Architects often are brought into communities as fresh eyes, helping groups synthesize their needs into design solutions. I think it is prudent that we, Architects, also be present, visible, and active in our own communities - able to provide first hand perspective as citizens and neighbors - while having the added benefit of also seeing the world as an Architect. For the past 3 and a half years I’ve been fortunate to have a voice in my neighborhood of Northside, Cincinnati as a volunteer board member on NEST, currently sitting as Vice President.
NEST is a non-profit community development corporation with a mission to ensure our neighborhood thrives as a vibrant and sustainable community. It is a grassroots organization that formed in 2005 not long before the housing market crashed. So naturally, the group began by focusing on housing. NEST has revitalized single family housing stock by renovating or constructing homes to eliminate blight and bolster homeownership and has facilitated the sale or transfer of over 40 homes or parcels since 2005, over half of which have been income restricted to help preserve the culture that has been created by so many long time residents.
NEST’s work likely was part of the gravitational force that landed me in Northside as a resident myself. Just a couple years out of Grad school I was living in OTR and looking to buy a home. I was looking for a relatively affordable neighborhood that still had the perks of walkability, an exciting creative culture, and - of high importance to a Designer/Architect - quality residential Architecture. Northside checked all the boxes and I found a late 19th century Italianate brick home with a beautiful side yard anchored by a large Japanese Maple. At the time I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay in Ohio but with each passing year Northside felt more and more like home to me. A handful of years after moving in, a friend of a friend, Sarah Thomas reached out to see if I’d be interested in joining the board. She had recently become the new executive director, and asked me to meet up over dinner to talk about NEST. She lit up telling me about the momentum NEST had and the ideas she wanted to pursue: to start engaging on projects in the business district; expanding their affordable housing efforts to multi-family; and shoring up the existing home ownership of long time residents. Spoiler alert, Sarah has carried the torch of NEST with extreme passion and intention reaching all of those goals and counting. The opportunity immediately piqued my interest and so began my work with NEST.
Architects solve design problems, but as a “citizen Architect” we can help frame design problems. We can help organize thoughts so our community is not just asking questions, but asking the right questions. This also presented a growth opportunity for me as an Architect - an opportunity to better understand a different perspective on building projects. Being on the board means learning to be a client for other Architects and being a developer who weighs the financial goals and requirements of a project alongside the design goals. The ability to sit on the other side of the table gives me more understanding and empathy to the clients we work with at MSA. Connecting my worlds even further (as an Architect for MSA, a Northside Resident, and a NEST Board Member), MSA’s design for the Northside Transit Center has substantially shaped this neighborhood and our connectivity to opportunities for residents. The transit center that Go Metro opened in 2020 has become a catalyst in our thinking of transit oriented design in the business district.
Our first commercial project (co-developed with Pennrose), John Arthur Flats, brings 57 affordable rental units to the neighborhood just a 5 minute walk from the transit center. This visionary project will be Cincinnati’s first LGBTQ+ senior housing development with a mix of Studios, 1 Bedrooms and 2 Bedrooms, all units are income-restricted from 30% to 50% Area Median Income. Also right next door to the transit center NEST acquired a building that had been vacant in part or full for the past 50 years. With grants from the city and a partnership with ‘The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority’ we are working towards restoring this building for 3 floors of commercial space.
Everyone is mouth-wateringly awaiting this project as NEST announced this summer that the ground floor will be a new restaurant concept from Cincinnati’s long time favorite Lebanese grocery store owner, Kate Zaidan of Dean’s Mediterranean Imports (their grocery is located in Findlay Market since the 70’s). And most recently, NEST is working with Urban Sites and OTRCH on a project that is situated at the southern “gateway” to the neighborhood - positioned between the heart of the business district and The Millcreek Greenway Trail. This project is another opportunity to consider how residents and businesses within this development are connected to both our neighborhood and the city at large.
*I love Northside; I love being an Architect and Designer; and so it stands to reason - I love being a citizen architect - being active in my community. So to my design peers, consider this a call to action to find a way to be civically engaged. While not all problems are design problems, “Design Thinking” translates well to complex issues that need solved. *