Is Dayton Street The Next OTR?
On historic Dayton Street, revitalization happens slowly, one house at a time.
John Hauck probably walked to work every day. This was true even on dark winter mornings, when he likely left the coal-fed warmth of his center-hall mansion at 812 Dayton Street to make the one-block trek to his brewery. The cobblestone road he traveled, known then as Millionaire’s Row, was lit with gas lamps whose soft light revealed dozens of homes similar in appearance to his own—a stately brick structure with an Italianate-style stone facade. Hauck’s late-1800s neighbors included other important men in the city—meat packers, doctors, attorneys, civil rights activists, a one-time mayor—and family members, too (his daughter lived next door; his son a few doors down from that).
Shortly after the turn of the century, though, the street began to change. Affluent families like Hauck’s moved up Cincinnati’s hillsides, building new homes even farther away from the grit of downtown’s basin. Middle- and working-class families moved into Dayton Street’s once prestigious homes, and by the 1920s, most of them had been converted to multi-family dwellings. Hauck’s brewery was replaced by a pickle factory; gas lamps and cobblestones by fluorescent lights and asphalt. Hauck’s home became a museum and the neighborhood was established as an historic district in 1965. It underwent a mini-revival in the early 1980s, but the ever-expanding suburbs once again beckoned, downtown riots frightened away visitors, and soon Dayton Street, like the rest of the West End and much of downtown, sat largely undisturbed. Before long the weather-worn roofs on Dayton Street homes started crumbling and looters began stealing everything from doorknobs to bathtub feet and stained glass windows.
It’s a story we’ve all heard before, the decline of a neighborhood in an urban area. And yet it’s not.
Quietly, and in growing numbers over the past few years, Dayton Street’s homes are being lovingly restored and turned back into single family dwellings. Crown moldings have been recast and repaired. Walls gutted and brand new fixtures installed—everything from those missing doorknobs to toilets and tubs. A group of dedicated and hard-working homeowners is trying to make this back into a neighborhood where people will want to live. Not Millionaire’s Row, but not neglected either. Something vibrant and alive that respects the past and embraces the reality of the present.
Located about three-quarters of a mile northwest of Findlay Market, Dayton Street is—not unlike the Betts-Longworth historic district—just slightly off downtown Cincinnati’s beaten path. Even so, it has a lot going for it, most notably its significant role in Cincinnati’s history and the fact that the 800 and 900 blocks between Linn and Freeman—the original Millionaire’s Row—remain almost 100 percent intact. (There has been just one demolition, to make way for a church.)
And of course there’s still the Hauck House. Now owned by the Cincinnati Preservation Association, it’s one of the few structures on the street that’s managed to stay pretty much untouched. It serves, says Dayton Street resident John Valentine, as the neighborhood’s “anchor.” But an anchor’s no good without a ship, or—more specifically—a crew. Cue the corps of dedicated homeowners, a group as eclectic as the area itself. Here’s a small sampling:
John Valentine (pronounced Val-en-teen), a young bachelor who serves as music director for Sacred Heart Church in Camp Washington, currently lives at 913 and has strong local ties—“my family was here from 1860 to 1987”; Gerald Bates, a former P&G-er who’s lived at 837 with his wife Linda since 1978; Kim McCarty, who moved here in 1999 with her husband (they have two sons, ages 12 and 14); and Joe and Robin Creighton, young newlyweds who are renovating 909 (they currently live in Over-the-Rhine). Joe owns The Rookwood and Cheapside Café, and Robin’s a photographer based in OTR.
They’re a diverse group—Bates is black, while Valentine, McCarty, and the Creightons are white—with different backgrounds all united for the same cause. Many are former members of the Dayton Street Neighborhood Association, which disbanded last year to make way for the more streamlined Dayton Street Preservation Foundation. As property owners, all have a vested interest in Dayton Street’s success. Their visions for the future are pretty straightforward:
“Safe and clean and houses not falling down,” says Valentine.
“I want to see kids running down the street playing with each other,” says Robin Creighton.
And Bates would like “a more vibrant community,” including safe places to grab a snack or some last minute groceries, noting the time he tried to get coffee at a local restaurant and a dealer climbed into his car, assuming he was there to buy drugs.
Still, from McCarty, who dons “rose colored glasses,” to Bates, who’s “not looking for suburbia,” all approach living on Dayton Street in a different way, and all demonstrate that there’s no one way to bring this place back to life, either. The one solution that’s not acceptable, they all agree, is holing up inside your own house, or sitting back and waiting for someone else to do something. Because “someone else” never really seems to come along.
