Rethinking Eastern Downtown

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.  

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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.

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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.

Historic Preservation: A link to a different kind of economy

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Since the question of the fate of the historic Dennison Hotel in downtown Cincinnati now seems to be coming to a head, I find myself thinking about my blog post Three Reasons to #SavetheDennison from March of last year. If I had to rewrite that  post, I would spend more time exploring the ideas of the second point, “They don’t build ’em like they used to (and they couldn’t if they tried!)”  It seems to me that the physical structure of our cities, and how they have changed over time, is closely tied to the structure of our economy and how it has changed over time.

Today’s Economy

As of this writing, on paper, our economy seems to be doing OK, with slowly, steadily growing GDP and low unemployment.  Yet people seem to feel a sort of general angst about the economy, as was put on display during the 2016 election.  The reasons are many, and at this point I could bring up the wealth of the “top 1%” and even toss out the mind-numbingly bland yet alliterative phrase “income inequality” (and follow up with a “globalization” and an “automation” for good measure,) but so that you’ll keep reading, let’s just say the general theme of it all is a “great consolidation” that is taking place.  Our economy is seeing a consolidation in the number of “players,” or “actors,” or “decision makers,” and that is making many feeling left out.  This article from local writer David Akidjian is a great read on the subject.  Viscerally we know that it’s impossible to start a business that directly competes with Wal-Mart, and it seems like a small miracle when a brave soul like Matt Woods opens a hardware store in downtown Cincinnati.

What Historic Buildings Can Provide

Now, back to cities.  Accelerating the “great consolidation” today is the loss of fine granularity in new construction projects.  This article from Strong Towns does an excellent job explaining the concept of granularity in our cities.  Basically, a “coarse grained” city block contains a few buildings or lots which have large footprints.  In contrast, a “fine grained” city  block contains many buildings or lots which have small footprints.  Author Andrew Price explains how this concept relates back to the local economy, noting that fine granularity implies many different property owners. It also means a lower cost of entry to build or maintain a building on a smaller lot size.  This means more potential homes for small businesses, and adds up to more players in the local economy.

While almost all of our historic districts are naturally fine-grained, our current economy strongly favors the coarse-grained for new construction.  One reason for this is the parking space requirements imposed on new development by local governments (and sometimes project lenders.)  As parking expert Donald Shoup has pointed out, these requirements are often quite arbitrarily derived and have large but hidden impacts to the costs of business and housing.  They require a lot of space for the parking itself, as well as a project large enough to cover the costs of including it.  Another reason the coarse-grained is favored is that modern processes for development in the city are complicated, and larger developers who navigate them tend to do larger projects. Finally, a downtown-Cincinnati specific reason for the general lack of fine-grained new construction is available land.  Many small parcels do exist, but they are being used as pay parking lots that provide a low risk, low maintenance stream of revenue to their owners, making the owners reluctant to sell or develop.

The fine-grained nature of older buildings makes them more important to maintaining a diverse economy, one with many small, active participants, than ever before.  Fine granularity that is being lost, for the most part, is not being replaced.

How the Dennison Fits In

Now tying it all back to the Dennison.  I’m not trying to say that rehabbing the Dennison would be a small project.  It would take millions of dollars and require obtaining historic tax credits, and the building itself would probably be owned by a medium to large company after the rehab is complete.

I am saying that a loss of the Dennison would be a loss of granularity.  In the current form, even though the surrounding parking lot and Dennison building are currently under the same ownership, the very existence of the building at least makes it possible that the building could be put to a different use or bought and sold separately from the surrounding lot.  However, after demolition, the building’s footprint would be rolled up into the already very large surrounding parking lot also owned by the Columbia group, unlikely to be separated out again.

Given the demolition of multiple surrounding buildings in 1987, this means a block that once had many building types, in various states of repair, with many landlords, charging rent at multiple price points, will now be mostly a single unit controlled by a single entity for the foreseeable future.  And that type of consolidation is what has been happening to our economy in a nutshell.

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Article from the January 14, 1987 Cincinnati Enquirer.  The proposed office building never happened and the area remains a parking lot.

