Source: The Enquirer
Will Wasson Way Trail Speed Gentrification in Avondale? Residents Wonder
Cincinnati Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney has been getting a lot of calls from Avondale residents. A few months ago, an influx of residents called her office to air out their nerves about development projects raising rent prices. More recent callers have amplified those fears.
“They’re saying they have to move,” said Kearney.
Various development projects are beginning to affect Avondale’s affordability. The next development project sweeping through is a bike-friendly, pedestrian-friendly one – the Wasson Way trail, which is due to reach Avondale later this year.
However, neighborhood enhancements like the Wasson Way come with a price. “One woman had a letter that said, ‘We love you as a tenant; hope you’ll stay, but by the way, now you’re gonna have to pay $100 more a month,’” said Kearney.
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“We want to make sure that as these neighborhoods get all these amenities – new bike trail, new businesses – that these neighborhoods are still affordable,” said Kearney, noting that like all development, the Wasson Way poses the threat of displacement.
Historically, developers have tended to fall short on promises of revitalizing Avondale, instead of pricing people out. Trail advocates are aiming lower; they only hope to provide Avondale with safer access to vital resources, connecting the neighborhood to the rest of the city.
Paving the way for Wasson Way's extension
Wasson Way co-founder Jay Andress stands along a path overlooking Victory Parkway, in Avondale, where Wasson Way, a bicycle and pedestrian corridor, will be expanded.
The Wasson Way’s co-founder Jay Andress has been to meetings in people’s homes in Avondale to talk up the bike and pedestrian trail. But his recent grassroots advocacy in Avondale looked different from that of the Wasson Way’s start.
“The original dream was basically to hook up the Little Miami Bike Trail, to have an off-road route for not only myself but for (almost) 100,000 Cincinnati residents,” said Andress. Inspired by an abandoned rail corridor near his home in Hyde Park, he imagined an off-road trail sheltered from what he calls “treacherous” car traffic.
“We see the Wasson Way as a linear park, a way to get away from cars,” Andress said. The 3.75-mile trail currently stretches east to west from Ault Park to Xavier University, centered in the neighborhoods of Hyde Park and Oakley.
Tri-State Trails, Cincinnati’s leading trail advocacy group, aims to create a network of trails across the region. The Wasson Way is a major part of its campaign for the Cincinnati Riding Or Walking Network, which envisions a 34-mile citywide loop called the Crown.
Wade Johnston, director of Tri-State Trails, said that the Wasson Way’s initial plans from 2015 didn’t include Avondale. Originally, the trail ended at Montgomery Road in Evanston next to Xavier University, but Tri-State Trails decided to connect the dots. It found that an abandoned rail corridor in Avondale could connect the Wasson Way farther west.
To Johnston, the cross-neighborhood trail connection carries weight.
“Most of the trails in Cincinnati are on the east side in affluent, predominantly white communities,” Johnston said. “Historically, trails have not touched these communities that are predominantly Black, predominantly lower-income, have high rates of zero car households.”
The trail’s extension along Interstate 71 will stretch right through southeast Avondale. Ending at the east end of Blair Court, it will reach into an expressway-side residential neighborhood.
Avondale residents say they've been burned before
“When I moved to Avondale in ‘74, I could still smell the smoke” from riots years earlier, said Sandra Jones Mitchell. She served as president of the Avondale Community Council from 2019 through 2021 and spent over four decades as a member.
What Jones Mitchell witnessed was the aftermath of the Avondale protests, which turned violent over the unkept promises of the civil rights movement in both 1967 and 1968. Kearney, who also grew up in Avondale, remembers that protesters largely burned down their once-thriving business corridors on Burnet Avenue and Reading Road.
“I was just a kid, but what I kept hearing was that we didn’t own those businesses anyway; we didn’t own that property,” said Kearney, noting that most of the businesses were not Black-owned. “A lot of people felt that they were disrespected by the business owners. So, people were furious; that was just a boiling point.”
