Development of a controversial project at the corner of Liberty and Elm streets in Over-the-Rhine is on hold.
City Council voted Thursday to postpone their vote on a request for rezoning and approval of a major amendment to expand the concept plan for the project until further review.
The vote was 7-2 with Republican Councilmembers Steve Goodin and Betsy Sundermann voting “no.”
Mayor John Cranley, who does not vote, but presides over Council, weighed in for the first time and gave council a tongue-lashing for being anti-development.
His points: Elm and Liberty is a vacant lot and nobody is being displaced; the streetcar is hailed for bringing economic development, and that’s exactly what this development is; and the incentives being offered on the project are the same as for other projects.
“The big question is what do we want to be?” Cranley said. “We want to promote mixed use, mixed income for all neighborhoods. That creates a better quality of life for everyone.”
As for the developers, they’re disappointed. They issued this statement:
“The KEAN Ventures team is certainly disappointed with today’s outcome. Our vision for the corner of Liberty and Elm has been in the works for years and came about through extensive collaboration and creativity. As we’ve shared publicly and with our partners in the city administration, this deal is complex, and given the state of our fragile economy, timing is everything. That said, we believe in the transformative nature of this project, and will continue to engage on potential improvements over the next two weeks to ensure it’s the best it can be.”
Developers ready to break ground
The project prompted a heated debate about how how affordable housing and how best to address the shortage of units in the city.
Councilman Greg Landsman has been pitching a set of development rules and said now is the time to put those ideas into policy so developers know the desires of council. For instance, projects with affordable housing would be more likely to get incentives. That policy does not exist now.
What is before council now are updated plans that call for more than 3 acres of development on mostly vacant lots with 15,000 square feet of commercial space, an integrated underground parking garage and nearly 300 market-rate apartments.
Rents would range from about $1,400 to $2,800 a month, according to the developers, who have come under fire for not including guaranteed affordable housing in their proposal.
The developers – OTR-based KEAN Ventures and Buckingham Cos. – have, however, pledged to pursue low-income tax credits to subsidize about 20 units for renters earning between 50%-60% of the area median income.
The developers are also seeking a 30-year tax abatement worth more than $20 million to help secure financing.
The project doesn’t include affordable housing – and there is no rule or policy that says it should. But that concerns the Democratic members of council, who are frustrated that the deal came to them at the last minute. They saw financing details for the first time Wednesday.
The developer is ready to break ground and needs a decision quickly to ensure he doesn’t lose financing. From his perspective the project has already cleared planning commission hurdles.
‘This is exactly the type of development we need.’
Community activists, who are pushing for affordable housing for up to 30% of the project’s units, argue the luxury apartments would eventually raise rents for the mostly black residents currently living in market-rate apartments in the area and force them to move.
“Our public dollars need to address racial and economic equity in this city,’’ Bonnie Neumeier, a longtime resident and community activist in OTR, told council. “Developers get more favor and attention than our community.”
Proponents say the development would bring more residents to the area and attract new more investment and jobs, giving the local economy a much-needed shot in the arm at a time when the pandemic is forcing OTR businesses to shut down.
“If you walk up and down Vine Street now, it’s full of vacant and foreclosed storefronts,” said Jean-François Flechet, the owner and founder of Taste of Belgium in OTR. “What COVID-19 has made abundantly clear is that OTR is not a self-sustaining neighborhood. We need more residents to stay in business. This is exactly the type of development we need in OTR.”
The project is set to come back to Council’s Economic Growth Committee in two weeks, which only four members of Council serve on and two of them are Sundermann and Goodin. So any new plan could get through committee, but see the same argument come before Council.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Controversial Over-the-Rhine project hits snag, debate in Cincinnati City Council