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Placemaking: Revitalizing a Cincinnati Neighborhood

Cincinnati skyline
December 2019

The suburbanization of post-WWII America introduced a significant transformation of the form of the built environment—the collection of places where we live, work, socialize and play. Driven by rapid population movement, new design criteria centered around the automobile, segregated use-based zoning philosophy, growth of franchise businesses and a host of other influencing factors, the physical form of our built environment drastically changed from its historic patterns.

Over time, these development patterns yielded an environment that was, at best, not locally meaningful to the community and, at worst, inhumane collections of vast parking lots surrounding single-purpose buildings or the nearly universally disdained “suburban strip.” During the more than 70 years since WWII, these patterns of growth have continued to evolve and, in the opinion of many, have finally been proven a failed effort now degradingly referred to as “suburban sprawl.”

During this transformation, hundreds of years of collective understanding of urban form and town planning—a body of knowledge known as Civic Art—has been frittered away. Once vibrant walkable urban areas have been traded for gated subdivisions, big-box retail, and stand-alone office parks and institutions. During this growth period, financial capital grew, but social capital was simultaneously degraded through the impoverishment of the quality of the built environment.

Urban Revival

During the past several decades, many have responded and moved to rediscover the lost wisdom of civic art and traditional planning. This movement has gradually matured as communities have recognized the value of saving our historic architecture and neighborhoods before they’re lost or restoring them through strategic infill development. Key elements central to the rediscovery of the value of a quality-built environment include authenticity and local relevance. Places that feel duplicated, contrived or only focused on financial metrics—ignoring beauty and human flourishing—feel inauthentic and do not merit our commitment and love as community residents. The “sense of place” (Genius Loci), has returned to our modern lexicon as many want to identify with where they live, work, socialize and play in an authentic way. Today, the multifaceted art of crafting these authentic places, which goes beyond basic physical design solutions but rather delivers environments of lasting value, is referred to as “placemaking.”

Placemaking is a people-centered approach to planning, designing, building and developing public and private spaces that capitalize on the unique local physical, social and human assets and lead to health, happiness and well-being, considered necessary components of human flourishing.

Creating Places People Love

Places need destinations; things to do, places to be and be seen, areas that offer visual and spatial identity. Conventional suburban development patterns often treated buildings, typically single-purpose spaces, as objects within the landscape, surrounded by parking. To get from one use to the next required multiple auto trips and an anti-walkable form that diminished opportunities for pedestrian interactions, gathering and socialization.

Placemaking transforms this pattern by rediscovering the dynamic mix of uses prevalent in our historic development patterns. When buildings generally follow street and sidewalk patterns, they serve to define public and private spaces, rather than serve as stand-alone objects. The diversity of spaces created then include a blend of “Main Street” walkability replete with shopping districts, dining opportunities, residential housing, parks, squares and institutional uses. Collectively, these places, activities, spaces and destinations create a vibrant and memorable community setting residents and visitors identify with and, most important, care about and grow to love.

Creating Value for All

As the world of urban real estate development continues to grow in complexity, it’s important to look at ways to create value for all parties and successfully accomplish the collective goals for growth and progress.

One way to do this and involve the community and key stakeholders is through public-private partnerships. From major infrastructure and transportation projects to neighborhood infill developments, the private development community and local, state and federal governments are increasingly interdependent in finding best practices and means of designing, constructing and funding the advancement of projects. Public-private partnerships are an example of how developers can perform at their best, finding ways to come together and realize productive solutions toward improving and advancing how we thrive within our communities. A key component of placemaking and successfully creating authentic places that people care about is to understand the key assets and points of value intrinsic to a location. With a self-determinant neighborhood and city setting the stage for development, who better to infuse the process with this knowledge than the local community?

A Prime Example: College Hill Station

An exciting opportunity for Pennrose Properties to engage in transformative placemaking is in the College Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati (pictured). In 2018, the College Hill Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (CHCURC) announced Pennrose as the preferred developer for the 7.5-acre College Hill Station site. The effort to redevelop College Hill Station is the culmination of years of work and preparation by the City of Cincinnati and CHCURC, who have been taking steps to redevelop the neighborhood since 2002—addressing streetscapes, infrastructure, parking and the revitalization of the business district.

The city-owned land, occupying the prominent corner of Hamilton Avenue and North Bend Road, has sat vacant for years. This intersection is the critical “main and main” junction of the neighborhood and presents a unique opportunity to capitalize on the success CHCURC has realized in the business district to the south while also advancing the sense of place for the community. Pennrose, CHCURC and Traditions Group/D-HAS have partnered to build a single-phase mixed-use development solution for this key site, including 173 multifamily housing residential apartment homes and approximately 11,000 square feet of commercial space in four-story mixed-use buildings on the busiest street frontages, then tapering to 33 lower density for-sale single-family homes as the site transitions back into the predominantly single-family neighborhood beyond. This transformative plan sets the stage for the human interactions and building of social capital that will enhance this neighborhood for generations to come.

Pennrose is proud to have been selected to partner with CHCURC given its understanding of the community’s needs and strong background of successful development and attracting new business and retail to the area. There are several factors Pennrose considers when evaluating opportunities for redevelopment, which, as in any real estate endeavor, include location, population and demographic trends, transportation, access to jobs, etc.

The College Hill Station site is attractive for a variety of these reasons, but it was the strong, organized leadership in the neighborhood, along with the highly engaged and determined community members, that were the most compelling attributes that gave Pennrose confidence in the long-term viability of this investment.

Pennrose exists to create vibrant communities that lead to human flourishing, where residents enjoy a sense of pride for their home and community. By employing the art and craft of placemaking, taking a full view of community development, the company creates the best opportunities for realizing long-term sustainable value for all.