Rethinking Eastern Downtown

Cincinnati’s newest apartment tower under construction at Eighth and Sycamore.

With the introduction of the streetcar, eastern Downtown Cincinnati is primed for growth.  But as always in a city like ours that has lived through the misnamed “urban renewal” era, several changes could be made to transform it into a more welcoming urban environment.

For this discussion, eastern Downtown will mean everything east of Main Street to the foot of Mt. Adams, in between the river and Pendleton.  This area is characterized by Sycamore and Broadway, which are two typical north-south CBD streets, and Eggleston, a boulevard-like avenue which runs at an angle, providing a shortcut between the riverfront and OTR.  There are several sub-districts of this area, each with their own defining characteristics: Sawyer Point, the “Financial District”, the Lytle Park area, the valley of the parking lots (appropriately home to “Culvert Street”), the Main Street Historic District, and the Courthouse and Casino areas.

The Valley of the Parking Lots could be redeveloped to add many residents to the area.

Besides the streetcar, there’s a lot of things going on in the neighborhood.  A new bike and jog path along Eggleston has opened.  Construction continues on the Eighth and Sycamore apartment tower, and a new tower including a Kroger grocery store is proposed just to the west at Court and Walnut.  On the negative side of the ledger, in a blow to historic preservation efforts, the old Dennison hotel has recently been razed instead of rehabbed.  What could have been a nice momentum boost, adding 50 or so residential units if the building was rehabilitated, instead turned into a debacle directly contradicting Downtown’s narrative of progress.

New shared use bike and jog path along Eggleston

So, without further ado, here’s some ideas for eastern Downtown:

Remove the Gilbert Avenue Overpasses 

Gilbert Avenue, which is the main thoroughfare from Walnut Hills to Downtown and also connects to I-71, abandons its terrestrial confines south of Court Street to form an overpass over Eggleston Avenue that connects directly to Seventh and Eighth Streets. The purpose of this overpass is to give east-west traffic downtown slightly faster access to and from I-71.

overpass map

However, there were three negative tradeoffs made to accomplish this. First, the overpasses take up valuable land, that if built upon, could otherwise contribute to the vibrancy of the city as well as to its tax rolls.  Second, the overpasses cost money to maintain, and indeed look like they are due for maintenance soon.  Third, the overpasses themselves encourage cars to speed on their way in and out of town, decreasing the quality of life on the surrounding streets and endangering pedestrians.

Underside of Gilbert Avenue overpass

In my opinion, the extra seconds shaved from a commute time by the overpasses are not worth the costs of these tradeoffs.  The overpasses should be removed, and Gilbert Avenue should become a surface street that forms an intersection (or even a roundabout) with Eggleston.  Gilbert can run where Reedy Street is now between Eggleston and Broadway, and then connect to/become Eighth Street.  The former overpass land can be made available for development.

Convert One Way Streets to Two Way

Another traffic-related issue is the prevalence of one way streets in the area.  One way streets are meant to increase traffic throughput, but also come with tradeoffs that may not be worth it.  They can make an area more complicated to navigate.  Without the psychological effect of oncoming traffic, people are more likely to speed on a one way street.  One Louisville study found that converting one way streets to two way decreased traffic accidents, and even had second hand effects like decreased crime and increased property values.   Two way streets have also been shown to be more productive in driving business to storefronts.

Eighth Street is a two way street through the middle of downtown, in between 9th Street to the north, which is one way westbound, and 7th Street to the south, which is one way eastbound. (In other words, 7th and 9th form the pair of one-way streets in this area.) However, east of Main Street, Eighth Street is one way westbound.  This complicates navigation of the area, and increases speeds of cars coming in from the Gilbert Ave. overpass. Eighth Street can be made into a two way street here.  Additionally, Broadway is a two way street between Third and Fifth Streets, before becoming a one way northbound street north of Fifth.  It can also be converted to two way for its entire length to increase the navigability of the area.

Move the Jail

Hamilton County Justice Center

Hamilton County is a major presence in eastern downtown.  In addition to the Courthouse and Justice Center (Jail,) they have offices spread out among 4 other buildings in the area.  The Justice Center, built in 1985, has had issues with overcrowding for years now that continue to the current day, and sales tax ballot measures to fund a replacement failed at the ballot box in 2006 and 2007.  In the context of the neighborhood, the Justice Center now sits on valuable land across the street from the Casino (built in 2013) and across Central Parkway from the resurgent Pendleton neighborhood.  But one could argue that the Justice Center, an eyesore, is an impediment to development on the immediate neighboring downtown blocks that would otherwise be quite desirable.

The Times-Star Building, owned by Hamilton County

Hamilton County should build a new, modern jail outside of downtown (in a transit-accessible location,) and consolidate all services and offices into a new office tower to be constructed where the north building of the Justice Center now stands.  This would set up a one-stop, transit-accessible shop downtown for citizens utilizing county services, and could lead to efficiencies in the budget.  This would also allow the buildings the County now owns, which are attractive and historic, to be renovated into residential structures, increasing the population of the neighborhood.

Build at the base of the Purple People Bridge

Recently “Aqua on the Levee,” a 239 unit apartment complex, opened on the Newport side of the Purple People Bridge, alongside an Aloft Hotel.  Yet the Cincinnati side of the bridge has little development on the streets surrounding it, despite the presence of the wonderful Sawyer Point park.  “Skyhouse,” a 352 unit apartment tower, was proposed for this location, but encountered difficulties in financing. The project is still in negotiations, one discussion point being the possibility that the garage originally proposed for this project become a public asset.

Newport side of Purple People Bridge (top) compared to Cincinnati side (bottom.)

If public support is given to the garage, it should be designed in such a manner that it could be shared with future development on other nearby lots.  The city could even develop on the Sawyer Point park parking lot.  A master plan could be created for the immediate area, with the goal of adding 1,000 to 2,000 residents.  Alongside the park and river and surrounded by urban amenities, this is a desirable location for people to live.

Extra Credit

I put a lot of ideas and concepts on this blog, and one thing I could be better at is explaining the relative priority and practicality of them.  Realistically, I think Cincinnati’s priority should be growth through adding residents, as detailed in my post Cincinnati Needs People (and preferably by spurring organic growth that doesn’t require a large amount of intervention by public entities.)  On the other hand, one post I’ve made on this blog that is more pie-in-the-sky is the idea for a Mt. Adams Gondola, an air tram that could lift people directly from the vicinity of 7th or 8th Street up to Eden Park and the Mt. Adams Business District.  I still think such an attraction would be immensely popular with tourists. However, in considering a gondola as a form of transit, I think we have the obligation to improve our bus system first, which serves thousands of people each day.

Another “big idea” for eastern Downtown concerns the future of US Bank Arena.  Again, I think our priority should be on population growth, but the options here can be interesting to think about.  There is a proposal by the owners of the arena to rebuild the arena in its current location.  In a different scenario, if the arena is torn down for good, a residential tower could be built along the riverfront in its place.  Constructing a new arena near the Casino has been suggested by the website UrbanCincy.

Note: Several of these concepts have been discussed in various forms on websites such as UrbanCincy and UrbanOhio. In this blog post, my intent is not to take credit for the originality of these ideas, but instead to consolidate and elaborate on them.