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.”

Old West End
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.

IMG_0041

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.

IMG_0047
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.

IMG_0071.JPG

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.)

Job Dot
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.

IMG_9855

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.

 

Reds Tickets should double as Streetcar Passes

IMG_9719

The Cincinnati Streetcar is opening September 9, 2016.  Streetcar passes will be available for purchase at fare machines at each stop.  A $1, two-hour pass will be available, as well as a $2 all day pass.  For monthly riders, a $70, all-you-can-ride pass will work on both the streetcar and Metro’s bus system, or stored value cards are available.  Additionally, a mobile ticketing app will be available by the September grand opening.

And so, Metro has done a good job preparing many convenient ways that people can pay for their streetcar fare.  I would, however, suggest an additional option:  Metro should partner with the Cincinnati Reds so that game-day Reds tickets count as streetcar day passes.

The benefits behind such an arrangement would be many.  For the Reds:

  • It would provide fans with a better game day experience.  The Reds could leverage all the activity surrounding the renaissance of downtown and Over-the-Rhine to their advantage.  (For example, many fans will want to make a day of Rhinegeist brewery and a Reds game, connected by the streetcar.  In fact, Rhinegeist and Great American Ballpark rank #3 and #4 respectively on the list of the regions’s top Uber destinations, and 9 of the top 10 destinations are on the streetcar route.)  This is especially important with a losing team on the field this year, and a new sports team in town, FC Cincinnati, capturing the attention and enthusiasm of many younger fans.
  • Many fans park in garages scattered across downtown.  Large crowds climb up the hill from the stadium after every game.  For many of these fans, an air conditioned streetcar ride might be a more pleasant choice. (especially for elderly or disabled fans, or pregnant fans or fans with young children)
  • This arrangement may be relatively inexpensive for the Reds to implement.  Since the number of Reds ticket holders taking advantage of this deal to ride the streetcar will only be a percentage of the total number of ticket holders, the Reds may be able to negotiate a low yearly sponsorship rate with Metro and support it from their marketing budget.

Benefits for the city and Metro:

  • The Reds will be the lens through which most suburban Cincinnatians and out-of-town visitors will be introduced to the streetcar, and this arrangement would make it as easy as possible for them to try it and leave them with a positive impression.
  • There will be two fare machines installed at the Banks streetcar stop, as well as mobile payment available.  However, I predict large lines forming at the fare machines after the game, as a large crowd containing first time users and inebriated fans struggles with operating the machines.  As a result, many fans will simply just board the streetcar without paying the fare, especially if a long line at the fare machine looks like it might force them to wait for the next streetcar. This could be avoided with Reds/streetcar partnership arrangement as I described.
  • This arrangement would encourage Reds ticket holders to use the streetcar to explore our city and spend money, especially out-of-town visitors staying in downtown hotels.
  • This arrangement would encourage fans to travel to the game via transit, thereby cutting down on traffic congestion and parking needs.  Excerpt from Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking:

The University of Washington has a contract with Seattle Metro that allows stadium tickets to serve as transit passes on the game day. Between 1984 (the year before the program began) and 1997, the share of ticket holders arriving at Husky Stadium by transit increased almost five times (from 4.2 percent to 20.6 percent.)  Including a transit pass in the ticket price is particularity appropriate for any land use where the peak parking demand occurs infrequently, perhaps only a few days each year.  Building enough parking to meet this peak demand is extremely wasteful because additional public transit service can be provided on event days to serve the peak at far lower cost.

  • If parking demand is reduced, we can avoid building additional above ground parking structures at the Banks. Instead we would have room for additional housing units and commercial space, as I argue for in this post.  That would give the taxpayers a higher return on their investment in infrastructure at the Banks to date.

This post deals with the Reds, because Cincinnati Streetcar Stop #1 is steps from Great American Ballpark, they have a high number of home games per year, and it’s summertime.  But a similar logic would apply to Bengals games and events at US Bank Arena.

 

Three Reasons to #SavetheDennison

Dennison 1

(photo courtesy Noel Prows)

The Dennison Hotel, built in 1892, is in danger of demolition.  The city’s Historic Conservation Board will have a hearing on the matter at their 4/18/2016 meeting.  Here are three reasons to #SavetheDennison.

It’s our heritage

The depth and richness of Cincinnati’s history is quite surprising.  It is filled with colorful characters and happenings, as Greg Hand’s excellent blog demonstrates.  When one walks our streets surrounded by historic buildings, it’s impossible not to feel a connection to these past events.  Our history is also marketable, and differentiates us from competitor cities whose growth spurt occurred much closer to the present day.

The Dennsion also has a rich history,  starting with the fact that it was designed by Samuel Hannaford & Sons.  Samuel Hannaford was Cincinnati’s master builder at a time in our history when the city had unbridled self-confidence in ourselves and in our future. Samuel Hannaford’s works most famously include Music Hall and City Hall, but also include Elsinore Castle, Cincinnati Observatory, and a host of churches, apartment buildings, and homes scattered across Cincinnati’s neighborhoods.  Hannaford’s legacy is imprinted onto Cincinnati’s subconscious.

They don’t build ’em like they used to (and they couldn’t if they tried!)

