Episode #44: Fall Update (Part 2)

oasis_lineOn the 44th episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, Randy, Jake, John and Travis continue the conversation (part 1) and talk about Cincinnati’s new ridesharing regulations, the popularity of RedBike, and the conversion of the Oasis Line into a bike trail instead of a rail corridor. We also discuss what could happen in future phases of The Banks and speculate on what will happpen next in the Brent Spence Bridge saga.

The Green Towns Model and the Future of Public Housing Preservation

Greenbelt, Maryland is a small town north of the Nation’s capital which carries a legacy larger than its hamlet appearance. As one of the nations four Green Towns built between 1935 and 1937, Greenbelt stands as a National Historic District and lasting testament to the FDR administration in its commitment to providing social programs, in particular, public housing through the New Deal.

The Garden City Movement in the United Kingdom, which valued open space, nature and balanced planning principles, and a pressing housing shortage during the Great Depression inspired FDR to action. Planners of Greenbelt and its sister towns Greenhills, Ohio and Greendale, Wisconsin, sought to create a new model of development: the suburb. Led by the newly established Resettlement Administration, the body focused on creating housing for federal workers.

These projects, in the words of Greenbelt Museum Education Coordinator Sheila Maffay-Tuthill, embodied the “coming together of urban and rural,” providing opportunities to experiment with housing, land use, and transportation policies simultaneously. In a recent tour of the site, led by Maffay-Tuthill and Megan Young, the Director of the Greenbelt Museum, staff of the National Public Housing Museum was able to see first hand the implementation of these policies.

Informed by its counterparts in Europe, the FDR Administration moved to make direct investments in public housing, a public good previously provided in large part by benevolent social organizations albeit never meeting demand. Due to its proximity to Washington and Eleanor Roosevelt’s championing, public policy experts consider Greenbelt as the most fully realized of American Green Towns with its project budget largely shielded from cuts throughout its development.

But even with this support, the Resettlement Administration did not realize the scale and vision of Greenbelt. Today, the town prides itself on its rural feel with low densities of cinder block Bauhaus-inspired row housing, modest apartment buildings, a school and community center, a shopping center with a Co-op grocery store, a bank, and a movie theater. A pathway network apart from the street network creates a peaceful walking environment completely separate from automobile traffic among plentiful trees and brooks.

While some decried the town as the epitome of federal largesse, a common criticism of many New Deal-era policies, the federal government thought methodically about shaping each Green Town. In the case of Greenbelt, all residents needed to fit within strict income and desired family demographic parameters. Planners conducted research in Greendale, Wisconsin about how wide to make pathways to encourage conversation and interaction, a fact ever apparent in the cozy sidewalk widths of Greenbelt. Public art adorns the school and community center building.

While the shovel hit the dirt for these central pieces of the Green Town vision, the plows did not hit the soil of farms outside of Greenbelt’s greenbelt of trees. As originally planned, larger farms, in addition to smaller allotment plot gardens for families would provide food for Greenbelters. Here the Green Town model would provide the amenities of a city within a decidedly rural context – a community spirit that arguably survives, if not in built-out plans, in Greenbelt’s legacy of co-op businesses, complete with a volunteer-run newspaper.

As Maffay-Tuthill reminds us, the first residents of Greenbelt, “were chosen for being idealistic people – they bought into what was being done here … they wanted this to succeed.” With such an engineered social and physical fabric, it is not surprising the various Green Towns met with varying levels of success. The monumental cost of the Green Town model and changing views on housing contributed to Greenbelt’s sale in 1952, much of it to the residents of Greenbelt.

Upon its sale and later private development of single-family homes starting in 1954, a new group of residents, less committed to the idealism of Greenbelt’s original inhabitants, reshaped the Utopian undertones. A policy shift away from the Green Towns model, coupled with the changing perception of these places presents preservationists with the question of how best to preserve the legacy and intent of these original towns.

Unlike Greenbelt, Cincinnati’s Greenhills community has not been as successful in preserving its story. Twenty-five minutes north of the city center, Greenhills suffered from an incomplete build-out of its original vision, and, as recently as 2009, wholesale demolition of a portion of its original housing units.

With much of the nation’s public housing stock currently approaching the 50-year old threshold for eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places, it is imperative current planners understand the importance of these places in telling the broader public housing and American story.

Like the telling of any national narrative, there are many questions on how to best tell the story and which examples provide the best understanding of the subject. In Greenbelt, the excitement with which our tour guides present the knowledge of their community and its spirit reminds us of the promise of public housing and its ability, when planned and fully implemented, to foster a greater sense of community and affect personal change in the lives of its residents. Undoubtedly there are many more stories to be told – and, like Greenbelt, more than anything these stories require champions.

Daniel Ronan works as the Site Development & Engagement Coordinator for the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago, and is the creator of ResilientHeritage.org. His interests include, historic preservation, transportation, and resilience. In his quest to study this issue in greater detail, Ronan will be visiting Cincinnati the weekend after Thanksgiving. Those interested in joining him for a tour of Greenhills can do so by contacting him at djronan@gmail.com.

St. James Pocket Park To Clean Up Eye Sore, Crime Hot Spot in Walnut Hills

The St. James cut through in Walnut Hills has been the focus of a significant amount of attention in recent months. It is a pedestrianized walkway between McMillan Street and Curtis Street that has been a crime hot spot.

As the City’s NEP program – a targeted 90-day sweep of code enforcement, law enforcement and beautification – moved into Walnut Hills, Curtis Street and the St. James cut through became focal points of the program.

