Should a portion of gas tax revenues go towards transit?

According to a recent state-funded study, Ohio needs to double its investment in transit to keep up with the growing demand across the state. Even after an increase in funding for 2016, Ohio will only spend $8.3 million per year on transit–that’s less than 72 cents per resident, putting Ohio near the bottom of list compared to other states. One way to provide more funding would be to allocate a portion of the state’s gas tax revenue for transit projects.

In the state of Oregon, a proposal is being considered that would allow a portion of the state’s gas tax revenue to go towards bus, rail, bicycle, and pedestrian infrastructure that “reduces the traffic burden of, or pollution from, motor vehicles on public highways, roads and streets.” Currently, the state’s gas tax revenue can only be spent on highways and rest areas. The proposed resolution (SJR 16) would put the issue on the ballot for Oregon voters to decide in November 2016. More from Portland Transport:

SJR 16 would allow future legislation to assign a portion of motor vehicle taxes and fees for purposes such as rural bus service, safety and congestion relief projects that include transit, separated bicycle facilities such as the Sullivan’s Gulch trail, and local match for federal funds for non-highway transportation projects. Oregon received far less federal stimulus money to improve Amtrak service than did neighboring Washington because we did not have enough local match. Bridge and road tolls could be spent on transit, pedestrian, and bicycle facilities that provide alternatives to highway travel.

Non-highway alternatives may be cheaper, less polluting, or less damaging to the human or natural environment. These alternatives may also be desirable components of a new highway facility, allowing for a smaller, less-damaging structure that is more likely to win approval of nearby residents.

What Will It Take for Hamilton County to Solve Its Homelessness Problem?

According to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are just over seven thousand homeless people in Cincinnati. To be specific, there were 7,062 people either on the street or in a shelter in 2013.

This number can be a bit misleading since it does not include the many more people who have recently lost their home and are now staying with a family member or friend, or are unable to be counted at all.

The way in which local organizations are handling this situation is different today than it was decades ago. In the past the trend was to provide what experts refer to as site-based units. This has changed over the years to a model more akin to Section 8 housing vouchers, where subsidies are provided for people to go find housing out on the open market.

According to the Strategies to End Homelessness, approximately 97% of the 3,300 people in permanent housing in Cincinnati are in these scattered sites. Part of the reason for the change is due to changing funding priorities, while another large factor is that many people reject the idea of having supportive housing built in their neighborhood.

This has caused problems for local leaders who view the Homeless to Homes plan, which includes the construction of five new shelters, as part of a long-term solution. While the shelters are new and improved, they also typically include an overall reduction in total units provided. So with the total number of units and the number of homeless remaining constant, some are wondering what the ultimate solution is.

Salt Lake City has recently received national praise for their homelessness program where they simply have built and provided housing units for every homeless person in their community. It is a nod to past techniques, but one that appears to be getting results.

While it has received the attention, not everyone is convinced that Salt Lake City’s approach is all that unique, or all that comprehensive.

“It’s about giving people housing,” Kevin Finn, President and CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, told UrbanCincy. “If homelessness is the problem, then providing housing is the solution.”

The problem, Finn continued, is that the vast majority of the funds that are provided by the Federal government has strings attached and almost never allows for prevention programs. And with homelessness typically being what Finn calls a short-term crisis, a strong investment in prevention might actually be more effective and economically sustainable.

“Somewhere around 80% of people who become homeless end up getting out of homelessness on their own,” noted Finn. “Unfortunately, we seem to be discouraged from even using the money that could be used for prevention on prevention.”

While Finn acknowledges that simply providing housing to those who truly need it is more effective than anything else, he also is quick to note that taking preventative measures can be far more cost-effective.

In Hamilton County, for example, it costs approximately $3,300 per year to provide supportive housing to someone. At the same time, it costs around $1,300 per year to shelter a person on a temporary basis, and just $1,100 annually to prevent someone from becoming homeless.