I believe the same granularity argument applies to preserving the Davis Furniture building on Main Street in Over the Rhine as well.*

 *As with everything, though, and for the sake of consistency with my other blog posts, the granularity argument needs to be balanced with other concerns.  For example, I would not oppose a new development on an empty lot solely on the basis of its being coarse-grained: Cincinnati needs to add people, and most new development falls into the coarse grained category.  I also would not, for neighborhood affordability’s sake, be in favor of preserving a something like single story garage if 30 condos could fit onto the site; but these are considerations on a case-by-case basis best left for other blog posts.

How Building Tunnels Could Speed Up Electric Vehicle Adoption

Elon Musk had a curious series of tweets over the weekend about how he was going to get involved in tunnel boring.  Why would a man who dreams of Mars want to get into such a “boring” business?  I’m speculating on what might be Musk’s motives here, but here’s an intriguing possibility.  Networks of tunnels, if they were built to electric-vehicle-only specifications, could be the “killer app” that could lead the masses to finally ditch the internal combustion engine and switch over to electric vehicles (the main product of Musk’s more well known company, Tesla Motors.)

Despite the high-profile breakdown of  the “Big Bertha” tunnel boring machine underneath Seattle, the cost of building tunnels is actually decreasing due to advances in tunnel boring machine technology.   Furthermore, a tunnel built for the exclusive use of electric vehicles would be cheaper to build, operate, and maintain than one built to accommodate gas powered vehicles.  Since electric vehicles have no exhaust, the specifications for ventilation equipment would be a less demanding for an electric vehicle-only tunnel,* and it would cost less to operate over time.

Built underneath the hillsides of a city like Los Angeles or Cincinnati, these tunnels would allow electric vehicle owners to bypass the traffic, stoplights, and other “friction” of the streets above.  At least before the electric vehicle market matures and the “induced demand” phenomenon kicks in, one would have the sense of traveling between one tunnel endpoint to another in a Super Mario Brothers warp-zone-like fashion.  The right to use the tunnels would give consumers a reason to purchase electric vehicles beyond environmental altruism or the always-changing system of tax credits from the government.

Electric vehicle exclusivity of the tunnels could be maintained by installing red-light style cameras that could get the license plate of any non-electric vehicle attempting to use the tunnels, to be followed up with a hefty fine delivered in the mail.  (The ventilation system would still have to be large enough to handle the fumes from one or two scofflaws at a time.  Additionally, it could be built robustly enough to accommodate the occasional  gasoline-powered emergency vehicle.)

Since the market share of electric vehicles is at such a low level today, and they are mostly available only to the well-to-do, tunnel construction could be justified by accommodation of mass transit.  Electric buses (or the occasional streetcar) could have exclusive, dedicated lanes in the tunnels alongside lanes for private vehicles. The dual-use nature of the tunnels could give the concept more political support than if the tunnels were for either mass transit or private vehicles alone. Tunnel construction costs could also be offset by encouraging Transit-Oriented Development near the portals of the tunnel to grow the tax base.

The widespread adoption of electric vehicles in a city like Cincinnati, where the smog gets trapped in overhead for days at a time by our hills, would have positive ripple effects in our quality of life, improving our health and economic competitiveness. Currently, Cincinnati consistently ranks high on lists of places with the worst air quality in the United States.  As CO2 emission intensity from power plants and industry fall, auto exhaust remains a stubborn source of not only CO2 emissions but other nasty particulate pollution.

*NOTE: Another factor in tunnel ventilation design is the emergency management of smoke and fumes in case of fire inside of the tunnel.  Electric-vehicle-only tunnels would still of course have to design for this, so I would need a subject matter expert to determine how significant the up-front equipment savings would be if tunnels were designed to be electric-vehicle-only.

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Workers during the repair of the “Big Bertha” tunnel boring machine underneath Seattle in the spring of 2015. Although the Big Bertha incident was a high-profile setback, tunnel boring machine technology continues to improve.

 

 

Reconnecting the West End

Some simple fixes could remove physical and psychological barriers between Downtown, Over-the-Rhine, and the West End.

