Metro officials looking for public feedback to develop new regional transit plan

Officials with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) are looking for public input about how to improve the region’s Metro bus system. The feedback is being solicited in order to update the organization’s plan which was last completed in 2008.

Since the last transit plan was completed, SORTA officials tout the completion of several major items include new articulated buses, hybrid buses, Uptown and Western Hills transit centers, GoogleTransit interface, payment technologies, Google Transit interface and a revamped website.

An articulated bus picks up passengers at Government Square. Photograph by Randy A. Simes for UrbanCincy.

With those initiatives now in place, the transit authority is looking to do more. In an online survey, available now through August 2012, officials ask what could be improved about existing service and what kinds of new service would add value to the regional bus network. The survey also asks whether amenity upgrades like bus shelters, benches, and real-time arrival at busy stops would be of value.

In addition to the online survey, SORTA has held four public meetings to date, with another four scheduled to take place by this Friday. The final four meetings planned will take place as follows:

  • March 28, 2012 from 10am to 11am at 602 Main Street, 12th Floor (Metro’s Offices)
  • March 29, 2012 from 10am to 11am at 7000 Hamilton Avenue (Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired)
  • March 29, 2012 from 7pm to 8pm at 3017 Harrison Avenue (Westwood Town Hall)
  • March 30, 2012 from 10am to 11am at 9555 Plainfield Road (Science & Allied Health Building at UC Blue Ash)

The public input gathered, officials say, will help develop a new transit plan that will be released at the end of 2012.

“Through surveys, phone interviews and public meetings, we’ll map specifically where Metro needs to evolve its routes and services,” Metro CEO and General Manager Terry Garcia Crews stated in a prepared release. “This planning initiative will help us define how Metro should best allocate its current resources and prepare for the future.”

Those unable to attend the public meetings can expect a video to be posted online in the coming weeks that will summarize the key points of the public presentations. Additional public meetings will then be scheduled in the fall as the final plan is rolled out to the public.

Officials also emphasize that every person who completes a survey will be entered to win a 30-day rolling Metro pass, with winners being announced in early September.

Parking mandates stymy development in Cincinnati’s urban neighborhoods

Downtown Cincinnati is home to five Fortune 500 companies, three professional sports teams, local businesses, and according to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 5,300 residents. But the area is also home to more than 35,000 off-street parking spaces.

These spaces once held historic buildings but have been demolished to provide automobile parking over the years. As downtown continues its resurgance, it would be prudent for city leaders to review its outdated parking policies.

In the middle part of the 20th century, many cities, including Cincinnati, developed zoning codes with regulations dictating how many parking spaces are required for different uses. The regulations often accounted for “peak demand,” which is the amount of parking planners believed would be needed at times where demand for parking would be the greatest. For example, accounting for Black Friday-type events where parking lots are only maxed out once or twice a year.

Hundreds of brand new parking spaces in downtown Cincinnati’s Central Riverfront Garage sit unused. Photograph by Randy A. Simes for UrbanCincy.

In his article, The Trouble with Minimum Parking Requirements, UCLA professor Dr. Donald Shoup writes, “Minimum parking requirements are intended to satisfy the expected peak demand for parking at every land use–at home, work, school, banks, restaurants, shopping centers, movie theaters, and hundreds of other land uses from airports to zoos. Because the peak parking demands at different land uses occur at different times of the day or week, and may last for only a short time, several off-street parking spaces must be available for every motor vehicle.”

The demolition of buildings that are mostly historic is also a concern as downtowns struggle to build parking infrastructure that is required by code. Those demolitions, oddly enough, systematically demolish the very things that distinguished them from the suburbs and made the area an appealing destination.

In Nashville, TN, city leaders first removed parking requirements for older buildings, and then moved to remove parking requirements for all buildings in their city center.

