Hospitals & Asylums    





Demolishing Over The Rhine Development by 2020 HA-18-12-06


By Anthony J. Sanders


1. Over-The-Rhine is a community in the Cincinnati river valley that contains the largest collection of 19th century Italianate architecture still standing in the United States. The entire 360 acre district of Over-the-Rhine has been recognized on the National Historic Register since 1983. This dilapidated district contrasts dramatically with the skyscrapers of downtown Cincinnati from which it is divided only by E. Central Parkway.  About 7,000 people currently reside in Over-the-Rhine. At one time, nearly 50,000 people lived in OTR.  In 1900, the population of OTR reached its highest population of 44,475. Over the following years, the population slowly declined.  In 1950, there were 31,219 people living in the neighborhood; today there are less than 7,500 living in approximately 5,300 housing units.  OTR is today a neighborhood of 96% renters with a current homeownership rate of less than 5%, which is considerably lower than the approximately 38% homeownership rate for the City of Cincinnati.  Stakeholders in the community agree that this trend must be reversed and homeownership must be encouraged for current and future residents.  OTR has over 500 empty buildings, 2500 empty units, and 700 vacant lots slated for demolition but available for repopulation and serious renovation. Residential development is a vital business in Over-the-Rhine. Buildings located in OTR’s National Register District are eligible for Federal historic preservation tax incentives that give money back to property owners who rehabilitate buildings according to certain standards, fostering private-sector investment that has been used to complete hundreds of projects. 

2. The history of Over-the-Rhine dates beck to the early 1800s.  Cincinnati attracted thousands of German immigrants during the nineteenth century, and Over-the-Rhine became the center of Cincinnati's German and German-American community. The Germans greatly influenced the character of the entire city. In Over-the-Rhine they created a dense urban community with residences, commercial buildings, meeting halls, churches, and light industrial buildings. As the historic heart of Cincinnati's German-American community, Over-the-Rhine documents and reflects the region's rich German heritage. Between 1830 and 1850 Cincinnati's population more than quadrupled form 26,515 to 115,435. The revolutions and failed reforms in the German-speaking states of Europe in the 1830's and 1840's brought even greater numbers of German immigrants. In 1855, former Mayor James Findlay left land for the foundation of Findlay Market. As Over-the-Rhine entered the twentieth century, it changed. As the result of the world wars the German-American community expanded and settled throughout the city, and Over-the-Rhine lost some of its old German character.  The neighborhood's population slowly declined from a high of 44,475 in 1900 to 27,577 by 1960.  There was a slight rise between 1940 and 1950 with the first influx of Appalachians into the community however the downward population trend is consistent and continues.  African-Americans today compromise the majority of Over-the-Rhine's population. During the decade from 1960-1970 the population of Over-the-Rhine dramatically declined by over 50 percent - to 15,025. Conversely, during the same period, the African-American population of Over-the-Rhine more than doubled - from 2,720 in 1960 to 5,830 in 1970. The Over-the-Rhine Community Council has also attempted to voice the concerns and needs of the residents of Over-the-Rhine and to influence City policies and programs that affect the area. Since 1970 the population of Over-the-Rhine and the number of its African-American residents, however, have both declined; in 1990, the population of Over-the-Rhine stood at 9,572 (a sharp contrast to the peak population of 44,475 in 1900), of which 6,835, or 71 percent, were African-American.