“I would agree that Salt Lake City has the right model for those that are homeless, but I would say that prevention is even more effective than that,” Finn emphasized. “The real challenge is to figure out what the right solution is for each individual person.”

Further complicating the prevention approach is its inconsistent funding levels from the Federal government. According to Strategies to End Homelessness, virtually no funding was provided for prevention prior to 2009, but then the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act infused local agencies with around $2.2 million annually over the next three years. At its peak in 2011, it resulted in the prevention of 2,800 people from becoming homeless.

When the stimulus program wound down, those funds went away with it; and those numbers have been in rapid decline ever since. Such inconsistencies make developing long-term plans and strategies next to impossible.

“The issue we struggle with is trying to reduce homelessness when the landscape of the resources is constantly changing,” said Finn. “From 2012 to 2013 homelessness increased in Hamilton County; but it was less than 1%, and considering our resources had been decimated it was a bit of a moral victory.”

Beyond just the funding issues, understanding the problem and recognizing the actual need for each person could yield even greater performance and savings.

First and foremost, Finn says the goal should be to determine who is close to homelessness, but can be prevented from reaching it. From there he says that it is important to figure out who has recently become homeless, and what level of assistance they need – short- or long-term. Not doing so could create the risk of providing the funds for someone to have long-term support, even though short-term support is all that is needed.

In order to tackle each case appropriately, local leaders are developing an early stage approach that is in line with nationally recognized assessment process for determining these details that can often be difficult to uncover.

Further assisting those efforts are the already established programs operating county-wide, including the Central Access Point hotline that allows for people to call and give notification that they are at risk.

Even with all of the challenges, Finn remains optimistic about the future. The City of Cincinnati has recently increased its amount of funding for human services, and has designated reducing homelessness as a priority for those funds. In addition to that, the United Way of Greater Cincinnati is now providing $150,000 per year for prevention efforts.

New data is scheduled to be released in the near future with updated figures on the region’s homeless population. While it is not yet public what those numbers are, it is expected that they will be along a similar trajectory as recent years. The hope, however, is that this trajectory starts to change sooner rather than later.

“Ultimately if we can prevent people from ever coming in, then we can save a lot of money and save that household the trauma of becoming homeless,” Finn concluded.

New Single-Family Homes Taking Shape in Over-the-Rhine

The popularity of urban living continues to rise in Cincinnati’s urban core, with new apartment and condos coming online seemingly every month. But recently, many developers have began to shift their focus to a new living option that combines the convenience of a downtown location with the space one would expect in other neighborhoods. These single-family homes might appeal to long-time urbanites that are starting a family and need more space, or those who want to relocate to the inner city without giving up the space they’re used to.

Property developer Urban Expansion gave UrbanCincy a tour of three single-family homes in Over-the-Rhine–one complete and two under construction. The developer is seeking LEED Silver certification for all three of these properties.

219 Wade Street is a 3,528 square foot, 4 bedroom, 3 full and 2 half bathroom home with a list price of $530,000 and a sale currently pending. The home is located directly between a Cincinnati Streetcar stop and the Central Parkway Cycle Track, and close to amenities like Washington Park. The home is the first major residential development on the street, but won’t be the only one for long. Urban Expansion will soon be renovating a neighboring building, and other developers are eyeing the remaining vacant lots and buildings on the street.

 

The properties located at 16 and 18 East 14th Street are a unique example of adaptive reuse. An existing one-story garage wasn’t a great use of this valuable real estate, so Urban Expansion added a two-story living space to the top. These homes will provide a rare opportunity for someone who wants the luxury of a private attached garage (with enough space for three cars) just steps away from the restaurants and shops on Vine and Walnut. The second floor will feature a semi-enclosed patio that offer views of the third phase of Mercer Commons. Construction on these homes will be completed in about a month.

Architecture as Experience: The Case for Excellence in Design

During a press conference this past October, superstar architect Frank Gehry responded to criticism of his work by raising his middle finger to a Spanish journalist and saying, “Let me tell you one thing. In the world we live in, 98% of what gets built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design nor respect for humanity or anything. They’re bad buildings and that’s it.”

