Over-the-Rhine's built environment for future generations.

Alerted by Over-the-Rhine Foundation executive director Mike Morgan last September of the numerous neighborhood buildings in "emergency" status – declared nuisances and on their way to demolition – the group has been holding hearings in front of Cincinnati City Council's Vibrant Neighborhoods Committee in an attempt to convince council of what they consider a serious threat to the City's future.

So far, two hearings have been held to outline what the loss of more buildings would mean, and what kind of solutions or policy changes could end it.

"My goal this time around is to garner sufficient support from citizens, residents, and OTR lovers to be able to pressure the City not to tear these buildings down," Klingler says. "Right now they are hovering way below the radar and yet I think if people knew, they would be upset."

A tipping point

A survey and thesis written by Klingler a couple of years ago show that much of the neighborhood's urban fabric has been lost since 1930, and he believes the neighborhood is at a tipping point.

Many of the buildings are in the Findlay Market and Vine/McMicken areas.

"Three of them are located within important stretches that still have a lot of integrity and a nice street wall," Klingler says. To lose all of these buildings would be a significant hit to the neighborhood in my opinion, because much of this area has reached a tipping point where any further demolitions and gaps in the fabric will really harm the unique feel of OTR."

To Klingler, it seems like the majority of Cincinnatians have no clue what a gem they have, right in their backyard.

"I think if people knew that one of the world's most renowned travel experts came to OTR and said that it 'could literally rival similar prosperous and heavily visited areas', that could help support the effort to preserve buildings," he says. "If people would only realize that OTR is among only a handful of truly unique, intact districts in the U.S....."

'It's a feeling of loss'

With the preservation initiative in full swing, one of the buildings, 57 E Clifton Avenue, was demolished.

"I felt helpless, almost sick," Klingler says. "It was horrible. It's a feeling of loss."

That event only served to sharpen Klingler's focus.

"I was pretty bummed out, but more determined than ever to get our city's aggressive demolition policies changed, and to save the other buildings."

So why have there been so many demolitions?

"There are several answers to this question," Klingler says. "Fundamentally, it's because the city has an obligation to look out for public safety, so if a building deteriorates to the point where they feel it is a threat to public safety, they tear it down. The reason buildings deteriorate to that level is they're owned by speculators, investors, and other assholes who choose not to maintain them, and know that they can often get away with it. The city tries to prosecute them, but it's difficult and complicated. But one of the overarching reasons for demolition is that politically, and as a city, we don't value OTR the way we should; we don't know what we have."

Better returns for the money

"Emergency demolition" means that the City will step in and tear a building down, then place a lien against the owner.

Typically, the City only receives a 10 percent payback on its liens.

Klingler believes that his group has a better idea, which has been shown to be successful.

"What we were able to do with Meiner Flats was to get the city to agree to take that demo money and use it toward stabilizing the building," he says. "There's no reason we couldn't do that with these buildings, and with others in the future."

In addition to presenting the economic value of a preserved Over-the-Rhine and convincing council of the imminent threat, the group would like to see a receivership program implemented.

"That would fund a non-profit to force owners to maintain their properties or lose them," Klingler says. "We had such a program in OTR ten years ago, and it led to many many buildings being saved, buildings that we now take for granted."

Slowed, but not stopped

Due to budget limitations and a shift in attitudes, demolitions in Over-the-Rhine have decreased recently, Klingler says.

"I will say that the rate of emergency demolitions has slowed quite a bit, and credit to B&I for that," he says. "They're looking for alternatives and trying not to demolish buildings. Meiner Flats was a prime example. But, at the same time, we've seen an increase in the demolitions due to non-profits."

One non-profit, which Klingler doesn't name, owns several buildings on Walnut north of Liberty Street.

Klingler says that it's is actively petitioning the City to tear the buildings down.

"Non-profits are particularly dangerous because the historic regulations are much less strict when applied to them," he says. "In short, there are a whole bunch of buildings that could legitimately be classified as endangered."

Building support

"We started working with a small coalition of five people from OTR Foundation and Cincinnati Preservation Association to prepare a presentation for council, and to garner support," Klingler says. "We met with Steve Leeper, who vouched 3CDC's support, and have been collecting letters of support from different organizations."

Klingler says that he would be receptive to putting together a community meeting to provide more information and to enlist support.

"If enough awareness can be raised and turned into a bit of outrage and public pressure, the City just might relent in their hastiness to take these buildings down," he says. "There's also still a little pot of money left over from the Meiner Flats pledge campaign, which I'm thinking about using to get a second opinion on the buildings from a reputable structural engineer. Often a second opinion leads to a completely different prognosis for a building."

Other possibilities include the use of websites, blogs, and social media to get the word out, but Klingler says that older modes of communication can work just as well.

"I'd encourage them to sign a letter of support for the preservation efforts that are underway, and even to come to one of the council meetings where these issues are being discussed," he says. "There's nothing like the power of numbers to spur council to action."

If unsuccessful?

"If we're not successful with this, we are almost guaranteed to lose a lot of important buildings," Klingler says. I think I also mentioned to you that we're working on an economic impact study that will be the first real study of OTR's economic impact on the city. It will consider everything from employment, to construction activity, to the influx of young professionals, to the impact of tourism from events like Bockfest, Brewery Tours, and the Symphony, et cetera."

A third and final meeting before the Vibrant Neighborhoods Committee is tentatively scheduled for July, when the group will unveil its recommendations and proposals, including an economic impact study that will consider the neighborhood's true impact on the City – from employment, to construction activity, to tourism.

"That's the big one," Klingler says.

57 E Clifton Avenue demolition photos courtesy of Danny Klingler.

Previous reading on BC:
What becomes of Meiner Flats donations? (9/23/08)
Cincinnati approves $187K for Meiner Flats stabilization agreement (9/18/08)
City considers $187,000 for Meiner Flats stabilization (9/2/08)
New Meiner Flats blog to aid in preservation effort (5/7/08)
Preservation Magazine spotlights Meiner Flats (5/1/08)