“They don’t build ’em like they used to” isn’t just nostalgia in the case of a building like the Dennison.  Due to legal regulations and financial constraints, building a new structure that is the same size, shape, and scale of the Dennison would be difficult and unlikely in the present day and current environment, let alone a row of buildings like the Dennison forms with its historic neighbors. The Dennison has a narrow width fronting the street, a deep length into the middle of the block, and a tall height. In contrast, a new building designed today would most likely be “scaled up” into a much larger, more square footprint, one reason being because it would probably be required to include parking spaces. (Even if the city waived their minimum parking requirements, financial institutions often won’t lend to a project that doesn’t include parking, irregardless of the amount of parking present in the garages and lots in the surrounding blocks.)

Why does that matter?  In order to create a street that will draw pedestrians, narrower building frontage is important. It holds the pedestrians’ attention, and gives them something new to look at every few seconds (like the Dennison’s beautifully detailed facade.)  This “fine-grained” configuration also favors small businesses.

Historic Conservation Districts should mean something

Fortunately we have already recognized the value in preserving our history, and that’s why we have historic conservation districts.   The current owners of the Dennison, Columbia REI LLC, bought the building in 2013 knowing that it was protected by a historic conservation district.  (An aside: the current owners have owned the building for two and a half years out the Dennison’s 124 years, or just around 2% of its total lifespan.)  They are claiming the numbers don’t work financially to renovate the building, but it’s not clear what historic tax credits have been pursued (virtually standard for a project like this,) and the property has not been listed for sale for another owner to give it a try. Instead they’ve enlisted one of Cincinnati’s most connected lawyers to pursue the path to demolition.  There are no firm plans in place for the redevelopment of the property, so it’s likely the it will end up another surface parking lot and tear in our urban fabric for years to come.

The historic conservation board should reject this application to demolish the Dennison, both to save this building and to show that it takes its mission to protect historic buildings seriously for future cases.

You can click here to join the Facebook group Save the Dennison.

!!!UPDATE!!! The Cincinnati Preservation Collective is raising funds for legal representation to help #SavetheDennison.  You can click here to donate.

!!!UPDATE!!! There is now a Change.org petition that you can sign.

Dennsion 2

Liberty Street Conversion

Here’s my feedback to the city on the upcoming Liberty Street conversion:

Liberty Street is not a pleasant place.  Cars in four lanes of traffic weave and exhibit race car behavior as they speed forward only to screech to a halt at the next red light.  Noisy trucks billow out smoke.  It’s very uncomfortable for a pedestrian to walk beside.  As a result it is shunned by the joggers, dog walkers, and people going about their everyday business, and the vacuum is filled by loiterers that drink malt liquor starting early in the morning.  The street is also filthy, inundated with litter and trash of every sort.

When Liberty Street was widened in the 1950’s, many buildings were torn down and Over-the-Rhine was divided into two halves.  This action served automobile pass-through traffic counts and not the residents of the neighborhood.  As a result the street has remained blighted ever since.  Fortunately the cure is obvious: turn the street back into a walkable place that will attract people and economic activity.  As a nearby example, Vine Street through Over the Rhine underwent traffic calming when it was converted into a two way street from a one way street.  It has since won national acclaim and is turning into one of the economic engines of our region, a place where small businesses start before spreading to other neighborhoods, cities, and states.  While the dedicated efforts of 3CDC fuel this success, it could not happen if Vine Street was not an eminently walkable place.  We need to do the same to Liberty Street.

I understand there is concern by the traffic engineers in reducing the capacity of Liberty Street given that 18,000 vehicles a day use it.  I think those concerns are overblown.  First, just as “induced demand” is a real phenomenon where additional cars start using a street when additional lanes are added, “reduced demand” is a real phenomenon as well for streets that undergo capacity reductions.  Secondly, there are plenty of nearby streets that can absorb rerouted traffic from Liberty. Our freely flowing north-south streets can easily direct traffic to Central Parkway for example.  Finally, the street is oversized for the number of cars a day that use it currently.   According to the Urban Street Design Guide, “streets carrying up to 25,000 vehicles per day function effectively with 3 lanes, depending on the traffic volumes of nearby adjacent streets.”  (National Association of City Transportation Officials, Urban Street Design Guide,  Island Press, 2013,  pg. 14.)

This is why I am for turning Liberty into three lane street (one travel lane in each direction and a center turn lane.)

However, the only way to have this street find its full economic and aesthetic potential is to have new development facing it, especially on the south side of the street.  In my opinion the existing lots on the south side are so small and odd shaped that a normal new development will require at least an extra 20′.  Thus, the three lane option as presented by the city’s Department of Transportation and Engineering should remove either the bike lanes or the permanent parking lanes, to regain space for development on the south side of the street. This would potentially return 24′ ft. for development (8′ per lane plus the 8′ already in plan.)

The five lane option as presented by the City would have roughly the same footprint as the three lane street described above, and also allow roughly the same footprint for new development.  Thus, I would consider the five lane option as an acceptable intermediary step in Liberty’s eventual conversion into a three lane street. However, I would view such an intermediary step as an unnecessary half-measure and overly cautious of offending drivers’ sensibilities.

Liberty St. could be the centerpiece of a burgeoning neighborhood, a beautiful boulevard with sidewalk cafes, etc.  Let’s work to make this project a nationwide model for what can happen when we build places for people instead of accommodating auto traffic.

 

New Page Up and Running

cropped-skyline2.jpgHello all, I’ve been posting my ideas for Cincinnati transit and urbanism a few places on sites around the web for a little over a year now. But, I’d like to give some of them a more permanent home! Consider these my “Greatest Hits” collection.  These are listed in the menu bar above.