Gehry’s sharp retort sparked a firestorm in the press; op-ed pieces in The New York Times, Forbes, Architect Magazine, and countless blogs have chimed in with their own responses, and the inevitable responses to the responses soon followed. Despite the brash way in which the conversation started, it is a conversation about our built environment that is welcome and long overdue.

"I do not build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build." -- Howard Roark in The Fountainhead

“I do not build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build.” — Howard Roark in The Fountainhead

The Inescapable Art
Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, described architecture as the inescapable art. “You don’t have to go to a play that the theater critic pans, a movie that the film critic hates or a restaurant where, according to the food critic’s taste buds, the chef can’t cook,” Kamin writes, but terrible reviews won’t make buildings disappear, and the public can be stuck with the consequences of bad design for decades. Architecture — good, bad, or mediocre — forms the setting in which we live out our lives and it affects us in profound ways whether we consciously realize it or not. Good design is more than just superficial window dressing; it’s the difference between Mac OS X and a Unix terminal prompt, and it’s the difference between a city that’s an attractive destination and a city that merely exists.

Cincinnati is blessed with a cornucopia of notable architecture that other cities in its league can only dream of having. In addition to the well-known favorites like Union Terminal, Carew Tower, and Music Hall, there is also a wide variety of contemporary architecture that has helped put Cincinnati back on the cultural map. In addition to the usual cast of flamboyant “starchitects” like Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, and Zaha Hadid, Cincinnati is also home to projects by less flashy but no less talented firms like Moore Ruble Yudell, Architecture Research Office, and Gwathmey Seigel Kaufman. There are also homegrown firms such as FRCH, Glaserworks, and John Senhauser Architects creating notable projects in Cincinnati and beyond.  When it comes to the quality of its built environment, Cincinnati punches far above its weight.

The sad irony, though, is that relatively little of what gets built today is actually designed by architects. Despite the resurgence of the urban cores of Cincinnati and other cities throughout the country, most new construction is still in the suburbs and exurbs, planned and designed by developers and retail chains according to carefully-honed formulas created to guarantee the greatest return on the dollar within the shortest period of time.

Suburban “McMansions” aren’t designed by architects to be lived in; they’re designed by developers to look good on realtor listings and be sold. Big-box retail stores, fast food outlets, and car dealerships are built from prototypes designed not to inspire or to even be pleasant, but to generate short-term profits with maximum efficiency. Some nameless architect may have stamped the construction documents somewhere along the process to ensure the structure meets applicable codes, but his or her influence on the end user experience was likely minimal at best. In the case of most single-family houses built by developers, an architect was not likely to have been involved at all.

False Choices
This is no doubt the “98% of what gets built and designed today” that Gehry was referring to, but it has remained largely unmentioned while pundits squabble over the implications of his diatribe. Some commentators have chosen to blame celebrity architects such as him for the current state of our built environment, nostalgically harking back to some mythical past in which architecture was driven by the local vernacular. What they fail to mention is that, like it or not, badly-designed sprawl is the vernacular today, and it has gone global. Blaming a few starchitects for the quality of our built environment is like bashing Kraftwerk for being too esoteric while the latest Nickelback album is at the top of the charts.

That said, architects and architectural academics are often accused of being elitist and out of touch with reality, and in many cases the criticism is well-deserved. Too many architects have read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as the manifesto it was meant to be rather than as the cautionary tale it should have been. Architecture is a collaborative discipline above all else, and there is no room at the table for an ego the size of Howard Roark’s. Too often, the prestigious design awards and glossy magazine articles have been for projects built for sheer spectacle rather than for lasting quality. Spectacle is what sells magazines and generates fodder for discussion around the water cooler, but sometimes the most appropriate design solution is to do less designing. Being a conscientious architect means knowing when to make that call.

What’s missing from the discussion is the vast middle ground between avant-garde starchitecture and crowd-pleasing vernacular design, and the idea that architecture, above all else, should be a human experience, rather than an abstract object to behold or a mere commodity to the bought and sold. It’s not a question of modernism versus traditionalism or suburban versus urban; it’s a question of bad versus good.