Less than a decade later, the construction of I-71 physically divided majority-Black Avondale from more affluent neighbors in Hyde Park and Oakley.
“Of course, the highways purposefully came through Black neighborhoods,” Kearney said. “It wasn’t accidental … to divide up black neighborhoods and put highways through,” Kearney said. With Avondale still reeling from the riots, discrimination and disinvestment sent the neighborhood on a downward spiral for decades.
The development of the Uptown Innovation Corridor, now part of the second-largest employment hub in the city, promised opportunities for Avondale residents. Over the years, Jones Mitchell believes the businesses have more often displaced than employed residents.
“I was there with the elders fighting to keep their homes,” said Jones Mitchell. “And a lot of them lost that battle because of what you see today: the zoo, Children’s, UC Health.”
In 2017, the construction of the I-71 interchange at Martin Luther King Drive aimed to bring more jobs and people to the Uptown corridor. At the time, urban planners and corporate partners behind the project said its construction would create opportunities for Avondale residents.
“They didn’t give the community enough time to position itself for employment, and by the time we did, it was too late,” Jones Mitchell said.
“What we missed was engaging the residents,” she said, noting that the community’s direct involvement in each development project determines whether it helps or hurts Avondale. This lesson applies to the Wasson Way trail.
Preventing the worst side-effects of development
With the effects of I-71 and Uptown development still fresh, the Avondale community wants a say going forward. That’s where the Avondale Development Corp. comes in.
“They have a very inclusive approach,” said Johnston. He added that the corporation brought a grocery store back to Avondale.
Tri-State Trails’ and Wasson Way’s partnership with the development corporation poses the opportunity for trailside affordable housing. But both groups agree that it’s a challenge to pull off, especially in tandem with developer interest along the trail.
“It’s going to have unintended consequences,” said Johnston, noting that Tri-State Trails works to give communities a heads up about what trail infrastructure might bring with it.
Rachel Culley, who works with Johnston at Tri-State Trails, also recognizes the risks of developing in neighborhoods like Avondale.
“The trail will raise property values, and it does have the possibility to displace people if they aren’t able to secure their homes or secure property nearby,” said Culley, noting that Tri-State Trails tries to approach trails with a holistic view.
“We’re thinking a lot about different affordable housing policies, economic development policies, zoning that we could potentially get put in place before the trail is acquired or constructed,” she said. However, according to Culley, no residential zoning laws or affordable housing policies have been set in Avondale to protect community members from displacement thus far.
“I think that time will still tell how successful we are with that, but it’s something we’re trying to be really transparent about on the front end,” said Johnston.
Avondale Resident Molly Stephens moved to Avondale in 2019 due to rising rent prices in Northside. For her, the neighborhood’s affordability is important.
“A lot of the people here are here because they already got gentrified or displaced,” said Stephens, worried that landlords will see the trail as a reason to raise rents.
“I think people love to say that they’re going to look into affordable housing, but at the end of the day, the developers are going to buy them out,” she said. “And that’s going to heighten the cost of living in one of the last affordable neighborhoods in the city.”
Avondale’s history of disinvestment led to cheaper rent prices, but it also made the neighborhood an easy target for outside developers. Now, the community wants to maintain that affordability while improving the quality of life in Avondale. According to Kearney, it’s a tough balance to strike.
The Avondale Development Corp. aims to revive the community while keeping residents’ needs at the forefront. In its quality of life plan, the nonprofit developer paired plans for affordable housing with health and safety-first developments such as the Wasson Way.
On the city level, Kearney says that city council committees are studying affordable housing solutions to create through Cincinnati's Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Still, the trail’s long-term effect on the neighborhood’s affordability has yet to be determined.
The path of the existing Wasson Way trail and how it will be extended into Cincinnati's Avondale neighborhood.
Putting safety first while boosting pedestrian connections
Regardless of what happens to property values, the Wasson Way will provide Avondale with a pedestrian-friendly connection to resources. The trail fits the blueprint for one of the Avondale Development Corp.’s core tenants – safety.
