South Korea: Initial Impressions

After spending just over two weeks in Seoul I often feel just as ignorant to the Korean culture as when I arrived, when in fact that could not be further from the truth. I stepped off the plane in Incheon 17 days ago, got on the bus to Seoul, and then proceeded to immediately get lost in Insadong trying to find my hotel on a Saturday night. Since that time I have been able to meet all kinds of new people, try new foods, experience different cultural norms, and dive into a 50 hour work week.

The food has been one of the best things so far. I have tried just about everything under the sun, but I could not begin to tell you what it all is by name. The kimchi is terrific, and served with everything, and the Korean Barbecue is expectedly superb. I have been taking particular interest in the many street food vendors where I am living in Insadong. Meat on a stick, check. Octopus desert treats, check. Spicy rice cakes, check.

The drink has also been an experience too. Feel free to order a beer when in Korea, but do not expect much. The Korean beers, Cass and Hite, are about as good as any generically mass-produced American beer and it is about all they offer. But when you have Soju and Makkoli to choose from, I do not see why you would care. Soju is often the drink of choice for most as they go out. Think of it like a smooth Vodka, but one that keeps flowing as your night continues over various small Korean plates of food. Makkoli on the other hand is made from fermented rice and is casually known as Korean wine. I can tell you wine it is not…especially the trendy fusion Makkoli you will find throughout Seoul. I tried a pineapple fusion Makkoli which was quite good.

What strikes you first about Korea is its people and their attention to detail. The airport is spotless, transit run precisely on-time, streets are kept clean, and almost anything will be done to make sure you are kept happy as a guest. The key here is to be open and try to at least something about the Korean culture and language. At this point I know about a dozen words and when I use them I am greeted by a very positive response from locals who do not expect me to know even the slightest bit of language or culture.

This attention to detail extends to fashion. Now maybe this is because I am located in the heart of a major cosmopolitan city, but both the men and women are fabulously dressed. Heels and designer dresses are standard for women, while men of all ages are almost always seen in tailored suits and designer shoes. Do not go out the least bit wrinkled or think that your non-polished dress shoes are ok because you will stand out, and not in a good way.

The city has been overwhelmingly large. Skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, and a seemingly never-ending urban landscape greets visitors. Seoul is an overpowering city at times. Not only are the buildings tall, but the streets are wide, traffic constantly congested, streets jam packed with people, and a constant buzz exist in almost all parts of the city that I have visited. But what is most interesting is a similar shift toward creating a more livable city. New parks have been developed along the Hahn River and a reclaimed stream through Insadong turned into a recreational trail are two of the more striking features.

On the personal front I have enjoyed several encounters with Asian-style karaoke, was interviewed on KBS News, stumbled upon a Makkoli tasting festival near my hotel, had an Ajuma intentionally run into me with her shopping cart at the store, and have been in too many mind blowingly new situations to count.

This has been fairly long so far, but I hope to do a weekly summary like this going forward until I return to the U.S. in mid-December. Enjoy some of the photographs I have taken thus far throughout Insandong and from a trip I made to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) last weekend. The week ahead should be quite interesting as my new Korean friends are planning something interesting for my birthday this Friday (and probably Saturday).

Queen City Scene: Fall 2010

Fall is firmly taking root in Cincinnati, so now makes for as good a time as any to take a spin through Cincinnati over the past few weeks.  Check out progress at major construction projects like The Banks and Great American Tower, but also take in some unique perspectives from around town.

This collection includes 22 photographs from throughout Cincinnati during the late summer of 2010.  Neighborhoods captured include Northside, Downtown, Over-the-Rhine, Clifton Heights, Mt. Adams, Norwood, Oakley, and Camp Washington.

UrbanCincy Q/A with candidates for Hamilton County Commissioner

Kevin Wright and David Ben collaborated on this UrbanCincy exclusive.

Next Tuesday, the much anticipated mid-term elections will be held across the country. Although there has been a lot of discussion about national politics and policy making in the mainstream press, there are many historic policy issues facing Hamilton County as well. These issues are as divisive as they are important, and they are going to require serious decisions by serious candidates.

The two men running for Hamilton County Commissioner – Chris Monzel (R) and Jim Tarbell (C) – represent two different approaches to county government. While they are both experienced politicians, they have two distinctly different visions for the future of Hamilton County.

UrbanCincy sent a list of questions to each candidate. The questions were based on issues that we thought you, our readers, would classify as the most important. Below are the questions we sent, as well as the candidate’s responses exactly as they were sent back to us.

1.  Where do you stand on the 3C Rail Project, and how are you prepared to deal with it should you be elected?

Chris Monzel: I do not support the 3C Rail Project.