Healthy cities need an attractive mix of architecture; this mix includes high-profile starchitecture, anonymous background buildings, new and old, traditional and modernist, and everything in between. What matters is that what gets built is of consistently high design quality. A smattering of notable buildings within a context of ugly schlock is insufficient; what’s needed is a cohesive cityscape of well-designed buildings where the overall quality of the urban experience is greater than the sum of its architectural parts. To use a baseball analogy, one or two sluggers won’t save the season if the rest of the team is in a slump.

Good design doesn’t just happen; property owners and the general public need to realize its value, and commission talented architects who will deliver it. Samuel Hannaford didn’t leap out from behind a bush one night and create Music Hall by sheer force of will; Music Hall exists because the City of Cincinnati wanted a venue befitting its highest cultural aspirations, and they commissioned Hannaford to design it. Music Hall, while notable enough in its own right, also exists within the fabric of a historic neighborhood. Relatively few of the neighborhood’s Italianate row houses would be particularly notable as individual structures, but together they form the streetscape of Over-the-Rhine, one of the largest intact historic districts in the country. Music Hall and its surrounding neighborhood enhance and compliment each other in ways that would be impossible if either existed in isolation.

Lions Park Scout Hut by Rural Studio (photo: Timothy Hursley)

Lions Park Scout Hut by Rural Studio [Timothy Hursley]

Engineering Value
Cost considerations are often touted as an excuse for poor design, but this is a cop-out. It’s easy to clad a terrible building in exotic materials and pass it off as a notable work of architecture (see: numerous projects developed by Donald Trump), but a talented architect can creatively turn cost constraints into a brilliant design solution.

The iconic cross-braces on Chicago’s John Hancock Center meant being able to eliminate a third of the structural steel that would’ve otherwise been required for a building that tall. At a much smaller scale, Auburn University’s Rural Studio designs hand-built structures of sublime beauty for disadvantaged communities in rural Alabama. These structures, often created from recycled materials and found objects, cost pennies on the dollar compared to more typical construction.

When Washington, DC was planning its Metro system, the transit authority assumed the cheapest way to construct the underground stations was to give them straight vertical walls covered in tile, flat ceilings, and a forest of columns similar to what’s found on older subway systems. Their architect, Harry Weese, was able to demonstrate that a vaulted station shell made of waffle-slab concrete actually cost less to build than a more conventional design. This motif became the most celebrated design feature of the system, subtly recalling the coffered ceilings of the District’s neoclassical civic monuments but without reflexively copying them.

What is Good?
All this talk of good architecture begs the question: What does it mean to be good? Is it something that can’t be defined, but we know it when we see it? Aaron Betsky, former director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and now Dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, recently penned an article that explicitly addresses this question:

I do not think there is one style or one approach that has all the answers. I am wary of what I think are pseudo-scientific approaches to measuring such things, though I am open to ways in which we can more clearly articulate and judge what is good and what works. However, instead of taking solace in formulas or a rote recitations of traditions, we should always ask the question what is appropriate, what is needed, what is possible, and what are our dreams and aspirations. We should build with what we know, for a reality, but also towards a better — again in a social, environmental, and aesthetic sense — reality.

Betsy concludes the article by saying, “Architecture should be neither weird nor boring, neither alien nor alienating, neither wasteful nor wanting in the qualities that make us human.”

To this we might add: In order to be good, architecture should be honest in its materiality and its place in history, and be responsive to its context. Wood should look like wood and not be painted to look like marble. A building built in 2015 shouldn’t attempt to look like a building built in 1895. A sentimental appeal to nostalgia is no excuse for faux-traditional buildings that cheapen their context with knee-jerk imitation, but a building designed for downtown Cincinnati should be sufficiently distinguishable from a building designed for a suburban office park in Southern California.

