Tapping into Brewery Heritage

Developers work to organize Brewery District in Over-the-Rhine

CITYBEAT By Bob Driehaus

Brewery District proponents often host tours of historic (and empty) Over-the-Rhine properties.

The Brewery District is one big decayed museum, but it might be on the verge of springing back to life.

Cherubs still hoist goblets of sudsy beer on the fa├žade of Clyffside Brewery on McMicken and Stonewall streets, but the 19th century red brick building is shuttered. The same goes for the sprawling Christian Moerlein bottling plant and barrel house just north of Findlay Market between Elm and Race streets.

Generations of Cincinnatians have lived and died since those buildings teemed with brewery workers, and the craftsmanship that went into building the breweries is long extinct.

But many of the signature breweries remain standing, and therein lies the hope for what proponents envision as a dramatic renaissance of Over-the-Rhine north of Liberty Street.

Makeeva Paass and Rodney Swope, former Procter & Gamble marketing executives, are leading the most ambitious project to date in the form of converting the Moerlein bottling plant and surrounding buildings into 100 market-rate condominiums at an estimated cost of $25 million.

The 300,000-square-foot complex -- named Moerlein Gardens -- borders Findlay Market, Elm and Race streets and Henry Alley.

"The condominiums are going to be gorgeous, with state-of-the-art amenities as well as a private interior garden the full length of the building," Paass says. "We're looking to reestablish the sense of community which the brewery district is already making great strides toward doing."

The price range for the condos will be $150,000 to more than $300,000, she says.

Paass and Swope hope to begin renovations by early spring and open the condos in phases over the next three years. All-important financing still is in the works, but Paass says the financing package is in its final stages.

"This is going to be a great burst of energy and renewal for Cincinnati and its core, especially north of Findlay Market," she says.

Up a few blocks, Duane Donohoo is seeking financing to convert the Clyffside Brewery building into 19 condos that would sell for $85,000 to $170,000 each. The project includes 24 indoor parking spaces.

The brewery was built in 1887 and was home to Mohawk, Clyffside and Red Top breweries. Red Top sales reached 20 states before a steep decline led to its closing in 1957, according to Robert J. Wimberg's Cincinnati Breweries.

Donohoo is president of the Brewery District, a group dedicated to the area's renaissance (see www.otrbrewerydistrict.com). He expresses frustration with unsuccessful efforts to get financing help from the city without too many restrictions.

"We're trying to get the city behind it," he says. "We wanted to get people down there. If the price is right, I think they would sell quick. They all got indoor parking and city views."

Donohoo develops property in Anderson Township and Amelia but says he was drawn to the Brewery District for its architecture.

"I thought I could do some good down there," he says. "The brewery buildings themselves are things that people are never going to build again."

One of the early success stories has been Greg Badger's Lofts at Dunlap, a six-condo complex that sold out six months ago. Just a couple of blocks from Findlay Market, the condos sold for $125,000 to $300,000 each.

"It wasn't hugely financially rewarding, but it was hugely rewarding to take a vacant building and create a real community," Badger says.

The condo owners have become good friends, he says, and regularly use the common area for group cookouts and parties.

"The neat thing is just the love people have for their city and their neighborhood," Badger says.

His focus has shifted to the Washington Park area, where he's remodeling an old home to live in himself.

The Brewery District renaissance efforts aren't happening in a vacuum. Jim Koch, the Cincinnati native and founder of Boston Beer Co. and Samuel Adams beer, says the Brewery District can take heart in similar success stories around the country.

His brewing company owns the former Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewery on Central Parkway and Liberty Street and employs more than 150 people, and Koch is rooting on the redevelopment efforts.

"Columbus has a brewery district that's been very successful," he says. "It's a very viable concept. We would be thrilled to see it happen. You probably need other businesses, and you need people living there. This has happened in lots of cities.

"In the area around our brewery in Boston, there was a lot of crime, a lot of vacant buildings. Now it's a very desirable area, but 20 years ago nobody wanted to live there. The idea is very viable. It's a just a matter of getting to a critical mass."
The public-private development group Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) is part of the effort. Darrick Dansby, the group's Over-the-Rhine director of development, says 3CDC is working to provide gap financing for the Moerlein Gardens project.

"We have been happy to assist (Paass and Swope)," he says. "We really see this Moerlein Gardens project as the catalyst to other projects in the Brewery District. It's a connection from Findlay Market to the rest of the district."

Dansby says 3CDC is focusing most of its energy on property around Washington Park, which is south of the Brewery District. But the group has worked with the city and Hamilton County on reducing crime throughout Over-the-Rhine and improving its image as well.

"We're working hard to make Over-the-Rhine a safe area," Dansby says. "It's not just statistics. It's also perception. People are buying into the concept. It's just a matter of keeping up that momentum."

Cincinnati City Councilman Jim Tarbell, a lifelong Over-the-Rhine advocate and owner of the former Grammer's restaurant building on the corner of Liberty and Walnut, says he's hopeful that the renaissance can succeed.

"There are definitely signs of hope, if for no other reason than the persistence of the folks involved in that real estate," he says. "There hasn't been a major move in formal planning on the part of the city of Cincinnati or a dramatic message from the lending community that they're going to fund development in the Brewery District."

A new city-made comprehensive plan or a major lender announcing its commitment to the neighborhood would advance the cause, Tarbell says.