“Requiring parking for historic structures that have never had parking is incentivizing their demolition. This puts the property owner in a really difficult position; he must either find parking for the building, demolish it or let it languish in perpetuity.” Nashville city planner, Joni Priest, told UrbanCincy. “If a property owner wants to rehab an historic building – a building that marks the character of a neighborhood and contributes to the fabric of the city – all incentives, including the elimination of parking requirements, should be considered.”

Parking mandates also increase the upfront cost to developers looking to invest in urban neighborhoods. Additional land, often still occupied by historic buildings, must be purchased in order to provide the required parking spaces at approximately $10,000 to $25,000 per space, depending on land and architectural fees. Those costs are then passed on to the consumer, making urban living or starting a small business more expensive.

Contemporary parking mandates can make it nearly impossible for developers and city planners to build neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine any more. Photograph by Randy A. Simes for UrbanCincy.

Parking requirements also have impacts that are not quite as obvious. Increased parking capacity, in theory, increases the amount of cars in the given area and puts an added burden on downtown streets. Even though the traditional grid pattern is ideal for dispersal of traffic in urban settings, downtowns are ideally designed to accommodate people. Cities that add parking, or widen streets for automobiles, do so at the expense of pedestrians.

Even as city leaders work to implement a plan to increase downtown vibrancy through additional residential space and increased foot traffic, concern for parking punctures the debate on how to further support the urban core.

The urban parking analysis UrbanCincy conducted in 2010 identified many of these problems, but no significant action has been taken to-date aside from the reduction of parking needed to be provided along the Cincinnati Streetcar route.

City leaders need to seriously reexamine their policies on the matter, and they could get started by discussing the following three potential solutions:

  1. Eliminate Parking Mandates – As city leaders were able to do in Nashville, we believe Cincinnati leaders could do the same and remove the minimum parking requirements forced upon investors in the city’s urban core.
  2. Cap and Trade System – First proposed by UrbanCincy in 2010, this innovative system has been implemented in several European cities such as Amsterdam, Hamburg and Zurich. Regulations are designed to limit the total number of parking spaces in an urban area, and provide incentive bonuses while limiting parking. Parking spaces are created on a case-by-case basis and often involve repurposing on-street parking spaces for other uses such as community gardens or parks.
  3. Set Parking Maximums – Instead of dictating a minimum, parking requirements are capped by use or developed density. This strategy has been employed in New York City where development of parking has been limited in an attempt to reduce the impact of automobile traffic on the already densely developed island of Manhattan. Parking maximums seem to work with the availability of alternatives to driving. Therefore; if Cincinnati were to pursue this route, it should be in conjunction with the implementation of more efficient alternatives from Metro including expanding streetcar routes, light rail and bus rapid transit alternatives.

While the need for reform appears evident, a contextualized solution should be pursued by Cincinnati city officials that specifically tailors the policy to localized needs. What may be most important is offering flexibility to small businesses and investors who are looking to invest in Cincinnati’s urban core.

“Removing the parking requirements from downtown zoning allows flexibility for site-specific and program-specific solutions,” said Priest. “Flexibility is key in urban environments. As downtown becomes more comfortable for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users, new development will have the flexibility to build less parking.”

Tilt-shift take two at the University of Cincinnati

University of Cincinnati (UC) student Brian Spitzig noticed when we posted his first tilt-shift video of UC’s main campus several weeks ago, and said he was initially thrilled to get the exposure. Spitzig then told UrbanCincy in an email that he saw the comments and felt challenged to produce a better quality tilt-shift product.

“I read the feedback and knew it wasn’t a very high quality tilt-shift video.” Spitzig said. “I have studied a little bit more and practiced with new techniques.”

His follow-up video once again focuses on the University of Cincinnati’s internationally acclaimed campus, but this time he shifts the focus to new areas. Viewers now get perspectives of Calhoun Street, Campus Green, construction work for U Square at the Loop, UC Main Street, Nippert Stadium, McMicken Commons, Jefferson Street, the plaza outside of DAAP, and Varsity Village.

