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Cincinnati City Council rejects historic designation for Evanston's Hoffman School

Hoffman School in Evanston
Nick Swartsell
Hoffman School in Evanston

A historic school building in Evanston became a flashpoint during a contentious debate about property rights, racial equity, historic preservation and affordable housing during Cincinnati City Council's Equitable Growth and Housing Committee Tuesday.

The committee ultimately voted 5-4 against extending local historic designation for the school, making it easier for a proposed demolition to happen.

During a three-and-a-half hour meeting, council heard from more than 40 speakers, and at times, sparred with each other over the fate of Hoffman School. The building, constructed in 1922 by Cincinnati architects Hannaford and Sons, is currently owned by local developers Kingsley + Company. The company would like to demolish the building as part of a plan to construct a three-building, 300-unit mixed-income development on the site. One building with 86 units would sit on the footprint of the school, while two others would sit elsewhere on the grounds.

Hoffman no longer serves as a school, but former owner Christ Temple Full Baptist Church currently occupies the property. The church's Rev. Peterson Mingo, a well-known community activist, supports Kingsley's efforts to demolish it and build housing. Kinglsey's founder, Chinedum Ndukwe, says renovating the current building into housing simply doesn't work financially and that it is in very poor shape.

Preservationists disagree

But historic preservationists question those assertions. At the council meeting, some pointed out the structure doesn't have any open city code violations. And preservation advocates presented evidence that historic preservation projects can work financially as affordable housing with the help of tax credits.

RELATED: A new Ohio tax credit program incentivizes affordable housing. Advocates are still wary

The Cincinnati Preservation Association has lobbied for historic designation for the property, which would put in place a more stringent process for a demolition permit to tear it down. Preservationists argue the school is historically significant because it's a remainder of the city's progressive era, when city leaders invested heavily in public schools and other infrastructure.

The Evanston Community Council also opposes demolition, citing a 2019 community plan that prioritizes preservation of Hoffman and other historic sites.

"We sent Kingsley + Company a letter in February letting them know we support their zoning plan but we don't support the demolition of the building," Evanston Community Council Housing Chair Sharon Moon told council.

A number of neighborhood residents told council they opposed the building's demolition, though a few also came to speak in favor of Kingsley's plan.

The city's Historic Conservation Board agreed with the Cincinnati Preservation Association and approved the historic designation in May. But the Cincinnati Planning Commission's board reversed that in a 6-1 vote in June, batting down historic protections, though Planning Commission staff recommended approving the designation. Multiple surveys conducted over the last four decades suggest the building is eligible for national historic designation.

City council would have needed a six-vote margin to overrule the planning commission.

'We talked to the community at length'

Ndukwe says the developer's plans mean more affordable housing for Evanston.

"We talked to the community at length," he said. "We want to build more affordable housing in the city because of the need."

But Councilmember Mark Jeffries, who voted for historic designation, had questions about how affordable the development would actually be.

RELATED: What does 'affordable' housing mean in Cincinnati?

"Your studios are $1,300 a month. At 50% [area median income], it's $885 a month," Jeffries said. "So are we missing something?" he posited. "It's great and awesome when we throw out affordable housing, but what are we talking about? Because for most of these units, they're not affordable."

Ndukwe said the $1,300 a month figure was an average and that some units would cost less and others more. He said that about 10% of the development's 300 units would be affordable to those making 60% of the area median income. That works out to about $42,000 for a single person. Ndukwe said Kingsley is open to finding ways to build more affordable units.

How race came into play

But there are some roadblocks, including legislation from the Ohio General Assembly that bans the use of Low Income Housing Tax Credits and Historic Preservation Tax Credits on the same project. That, among other challenges, makes historic renovation of Hoffman impossible, Kingsley has claimed.

Several speakers supporting the project, including prominent Black leaders like Rev. Damon Lynch III, alleged that Kingsley's project was receiving scrutiny because Ndukwe is Black, and that the historic designation would further racial inequity. Councilmembers Scottie Johnson, Reggie Harris and Victoria Parks expressed displeasure with putting a further obstacle in the way of a Black developer, voting against the designation.

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"As a Black man in America, for my neighbors to be able to band together and use a municipal tool to say that me and my husband can't do what we want to do for my house, that will never sit right for me," Harris said.

Councilmembers Liz Keating and Seth Walsh also voted against the historic protections.

Other councilmembers, however, were not convinced. Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney joined Jeffries, Councilmembers Jeff Cramerding and Meeka Owens in voting for historic designation. She suggested city help for Kingsley could make affordable housing financially viable in a restored Hoffman School building.

"I know that the historic designation of Hoffman School could present an economic hardship, I understand that," Kearney said. "But on the other side we have the Evanston Community Council. The community of Evanston is predominantly Black. The Evanston Community Council is predominantly Black. So it's not just a black and white issue."

Ndukwe is well-known at City Hall. He was an FBI informant against former Cincinnati City Councilmember P.G. Sittenfeld. In Sittenfeld's trial, an FBI agent testified Ndukwe was suspected of donating to local political campaigns using checks in other peoples' names to skirt campaign finance limits.

Tuesday was not the first time a development by Kingsley has sparked debate in council. In 2020, council passed a motion urging the developer to work with the city to find adequate housing for low-income renters being forced to leave a Kingsley renovation project in Mount Auburn. Those residents expressed worry they would become homeless and said they weren't given much time to find new homes. The renovation project was next to a hotel the developer was also building that received a $2 million property tax abatement.

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.