Good architecture should engage all the senses in a meaningful way, and acknowledge the web of meanings and experiences that we have come to associate with the built environment. Brick is more than just a cladding material; it imparts a sense of stability and permanence. Glass and stainless steel are associated with notions of high-tech precision. A fireplace is more than just a decorative feature in the living room; the sound and smell of burning firewood recalls fond memories of family camping trips, a bonfire on the beach during a church retreat, or a brisk fall evening with close friends on the patio at Neons. A door made of solid wood has a more substantial feel to the hand than a flimsy hollow door made of pressed paper, even if they both look the same at first glance. Whether we are consciously aware of them or not, these things matter.

Local Interest
The discussion about the nature of our built environment has been happening in Cincinnati for quite some time; debates about the streetcar, gentrification, redeveloping the riverfront, form-based codes, and historic preservation all revolve around what kind of place Cincinnati wants to be. Is it a place where one merely goes to see a Reds game once or twice a year before getting back on the freeway to a house in the suburbs, or is it a place to live and work 24/7 throughout the year? Is it a dumping ground for the indigent, a playpen for the affluent, or home to a diverse mix of people and activities? All these issues are closely related to matters of design.

The Cincinnati Enquirer recently published an angry screed by Hyde Park architect Robert-Pascal Barone that sharply criticizes a number of recent projects. Although the article contained a few valid points, the overall tone read as a shrill rejection of anything built in the city after 1950, which undermined the possibility of a constructive dialogue.

This was an unfortunate missed opportunity, because it’s a dialogue that needs to happen. Belligerent naysaying does nothing to improve the city, but even the most successful projects are not exempt from intelligent critiques that offer lessons for future projects. Cincinnati has progressed beyond the point where new development for the sake of new development, no matter how ill-conceived, should get the red carpet treatment by default. The city deserves top-shelf design, and is now in a position to demand it.

Moving Forward
There is reason to be optimistic that we are once again making good architecture a priority. For the past 20 years, the University of Cincinnati’s Signature Architect Program has raised the profile of the university and has led to UC consistently appearing on lists of the world’s most beautiful college campuses. Just as importantly, it has greatly enhanced the quality of campus life and has had a snowball effect on other projects around town.

Just as crucially, the city has stepped up its efforts to save and preserve the architectural landmarks that previous generations have built. The dilapidated Metropole has been beautifully reborn as the 21c Museum Hotel, Hamilton Country taxpayers recently approved a modest sales tax increase to restore Union Terminal, and the long-awaited restoration of Music Hall continues to gain support and funding.

Much work remains: the Terrace Plaza Hotel still sits vacant downtown, and despite the pace of redevelopment in Over-the-Rhine and other close-in neighborhoods, each year sees a number of vulnerable structures succumb to neglect or outright greed. The city needs to be more proactive about preserving its history, rather than merely reacting when a problem becomes a crisis.

Smaller cities like Cincinnati have a unique role to play in the design world, and offer advantages of access and affordability not found in the usual hot spots like New York and San Francisco. In a recent CityLab article titled Why Architects and Second-Tier Cities Need Each Other, Amanda Kolson Hurley notes:

New York, Boston, Chicago, and other major metros have a lot of construction activity, but also a lot of architects. It’s a competitive field made more so by the sheer number of talented firms in the same handful of cities. That contributes to the culture of stress and overwork that many architects bemoan, some of them — women in particular — even leaving the field in frustration. By contrast, an ambitious architecture practice can carve out a niche for itself in a second-tier city, where the scene is often dominated by “legacy” firms that play it safe.

Hurley goes on to highlight the example of Louisville-based De Leon and Primmer Architectural Workshop, which recently won an AIA Honor Award for their Wild Turkey visitor center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Neither Roberto De Leon nor Ross Primmer are Louisville natives; they met in architecture school at Harvard and made a business decision to open their practice in Louisville because, like Cincinnati, it was primed for growth. Cincinnati has the additional advantage of being home to one of the top architecture schools in the country, and many faculty members have their own small practices producing innovative design.