3. Since September 2000, The City Planning Department has been diligently meeting with community stakeholders to develop the OTR Comprehensive Plan since September 2000 that was approved on Friday, June 21, 2002, Cincinnati Planning Commission and on Wednesday, June 26, 2002.  The Comprehensive plan is the central document in the OTR development strategy.  The overarching issues of the OTR neighborhood were determined to be: (1) The need for quality housing options for all income levels.  (2) How to introduce higher income residents to the neighborhood without displacing or diminishing the quality of life of current residents. (3) The need to stimulate business development and create job opportunities for residents. (4) The need to eliminate crime, improve the perception of safety in the neighborhood and improve community-police relations. (5) How to encourage both old and new residents to respect each other and form one diverse community.  Litter, dilapidated buildings and other physical disorder are common complaints in any neighborhood, but they seem to be more of a challenge in OTR. The neighborhood’s appearance can be improved through the dedication of residents, property owners and city departments.  First and foremost, all residents of OTR must take responsibility for one small piece of the neighborhood, whether it is their block or just the area in front of their home. Responsibility does not mean just cleaning up the area, although that is certainly part of it. Residents must act territorially as well. This means asking people not to litter and pointing out that someone else will have to clean it up if they do. Residents, businesses and the Community Council can also take advantage of programs offered through Keep Cincinnati Beautiful.


4. Non-profit organizations including ReSTOC, Over-the-Rhine Housing Network and Mercy Franciscan Home Development, Inc. are engaged in rehabilitating and/or building affordable housing units throughout the neighborhood.  Market-rate and private developers such as Urban Sites Property Management, Middle Earth, and River City Alpine Development Group have also undertaken various small and large housing projects in OTR, and their interest appears to be growing. Based on current figures new and rehabilitated units in the neighborhood are slowly approaching the rent levels necessary to make projects financially viable. In fact, a few recent developments have met or been able to exceed their projected rents. However, despite a growing market and the availability of gap funding through the Urban Living Loan Pool, Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, Federal Historic Tax Credits and low-interest loans and grants through the City, residential development in OTR is still far from an easy proposition. In 2000, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) replaced their long-term site-based Section 8 contracts (ranging from 20 to 30 years) for year-to-year contracts.  Already, nearly 2,000 of the site-based Section 8 unit contracts with HUD have expired and tenants have been given portable vouchers.  Within the next five years, all of the long-term contracts with HUD in OTR will expire. Based on the limited data available, about 60% of tenants whose landlords opted out of Section 8 chose to stay in their current residence. The remaining 40% of tenants elected to take their vouchers and move either to another neighborhood in Cincinnati or to an entirely different locale, or did not qualify for a voucher. 


5. Crime is one of the central issues in the neighborhood, as all of the strategies suggested for improving the neighborhood depend on OTR being a safe neighborhood for everyone. Crime associated with drugs and drug trafficking pervades the neighborhood and the nature of this activity has become increasingly violent.  After the events of April 2001, the relationship between the Cincinnati Police Department and the OTR neighborhood has been somewhat tenuous, and sometimes hostile. Since the disturbances, there have been numerous studies, debates and judgments brought forward to suggest systemic changes to the manner in which the Police interact with the community and the manner in which the community interacts with the Police.  Most recently in 2006 the Sheriff agreed to augment patrols in the area resulting in the arrest and detention of some 1,600 people, several hundred of who are being held in neighboring Butler County, mostly on misdemeanor drug charges, on contravention to Ohio law.  The problem seems to be that, as the result of the return of the prosecutor, judgment, always in short supply, has become totally and violently suppressed.  To properly redress the crime and drug problem OTR must invest in community drug treatment and community corrections programs.  These offender-housing programs would utilize abandoned housing and prisoner labor, the room board and minimum wage could be paid for half the price of jail.  Community corrections and work programs would give these people, mostly wayward youths and substance abusers, a sense of self worth if paid by an honest and non abusive government.  It is presumed that the crime problem stems from the frustration in regards to the abandoned and derelict houses that must be rehabilitated whereas the people come to spiritually emulate the environment they live in.  In dispatching police patrols the community must be careful to select officers that are not prone to discrimination on the basis of race or social class or those who use criminals and persecutors as soldiers and spies.  The answer to the crime problem is definitely community corrections and work programs rehabilitating both OTR and its troubled people.   


