33 Years After Bengals’ Last Super Bowl Bid, Urban Investment Has Transformed Cincinnati
Super Bowl XXIII, played after the 1988 season, is known mostly for being the San Francisco 49ers’ third championship and the one with a halftime show headlined by Elvis impersonator Elvis Presto. But it was also the last time the Cincinnati Bengals appeared in the Super Bowl.
When the likes of Boomer Esiason, Ickey Woods and Cris Collinsworth roamed the field in that January 1989 game, Cincinnati’s urban core closed down at the end of the workday Friday and didn’t start bustling again until Monday morning. But as Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon and Ja'Marr Chase prepare to take the field Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, against the Rams in Super Bowl LVI, Cincinnati has transformed into a more vibrant mixed-use city, highlighted by areas like Over-the-Rhine and Uptown where people want to live, work and play.
“Thirty years ago, there was no investment in Over-the-Rhine, there was minimal investment in Uptown, which was all driven by the hospitals and the University of Cincinnati,” Neyer Properties Executive Vice President of Development Chris Dobrozsi told Bisnow. “So what you had back then were people and businesses were leaving the urban core and heading out to the suburbs.”
“Downtown would kind of close up around 5:00,” Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. Vice President of Marketing and Communications Joe Rudemiller said. “The businesses would all close, the restaurants and retailers would close, and everybody would kind of go home.”
Starting in the 2000s, the trend reversed. People began to move back to the city from suburbs like Blue Ash.
“They wanted a different lifestyle, which is much more urban, much more compact, great amenities, great art, close to the university,” Dobrozsi said. “So you had people driving back to downtown, and it started with residential and a lot of great amenities, and a brand-new baseball park and football stadium doesn’t hurt, either.”
Organizations like the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., or 3CDC, and the Uptown Consortium have worked with private developers over the last few decades to build up the once-disinvested areas of Cincinnati. But as the city changes and meets the needs of people who are coming to the urban core from suburban areas, it still has to meet the needs of the people who already inhabited the trendy areas where development and redevelopment are happening.
“Developers now are trying to be more engaging with their communities that they’re going into because they are a guest in that neighborhood for a period of time,” said Bill Witten, principal at WEB Ventures, a consulting firm focused on economic inclusion. “That’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen.”
As investment moved out of Cincinnati and into the suburbs, Over-the-Rhine and Uptown’s five neighborhoods (Avondale, Clifton, Corryville, University Heights and Mount Auburn) suffered, with buildings falling into dilapidation and high crime rates, locals said.
“[Over-the-Rhine] used to be considered one of our troubled neighborhoods and had a lot of poverty,” said Harry Blanton, senior vice president and manager of economic development for HCDC, formerly the Hamilton County Development Co.
The neighborhood, which is just north of downtown Cincinnati and has become a tourist hot spot with a mix of restaurants, retail, entertainment and homes, was so named for the German immigrants who settled there in the 19th century. But by the 2000s, it was rife with crime. It was named one of the nation's most dangerous neighborhoods in 2009 and 2010.
It took bloodshed before changes were implemented.
In April 2001, police shot and killed Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old unarmed Black man with arrest warrants for nonviolent crimes who ran after officers spotted him. Protests, some violent, centered on Over-the-Rhine, where Thomas lived.
Rudemiller called it a tipping point. The corporate community, which includes consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble, grocer Kroger and Fifth Third Bank, along with then-Mayor Charlie Luken, committed to investing in the neighborhood.
The city and the corporations had a canvas to work with in Over-the-Rhine, albeit one in disrepair.
“Over-the-Rhine is the largest collection of 19th-century Italianate architecture in the country, but due to the disinvestment, a number of the beautiful historic buildings were literally crumbling and falling in on themselves,” Rudemiller said.
3CDC, which was established in 2003, bought several of the dilapidated buildings in OTR and embarked on the renovation of Fountain Square, the historic center of Cincinnati's civic life in the CBD, which is now the site of free, family-friendly programming.
“One of the thoughts behind renovating Fountain Square first and providing programming throughout the week in the evening was to try to keep folks downtown and stay down and give them something to do,” Rudemiller said.
3CDC, a nonprofit, went on to buy more OTR properties and renovate them for mixed-use, initially with condos on upper floors and street-level retail and restaurants, but increasingly the focus has been on mixed-income and affordable rental units for residential portions.
