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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Local Communities Grapple with Residential Re-development

By Grace DeGregorio

Editor's Note: Here, in print, we report the story of the house which prompted action and the people involved - with sincere efforts to present all sides fairly using their own observations. We recognize the sensitivity of this subject and respect the views of all involved and affected by it.

Residential re-development in Hyde Park and Mt. Lookout have many residents concerned over the transforming character of their neighborhoods. 

The Robertson family “lives here because of the charm - it isn’t a cookie-cutter neighborhood - and history,” explains Karen Robertson.  But, she adds, “There has been a swell of tear-downs and lot splits in Hyde Park and Mt. Lookout, and many residents are urging the City to help control this problem.

“One of the most recent tear-downs was 1228 Grace Avenue, a historic 1820's farmhouse on almost half an acre, built as the family home of Reverend Isaac Ferris. He was one of the early pioneers of our neighborhood and is listed on the official roster of the First Families of Hamilton County. [See Below]

“My husband, Malcolm, purchased the house in 1989 when it was a rundown two-family.  Over the next 17 years, we lovingly transformed it back into a splendid single family Federal farmhouse.”
When the Robertsons moved to a neighborhood house better meeting its needs as a growing family, Karen says the new residents at Grace Avenue remodeled and landscaped during their time of ownership.  Planning an out-of-town move, they sold the home earlier this year to realtor Angelo Pusateri, a Hyde Park resident.  

Angelo says he lives in a 90+ year old home “that I restored over the past five years. It is a beautiful home, and my wife and I are raising a family in the neighborhood we love.  I care about the community l live in, and I am proud of what I do.”

He explains the Grace Avenue property was advertised openly for several months prior to his offer. “Anyone could have bought it during that time. When the property officially listed with a realtor, there were multiple offers. I was the first offer on the property, and the sellers made a counter offer. The sellers rescinded their counter offer to me once the second offer came in.  Upon reviewing both offers, the sellers decided to make a higher counter offer, which I accepted.  They chose to counter my offer as a teardown because they knew there would be issues that would come up during inspections of their home.”

Shortly after the property purchase, Karen says, “Neighbors were shocked to see three trees cut down in the front yard, including the 150+ year old healthy oak tree.”   Angelo agrees “They were beautiful,” but adds, “and also hollow inside.  They could have fallen at any point.”
The sale of the Grace Avenue property raised a serious issue for neighborhood residents: fears the property would meet the same fate as others in recent years - demolition, lot subdivision and building of multiple houses - which was brought to the community councils of Hyde Park and Mt. Lookout.  The councils became actively involved, as did Mayor John Cranley, listening to the residents seeking action.

Historically, “The City of Cincinnati has been responsive to concerns about the re-development of properties,” observes Karen.  “To help reduce the number of subdivisions, a study was done to change zoning on larger-than-average parcels that were contiguous, but this study did not consider larger-than-average lots sprinkled around the neighborhood; so they have been unprotected and legally zoned for re-development.”

Angelo describes the legal steps he took after his Grace Avenue purchase. “During my inspection period of the real estate, I confirmed with The Cincinnati City Planning Department the lot at 1228 Grace Avenue met the requirements for a legal lot split, required no variances and - even after the split - was still larger than the neighboring properties

“I also have a letter issued by The Metropolitan Sewer District approving my request to build two houses on the site. I applied for the lot split on 5/17/18.”  He received a response dated that same day from James Weaver, AICP, Senior City Planner saying, ‘I’ve been asked to clarify our Department’s position on your lot split application. It will not be deemed a complete application (starting the clock for when you applied) until the demolition permit has been approved and closed out.’.”

First City action was taken on May 18 by the Planning Commission.  Karen says, “The Ferris House was standing at this time.  The Mayor spoke at the meeting with the Grace Avenue owner in the room, and said, ‘Just because it's legal to tear down this house, doesn't make it the right thing to do.’  Many other residents also stated they did not want to see the house torn down.  By midnight the demolition permit became activated.  By noon the next day, May 19th, the house was gone.”

Angelo says, “I was only able to initiate the lot split after the home was demolished.”
The reason given for demolition was “its deteriorated condition which made renovation not practical or economically feasible.’  According to Angelo, there were out-of-level floors, shifting of the stone foundation, evidence of termite damage and a sewer exiting the rear of the home that was collapsed in several areas with tree roots in multiple places slowing the line. 

“Any new homeowner would have found these issues at inspections and may have negotiated $50,000-$100,000 in repairs with the sellers,” says Angelo “The sellers knew this and selected my offer, which only had inspections to check for zoning acceptability for a lot split and sewer availability.”

Karen’s account differs. “I’m an interior architect and former owner of this home.  I know this house was up to code, in very good condition and move-in ready.  The new owner never requested an inspection.”

Since May, the neighborhoods and the City have worked diligently to address the teardowns/lot splits issue. Karen adds, “We plan to pursue tax abatements [not yet discussed as they are not the responsibility of the Planning Commission] with the City very soon, since they are a big part of this problem.”

A key element to the story is the formation of a Subdivision and Zoning Working Group created by City Council to assist in a study by the Department of City Planning, tasked with the formation of a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay (NCO) District.  The working group was to consist of: one member each from the Hyde Park Community Council Executive Committee and the Mount Lookout Community Council Executive Board; the Mayor or his designee’ one member of the Economic Growth and Zoning Committee or the member’s designee; one member of the City Planning Commission; two members of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Cincinnati; and one representative of the Cincinnati Board of Realtors.”  