The cut through is street-width with an adjacent parking lot to the west. It is a high traffic pedestrian path due to the presence of Kroger and a CVS across McMillan Street at the cut-through terminus. It currently contains post-modern design elements with existing, neglected raised cement beds for landscaping.

In order to improve the aesthetics and safety of the space, neighborhood leaders have begun raising funds to improve it. The rejuvenation of the space will not require an entire overhaul, but rather a reimagining, which has been led by MKSK Design, an architectural firm with offices in Covington.

“We hope to facilitate the activation of a vibrant, positive urban space through design,” said the lead designer of the project, Julianna Silveira of MKSK. “The design now is harsh, with a lot of concrete – the design will make it greener, with bright colors, and an ideal location for arts and cultural events.”

The parking lot portion of the park will be “depaved”, a process whereby parking lots are dismantled, and re-designed using naturalized elements and pervious surfaces. The kiosk in the middle of the park will be repurposed into a book-share station.

Over the past month, volunteers have been picking up garbage, painting, planting and have otherwise been active in the space’s incremental transformation. The St. James cut-through is affectionately being called the St. James Pocket Park within the neighborhood, as it is now looking more like a place one might stop and enjoy, rather than just, well, cut-through.

Although there is still work to be done, the park was chosen as the wrap-up location for the NEP on November 14. The event was attended by Mayor John Cranley (D), numerous city and neighborhood leaders, as well as the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation and The Model Group, who unveiled renderings for the Trevarren Flats, a mixed-use apartment project that will utilize a historic structure a stone’s throw away from the park.

Later that night, a jazz concert was held in what is now the parking lot portion – event organizers were pleased to discover that the acoustics in the space were ideal for concerts, and provided encouragement for future events that could be held there.

So far the idea for the pocket park has been well-received, and the community’s ideas for how to improve it even earned it a spot in the finals of The Orbit Challenge, which could mean a $5,000 grant to help further the progress.

If any members of the public seek to be involved in any part of the park’s transformation, either through submitting ideas or volunteering, information can be found at the kiosk in the center of the park or on the St. James Pocket Park Facebook Page.

Film Center Renovation to be First Project in Northern Liberties for Urban Sites

Looking EastOver the seven year history of UrbanCincy, we have seen a tremendous amount of revitalization and new development in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Most has occurred in the southern half of the neighborhood, near the Central Business District. We’ve often wondered what it would take for development to jump across Liberty Street into the part of the neighborhood known as the Northern Liberties.

We may have recently hit that critical point. Findlay Market is thriving and growing, and will the addition of Eli’s BBQ, will soon offer a late-night dining option. The nearby tap room at Rhinegeist Brewery has quickly become a hot spot, bringing hundreds of visitors each weekend into a part of the neighborhood that was desolate just a short time ago. And Model Group has announced a $14 million office development along Race Street.

Most recently, the Business Courier reported that Urban Sites is moving forward with a plan to revitalize the 40,000 square foot Film Center building. It will be “the largest single site construction project that Urban Sites has performed to date,” according to Michael Chewning, Chief Operating Officer for Urban Sites. It is also the company’s first foray into the Northern Liberties.

The building was originally owned by Warner Bros. and contains dozens of large vaults that were used for storing films and protecting them against the elements. “The Film Center is unique in that it gives us a glimpse of the lesser known, but important role that Cincinnati played in the film industry,” said Seth Maney, Vice President of Development for Urban Sites.

Over the next 18 months, Urban Sites will put together a development plan for the property. The company is considering office space or residential as potential uses for the building.

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EDITORIAL NOTE: All 13 photos were taken by Travis Estell for UrbanCincy on a recent exclusive building tour.

VIDEO: James Howard Kunstler Trashes America’s Vast Suburbs in TED Talk

While this TED Talk was first delivered by James Howard Kunstler in 2004, virtually all of it still holds true today more than a decade later.

In the speech Kunstler, an outspoken critic of suburban sprawl, discussed the idea that designers and officials have seemed to largely forget how to properly design public spaces, which he contends should be thought about more carefully as spaces created and framed by buildings.

Instead, he says, that America’s suburban sprawl has been the “greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” He goes on to say that suburbia is largely not worth caring about by anyone, and is the reason why those areas of the United States continue to fail to deliver on any of the promises they originally touted following the end of World War II.

The nearly 20-minute talk includes a variety of colorful comparisons and striking examples of how poorly designed America’s suburbs are. The ongoing argument throughout the course of the speech, is that these places are not places worth fighting for; and that our armed men and women fighting for American freedoms deserve better.

“We have about, you know, 38,000 places that are not worth caring about in the United States today. When we have enough of them, we’re going to have a nation that’s not worth defending. And I want you to think about that when you think about those young men and women who are over in places like Iraq, spilling their blood in the sand, and ask yourself, “What is their last thought of home?” I hope it’s not the curb cut between the Chuck E. Cheese and the Target store because that’s not good enough for Americans to be spilling their blood for. We need better places in this country.”

As planners throughout North America continue to spend exhaustive amounts of time reviewing said curb cuts, total signage area and other rather trivial details, Kunstler argues that the bigger picture of building proud communities is being missed.

While the New York native does not discuss Cincinnati in his talk, he very well could have. While most regions have their fair share of poorly designed suburbs, Cincinnati has become infamous for having some of the worst in the United States. Suburbs that are so bad, in fact, that even The Enquirer editorial board recently published an opinion urging the move away from such badly designed communities.