Jim Tarbell: I am in support of the 3C rail project. Ohio’s $400 million investment will result in over 255 immediate construction jobs over a two-year period, and a US Department of Commerce study predicts approximately 8000 indirect and spin off jobs in Ohio. We need jobs.

According to the Amtrak report from September 2009, the 3C “Quick Start” passenger rail service will serve at least 478,000 in its first year of operation. Historically, throughout its national system, Amtrak has had steady ridership support from college students. An analysis by ODOT reveals that more than 220,000 students are within less than 10 miles from the proposed train station. Furthermore, the 3C passenger rail line runs near 40 colleges and universities.

According to a March 2009 Quinnipiac University statewide poll:

  • 73% of Ohioans ages 18-34 support passenger rail in Ohio and the 3C “Quick Start” Plan
  • 62% of Ohioans ages 35-54 support passenger rail in Ohio and the 3C “Quick Start” Plan
  • 61% of Ohioans 55 years or older support passenger rail in Ohio and the 3C “Quick Start” Plan

Furthermore, the 3C “Quick Start” Plan has received more than 200 statewide letters of support from various businesses, cities, universities and colleges, and other organizations who understand the benefits of passenger rail service in Ohio. The 3C “Quick Start” Passenger Rail Plan will connect Cleveland, Columbus, Springfield, Dayton, Riverside, Sharonville and Cincinnati.

2.  Where do you stand on The Banks project, and how are you prepared to deal with it should you be elected?

Chris Monzel: I have supported the Banks project as a current Cincinnati City Councilman and if elected as County Commissioner will continue to do so.

Jim Tarbell: I am very supportive of The Banks project. I am happy to report that Phase I is complete, ahead of schedule and under budget.

The Board of Commissioners of Hamilton County (County), the City of Cincinnati (City) and the Riverbanks Renaissance, LLC (developer) are partnering to develop the Banks Project. The Banks Project is a public improvement and mixed-use development located between the Paul Brown Stadium (to the west) and the Great American Ball Park (to the east). The Banks Project will be developed in phases over a period of approximately 15 years and will include 1,800 residential units, one million square feet of office space and more than 300,000 square feet of retail space. The Banks Project will be funded with public and private dollars. A recent article in The Enquirer reported that rental units being built are already being rented.

This will be a huge boost for the County. The added retail and entertainment venues mean additional tax dollars for the County. I believe recruiting businesses and residents to this area should be a joint venture of the City and County.

3.  Where do you stand on the Riverfront Park project, and how are you prepared to deal with it should you be elected?

Chris Monzel: I have supported the Riverfront Park project as a current Cincinnati City Councilman and if elected as County Commissioner will continue to do so.

Jim Tarbell: The Riverfront Park Project is another example of what can be done to create enduring landmarks. Not only will this be a tourist attraction, but residents within greater Cincinnati will be attracted to spend more time on our riverfront.

Phase I of Cincinnati Riverfront Park—currently under construction—will include the new Moerlein Lager House restaurant and brewery as well as a plaza of water jets with cascades of water that drop to pools along Mehring Way. There will be a grand stairway with landings at water-filled basins, a glass-floored walkway above a lower level loggia, a shade trellis, informational and interpretive displays, and public restrooms. Also part of the design is the Jacob G. Schmidlapp Stage & Event Lawn, a promenade, and within a tree grove, a monument to the Black Brigade, a floral garden and a labyrinth. The park will also feature a bike center and welcome center, and a section of the Ohio River Bike Trail.

I have a very good relationship with Willie Carden, Director of Parks, and David Prather, the project coordinator. I expect to be in close communication with them and am very supportive of their work.

4.  Given that both Louisville or Indianapolis are outperforming Cincinnati in economic indicators according to the newly released Agenda360/Vision 2015 Regional Indicators Report, do you support the idea of consolidated government similar to what is used in Louisville-Jefferson and Marion counties?

Chris Monzel: I do not support big metro-government. I do support shared-services between the county and other government jurisdictions.

Jim Tarbell: I spent an entire day three years ago with Mayor Abramson of Louisville and his cabinet specifically to study their system. I have also met numerous officers from Indianapolis over time for the same reason. I feel there is much to be gained from having an ongoing discussion with the stakeholders in Hamilton County with an eye towards taking advantage of their experience and progress. Every county, every jurisdiction, has its own challenges; but Indianapolis, for over forty years, and Louisville, for ten years, have made changes and improvements that could help here. Portland, Oregon has made similar changes. I remember one of their planners remarking that Cincinnati had considerably more resources than Portland, but that Portland simply had more of an attitude!

5.  What is your specific plan to close the stadium deficit? Does this plan completely close the projected deficit, and why/why not?