The working group, with participation of community members, has allowed people with diverse opinions and interests to compatibly work together to study possible options and develop recommendations addressing the demolition and lot split issues.

Representing the Mt. Lookout Community Council (MLCC) Board on the working group are Dan Prevost (President) and Laura Whitman (At-Large Director). Dan says, “The MLCC has been an active participant in the discussion of demolition and subdivisions in the community. It’s been raised as a concern by many of our residents, and we want to help support discussion on the issue so reasonable solutions can be identified. We also have sought to engage our community in a dialogue so we can better understand their concerns and provide answers to their questions. 

“For the most part, our community members are concerned about a small number of development projects in the community that have resulted in new homes that don’t fit with the character of the neighborhood. Most of these concerns have focused on houses out of scale with their neighbors – large houses, sometimes squeezed on to small lots, or projects that created multiple houses where only one had stood before. As more of these projects occur, there is concern they will negatively affect the overall feel and context of the neighborhood.

“The proposals of the working group create a framework – through Neighborhood Conservation Districts – for communities across the city to opt into process to protect those characteristics that define their neighborhoods. Our goal is to create a set of clear expectations for both developers and the community so that new projects are compatible and the vast majority of projects can be approved by City staff in an expedited manner.”

Similarly, Bob Smyth (President of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Council) has played an active role with the working group.  “Efforts started with the teardown  of the Grace Avenue property. Concerns from the residents primarily stem from seeing the changing character of the neighborhood; older homes in relatively good condition were being torn down and two homes built on the lot.  The character of the area is why they moved here and want to live in Hyde Park.”

Norm Lewis, Hyde Park Neighborhood Council representative on the working group, adds, “There are two major pieces:  teardown - creating statutes to apply to any city area; and subdivision rules.  The working group met weekly all summer; smaller sub-groups also met. Diverse in terms of interests - e.g. developers concerned with transparency and consistency - they want clarification on what they legally can do in terms of lot splits. We’ve been very pleased the working group members represent all facets of the issue in terms of working cooperatively - the process benefits everyone.”

“I am very excited and pleased to see our City committed to solving our communities’ problem of aggressive development, says Karen.  “They really get it and are deeply committed to doing something about it.  The Ferris House was the catalyst for all this change.  It got everyone's attention.” 

More information is available on the Mt. Lookout Community Council website ( and the City’s Hyde Park & Mt. Lookout IDC Study webpage (  

The Ferris House on 1228 Grace Avenue - as it stood before its demolition.

History of “Ferris House” and Related Properties

Karen Robertson points to several articles about the Ferris house - including one in Hyde Park Living published February 1991 (“Linking Ferris men and their houses”) - which detailed its historic significance to the neighborhood. In 2003 Karen did her own research on the Ferris house,  hoping to get it listed on the National Registry (denied, as key elements of the house had been altered over the years). Here is some of what she learned:

The 1228 Grace Avenue farmhouse dates to early 1820s.  A newspaper, The National Republican and Ohio Political Register dated October 14, 1825, was found in one of the upstairs walls during renovation by previous owners, Mr. & Mrs. Carson.  

The house was built as the family residence of Reverend Isaac Ferris, a Baptist minister, and his wife Phebe.  Rev. Ferris was born April 12, 1795.  After losing both parents at age four, he was raised by his grandfather, Isaac Ferris Sr., an early pioneer settler and Revolutionary War veteran who fought under George Washington in the Battle of White Plains in 1776.  

Ferris Sr. and his family traveled to Columbia - now known as Cincinnati - in 1789.  His name can be seen on the Pioneer Monument near Lunken Airport. He became the first charter member of the First Baptist Church - from which today’s Hyde Park Baptist Church directly derived its roots - organized in Columbia in 1790. The name of Rev. Ferris's son appears in the stained glass of Hyde Park Baptist Church.  Isaac Ferris Sr. and little Isaac lived together in a log home on the site of the Brinker house (2992 Linwood Avenue), believed to be built in 1806.  

Rev. Isaac Ferris married in 1816, built 1228 Grace Avenue and had nine children.  He was also a farmer and had a blacksmith business.  The brick house (1233 Grace Avenue) across the street and down the alley next to the Brinker house was the location of their successful family hame (manufacturing of metal harness parts) business. 

His sons Samuel, William and John spent their early lives in the shop learning the blacksmith trade from their father.  In 1841, the eldest son established the Samuel M. Ferris Hame Company.  After the passing of his father in 1865, Samuel built a new large brick factory in Linwood, thoroughly equipped with modern machinery.  The company was eventually absorbed by the United States Hame Company.  Some time in the 19th century, the grandson of Rev. Ferris renovated the abandoned brick shop into a two-bedroom house, now known as 1233 Grace Avenue.

Next door to the brick shop is the Brinker house (2992 Linwood Avenue) built for Rev. Ferris’ son William near the time of his marriage to Nancy Thompson in the 1850s.  This house was constructed using the same log foundation and rooms from the original log home of Isaac Ferris Sr.  The Brinker house remained in the Ferris family until 1941.  

At the time of Rev. Isaac Ferris’s death in 1865, the house sat on over 100 acres.  He deeded the property to his six surviving children and spouses by dividing it into six lots.  At that time, Griest Avenue was called Ferris Road and Grace Avenue was called Crayfish Creek Road. Rev. Ferris’s youngest son John received the land with the house (1228 Grace Avenue), where he lived until 1899 when he filed bankruptcy. The house was given to the Mt. Lookout Savings and Loan and was never in the Ferris family again.

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