Spitzig says that he is working with a friend to find the best places to film around the city, but believes UC provides a perfect setting for filming videos of this nature due to its dynamic urban setting with easy access to buildings and high vantage points.

A Tiny Day at UC is a 2:51 video featuring music by Sigur Rós.

Downtown Cincinnati poised for surge of residential conversions

Developers are in the process of transforming the 85-year-old Federal Reserve Tower at Fourth and Race into 88 apartments after serving as an office structure for its entire life. The process is one being undertaken in old cities all across the United States – transforming old office buildings into unique residences.

In addition to the Federal Reserve Tower, the 86-year-old Enquirer Building on Vine Street has also had an apartment conversion planned. In the wake of the opening of the Great American Tower at Queen City Square, there appears to be many more candidates ripe for such conversion.

The Federal Reserve Tower [LEFT] is currently being transformed into 88 apartments, while the Enquirer Building [RIGHT] awaits new financing. Photographs by Thadd Fiala for UrbanCincy.

“Residential is a great use for older buildings as opposed to office uses,” said David Ginsburg, President and CEO of Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI). “Older buildings provide a sense of place, history and elegance, and they lend themselves to mixed uses with retail on the first floor.”

In addition to the romantic appeal, Ginsburg also says that the economics make a lot of sense with apartment occupancy rates consistently above 90 percent, and some cases of waiting lists throughout the Central Business District, Over-the-Rhine and at The Banks.

Additional housing downtown, community leaders say, is important because those residents are customers for the restaurants and retail stores outside of normal office hours. Ginsburg adds that those city dwellers also provide a level of density that helps promote the perception and reality of a safe urban core.

According to DCI officials, developers have expressed interest in converting additional historic office towers into residences, but declined to comment as to which structures or which developers are expressing interest.

The historic Tri-State Building [LEFT] and Bartlett Building [RIGHT] sit underutilized and offer large amounts of potential residential space in the heart of the CBD. Photographs by Thadd Fiala for UrbanCincy.

In October 2010, UrbanCincy identified two historic office towers, in addition to the Enquirer Building and Federal Reserve Tower, which appear to be perfect candidates to be transformed into residential apartments.

1. Tri-State Building (Fifth & Walnut); 109 years old
2. Bartlett Building (Fourth & Walnut); 111 years old

Ginsburg concluded by stating that living downtown is the sustainable choice for the more than 12,000 current residents, and any future people considering the area for their next home.

“Given the high cost of gasoline, the density of downtown is helpful,” Ginsburg concluded. “Trips are shorter and walking and bicycling become more prevalent. As public transportation evolves, there will be less need for cars, especially multi-car households, which will help the economy and the ecology.”

Smale Riverfront Park to feature 1,000-foot boat dock

Smale Riverfront Park project manager Dave Prather has delivered yet another video update in what has become a fairly popular video series. This update goes inside the Moerlein Lager House which has now been opened for roughly two weeks, and highlights the progress of work on the water’s edge.

Prather says that the grand opening for the Smale Riverfront Park will take place on May 18, 2012, and at that time will have virtually all construction work on the massive project’s first phase complete. He says that solar panels on the Schmidlapp Event Lawn’s stage will be installed next week, and that the first event will be held there on St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

The 11:43 video also showed where historical markers and the location of home plate existed at Riverfront Stadium will be installed in the coming months.

Visual progress is evident on the park’s second geothermal well which will produce 400 gallons of 57-degree water per minute. Progress is also noticeable on the foundation for the labyrinth and Black Brigade Monument.

Prather also said that the most complicated piece of construction left is the work on the Main Street Fountain, and that there are approximately 30 to 40 construction workers on site each day taking advantage of the favorable weather conditions lately.

Perhaps the two most exiting pieces of information from the video came at the end when Prather described the 1,000-foot boat dock that will eventually be in place and the approximately 300 trees that will be planted within the next month-and-a-half.