On a still, late summer evening when the breath of a north breeze offered the first hint of autumn and a leash to the dog days, Loveland was alive. Yes, Loveland. Downtown Loveland. A rustic, quaint town three miles off the interstate, Loveland was previously known for little more than a bike trail. Officially, it’s the Little Miami State Park but everyone here calls it—with pride—the Loveland Bike Trail. Along with the canoe livery, it’s what puts the love in Loveland.
It used to be when the sun set and the trail was reclaimed by the deer and raccoons, well, the day was over in Loveland. Not now. Along the bike trail and up West Loveland Avenue, restaurants and bars, most with outdoor seating, do a brisk business. And now comes the biggest change. Loveland is doubling down. Doubling downtown, that is. All spring and summer, residents have watched Loveland Station rise from a makeshift parking lot at the corner of West Loveland Avenue and Second Street, bringing new shops and 94 new apartments that will likely more than triple the number of people who actually live in town. The new is overtaking the old and people wonder what it will mean to a town that looks like the backdrop for a Norman Rockwell painting.
Meanwhile, about 13 miles northwest of Loveland, a mega-mall has been rising from 100 acres of uninspiring topography at the intersection of I-75 and Ohio Route 129. Liberty Center, a $350 million development in southeastern Butler County, will feature big department stores like Dillard’s, small retail establishments like Marbles the Brain Store, a smattering of restaurants, offices, and apartments, and a slew of bourgeois amenities—pocket parks, burbling fountains, a band shell, an event center, a theater, a hotel, and even a chapel.
While Loveland is in the process of doubling its town center, Columbus developer Yaromir Steiner is in effect creating a whole new town, almost instantly and out of scrubland. Liberty Center is a classic example of the old real estate adage that what matters is location, location, location. Just as when cities were founded on rivers, stagecoach lines, or railroad hubs, Liberty Center lives and breathes because its lifeline is I-75. As Cincinnati continues to crawl north along the I-75 corridor, Dayton, at a slower pace, moves south. Liberty Center stands at the crossroads of this inexorable merger, termed by transportation experts the Cincinnati-Dayton Metroplex. The road to metroplexville appears to be wide open—and if the developers can be believed, potentially paved in greenbacks.
While the end of the recession has spawned the well-reported renaissance of downtown Cincinnati, the further build-out of The Banks, the rebirth of OTR, and the third phase of Rookwood Commons, the development news in the Queen City’s northern suburbs is also upbeat. Milford completed a new riverside condo community, Montgomery is just starting a project that will polish the southern approach to the city, Monroe has its outlet malls, the Fields-Ertel exit is being fixed (again), and the Kenwood Collection—arguably the best example of arrested development in the region—is nearly finished.
“We began looking at Liberty Center back in 2007,” Steiner recently told me. “We identified a gap north of Cincinnati where the demographics were changing and expanding but there was no accompanying retail.” Over the last two decades, Steiner has developed more than 5 million square feet of property, including Easton Town Center in Columbus and The Greene in Dayton. He saw Liberty Center as his next “work, live, shop, and play” lifestyle complex, and he wasn’t alone. Other investors were buying up small parcels here and there, recognizing the economic asset that I-75 and the new Ohio Route 129 interchange presented. “And then the recession hit,” he recalled. “The bottom fell out. No one was building anything. No one was thinking about building anything.”
Caroline McKinney, Liberty Township’s economic development director, remembers those days well. When she started her job, Liberty Center was just on the drawing board. “Then I left to have a baby and, when I came back, the market had crashed,” she said. “I wondered how long I’d have this job.”
She clung to the one bright light in a dark economic sky: Children’s Hospital had plowed ahead, in spite of the staggered economy, and completed its Liberty Campus. It was McKinney’s touchstone. “Everyone knows Children’s doesn’t make big decisions without a lot of research, so when they built here, it said something,” she said. Children’s was an important talking point. So was the continued growth in the populations of Butler and Warren counties.
By late 2010, with the economy showing signs of a pulse again, Steiner turned his attention back to Liberty Township, reassembling parcels and joining them together in what would become a 100-acre development off Liberty Way. Steiner found a receptive, even enthusiastic, set of allies in the public sector who worked with him on critical issues such as transportation, public protection, and zoning. The project received official approval in January 2012 and is slated to open to the public this month, just in time for the beginning of the holiday shopping season.
While Steiner was creating Liberty Center from a clean canvas, Blue Ash developer Jim Cohen had the challenge of building a “new downtown” next to one that had been there for more than 100 years. Where Liberty Center wants to create the feeling of a small town with its streetscape, Loveland already is a small town and wants to keep it that way.
Cohen is sensitive to that, recognizing that Loveland’s greatest asset, the bike trail, will still be its greatest asset after his 15,000-square-foot commercial development and 94 apartments are completed. Cohen, president of CMC Properties, went to school in Louisiana, lives in Hyde Park, works in Blue Ash, and is as enthusiastic a supporter of Loveland as the town’s Valentine Lady. (Yes, Loveland has a Valentine Lady, who unofficially presides over the town’s understandable homage to February 14.) “This is the adventure capital of Cincinnati,” Cohen proclaimed as bicycles whizzed by our working lunch on the patio of Paxton’s Grill. “Canoes, bikes, walkers, runners—they’re all here.” Cohen said it was important to the city leaders and to him that the mix of retail in the new development fit in with that theme, and did not adversely affect the merchants who were already there.