So what has changed since the revitalization efforts of the 1980s? Two things: what CPA’s Margo Warminski calls “a global re-urbanization movement,” and the local embodiment of that—a successful redevelopment effort in Over-the-Rhine. This time around, Dayton Street homeowners are watching the effects of OTR’s revitalization creep slowly northward and hoping it’ll extend just a little further west, toward them, where single family homes and yards might seem a welcome relief from the rest of downtown’s cramped multi-family structures and roaming packs of revelers. The key, Dayton-Streeters say, is to capture OTR’s success without all of its commercialization. “It’s about not [just] thinking ‘money, money, money,’” says Joe Creighton. Dayton Street “can be a one-off place. It can be different.”
It’s a catch-22, though, because much of OTR’s success is due to the efforts of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, which focuses on food, entertainment, and shopping (in addition to housing). Without those factors and—more important—without the backing of a wallet and network the size of 3CDC’s, revitalization efforts will always be slower and less guaranteed to succeed.
“3CDC just showed you that anything’s possible,” says Joe. But “we’re not begging for the one business or a swarm of people to come in,” adds McCarty. Instead, they hope that “as demand continues in Over-the-Rhine, the eyes just keep looking and all of a sudden the [Dayton Street] houses are occupied.”
If 3CDC isn’t the Dayton Street homeowners’ hero of choice, then who—or what—is? The group feels even the smallest efforts can contribute to re-growth: Valentine manages a website, daytonstreethistoric.org, to keep people informed; the newly formed Dayton Street Preservation Foundation keeps a close eye on neighborhood happenings (McCarty and Bates are both board members); the district’s status as historic was expanded last year; a house tour last fall drew almost 1,000 people, says Valentine; and, with help from the West End Community Council, the former Neighborhood Association raised enough funds to purchase and install a new sign fronting Linn Street (it was made from the facade of the former York Street Police Station). Plus, they’ve all solicited friends to buy homes nearby. Most recently, Joe encouraged his business partner, Rom Wells, who ended up buying 929.
One thing that would give the place a huge boost, they all agree, is the development of two vacant local schools—Heberle and Bloom. New York’s Zada Development Group bought both 1920s-era properties in 2012 and has plans to convert first Heberle and then Bloom, says CEO Golan Marom, into apartments with “a commercial component on the bottom floor,” like the Emery Center Apartments on Central Parkway. Marom says Zada’s already “achieved” both $1.8 million in state tax credits for Heberle, and in the final week of August, a letter of intent from his bank. “Typically,” he says, “it takes between 30 and 40 days” from there to schedule a closing date. “We’re really ready to go ahead. We already finished our architectural plans [and] all the paperwork. The only thing stopping us is the closing of our loan.”
Joe worries that the developer’s slow pace makes him “out of touch with what’s going on.” After all, Dayton Street residents see both buildings as rife with potential. “If each had 50 apartments,” says Bates, “that would bring 100 new people down here. And if just 10 percent of those people living in those apartments decided to become homeowners, all these vacant buildings we talked about would have a good chance of being renovated.”
Still, if Zada doesn’t get the loan approvals it needs to move forward on renovations, there’s no telling if the developer will retain the properties; in a worst-case scenario, the schools could end up something like the Terrace Plaza on Sixth Street—a giant pawn in a real estate game involving constant ownership changes and untold years of vacancy and neglect.
“Our neighborhood,” Kim McCarty says, “was neglected for so long, the blight is rooted.” [But] when a community wakes up, the light pushes that out.”
Neighborhood advocates are optimistic nonetheless. In fact, Joe says he already has plans to open an eatery of some sort nearby. “Maybe another Cheapside,” says Robin. “Something that doesn’t have a lot of overhead, because you’re going to have to be out on this island for a little bit.”
Bates’s response: “Will it come soon?”
Living on Dayton Street at the early stages of a revival is not always easy. When John Hauck looked out his windows he likely saw manicured lawns; today residents see sidewalks littered with beer cans and trash. “The renaissance of the ’80s had stopped when we moved in,” says McCarty, who’s lived on Dayton Street for more than 16 years. “There were rooming houses, 24 hour drugs, guns—you name it. This block didn’t sleep.” Today, things have calmed down but it’s still challenging, she says, “getting acclimated to the different values” of a mixed-demographic neighborhood—things like littering, “loudness and openness.”