In old black and white aerial photographs of Cincinnati, the “basin” area is a teeming metropolis, its densely packed buildings the equal of any city on the East Coast.  Downtown, Over-the-Rhine, and the West End all blended into one contiguous urban form.  That all changed  in the 1950’s and 1960’s with the widespread destruction of the West End for the construction of I-75 and the “Queensgate” industrial park, which up until that point did not exist. Kenyon-Barr, an expansive African American neighborhood with exquisite architecture, was tragically razed and thousands of families were displaced (more on that herehere, and also here if you enter the search term “Kenyon Barr.”)  This kind of widespread destruction was known by the misnomer of  “urban renewal” and was actually quite typical in American cities at the time.  Urban renewal and its associated policies were what Jane Jacobs railed against in her 1961 classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

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Cincinnati’s old West End. Photo courtesy Jake Mecklenborg http://www.cincinnati-transit.net/

Today, while I-75 forms a formidable barrier between Downtown and Queensgate, the northern portion of the West End still exists thanks to a dogleg in the highway, and abuts northern Downtown and Over-the-Rhine.   However, there are several other flaws in the urban form that conspire to cut the West End off from Downtown and OTR, both physically and psychologically.  Let’s examine some of these issues near the West End’s Betts-Longworth historic district.

 An “urban renewal” era plan for the area behind Music Hall shows a lack of acknowledgement of the importance of pedestrian street life, which was typical of time. The plan was partially implemented.

Beginning on Central Parkway behind Music Hall, we see this extremely long double turn lane.  There are never enough cars turning left onto Ezzard Charles Drive here to justify this.  It should be reduced to a shortened single turn lane in order to return more space to the landscaped median and make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street (which forms the dividing line between OTR and the West End.)  Some shade providing trees could also be added.

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At Central Parkway and Ezzard Charles Drive, a strange parking garage/park hybrid wraps the north end of the NPR/WCET studios.  This park features a shady amphitheater.  But since it is not visible from the street, not many people know it’s there, let alone actually utilize it.  It could be redesigned to be more open to the street.

 The picture on the left shows the amphitheater.  The picture on the right is the view from Ezzard Charles.  A pedestrian walking by has no idea it’s there.

Also in this parking garage/park is a really cool piece of art- a horizontal clockface that is illuminated by light coming down from a circular opening above it.  But once again, unless you parked at the north end of the Town Center parking garage (which is severely underutilized on weekends,) you’d have no idea it’s there.

It was not 9:28 when I took these photos.

On the top level of the garage lies this pedestrian bridge over Central Parkway to Music Hall.  It is crumbling and in need of repair, replacement, or removal, which is the subject of some controversy.  For context, all across the country, “skywalks” such as these are being removed in order to return pedestrian life to the streets.  I’m a little bit ambivalent about the fate of this one.  I don’t think that rerouting the little old ladies using it to go from the parking garage to the symphony is going to make or break street life down below.  However, I question the need to spend public dollars to repair or replace it, especially considering the multi-million dollar price tags being floated around.  Furthermore, as the previously discussed items demonstrate, the entire surrounding structure could use a redesign, and a new skywalk might not make sense as a part of whatever comes next.

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The renovation of Music Hall is forcing the question on future of this skywalk.

One block west of Central Parkway, the backside of Town Center garage along Central Avenue creates a two-block long pedestrian “dead zone” with no storefronts or front entrances to break up the monotony. It’s a sharp contrast to the eye-catching historical building across the street.

 

The Town Center garage will have to be at least partially replaced for there to be any life along its side of Central Avenue.

Central Avenue itself inexplicably changes at 7th Street from a two way street into a one way street for 0.45 miles northwards through this area and then changes back into a two way street again at Ezzard Charles Drive.  This provides no benefit to traffic flow and simply encourages cars to speed on the one-way portion, creating another barrier for pedestrians traveling between OTR and the West End.   It also greatly and needlessly complicates navigating the neighborhood in a car.  Turning this stretch of road back into a two-way street should be a no-brainer.

Why?

Another street grid oddity exists at what would be the intersection of Hopkins St. and Central Avenue.  Instead of an intersection, Hopkins St. was made into a cul-de-sac years ago and a Cincinnati Parks Department maintenance garage was built along Central Avenue.  The garage looks aging and underused, and forms another barrier for pedestrians going between OTR and the West End as there is no pedestrian cut-through.

This garage should be torn down to fully reconnect Hopkins Street to Central Avenue.  This could also return land for development at the corner of Hopkins and Central Avenue.

South of the Town Center garage and NPR/WCET studios, the Charles Street electric substation takes up a lot of real estate.  It greets the street with a blank brick wall, creating a zone devoid of human activity right at the point where Downtown, OTR, and the West End meet.  Unfortunately this substation would probably be very expensive to completely move.

