Cracking The Code In Westwood

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I missed the ice cream social in Westwood last summer, but the neighborhood pride that it heralded is still in the air. The event marked the dedication of an Ohio Historical Marker in honor of James Norris Gamble, the famed soap maker who called Westwood home. Gamble’s legacy includes both the negotiations that eased Cincinnati’s annexation of Westwood in 1896 and an agreement that the city would always maintain its beloved shingle-style Town Hall, built eight years earlier and designed by local architects Charles Crapsey and William Brown.

To celebrate the occasion, representatives of Westwood’s several civic associations, together forming the Westwood Coalition, set up booths on the Town Hall grounds. Locals enjoyed ice cream in the manner of guests of the Gambles in the 1880s—sharing ice cream at their home was a favored way for James and Margaret Gamble to entertain. A delegate from the State of Ohio spoke. Mayor John Cranley reaffirmed the city’s commitment to Westwood—a community with both enviable strengths and significant challenges—which had to have been reassuring in the wake of the recent demolition of Gamble’s house on Werk Road.

As anyone even dimly aware of high-profile local issues knows, the controversy over “the Gamble House” was protracted and bitter. Its owner, Indian Hill–based Greenacres Foundation, insisted that the handsome Italianate villa be torn down because there was no conceivable use for it. Neighbors, who loved the house for what it said about their past—and I have come to learn, for what it symbolized in terms of the future they are trying to build—rallied in protest, often carrying placards and making the 6 o’clock news.

Ultimately, neither they nor the city had legal (and arguably, practical) grounds to thwart the plan, and the house was razed. What’s left, today, are 22 rolling, wooded acres on Werk Road, in the neighborhood’s residential heart. What will happen with the land is unclear. Greenacres is suing the city for financial damages incurred in having to meet the legal challenge to its right to demolish. “At this time, we are focused on other projects,” Carter Randolph, the president of the foundation, told me. “The Westwood property will be considered at some point in the future, and at that time, all options will be reviewed, and the Foundation will pursue the option that it thinks best.”

As frustrating as this episode has been for those who care deeply about Westwood, it has not hung them up. Jim McNulty, multi-term president of the Westwood Civic Association, put it this way: “The day we lost the Gamble estate, people were devastated. I said, ‘Let this be the day that we dedicate ourselves to preserving the Town Hall.’ ”

It could have been a rallying cry not only for Town Hall’s deteriorating facade, but for several other ambitious plans dear to McNulty’s counterparts in Westwood Works (a charitable and community event planning organization), the Westwood Historical Society, and WestCURC (the Westwood Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation). Together, these groups, in combination with the civic association, form the Westwood Coalition. Its top priorities are a reconfiguration of the business district and the implementation of something called a form-based zoning code within the community. This has implications beyond Westwood, as form-based code has the potential to remake any number of neighborhoods throughout the city. The urgency that Westwood’s many involved residents attach to these priorities cannot be overstated. Even so, making good on them will be a tall climb.

 

Geographically, Westwood is the city’s largest neighborhood, and at 30,000 residents, the most heavily populated. Prior to its annexation at the end of the 19th century, it was a crossroads for commerce going in and out of the city, which led to early wealth. Many large and fashionable houses were built along Harrison Avenue, Werk Road, Epworth, and others, with several still standing. Today, when they are for sale, they are available at relatively reasonable prices. Westwood’s median household income is $34,000, with one cluster of incomes in the $60,000 to $100,000 range but a much larger cluster south of $25,000.

In addition to the Town Hall, there are several examples of notable architecture, including the library, the elementary school, the old firehouse, two churches, and a former telephone building (now owned by Madcap Puppet Theatre). The business district, which runs north along Harrison past the Town Hall, is mostly single-story, but even where it’s not, it’s of a small-town scale that people like Jim McNulty would jump through hoops to preserve. “It’s the conflict between those who want to keep the historic district historic,” he says, “and those who want the ‘new urbanist’ look.”

Racially, African-Americans and whites are just about evenly divided, but the scarred houses, decrepit apartments, and downscale retail that blight much of the southern portion of the community illustrate the gaping chasm between the two groups. Although a few African-Americans now sit on some of the coalition boards, they remain “under-represented in civic life generally” according to one local activist. How did this gap come to be? All up and down Harrison Avenue, which forms the spine of the community, old, well-built, single-family houses are interspersed with apartments. Some were once nice but are now run-down; some were never nice and are now eyesores. A significant portion of these structures are Section 8 housing, which so many of Westwood’s boosters deplore.

“Something happened in the ’70s,” Gregory Kissel, an architect and advisor to WestCURC, told me. “The zoning changed. It valued the property more than the homes, and it made it possible to tear down the single-families and put in the shotgun apartments, perpendicular to the street, that you see now. Next thing you know, the older generation was dying off, the second and third generations were moving out, and there was a loss in demand for apartments. So they deteriorated.”

Now Kissel and a cadre of others are sharply focused on rectifying these wrongs. “A lot of passionate people want to see Westwood retake itself,” he said. “We want to strengthen the Town Hall, find a new use for the old firehouse, bring in a restaurant—have a place for coffee and conversation. Westwood’s downtown is unique; we want it preserved in character, enhanced and improved.”

Already, Town Hall is getting its new facade; for the first time in more than 40 years, it will be resided in its original shingle style. An artisanal brewery is soon to move into one of the older retail spaces across the street. The recent decision of Madcap Puppets to locate in the former telephone building has assured that structure’s survival—something locals are intensely grateful for. And critically, the handsome elementary school (built in 1909) was saved from demolition with an addition distinguished by its sensitivity to the original design.