Of the 502 apartments 3CDC has directly developed in Over-the-Rhine, 325, or about 65%, are classified as affordable to people making 80% or less of the area median income, which in 2019 was $40,640, according to the Census Bureau. All 32 apartments that make up the three-building Perseverance renovation project are affordable to people making 50% to 60% of AMI, according to 3CDC. The affordability range is wider for other projects, including Willkommen, which has 69 of the total 163 apartments set aside for people earning 50% to 80% of AMI.
Rudemiller said the organization contracts with third-party property management companies for the apartments, but 3CDC is a hands-on retail landlord, taking on greater responsibility in recruiting minority- and women-owned businesses to occupy its retail spaces. Twenty-eight percent of its street-level commercial spaces in OTR are leased to minority-owned businesses. Nearly half of the ground-floor commercial leases in Over-the-Rhine are with women-owned businesses.
The Uptown neighborhoods, while farther from the central business district than OTR, are home to institutions like the University of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, but that didn’t save them from disinvestment and rising crime.
Murders in Avondale, one of Uptown's neighborhoods, more than doubled from four in 2006 to 11 in 2007, while robberies in Mount Auburn went from 28 in 2006 to 42 in 2007. But since 2008, as investment in the area has increased, crime on and around the University of Cincinnati's Uptown campus has steadily decreased, according to the department of public safety.
Much like 3CDC did in Over-the-Rhine, Uptown Consortium, a group of institutional partners founded in 2004 that includes the university, the zoo and the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, has worked to bridge the gap between the communities they operate in and the developers reimagining the city.
Whereas 3CDC originally partnered with private groups to oversee development and has shifted into more of an active role with its in-house development team, Uptown Consortium has gone the opposite direction, President and CEO Beth Robinson said. Uptown Consortium now serves as a master planner while private developers like Neyer take on individual projects, allowing Uptown Consortium to focus on the bigger picture, including economic inclusion efforts to make sure existing residents, some of whom have expressed concerns about housing insecurity, aren’t displaced. Some of Uptown's neighborhoods are predominantly Black.
The consortium has contracted with WEB Ventures to make economic inclusion a key component of development in Uptown’s neighborhoods. One of Uptown Consortium’s biggest projects has been the Uptown Innovation Corridor, a group of mixed-use developments near a new Interstate 71 interchange at Martin Luther King Drive that is expected to garner $2.5B of project investment and total more than 3.5M SF.
“A new interchange for an urban exit is rare, and we were able to get one,” Robinson said. “That has really opened up development opportunities because the access has improved tremendously.”
Uptown Consortium assembles parcels for sale to developers, and WEB Ventures on behalf of Uptown Consortium writes community benefits agreements with developers, Witten said.
And they have been successful. He said the protocol WEB developed calls for 25% or more of developers’ spend to be with minority business enterprises and at least 6% with women business enterprises. Developers have exceeded the benchmark, averaging around 40% or better of developer spend being with MBEs or WBEs, Witten said.
Beyond that, WEB has created a committee to ensure that people living in the Uptown neighborhoods have career opportunities as a result of the investment in the neighborhood in an attempt to keep them from being priced out. Median two-bedroom rents in Avondale increased from $625 a month in March 2015 to $900 a month in February 2022, according to Zumper data. The 44% increase those figures represent is about in line with Cincinnati as a whole, but that doesn't assuage affordability concerns.
Uptown Consortium has generally set a benchmark that 20% of apartments be affordable to those making 110% of AMI or less, Robinson said. But even more than ensuring there is enough relatively affordable housing, Witten's focus is on incorporating residents into the economic success of the neighborhood, getting residents into career paths that allow them to afford high-quality housing.
“I think sometimes we’re trying to solve the problem about housing, and we’re not solving the problem about people going to work which will put them in the position to afford a better housing than they’ve got,” he said.
Government and corporate investment has made Cincinnati an attractive city for other investors, in no small part because of the up-and-coming neighborhoods like OTR and those in Uptown. That has led companies looking for places to land to see Cincinnati in that same light.
“There’s been a major investment by the government and private interests in our area,” Blanton said. “We’re a ripe opportunity.”