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Camp Washington is a zoning mashup. Community leaders want to fix that

1925 Map.pdf
City of Cincinnati
A zoning map from the city's 1925 Comprehensive Plan shows Camp Washington zoned almost entirely industrial.

WVXU's Round the Corner series takes you into the heart of Greater Cincinnati's communities. This time, we're getting to know Camp Washington. WVXU's Nick Swartsell finds out ways zoning shaped the neighborhood's present — and could influence its future.

If you live in Camp Washington, there's a fair chance you walk out your door every morning greeted by the hustle of a factory across the street. The clank and hiss of a machine tool shop. The beep of trucks backing into a loading dock. The sudden rush of a shift change.

The juxtaposition is a key part of the community's character.

Most Cincinnati neighborhoods have their housing set away from industry thanks to zoning. But Camp Washington is zoned almost entirely industrial. Some community leaders wanting to revisit the neighborhood's zoning plan to find more flexible approaches to land use in the neighborhood.

Camp Washington Urban Revitalization Corporation Executive Director Sidney Nation says the current zoning sometimes makes it hard to fix up old homes and sets up barriers to new housing and mixed-use spaces in the neighborhood. CWURC recently hired a consultant to take a look at ways to improve that.

"Because of our history, and because of the industrial environment, you'll see manufacturing right next to single family and single family right next to high industrial uses," she says. "So how it's zoned right now is not cohesive for a growing neighborhood. It's more cohesive for large industrial plants and offices and stuff like that. We're trying to grow our residential population and it's not suitable."

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Community leaders say industry continues to play a big part in the neighborhood. Camp Washington Business Association President Matt Wagner notes recent expansions by companies like Queen City Sausage, Rhinegeist Brewing and other manufacturers in the neighborhood. But he also hopes for residential expansion, too. Part of that growth, Wagner hopes, will come from modern, high-tech manufacturing that is cleaner and lighter.

"I don't think that Camp Washington will ever be one or the other," he says. "I don't think this will ever be just simply residential or simply manufacturing. I think that we've already started that change from, you know, the historic fossil fuels and heavy manufacturing to more of the sophisticated manufacturing with robots, as well as just a better workspace and work environments... I think that's going to really help the revitalization and just going to open the doors I think to that live-work community, which is really what we want to see."

Historic homes in Camp Washington nestled right up against a Meyer Tools manufacturing facility in the northern portion of the neighborhood.
Nick Swartsell
Historic homes in Camp Washington nestled right up against a Meyer Tools manufacturing facility in the northern portion of the neighborhood.

Zoned out

How did the neighborhood get this way? It started in the last decades of the 19th Century.

Much of Camp Washington was built during a rapid expansion of industry and population that happened before the city had zoning laws. As factories and people moved north from the city's crowded, smoky basin, the flat expanse of the Mill Creek Valley was a perfect place for new development. Soon, it was getting full, too.

The cramped, dirty conditions in many Cincinnati neighborhoods drew the ire of city leaders. They sought to exert more control over what kinds of land use happened in various parts of the city.

It took awhile, but by 1918, the city had its first planning commission, which began regulating new development on a case-by-case basis. Then, on May 3, 1924, the city’s first zoning code formally took effect. That’s right — Cincinnati’s zoning practices turn 99 years old this year.

The stated purpose of the city's zoning ordinance was to make sure Cincinnati residents had clean, spacious living conditions removed from the pollution and noise of industrial work. But zoning had a dark side, too. Scholar Richard Rothstein wrote an acclaimed book about the racial history of zoning called The Color of Law. He toldCincinnati Editionabout it in 2021.

The year after the city's first planning commission began, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws explicitly barring people from particular neighborhoods due to their race. The idea of zoning rose up in part as a way around that Supreme Court decision — a way to enforce segregation without saying so out loud.

RELATED: Camp Washington was vibrant before I-75 came through. Can it be that way again?

"The federal government began a program to create model exclusionary ordinances that could be adopted by cities all over the country for the purpose of accomplishing the same thing (segregation)," Rothstein said. "Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover beginning in 1921 created a commission to develop these zoning ordinances and they were soon adopted all over the country."

Locally, a lot of that zoning restricted development in Cincinnati neighborhoods to single-family homes. But the practice had the opposite effect in Camp Washington. A 1925 zoning map shows the center of the neighborhood as a sea of blue — the color for manufacturing zoning. Mixed in all that industry, however, were hundreds of homes.

Many parts of the neighborhood that weren't zoned manufacturing would eventually get chipped away. The construction of Union Terminal in 1929 meant the neighborhood's western side would become dominated by rail activity — a fact that attracted still more industry. University of Cincinnati Center for the City Director Anne Delano Steinert explains.

"It was really a transformation of this neighborhood," Steinert says. "The Mill Creek, which runs on the edge of Camp Washington, is now bordered by this huge railyard. I'm just thinking about the ways in which it might have really transformed this neighborhood for the good of big industrial concerns. Kahns and other big meat packers build big factories right around the same time."

Camp Washington lost a significant portion of its residential land a few decades later whenI-75 came through the neighborhood. By then, the community was an island of factories with houses built in a different era right next to them.


Changing zoning in Camp Washington isn't a new idea.A community council plan from 1981 called for more residential-friendly zoning in many parts of the neighborhood, but that suggestion was never taken up. The concern pops up again in a 1985 plan, which notes, "the present zoning encourages rather than protects Camp Washington properties from conflicting land uses."

Zoning changes that have happened aren't necessarily right for the community, some say. Jocelyn Gibson works for ZoneCo, the consultancy hired by the Camp Washington Urban Revitalization Corporation to reexamine the city's zoning code. She also lived in the neighborhood until recently. Gibson notes that a change in zoning in part of the neighborhood's business district actually made development there more out of character with the rest of the community.

"The neighborhood business district, which is very walkable, which is oriented toward people — you can see the buildings go right up to the sidewalk — that was previously zoned 'commercial community auto-oriented,' " she says. "And that's a zoning district that is tailored specifically for auto-oriented uses. It's the type of zoning you'd see out in the suburbs with big box retail and big parking lots out in the front. It's just not appropriate for this environment."

The district was rezoned to a designation called "urban mix" a few years back, but some believe that designation isn't ideal either because it sets some unwieldy restrictions.

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Part of ZoneCo's report is feedback from those who live or work in Camp Washington. Gibson says they've heard from businesses concerned about whether their properties would be compliant if zoning in the neighborhood changes and residents who want their community to be more walkable and more populated.

"Many communities, when they're talking about zoning reform, they want single family zoning, they want low density, they want estate zoning in some cases," Gibson says. "Something that's interesting about here is that they really want housing. They want denser housing, mix of uses, a grocery store, a community garden. I wish that you could clone that and take it to other communities, because it's really unique. There really is a sense of community here where they care about their neighbors."

The community is only in the first steps of potential changes to its zoning code. Nation says there is a lot of work still to come — and plenty of time for further input.

She says the end goal is a neighborhood allowing for mixed-use areas including modern industry, commercial space and of course more homes and apartments — a mix she says feels very Camp Washington.

"This isn't implemented, this isn't going straight into the city's zoning," she says. "It's us looking at [ZoneCo's] study and saying, 'Oh we really like this, what zoning could fulfill those requirements?' "

Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.