Cincinnati Needs People: Vision +10,000

Cincinnati needs to transform itself by adding 10,000 people to the core neighborhoods of the CBD, OTR, Pendleton and the West End.  

A graphic from the 1890 Census shows American cities ranked by population at each 10 year census interval. The graph begins on the right side in 1790 and proceeds to the left. Cincinnati appears in 1820 and reaches a rank of #6 in the 1840 and 1850 Censuses.  Cincinnati ranked #65 after the 2010 Census.

When I was a kid and my family went on vacation, we always got the Trip Tik travel guides from Triple A. I would study them in the backseat to pass the time.  Included in the guides were city descriptions, with population numbers.  I always felt like my hometown of Cincinnati was a big and important city, but… these numbers told a story I didn’t quite want to hear.  The population of Cincinnati city proper just was not that much compared to other cities.

Fast forward to the most recent census in 2010, and Cincinnati’s total population stands at 296,943.  That is down from an all time high of 503,998 in 1950.  One hundred years prior to that, in 1850, there were as many as 43,000 people living in Over the Rhine alone.  Today the population of Downtown, Over the Rhine, and Pendleton combined is 13,521, according to a 2013 DCI estimate.

Now obviously, a return to the tenement-style densities of the old Over the Rhine is no longer possible, or desirable.  But a goal of adding at least 10,000 people to Cincinnati’s core “basin” neighborhoods, over the course of the next decade, is both possible and desirable.  There are many benefits to doing so, but there are also many obstacles. I’ll list some here, but they could individually be the subject of separate blog posts.

Benefit:  We need downtown to drive our economy

I walk the streets of the CBD (Central Business District) on weeknights.  Despite all the accolades we give to our resurgent downtown, the streets still suffer from a lack of activity.  Many businesses are not open for evening hours.  Vacant storefronts fill what would otherwise be prominent retail corridors, such as Fourth Street, Vine Street, and Court Street.   Adding residents would create the customer base we need for new businesses to move in and for others to stay open later. This would form a positive feedback loop for adding to sidewalk life, and make downtown a better place to live for existing residents.

Zooming out to another level, we need a vibrant downtown for our metro economy to compete on a national and global level.  Today’s economy is a scary, winner-take-all style place. Even Cincinnati’s corporate giants aren’t immune to threats like Wall Street hedge fund “activist investors” or sweeping marketplace change. The best strategy to combat this is to diversify the local economy and increase the number of players.  A vibrant downtown with more residents can help in two ways. First, it can create the atmosphere, chance encounters, networks, and open exchange of ideas that can lead to new business ventures.  Second, it can convince someone scouting business locations from out of town, simply via first impression of our active sidewalks,  that Cincinnati is a place they need to be.

Benefit: We need new taxpayers to support city services  

I was a big supporter of Issue 44 this past election, which supplied funding to Cincinnati Public Schools as well as funding to the Preschool Promise initiative.  I think it is vital to Cincinnati’s future, but there’s no denying it was a large tax increase.  The latest news is that there is a looming $25.1 million budget deficit in the city budget for FY2018.  City departments have been asked to submit a list of proposed cuts to close the deficit, and Recreation Commission suggested that city pools as well as the recreation centers in Over the Rhine and Westwood could be shut down.  As the list of our city’s needs (and the relative price tag for them) continues to grow, we can either raise taxes ad infinitum on existing residents, or add new taxpayers by growing the population.

Adding people specifically in the urban core has an advantage in that infrastructure and services are already in place to serve them- the streets, sidewalks, pipes, wires, transit routes, garbage pickup, and police and fire stations. Density also leads to efficiency in providing infrastructure and services by spreading the costs out over a large number of people.  In contrast, issues regarding private street maintenance and retaining walls in other parts of the city have led to controversy, as the costs are quite large to be born entirely by the relatively small number of residents affected.