Charles Street substation

Finally, Court Street is the only street that travels uninterrupted all the way from the West End directly into Downtown.  Unfortunately there is an asphalt sea of surface parking lots along Court Street at the boundary between the two neighborhoods.  If  residences and businesses were built in the place of these lots, it would go a long way towards weaving the neighborhoods together and encouraging pedestrian traffic between them.

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This Court Street “parking crater” could be an opportunity to add residents.

Why West Siders should be rooting for streetcar success more than anyone

It’s all about proximity to jobs.  

It’s no secret that a lot of opposition to the streetcar came from the West Side neighborhoods of Cincinnati and the townships beyond.  West Siders, largely descended from working class Germans from Cincinnati’s urban core, can be frugal, risk-averse, and a just a little bit stubborn.  Many were skeptical of the plan to build a modern transportation system to revitalize the core, and were reinforced in this skepticism by talk radio.  However, due to the current growth patterns of our metro region, the West Side needs the streetcar to deliver on its promise of growth and jobs in the core more than just about anyplace else.

Let’s start with this job map from the website of Robert Manduca, where one dot on the map equals one job.  It’s a little bit clunky to look at because the map is subdivided by census tracts of variable areas, but tells us several things.  Historically we know that manufacturing and logistics jobs were concentrated in the Mill Creek Valley in close proximity to the West Side. Some of these jobs are still visible on the map.  But the map also shows that these jobs (in red) have spread to areas to the north and northeast of our metro region along I-275 and beyond, with another cluster of jobs growing up around the airport in Northern Kentucky. On the map we can also see professional services jobs (in blue) have spread from Downtown Cincinnati to Blue Ash, and retail, hospitality, and other services (in yellow) have formed clusters around Kenwood Towne Center and in Mason.  Uptown Cincinnati remains dominant in Healthcare, Education, and Government jobs (in green.)

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Dot plot of jobs in the Tri-State region. Image by Robert Manduca from http://www.robertmanduca.com/

What drove the spread of jobs (especially in manufacturing and logistics) to the north and northeast?  The interstate highways tell the story (map on the left below.)  I-71 to the Ohio state capital of Columbus and I-75 to the engineering and manufacturing center of Dayton travel parallel paths through the north of our metro, forming a corridor with great highway access.  Meanwhile, to the west, we see that I-275 takes on an oblong shape, being stretched far out in order to cross the state line into Indiana.  This was done in order to be able to draw on Indiana funding for the construction of the loop, but it had consequences for development patterns on the west side.

Image on left shows the I-275 Loop as built.  The image on the right shows I-275 routed much closer to the West Side, just beyond Bridgetown.

Imagine, if you will, a thought experiment: An I-275 routed much closer to the city, through western Hamilton County in Ohio (map above on the right.)  It may have brought with it the sewer expansion necessary to support industry.  It would have crossed over into Kentucky near the airport; it’s easy to see industrial jobs clustering around that western beltway, taking advantage of proximity to the airport and the West Side labor force.  One can also imagine pass-through truck traffic actually using I-275 as a bypass instead of causing problems at the Brent Spence Bridge. However, it was not to be.

The concept of the “favored quarter” also played a role in drawing jobs to the northeast of our metro.  Ben Ross explains in his book Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of the American City:

What was happening here?  Jobs began moving into the suburbs somewhat later than the spread of residences; it is tempting to think that the purpose of the exodus was to shorten commutes.  But the jobs did not go to the same places as the homes.  Population spread out fairly evenly around the cities; employment clustered where the housing was highest-priced, in what real estate experts called the “favored quarter.”  Big shopping malls moved in the same direction; department stores were attracted to people who had spending power.

The most important factor in determining where a corporate office moved was proximity to the chief executive’s home and golf club.  Jobs concentrated near the fanciest houses…

This clearly was the case in Cincinnati, where the wealthiest residents clustered in East Side neighborhoods like Hyde Park, Montgomery, and Indian Hill.  This drove development along the I-71 corridor and concentrated office parks in Blue Ash; and even today the most successful mall in Cincinnati is Kenwood Towne Center.

