UC Design Center Labors for Change in Over-the-Rhine

Cincinnati -- Design as the art of healing. For years, that's been the guiding precept for Architect Frank Russell as director of the University of Cincinnati's Community Design Center (CDC).

The center has quietly and consistently labored for years in Cincinnati's most challenged neighborhoods: Evanston, Northside, North Fairmount and Over-the-Rhine, the communities that go without...without adequate housing or without the sustained business development - baker, barber, hardware or laundry - that maintain and enrich community life.

As head of the CDC, Russell has spent years making connections all along the way: connecting with residents to know their lives and needs, connecting with city officials and departments, connecting with other individuals and organizations active in these communities, and connecting with UC students and directing their talents and energy toward designing change.

And more and more in recent years, he's concentrated his energies and experience and that of the center on Over-the-Rhine, targeting housing, social issues, education and youth there. His patient and consistent participation are yielding rich results: new housing in the form of St. Anthony Village; an OTR comprehensive plan for the city; OTR community education; Art-in-the-Market youth program; and now, The Niehoff Studio at UC.

"Some day," quips Russell, "I want to write a book on all that I've learned from these projects. But really, I want to tie them together in a meaningful whole. Individual efforts are often good and effective, but to have long-term experience and to connect that with the experience of others is real power. In Over-the-Rhine, we're really beginning as a community and city, to begin to integrate separate efforts in a unified whole."

"I guess if you can just stay around long enough and can plug into enough of what's going on, it all comes around again, and you can make all the connections in order to make a difference," he said.

And the center does make a difference, according to architect John Kornbluh, president of the Friends of Findlay Market and board member of the Corporation for Findlay Market. He's also a member of the CDC advisory committee. "The center involves people from different backgrounds in a strong, creative process that's exciting to watch. They tap into a lot of young talent and energy to produce art work that is very good and has staying power. The public art created for Findlay Market is a tremendous plus for the area," he said.

The long-term contributions by Russell and his students are impressive. His most recent projects in Over-the-Rhine include:

Affordable Housing
The CDC joined in an OTR partnership that is raising some roofs for low-income, working families in the form of St. Anthony Village, a renovation of four buildings and the construction of one new one to provide 28 apartments at the corner of Green and Republic streets. Begun in 2000, St. Anthony Village resulted from a partnership between the CDC, a local developer, the Franciscan Friars, the Women's Research and Development Center of Northside and social service groups in Over-the-Rhine. Residents are set to move in to the interior spaces designed by Russell and his students. The UC team also designed the communal courtyard with its play and sitting areas, executed the pre-schematic designs and the construction documents.

Recalled Russell, "It's a wonderful housing model. It's the best example there is of how new and rehabbed housing can be designed around a 'village' concept that promotes resident ownership of communal...space in the inner city."

Youth and Community Development
With his Art-in-the-Market brainchild, Russell has been able to partner advanced art students and faculty from UC's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) with teens in Over-the-Rhine for the past seven years. Daily throughout the summer and less frequently during the school year, the teens (who are sponsored by the Citizen's Committee on Youth) and UC students have sought to heal community wounds through art. For instance, they painted vibrant murals of hope on the boards covering broken windows surrounding Findlay Market after the April 2001 riots. Their lasting legacy quietly contributes to the OTR community: banners, signs and organic sculptures for Findlay Market, ceramic-tiled tables and benches, and more.

Thanks to a grant from the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), Cincinnati Public Schools in Over-the-Rhine will be among the first to be refurbished in the Greater Cincinnati community. Working with the CDF and Over-the-Rhine residents, Russell, other DAAP faculty and students envisioned new futures for three specific OTR schools: Rothenberg Elementary, Vine Street Elementary and Washington Park Elementary. Over the past eight months, the UC team and residents brainstormed what would be best for OTR's schools: schools as centers for community learning, schools and senior centers sharing space, schools attached to recreation centers or to health and dental centers as well as to community meeting spaces, community kitchens, police sub-stations or to public-access broadcast centers. From the process, the UC team provided concrete "visioned" sketches that the community will now use in working with the architect for each project.

Comprehensive Planning
Russell and the CDC provided a major contribution to the city's June 2002 OTR Comprehensive Plan, which reviews efforts in OTR over the last decade in terms of gentrification and low-income vs. market-rate housing, transportation, safety, sanitation and green space. The policy document, authored by the Cincinnati Planning Department, summarizes what has already occurred and where the city can go.

The Niehoff Studio at UC
The Niehoff Studio is a new series of design studios that, for the next two years, will be led by Russell and other DAAP faculty. Also for the next two years, it will concentrate on University Heights and Over-the-Rhine. The UC team will focus on food service, outdoor markets, groceries and supermarkets in the inner city, devising solutions to assure that current residents receive the services and goods they need while seeking to attract new residents and revive rundown areas with the power of vibrant food retail. The short-term focus on food as a tool for improving Cincinnati's dense, urban core was a deliberate choice, made because the shopping for and sharing of food has the deepest of social and economic implications. Beyond the next two years, The Niehoff Studio, named for UC Board of Trustees member H.C. Buck Niehoff, will target other fundamental challenges to the city's neighborhoods.