“No fast food, no pizza restaurants”—downtown Loveland already has one—“no loud sports bars,” he decreed. “Loveland Station needed to have a focus on this town’s personality, which is health and fitness.” He waved his hand in the direction of Bob Roncker’s Running Spot, Montgomery Cyclery, and Loveland Canoe & Kayak. Given his avowed emphasis on health and fitness, it’s somewhat ironic that the lynchpin tenant Cohen actively—one could argue obsessively—pursued was Graeter’s.
Cohen said he always saw the iconic ice cream maker in Loveland Station, which is where their 21st Cincinnati outpost will soon be. Though it took some persuasion. After early overtures failed, Cohen worked with the Loveland Chamber of Commerce to organize a marketing campaign. He printed up T-shirts proclaiming “Loveland Loves Graeter’s,” the chamber prepared gift baskets to send to the Graeter’s development team, and the city council passed a resolution offering to subsidize Graeter’s signage. “I think you could say they were blown away by how much we wanted them,” Cohen said.
Liberty Center will have a Graeter’s too, along with a lot of other places to eat, drink, and play. Its 1.1 million square feet will include the first Dillard’s department store in the region to be built from scratch. That means you’ll see 200,000 square feet of the real Dillard’s design rather than what you’ve seen up to now—a McAlpin’s makeover. The other anchor store is an 80,000-square-foot Dick’s Sporting Goods. Indeed, nothing is small here; even the simple food court is passé. Instead Liberty Center has an expansive Food Hall, which is thematic and laid out in a style that might remind you of Epcot. “We’ll have a pizza restaurant and an Italian red-and-white checkered tablecloth restaurant side by side and give them a common decor so people get the feel of Italy,” Kevin Cedik, the mall’s general manager explained. “In the next hall, we might have a Mexican theme or maybe Asian.”
Then there’s The Acropolis, which has a rooftop garden and a chapel to go along with other property features like an event hall, a park, fountains, and a stage that leads to the front steps of the 130-bed AC Hotel by Marriott. Theoretically, one could get married in the chapel, take wedding photos in the park, have a reception in the event hall, and start the honeymoon in the hotel—all without your Fitbit buzzing you at 10,000 steps.
“We want it to be a destination for everybody,” Cedik said as he walked around the job site in a crisp blue shirt, tie, and hard hat. “We want things to be happening here all the time. I can see jazz concerts in the summer, a farmers’ market, kids’ events year round, a Christmas lighting ceremony…” Cedik seems more than ready to become the virtual Mayor of Liberty Center.
Dave Kennedy still can’t believe his good fortune. The city manager of Loveland is a modest, soft-spoken guy who served as village administrator of New Richmond for 25 years before Loveland’s city council, in his words, “took a chance on me.” He inherited the Loveland Station project and will deal with its inevitable growing pains. He often answers his own phone. He drives across town to look at potholes or check to see if the streets have been plowed. He checks out complaints from constituents personally. “I can’t always solve their problem,” he said, “but people like it that I show up.”
He likes the smallness of Loveland and wants to keep it that way. Across the street from his office in city hall, Kennedy looks at Loveland Station as additional, not transformational. He believes the incumbent merchants do too, even if it might bring them a little more competition. With perhaps as many as 250 people moving in to the new apartments, adding five new businesses shouldn’t hurt anyone. All boats should rise—though so will the congestion. Even now, the afternoon rush hour finds charming downtown Loveland choked with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Parking, especially on a summer weekend, turns into a four-wheeled game of musical chairs. The city has plans to deal with both but there will likely be some pain. “There is really only one way into town and that’s across the bridge,” Kennedy says. “That’s not going to change.”
Change can be hard, the Loveland Chamber’s CEO and president, CeeCee Collins, admitted. Even though Loveland was on the bike trail, it’s perceived as being off the beaten path. And lots of folks like it that way. Collins got a taste of the old Loveland status quo a decade ago when she led an effort to land a YMCA adjacent to Phillips Park. An ardent NIMBY opposition killed the project and the Y has never been back.
“Old Loveland was in charge then,” she said. But over the years, a growing number of subdivisions, some within the city limits and others in the neighboring townships of Miami (Clermont County), Hamilton (Warren County), and Symmes (Hamilton County), have changed the demographics, the lifestyle, and to some degree the politics. The newcomers want good restaurants and places to relax at night, and they don’t want to drive a half hour to get it.
Which ultimately is what seems to be the driving factor in the creation of both of these suburban conversions: a re-imagineering of the American small town, albeit on two different scales. Up at Liberty Center, Cedik and Steiner not only see voracious shoppers. They see children climbing on the playground equipment, hipsters chilling to local jazz under the band shell, and dudes hoisting craft brews and watching the Bengals on a mammoth TV screen in the mall’s “living room” while their wives shop. And nothing ever really closes because more than 300 people are living right there.
That’s not far off from how Kennedy envisions the new Loveland. “We are going to attract young people here by offering them both the urban feel and the proximity to the country,” he said. “You can come home from a hard day at work downtown [in Cincinnati], grab a beer or a good dinner here in Loveland, take a walk or a ride on the trail, and listen to some music, all within a few steps of your home. How good will that be?”
Depending on your point of view, it’s either a new Norman Rockwell painting in the making or one more step toward the Potemkinization of our suburban sprawl. But at least there will be lattes.