The deteriorating condition of many Dayton Street homes is overwhelming to a lot of potential buyers. “There are many places in deep jeopardy of falling,” Valentine says, noting especially the Heinrich Mulhauser house at 905, whose current owner purchased it for $1,000 in 2013 and has seemingly done little more than install scaffolding over the entire facade. But even people who are interested in tackling major renovations have a hard time finding properties to purchase on Dayton Street. “It’s hard to get them out of the hands of owners who won’t give them up,” says Valentine. Still, says Bates, it’s a tough call: “People feel like that’s their fortune. To give it up? They’re just suddenly left with nothing.”
Residents are divided on the city’s role in helping maintain the place. “This is a landmark,” says Joe, “and we need to make sure that this is perfect.” His vision? “If you litter here, your ass is in trouble. Think of the Taft Museum. What if they were just able to throw trash on the front lawn there?”
Valentine feels Cincinnati isn’t aggressive enough in going after nonresponsive homeowners. McCarty is more resigned. “It’s unfortunate, but they don’t own the building,” she says. “There’s only so much they can do.”
In an e-mailed statement, Rocky Merz, Cincinnati’s Director of Communications, noted that “the city has to be creative and seek out alternatives when owners do not fulfill their obligations.” He also noted that “there is significant code enforcement activity in the West End,” citing the existence of more than 20 active property maintenance cases “on Dayton Street alone.”
Granted, some of that “activity” might be misdirected. McCarty “got code violations when someone stole the downspout” off her gutters. And Bates had to fight Cincinnati in court when they came after him because his carriage house renovations weren’t progressing fast enough. In both cases, neighboring homes were vacant and dilapidated. Responsive homeowners, says Joe, are sometimes “punished for being responsible.”
The pace of regrowth on Dayton Street is generally slower than most homeowners would like. But slow, notes Warminski, is not always bad. “The neighborhood is unquestionably undergoing revitalization,” she says, but “too-rapid change can be very disruptive. Balanced communities are healthy. A neighborhood that has different types of buildings, income levels, and people is more resilient.”
Bates knew that 38 years ago, when he and his wife purchased both their current home and another just up the street for $13,500. He convinced two friends to buy in the neighborhood shortly afterwards, recalling with a laugh how he pitched them on the idea: “This neighborhood is never going to go unless you move in. We need some white people.”
As for balanced incomes, woven among the newly renovated single family homes are some that house low-income tenants. The interiors are divided into multi-family units and the exteriors are well-kept. Still, as Valentine walks the neighborhood, his tiger-striped mutt, Mary, in tow, he points out that low income housing tenants aren’t always the best neighbors. They are prone, he says, to unemployment and loud partying at all hours. Just then a young African-American boy appears in the front yard of one of the multi-family homes. He’s about 10 and he’s standing, alone and silent, behind a wrought iron fence. The gap between his yard and the Hauck House is only a few hundred feet, but in that moment it seems more like a few hundred miles.
Two weeks later, Joe and Robin are giving an impromptu tour of their new place—pointing to where stairs have been ripped out and new showers will be installed. Robin excitedly points out a patch of original wallpaper nearby. Valentine’s there too, and seems elated at the thought of finally having next-door neighbors. They joke about installing a tunnel from house to house.
One thing seems clear: It takes a diverse group to accomplish the revitalization of a place that’s been let go for so long. People like Valentine, who have a reverence for the structures themselves. People like Bates, too, who’ve seen Dayton Street through nearly four decades of ups and downs and really just wish all the buildings were occupied with responsible tenants. People like McCarty, who see Dayton Street for all it once was, and people like Joe and Robin, clearly the newcomers, with unbridled ambition to match. (Joe’s first order of business on move-in is buying a Gator to clean up litter in the alley, despite Valentine’s warnings: “We’ve done that a million times. In a week it’s right back.”)
“Our neighborhood was neglected for so long, so the blight is rooted,” says McCarty. “And ugly and drugs settle somewhere, so they settled here and they settled in Over-the-Rhine. [But] when a community wakes up, the light pushes that out.”
Perhaps it’s that light drawing people once again to Millionaire’s Row. Or maybe it’s something more. “There’s some sort of weird energy in the air,” says Joe of what he senses every time he returns. “You can feel it. You take a deep breath, and you feel like you’re home.”