As for the Section 8 housing, some of it is disappearing. Jim McNulty explained that the Civic Association monitors activity on the most battered streets. When a given property is abandoned, or so far gone that it is beyond salvage, they ask the city to condemn it. Several units on Bracken Woods Lane, one of the most decrepit (and dangerous) areas, have met their fate this way. Through such condemnations and repurposing, the power brokers in the community hope to reverse the 60:40 rental vs. owner-occupied ratio.

Many more changes—particularly, plans for the business district—remain on the wish list. Like so many of Cincinnati’s original business districts, Westwood’s is a victim of changing demographics in the neighborhood core and the lure of suburban shopping/parking just a few miles further out. Today, few of the businesses that lined Harrison Avenue a generation ago remain. Herschel Benkert’s motorcycle dealership, Diane’s Cake, Candy & Cookie Supplies, and an auto repair shop are three that do. Benkert isn’t optimistic. “All that they’re planning for Westwood…I don’t know how it’s going to happen,” he said. “Where will the money come from? The city? Private investors? It’s been hard to watch all the failures. Used to be two restaurants, the Window Garden and Habig’s, just across the street. But they couldn’t make a go of it.”

Since 1966, Benkert has been selling both Hondas and Honda parts. The latter generates substantial revenue; he buys used parts worldwide, then resells them, mostly nationally. He also owns a fair amount of real estate within Westwood, and he lives close by. At 76, he says he isn’t going anywhere. (“He’ll die with a wrench in his hand,” one local activist told me.) But he is discouraged by the amount of drug traffic he sees up and down Harrison, by the burglaries at the Subway a block away, and by the overt drug dealing at the BP gas station on the border with Cheviot. “I just want to see Westwood become Westwood again,” he says.

To make that happen, the Westwood Coalition has drawn up plans for a new “Westwood Square” development, designed to create a plaza-like space and new town center just across Harrison Avenue and north of Town Hall. After considering six options, the community settled on the “bowtie” proposal, which will—if implemented—install a triangular space with its point jutting toward the point of the similarly triangulated property where Town Hall stands. Thus the “bowtie.” In addition to providing a place for neighborhood events and gatherings, the new space would greatly alleviate the confused intersection of Harrison, Epworth, and Urwiler streets. One problem: Built to its fullest dimensions, it may require the elimination of some, if not all, of Herschel Benkert’s motorcycle dealership. And as Benkert says, “I’m not going anywhere.”

 

Why is all of this occurring now? I asked Mary Jenkins. As facilitator of the Westwood Coalition for the revitalization of the historic business district, Westwood Works’ representative to the Coalition, coordinator of the community’s public gardens, and member of the Civic Association board, Jenkins is one of the neighborhood’s most committed citizens. She gave me three answers: First, various civic organizations have been developing a strategic plan for years, and there is a “jelling factor—the community is looking at itself.” Second, the Westwood Coalition organizations “have brought the public out to talk about the future.” Third, the neighborhood is affordable. It attracts young professionals, many from out of town, who are willing to participate in civic life. “They want tree-lined streets and community engagement,” she says. “They see the racial and economic integration, and they say, ‘This is the city to me.’”

Jenkins, herself a transplant from New Hampshire, falls right into the bucket she describes. In her early 50s, she is the director of the Hamilton County Law Library and married to the library director at Mount St. Joseph College. Poised, articulate, and indefatigable in her pursuit of a new and improved Westwood, she makes a strong case that the community is “on the verge of creating an action plan” to make its strategic goals a reality.

Essential to doing so will be implementation of the form-based code, a new approach to zoning that very simply stated focuses on the form of a building: its massing, its facade, its frontage to the street, and on the uses within the building secondarily. A form-based code allows for—indeed encourages—mixed-use (e.g. retail at street level, residential and/or office above). But the look and scale of the building must be in conformity with its surroundings. Form-based codes are in contrast to the traditional use-based codes, which draw sharper distinctions between, say, residential, retail, and industrial and have prevailed in Cincinnati for many years.

The use of a form-based code became a local option relatively recently, when the city’s Department of Planning and Buildings developed one and offered it to the neighborhoods as a redevelopment tool. Four neighborhoods—Madisonville, College Hill, Walnut Hills, and Westwood—all volunteered to try it, albeit on a limited basis. The new code will apply to each neighborhood’s business district and a few adjoining streets only. Even so, its adoption was controversial. Fears that increased height and density would destroy the existing scale of the town center spooked many, Jim McNulty among them.

But not John Eby, chair of WestCURC. “The form-based code will give us more control than people understand,” Eby told me. “Our job is to create an environment that will allow us to use public and private money to build the square in the business district. We’ve worked hard to create this environment, but realistically I can’t tell you when it’s going to happen. Hopefully, 2016, 2017, but I just don’t know. If people are cooperative, maybe within five years.”

When I asked Eby where he’ll find the money to move things forward, he said, “That is the $96,000 question.”

The Westwood story is hardly unprecedented. In so many older Cincinnati neighborhoods, changing demographics, destruction of long-established stabilities, new people, new energy, ambitious plans, and finite resources are the players in an all-too-familiar drama. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay close attention.

Quite the contrary. Because what Jim McNulty and Gregory Kissel and Mary Jenkins and John Eby and their many determined colleagues are trying to accomplish has meaning for us all. It isn’t just Westwood they are trying to make more viable. It is, by extension, the entire city. If they win, we win.

Originally published in the March 2015 issue.

Illustration by Owen Davey-Folio Art

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