Obstacle: We are beholden to our cars

Although it happened before most of us were born, the automobile has both radically and subtly reshaped the City of Cincinnati in all aspects.  One aspect that most people overlook is the parking that is legally required to be included in each new development.  These required parking space minimums are not scientifically derived (nor could they be,) but are often based on assumptions a planner made long ago.  For a city filled with historic buildings, that developed around people walking about on their own two feet, this sets up a fundamental conflict for space.  What’s more, parking minimums distort the market by driving up the costs of housing. The cost of including an above ground parking space in a project can be close to $20k or more, and even more than that for an underground parking space.  This article by Donald Shoup and this article in The Economist are good summaries.  The city should take a fresh look at parking minimums with a bias towards eliminating them entirely.

Another parking-related obstacle holding back development downtown is the business model of pay parking surface lots.  These lots, present all across downtown, provide a low-risk, low-maintenance, low-overhead cash revenue stream to their owners.  This makes the owners reluctant to develop their lots.  For the city, this is a double whammy.  One, the lots do not produce the amount of tax revenue that buildings occupied with people taking up the same space would otherwise do.  Two, sidewalk life is killed by the vast open expanses of the lots.  The city should consider a “carrot and stick” strategy to encourage development on the lots.

Obstacle: Change presents its own challenges

There is a lot to love about Cincinnati, and a lot of people that care about it.  So, we can be skeptical about change when plans are presented.  Our individual concerns may be perfectly rational, but collectively they can add up to work against the very economic development, growth, and new jobs that we all claim to want.

One of our largest sources of change-related anxiety is when new people and investment move into a previously poor or neglected area.  This is of course known by the multifaceted term “gentrification.” I think a few things are worth noting about this term as it applies to Cincinnati.  First, a lot of the literature and popular discussion about gentrification is written about booming cities on the coasts, and needs to be re-interpreted through a local lens. Our decades-long period of urban decay is a condition that is yet to be rectified, and many of our neighborhoods will require people and money coming in from the outside to be physically repaired and made whole again.  Ultimately, the worst-case negative outcome of gentrification is displacement.  One way to combat this is through housing policy.

Over the Rhine, contrary to the way it is portrayed in the media, is still suffering from decades of disinvestment and abandonment.

Affordable housing, defined as housing that costs 30% or less of a household’s income, needs to be available for low-income households and must be a part of our growth strategy.  There are many dividends to be realized by locating affordable housing units in a thriving urban core.  For just one example, residents in the core experience the highest level of public transit service in the region, and many jobs and activities are within walking distance, making it possible to get by without the added expense of maintaining a car.  There should be a formalized, ongoing initiative to add affordable housing units to our core neighborhoods, with quantifiable goals and results.  The efforts described here and here would be a good place to start.  The city should work with established and experienced developers and neighborhood organizations to accomplish this.

A related concern when it comes to housing costs is the affordability of market rate housing.  While strong demand drives up the cost of market rate housing in an area, adding supply to meet demand can keep costs in check.  I also believe the old Chinese proverb “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now” can be applied to the housing market. New buildings and complete overhaul renovations of historic buildings will always be more expensive because they must pay off their construction costs (Jane Jacobs devoted a chapter to this in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.) In contrast, older buildings, with some wear and tear on them (but still habitable,) can charge lower rents.  Thus, we need variety in regards to age in the housing supply.  This is another reason to keep building new market rate housing now.

Architecture is another source of contention when a new development is proposed.  New construction projects in our historic districts are governed by guidelines enforced by the Historic Conservation Board, but it’s a constant source of debate even among architects whether the guidelines actually result in “good” or “improved” designs.  Often, asking developers for design changes or higher quality materials can come with large negative tradeoffs regarding project density and cost (and thus affordability.) So, while it’s crucial to get a building’s basic form and site plan right in order to create active sidewalks and streetscapes, the stylistic details should be put in the proper context as just one of many factors to consider when evaluating a proposed project’s contribution to the neighborhood and city.

The good news is, that the transformation provided by growth also presents the opportunity to address our stubborn problems, like our struggling public transportation system or our childhood poverty issue. Think about the long standing problems in our own personal lives.  Can they really be solved by just trying harder at the same things we are doing now? Often a change, from within or without, must transform us into a different person before they can be solved.  Likewise, a city transformed by growth, with a bustling urban core, attracting transplants from across the USA and immigrants from around the world, could provide the opportunity, resources, and changed attitudes to finally break through and make progress.

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