As Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood continues to evolve, residents are experiencing a kind of tension unfamiliar in its recent history: conflicting opinions over the appropriate design of new buildings. The topic of debate is Mercer Commons, a proposed $54 million mixed-use development by the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC), which received unanimous approval from the Cincinnati Planning Commission on November 18. The protracted review process, however, has raised questions about new development in one of the region’s most historic neighborhoods.
Jointly designed by Cincinnati’s City Studios and Cleveland’s City Architecture, the 3-acre Mercer Commons is expected to nearly double the amount of rehabilitated space in Over-the-Rhine. Bounded by Vine Street to the west, Walnut Street to the east, East 14th Street to the north, and East 13th Street to the south, the project rehabilitates 19 historic buildings and fills 26 vacant parcels with a range of building types. New townhouses line Mercer Street, and three new buildings mix apartments, condos, and retail space—including major retail frontage along Vine Street.
In fact, the mixed-use building along Vine Street was a sticking point in the approval process. The Cincinnati Historic Conservation Board, an advisory committee charged with protecting “historically or architecturally significant structures, sites or districts,” twice rejected 3CDC’s plans on the grounds that some of the proposed buildings fail to satisfy building guidelines in the Over-the-Rhine Historic District. Given a short timeframe to meet financing deadlines, 3CDC made the controversial decision to take its plans directly to the Cincinnati Planning Commission. The plan was approved in a 6-0 vote, with the provision that 3CDC make minor revisions to the Vine Street building.
Asked about the decision to appeal directly to the Planning Commission, Chad Munitz, 3CDC’s executive vice president of development and operations, said, “We think it was a good give and take, and we’re proud of what we did in terms of design and working with the community. We feel we achieved an appropriate design for a new building in a historic district.” He added that 3CDC had the Historic Conservation Board’s approval for the majority of the project, and that the only point of contention was the building on Vine Street. While approval technically is provisional until minor changes to the Vine Street building are presented, Munitz explained, “The Planning Commission was very specific about the changes required for the Vine Street building. They include a revised roofline, a different storefront system, and vertically-proportioned windows.” Following final presentations, 3CDC expects to bid the project in the first quarter of 2012.
Discussion and disagreement about the most appropriate mode of new inner-city construction might be considered a good problem for Cincinnati to have— especially in a neighborhood long defined by its abandoned buildings. With demographic trends favoring cities after decades of decline, and approaches to housing design and construction more diverse than ever, it’s a debate that likely will remain unsettled for a long time to come.