Now that Hamilton’s main corridor through downtown — Ohio 129, also known as High and Main streets — has received a significant visual upgrade, a majority of Hamilton City Council recently voiced support for studying how to beautify another major entry corridor: Ohio 4.
Vice Mayor Carla Fiehrer has advocated for a Route 4 Master Plan several times since early 2016, and was joined by others this week. One ultimate goal of such a plan is to create a more consistent look along the north-south highway that’s known as Dixie Highway, Erie Boulevard and Fairgrove Avenue on its way through town.
Currently, Ohio 4 is a cacophony of architectural styles and sometimes clashing colors of business exteriors. Buildings are in varying states of disrepair, used-car dealerships are piled up against each other, and there are vast, largely unused parking lots, with many of the grassy areas along the roadway overgrown.
The matter of a master plan came up most recently when the company 2980 Dixie Highway LLC requested council’s permission for a “conditional use” to allow a new 21,000-square-foot building at the northwest corner of Dixie Highway and Bobmeyer Road for its existing auto dealership on the property of that same address.
Josh Sellers, owner of the auto company, has been there nearly 12 years and has several buildings in the area — all bright red and yellow. He complained about how long it had taken for his building to be improved, and a requirement that his new building must choose a color from a city-approved range of colors because it’s in a historic district.
“We have the staff, the finances and the demand from the public to expand,” Sellers said. “We need to hire more people, we want to do more business in the city. It’s something I was really excited about…. I would love to have more of a partnership with the city.”
Sellers’ request was approved, but not before Council Member Rob Wile called for a master plan, “but would again like to encourage the city administration to actively pursue, as Vice Mayor Fiehrer has suggested several times, a master plan for the Route 4 corridor” so business owners like Sellers, “have a clear set of guidelines.”
Council members Kathleen Klink and Tim Naab joined Wile and Fiehrer in that request before voting in favor of Sellers’ building.
The city a few times since the early 1970s has attempted studies of how to improve the corridor, without much impact.
Among several problems in the corridor are these: It’s not very hospitable to pedestrians as the sidewalks are not in good shape; landscaping in many places is more of a negative than a positive; architecture runs a vast range; and colors of buildings are in some cases jarring.
The city in the past two years has taken steps to add beautification, including by planting trees along the highway.
“The only reason why I would like to see something happen sooner rather than later is because we are starting to get a lot of conditional-use requests come through and interest in Route 4, and I just don’t want to see a hodgepodge of things,” Fiehrer said.
“I really, really think twice about voting for anything on Route 4 until we have some kind of plan,” she said.
A critical thing, she believes, in creating such a plan, is getting significant input from property owners along the route, like Sellers, weighing in with their hopes for what the corridor could look like and become.
“I’m hoping that we can come up with champions for Route 4, that have their business there, that appreciate that we’re trying to do this for them, and make it be attractive,” she said. “Because as the mayor said the other night, that’s going to be another gateway to Hamilton.”
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“And I want it to look organized, well-thought-out, have a very nice, attractive flow to it,” she said.
Fiehrer and Mayor Pat Moeller said the idea would not necessarily be for all of Ohio 4 to have a consistent look throughout the city. Instead, the plan could suggest different styles for several multiple-block segments.
Fiehrer is unsure how large a segment of Ohio 4 should be included in the master plan. Ideally, it would be the whole highway within city limits, but from her experience more than a decade ago in working on a similar concept, she and other city leaders found, “sometimes when you’re covering too big of an area, it’s tough to get people committed.”
“So to me, you need to determine what your core is, get those people on board, let the other people see, ‘Hey, this really looks good, and this is going to help my business, and this does help Hamilton look good,’ to where they then want to get involved, also,” she said.
“Until you get together, and really talk about it, and think about it, then it’s just going to be a hodge-podge of whatever anybody wants to put there,” she said.
One thing that adds to the corridor’s clutter is the array of auto dealerships, many with vehicles stacked very close to the highway.
A check by the Journal-News this week found there are at least 26 auto dealerships between the Fairfield border and High Street — some of the businesses are tiny, or poorly marked — with three more in the several blocks north of High.
“I don’t begrudge anybody trying to make a living,” Fiehrer said. “And it seemed like that was the place, when anybody wanted to have a used-car-lot, they just kind-of gathered on Route 4. And so maybe it’s not a case of, ‘Hey, we need to get rid of these car lots,’ because, obviously, people are buying cars from them. That’s why they’re staying there.”
“But how do you make it more attractive? How do you make it more business-like? How do you not make it just look like one car lot after another?” she wondered.
"Before, there was a stretch of High Street that looked like a Third World country," she said. From where the new Welcome to Hamilton sign is to about Martin Luther King Boulevard, she said, "It looked horrible. So I would hope now that property owners on Route 4 see how nice that looks, they'll say, "That's what they're talking about. Yeah, that does look a lot nicer than what we have here."
“You never know when somebody may be coming through Hamilton for the first time,” Fiehrer said. “And what’s that impression going to be? And now that we are getting things looking very aesthetically pleasing, why shouldn’t it be for every thoroughfare in Hamilton?”