“There’s a higher amount of traffic crashes, specifically serious injuries and fatalities, of pedestrians and cyclists in African American majority communities and low-income communities,” Culley said. She researched for Tri-State Trails’ Crash Dashboard, adding that it’s difficult to navigate Cincinnati without a car, let alone navigate it safely.
“People drive really fast on the main thoroughfares (in Avondale), and it feels unsafe,” said Johnston. The off-road trail will provide a safe space for families to play and ride bikes, he said.
Although protected from car traffic, the trail will run through a wooded corridor next to the highway. When Tri-State Trails and Wasson Way first reached out to residents, their first concern was with other kinds of safety on the off-road trail.
“They were wondering, is this going to create places for crime or illicit activity to happen?” said Johnston. Avondale residents asked for lighting along their portion of the trail, and Tri-State Trails and Wasson Way are currently trying to find the money for it. Along the rest of the Wasson Way, Andress added that other measures have been taken to ensure safety.
“We’ve tried to clear out all of the underbrush,” said Andress. “We plant trees along the trail, but we try to get rid of any places where people can hide.”
According to Johnston, Tri-State Trails has also organized several pop-up bike shops in Avondale, giving out safety-first equipment such as lights, locks, and helmets to community members.
“We’re hoping that this becomes a safe way to potentially walk to jobs or walk to a shop or walk to get groceries,” Culley said. “It’ll just reopen a lot of opportunities for them that they have been cut off from in the last half of the 20th century.”
With the community’s safety put first, Johnston and Culley hope the trail will provide more than just recreation. They believe it will be especially helpful for residents without cars.
Building connections across Cincinnati
Wasson Way co-founder Jay Andress stands in a field near Blair Court in Cincinnati's Avondale neighborhood, where Wasson Way, a bicycle and pedestrian corridor, will be expanded.
In its first phase, the trail mainly touched Hyde Park and Oakley. But in 2019, Phase 2 extended Wasson Way over I-71 with a bridge that reconnected neighborhoods across the expressway. That segment linked Evanston and Norwood to Hyde Park with the trail parallel to Dana Avenue.
Avondale's the next stop.
“It’s brought those neighborhoods closer together. All these communities that never really engaged with each other,” said Andress. “And there’s some evidence that they tried to disengage from each other because of racial prejudices.”
Once complete, the Wasson Way will touch at least eight eastside communities: Avondale, Evanston, Norwood, Hyde Park, Oakley, Mount Lookout, Fairfax, and Mariemont.
“I could see where we could do a farmers market in Avondale, and people from Norwood and Evanston and Hyde Park and Oakley could use the trail to go,” said Andress.
And yet, the Wasson Way is only one part of Tri-State Trails’ larger vision for connectivity.
Right now, the Tri-State Trails team is in talks with community partners along another big section of the Crown loop – the Mill Creek Valley. The plan is to eventually link the Wasson Way with historically marginalized areas west of Interstate 75 such as South Fairmount and Winton Place. According to Johnston, trail advocacy there is similar to the efforts in Avondale back in 2017.
“Going door to door and saying to families, ‘Hey, how you doing? You know, there’s this great project that’s going to be built in your backyard, and we want you to be a part of it because you matter,’” said Jones Mitchell. She wants the Avondale community to feel passionately involved, to feel like it’s theirs.
Both she and trail advocates are optimistic, but Jones Mitchell has noticed some inconsistencies with rhetoric and action. Tree removal began along the trail corridor this spring, which residents hadn’t been alerted of.
“I don’t care if you paint the sidewalk blue. Tell the person who lives in front of the dang sidewalk,” she said. Trail advocates have stayed on top of emails and been to a few community council meetings, but Jones Mitchell says the council has to keep inviting them.
“The average person in Avondale don’t know nothing about Wasson Way,” Jones Mitchell said. “
When the Wasson Way comes through Avondale this fall, Jones Mitchell wants residents invited to a block party. In her view, an involved community will assure history doesn’t repeat itself.
“This project is huge, and it’s going to happen with or without you,” she said.