6. A majority of Over-the-Rhine’s current residents are poor and undereducated. In 1990 the median household income in Over-the-Rhine was approximately $5,000 per year, while the median household income for Cincinnati as a whole stood at $21,006. Various church and social agencies have expanded or started new programs that attempt to meet the needs of the area’s population. Numerous government, church and social agencies have established programs to raise the standards of living and education. Throughout the past decades, neighborhood residents also have worked to change the patterns of poverty and discrimination that have existed. The current residents have long sought to gain recognition for Appalachian and African-American culture, to improve education programs, and to prevent the closing of neighborhood schools. Due to a loss in the number of students, six schools have closed since 1975.  Over-the-Rhine faces the same social problems that affect inner-city neighborhoods nationwide. Alcoholism, drug dependency and slavery, inadequate housing and homelessness are major concerns in the neighborhood that has such a large number of unoccupied units. Since the late 1980's owners of small businesses have shown a renewed interest in locating in Over-the-Rhine. The community's proximity to downtown and major transportation corridors and its lower property values and rents have attracted these investors, just as the same factors attracted Over-the-Rhine's original builders.  Since the mid 1980's the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce has actively encouraged the maintenance and establishment of businesses in the area. Some shops provide for the community's residents and others attract customers from throughout the Cincinnati region. There are small groceries, specialty stores, restaurants, and light industrial shops. The Main Street area has experienced the greatest commercial redevelopment and offers a variety of shops, art galleries, restaurants and nightspots.

7. Arthur Frommer, the famed travel writer, spoke fondly of Over-the-Rhine during a visit in September 1993, "In all of America, there is no more promising an urban area for revitalization than your own Over-the-Rhine. When I look at that remarkably untouched, expansive section of architecturally uniform structures, unmarred by clashing modern structures, I see in my mind the possibility for a revived district that literally could rival similar prosperous and heavily visited areas." Over-the-Rhine’s collection of commercial, residential, religious and civic architecture is one of America’s largest and most cohesive surviving examples of an urban, nineteenth-century community. Similar neighborhoods in other cities have been decimated or lost entirely.  Over-the-Rhine, however, continues to display its original dense, urban development patterns and buildings of excellent architectural quality, imbuing the neighborhood with a “Sense of time and place.” Rows of three-to five-story brick buildings constructed along the sidewalk characterize the streetscape. Many buildings have storefronts on the first floor with residential space on the upper floors. The Italianate style is the predominant architectural style in the district. Other nineteenth-century styles, including Federal, Greek Revival, Second Empire, Queen Anne, and Renaissance Revival, add to the flavor of the district. Over-the-Rhine also has many simply designed, working-class dwellings that display modest elements of the high architectural styles.

8. While most of the neighborhood is located in a very urban environment with little tree coverage, some vacant parcels on steep hillsides have extensive tree coverage. The OTR Community Council has promoted tree planting along Race and Elm Streets, making those streets particularly pleasant and visually appealing for residents and other users of those streets. Additional trees in other places throughout the neighborhood will enhance areas frequently used by pedestrians.  Green space is also scattered throughout the neighborhood in the form of community gardens. These small gardens are surrounded by homes and businesses and are tended by local families, children and other residents.  The plan is to establish well-maintained green space throughout the community and to begin planting trees immediately so that tree canopy is increased from 16% to 25% by 2020.  Whereas the entire population of the county is declining it seems very unlikely that people will be found to repopulate the many abandoned buildings in OTR.  Developers must come to value of green space as being more beautiful than vacant buildings and lots.  Considering the downward demographic trends in OTR and the entire county the City must take a firmer hand demolishing the most dilapidated of buildings to produce green space.  Although not the windfall for prospective developers green space would improve the public and mental health conditions of the OTR area and improve the property values of the standing structures.  The City should be much more aggressive demolishing the most dilapidated of abandoned structures thereby limiting rehabilitation to the most likely projects.  It is hoped that the City would organize for an estimated six demolition crews to demolish, clear the ground and reseed a condemned structure every month.  To do this conscientiously the City would need to solicit for developers for a period of at least a year for every condemned building slated for demolition, before clearing the site.