And so, we see that the current suburban growth trajectories do not favor the West Side. It may be a commute  of 30-40 minutes from a “deep west” neighborhood south of I-74 to the northeast corner of the metro without traffic, and there is ALWAYS traffic.  Whereas older workers may secretly resent a long commute, they may rationalize it as dues that must be paid, however, younger workers do not want to put up with long commutes and, having greater freedom of choice, will choose neighborhoods that are closer to jobs.  I would submit that this accounts for the success that neighborhoods like Oakley have in attracting young homebuyers.

What is to be done?  Fortunately, the West Side is still close to the twin job centers of Downtown and Uptown Cincinnati.  The West Side needs these centers to succeed for it to succeed.  The streetcar, with its promise to add population density and businesses downtown and attract new creative and tech companies to our region, is critical to this success.  West Siders should be rooting for the success of the streetcar and support its expansion to Uptown, in order to connect and merge the two job centers into a single, well tuned economic engine that will reignite demand for West Side neighborhoods.

A Solution to Downtown’s “Game of Groceries”

Kroger should introduce a new-to-market concept store Downtown to revitalize Court Street.

Grocery -for Blog

Background

Why do some people say that Downtown Cincinnati lacks a grocery store, seemingly ignoring the existence of Findlay Market and the OTR Vine Street Kroger?

While these shopping options deserve more respect, it is true that there are “gaps” in the shopping experiences offered that lead some urban residents to do their shopping at suburban grocery locations.

Findlay Market is a jewel in the Queen City’s crown.  However, its very popularity & totally unique experience makes it a somewhat stressful place for weekly grocery shopping when it’s crowded. Some items, such as dry goods (paper towels & TP) aren’t available at any vendor (although that will soon change with the opening of the “Epicurean Mercantile Company.”)  It also has limited hours, and may be somewhat inconvenient for CBD residents to access on foot (although that too will soon change with the opening of the streetcar.)  Findlay Market will continue to do well in the future, because it offers an experience beyond the pure retail transaction.

Vine Street Kroger’s small size means it can’t offer the large deli, organic, produce and meat departments available in suburban Kroger Marketplace stores, let alone newer concepts like Kroger Bistro that offer lunch or meals-to-go.  Although it is making strides in introducing new organic and specialty  items, the lack of selection limits its appeal to upper middle class types moving back to the city. Vine Street Kroger is ultra-convenient to OTR residents on foot, but may be inconvenient to CBD residents who, if forced to get in their car for a shopping trip, find it just as easy to travel to the Kroger Marketplace store in the Newport Pavilion.

Vine Street Kroger does, however, provide a crucial access for OTR’s low income residents to Kroger value brands such as P$$t! and Heritage Farm.  It also provides everyday neighborhood-focused retail on Vine St., which is otherwise dominated by upscale boutiques.  This kind of diversity in business types adds vibrancy to the business district.

One Solution

There has been endless talk of opening a larger Kroger-branded store in the CBD. (See here, here, and here.)  Most of these scenarios imply that the Vine Street Kroger will be closed.

However, Kroger’s recent expansion has brought new brand names into their portfolio, and they also have new concepts under development.  The “Main and Vine” concept in Gig Harbor, WA in particular looks like a shopping experience many people are asking for in a downtown grocery store:

“From the beginning the focus of Main & Vine has always been centered on the community and fresh, local and sustainable foods, as well as mainstream grocery items available at affordable prices,” said Dann Kohl, Main & Vine’s store manager, in a statement. “Residents now have a space to explore local brands and purveyors, get inspired for their next meal, learn something new at the Event Center or meet up with friends and family in our café area.”

Kroger could open this concept on Court Street near their headquarters in the CBD, developing the surface parking lot bounded by Central Parkway, Walnut, and Court Streets.  Since this concept could complement more than compete with the Vine Street Kroger store, they could leave the Vine Street store open for the convenience of OTR residents.

Moreover, the opening of this store could be used to revitalize retail along Court Street.   There are vacant storefronts in several of the historic  buildings lining Court Street, and the area is eerily quiet at night.  The metered parking in the Court Street median would be very convenient to customers of such a grocery store,  and would drive all-hours foot traffic past these storefronts.  Additionally, nearby northbound and southbound streetcar stops serve this location.

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An empty storefront on Court Street

The grocery store could also form the ground floor retail for a larger residential mid-rise or tower development, which would increase the population of the area, capitalize on demand for downtown living, and provide more potential customers.