Chris Monzel: The Stadium fund is driving the county budget crisis. There are several avenues to look at to help address this. One is to work on any possibilities of renegotiating the lease.

The Bengals have put an offer on the table to renegotiate parts of the current lease. I will put the taxpayers first in these negotiations. The Bengals owner’s are part of the budget problem and must be part of the solution. I also understand the need to lower taxes in order to establish a welcoming environment for businesses. I believe in promoting home ownership, such as, a
Homearama in Hamilton County. Homearama has been held in Warren County seven (7) of the last eight (8) years.

Another option is to look at the county assets that could be sold which would generate $$ to get us out of our serious debt.

Jim Tarbell: Commissioner David Pepper and I have proposed a similar plan to reduce the debt by at least half by suspending the property tax rollback inappropriately promised over a decade ago.

The current property tax rollback, which reduced the amount of money homeowners pay in property taxes annually, would be rescinded on the value of homes over $150,000. In other words, no one would be affected unless their homes are valued over $150,000, and then only on the amount of the value OVER $150,000, putting the emphasis on higher priced real estate (whose owners have gotten the biggest break so far). The average homeowner would pay about $100 per year. This can be enacted immediately by a majority vote of the commissioners and give us a huge start towards balancing the budget. This would also put enormous pressure on the teams to play their part, with the commissioners and the public having taken the lead. There is nothing fair about this dilemma. None of us played a part in creating this crisis, but we must resolve it now and get on with moving this economy forward.

First Elements of Cincinnati’s New $120M Central Riverfront Park Coming Online

As mid-rise residential buildings rise from the ground nearby at The Banks, the Cincinnati Riverfront Park (CRP) is making significant progress of its own. Phase 1 of the $120 million, 45-acre park is now just one year away from completion and the first elements of the park are becoming recognizable.

Crews have completed the installation of twenty, 300-foot geothermal wells that will heat and cool several facilities within CRP’s first phase. At the same time construction workers are finishing work on the realigned Mehring Way which will free up direct riverfront space, create a more user-friendly street for all modes of transportation, incorporate space for the Ohio River Trail, and maintain the roadway’s necessary specifications for hazardous materials transportation.

In this fall 2010 update, Project Manager Dave Prather also discusses how meticulous the project team has been in their selection of materials including the granite which will be prominently used throughout this first phase.

The Head House that connects the underground parking garage to the park is the first feature of the Cincinnati Riverfront Park to be completed.  The next elements to come online will be the Schmidlapp Stage & Event Lawn in May 2011 with the Moerlein Lager House following shortly thereafter. Project officials expect the Walnut Street Fountain & Steps and Bike, Mobility & Visitors Center in late summer 2011.  The remaining features of Phase 1 will be completed next fall.

Oakley businesses prepare for a construction-free holiday shopping season

Construction crews are currently finishing the Oakley Square streetscape, and officials plan to have all traffic lanes re-opened by this weekend well in advance of the critical holiday shopping season.

What began as a $50,000 grant request from the Oakley Community Council to study ways to improve the safety and walkability of the public square has leveraged enough other sources to include sweeping improvements throughout the neighborhood business district. A previously dangerous and confusing five-direction intersection has been reconfigured for the safety of pedestrians and drivers. Streetscape improvements around Oakley Square including rain gardens, street lighting, outdoor dining space, street signs and meter posts, street trees, pedestrian crossings and other traffic calming measures are now complete.

The Cincinnati Park Board says that it will be putting the finishing touches on their contribution to the project by completing the much anticipated Geier Esplanade Park over the next four weeks. Once complete, the park space will include an expanded lawn, movable outdoor furniture, and a multi-use stage area. Combined, these elements are expected to become the social and civic hub of Oakley.

Michael Cervay, director of Cincinnati’s Department of Community Development, says that remaining water main work on Madison Road and streetscaping throughout the district will be put on hold until January 2011 to allow businesses in the district to have a construction-free holiday shopping season.

“The City’s goal is to work with residents and businesses alike to create thriving places, such as Oakley Square, that act as amenities to our neighborhoods,” he explained. “Construction work is pausing through the holiday season to assure an even more positive shopping experience.”

The improvements have sparked several businesses to expand or invest in the district. Sonoma American & Mediterranean Grill which opened on Oakley Square last month hiring 20 new employees, and the historic 20th Century Theatre recently launched a restoration project of the theatre’s historic tower.

“This project was a huge part of why we chose to invest in Oakley,” detailed Sonoma American & Mediterranean Grill owner Ryan Kassis. “It shows a long-term commitment to the neighborhood and added the character that we were looking for.”

Although business owners acknowledge that weathering the construction has been a challenge, the result they hope will be a re-energized Oakley Square that is safer, greener, cleaner, and poised for long-term success.