9. At the same time that demolition efforts are strengthened investment in rehabilitation should be redoubled and a time limit of 2020 for the total rehabilitation of OTR should be set.  Current community development efforts in OTR fail to set a timetable for the rehabilitation efforts and is therefore lacking the focus needed to get the job done.  Therefore I would like to introduce the date of 2020 as the time when OTR shall be completely up to building code, with 2010 marking the beginning of a heavy phase of demolition that would be finished by 2015, when developers would begin to focus upon the small things that need to be done to bring all the remaining residential and commercial structures up to code, that the low income tenant just can’t afford.  In the meantime political discussion regarding OTR needs to be redoubled.  The primary focus should be on licensing and financing small business and resident community redevelopment efforts.  A highly publicized political discussion should be sustained in order to attract small investors interested in rehabilitating one house in a street with other like-minded small business people so that they will be assured that the property value will increase when the entire street becomes attractive.  The residents have the greatest interest in community redevelopment.  The largely poor tenants are however thwarted from realizing their efforts to beautify the area they live in by their lack of funds and political corruption and discrimination.  The government must redouble efforts to gainfully employ residents in community development efforts with rent credits, easy to participate in volunteer cleaning efforts that provide them with the tools to do jobs they can’t afford, networking between concerned residents voicing concern over dilapidated structures in their neighborhood and investors who would either rehabilitate it or demolish it, and a community corrections work program that would organize the minor offenders to rehabilitate OTR and themselves while being gainfully employed at minimum wage by the Department of Corrections to build their own half way house and on to do good work in the community that would pay for an enlightened justice system.     


10. There are numerous organizations involved in the development of OTR.  To become involved one can either invest in a project or work for someone who does.  There are however so many such projects that to come to grips with the overall development scene one must seek the counsel of the several political organization that hold regular and irregular meetings.  Those interested in participating are referred to the political organizations relevant to the development of OTR – City Planning Commission, Historic Conservation Board, OTR Community Council, OTR Chamber of Commerce, and 3CDC.  The City Planning Commission usually meets the first and third Friday of each month at 9:00 a.m. in the J. Martin Griesel Conference Room, Centennial Plaza Two, 805 Central Avenue, Seventh Floor, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.  The Historic Conservation Board usually meets every other Monday at 3:00 p.m. in the J. Martin Griesel Room, Centennial Plaza Two, Seventh Floor, 805 Central Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202. The Over-the-Rhine Community Council is the democratically elected, City recognized body which represents the community.  The Council holds monthly meetings open to everyone, usually falling on the last Monday of the month, except for holidays, then it’s a week early. Meetings start at 5 pm, run to about 7 pm, and are held at the Over-the-Rhine Community Center, located at 1715 Republic Street, set back from Race Street, opposite the Findlay Market south parking lot.  The OTR Chamber of Commerce is primarily held together by members only luncheons the second Thursday of every month at the OTR Chamber Office, 222 E. 14th Street, Over-the-Rhine at noon but one must register early at 11:30 am.  The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) was founded in response to the Comprehensive Plan and has so far invested nearly $10 million in OTR and now controls 98 vacant buildings and 90 vacant parcels.  In October and November 2006 3CDC hosted three Rap Sessions regarding OTR development, it is hoped that they will continue the sponsor public dialogue on OTR as a means of increasing interest and hastening development efforts.  A sustained political effort in community development is the only way that the job will get done.




  1. City of Cincinnati. Over the Rhine Community Final Plan. June 26, 2002
  2. City of Cincinnati. Over the Rhine: An Update on the Implementation of the Comprehensive Plan. Summer 2002 – Summer 2006
  3. City of Cincinnati. Financial Assistance Programs and Incentives. Economic Development
  4. Over the Rhine Chamber of Congress. OTR Profile
  5. iRhine. History of OTR
  6. City of Cincinnati. City Planning Commission. Meetings
  7. City of Cincinnati. Historic Conservation Board. Meetings
  8. OTR Community Council. Welcome
  9. OTR Chamber of Commerce. Upcoming Chamber Events
  10. 3CDC. OTR Rap Session I. October 19, 2006