Wild Turkey Visitor Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky (photo: De Leon and Primmer Architecture Workshop)

Wild Turkey Visitor Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky [De Leon and Primmer Architecture Workshop]

Cincinnati would do well to aggressively harness that local talent as well as put out the welcome mat for transplants from outside the region. Fairly or unfairly, Cincinnati has a reputation for being a conservative, insular city that is wary of outside ideas and talent. As such, it needs to work extra hard to put that stereotype out to pasture. Civic and corporate leaders should make a point to consider emerging architects for new projects and include them in discussions about the city’s future. For its part, the architectural community needs to resist its natural inclination to circle the wagons, and make an effort to engage the public and ensure their needs are being met when designing new projects.

Most importantly, the general public needs to demand a consistently high standard of design and hold its leaders accountable when opportunities are missed. Uncritical boosterism is often a veneer for complacency, which is a far more destructive force than vigorous debate. Sometimes the boat needs to be rocked. Cincinnati has a rich history and enviable assets, but it cannot rest on its laurels. No city has ever made itself a prime destination by bragging about how magnificent it used to be.

Get Involved
At the national level, the American Institute of Architects has launched an ambitious media campaign to highlight the role of architects in shaping our built environment, and by extension, the role of the built environment in shaping our lives. The campaign features web videos, television ads, and social media content under the hashtag #ilookup.

For those wishing to become more involved in conversations about the future of Cincinnati’s built environment, the Cincinnati chapter of the AIA and the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati have full calendars of activities and events, and the annual ArchiNATI festival offers unique opportunities to engage with the city’s built environment.

In addition to the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, other nearby architecture schools at Miami University, the University of Kentucky, and Ohio State University routinely host lectures and other events throughout the year that are usually free and open to the public.

If all that sounds daunting, start by simply grabbing a sketchpad and heading off to explore some corner of the city that looks interesting. Look up, and you’ll rarely be disappointed.

David Cole is a native of Fort Thomas, Kentucky with a strong interest in architecture, urban design, transit, and social justice. He earned his Master of Architecture degree from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, and is pursuing professional registration as an architect while working as a designer at the New York office of STUDIOS Architecture.

If you would like to have your thoughts published on UrbanCincy, simply contact us at editors@urbancincy.com.

Grocer to Anchor $6.5M Redevelopment of Elder-Beerman in Downtown Hamilton

As the conversation continues about building a grocery store in downtown Cincinnati, developers and city leaders in downtown Hamilton are quickly moving forward with plans to install an organic grocery and deli in the first floor of the former Elder-Beerman department store on High Street.

The building has sat empty since 2009 when the struggling Dayton-based retailer shuttered its operations in Hamilton.

It is envisioned that Jackon’s Market & Deli will supply the city’s increasing downtown population with access to fresh meats and produce for the first time in decades. Hamilton Urban Garden Systems, a recently incorporated 501(c)3 non-profit that has been the primary catalyst behind urban community gardens taking root throughout the city, will provide some of the store’s locally grown produce.

Comparable stores like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Jungle Jim’s currently require most of Hamilton’s 62,000 residents to make a 15- to 30-minute drive.

Despite having a small footprint, the planned grocery is seen as an anchor to the $6.5 million redevelopment of one of Hamilton’s largest vacant buildings. Spearheaded by the CORE Fund, the project has already landed at least two other major private tenants.

The largest tenant will be a 40,000-square-foot call center for Denver-based StarTek, which will bring with it nearly 700 customer service jobs. Kettering Health Network will join them when they expand the reach of Fort Hamilton Hospital’s Joslin Diabetes Center, marking the return of healthcare services to downtown just blocks away from the former Mercy Hospital site. It will also include facilities for InsideOut Studio, an innovative art program administered by Butler County’s Board of Developmental Disabilities.

The multi-million-dollar project calls for a complete overhaul of the structure’s exterior facades, and a complete interior reconfiguration. Project officials say that it will be completed in several phases, with the majority of work expected to be completed by the end of 2015.