Blue Ash poised to create legacy park at former airport site

On August 29, 2012 the Cincinnati-Blue Ash Airport (ISZ), better known as simply the Blue Ash Airport, was closed after 60 years of service.

After its official 8am closure, yellow X’s were painted across the runway and gates were installed to block any aircraft that might land from turning onto its taxiways. Throughout the day and into the early evening dozens of pilots and other friends of the airport drove their cars and motorcycles onto the taxiway and runway for one last look.

Over the past few weeks, the original hangar building became covered with farewell messages. While most were good-natured, several blamed The City of Cincinnati’s modern streetcar project for the airport’s demise. Additionally, people I spoke with at the airport Wednesday night, with anger in their voice, informed me that their airport was being closed because “Mayor Mallory wants to build a streetcar to nowhere.”

Smearing of the Blue Ash Airport sale
Pilots and other people associated with the Blue Ash Airport have been misled by Chris Finney, his anti-tax organization COAST, and sympathetic talk radio hosts into believing that Cincinnati’s sale of the airport to Blue Ash was motivated by Cincinnati’s streetcar project. Such claims do not recognize the fact that attempts to sell the airport date to the early 2000s, years before Mark Mallory became Cincinnati’s mayor or the streetcar plan first became an item on City Council’s agenda.

Specifically, sale of the Blue Ash Airport to the Blue Ash was not possible until the citizens of Blue Ash passed a .25% earnings tax increase in 2006. This funding source provided the City of Blue Ash sufficient funds to purchase and redevelop 130 acres of Cincinnati-owned airport land into a park. Blue Ash has already used funds from this tax to build a city recreation center and an event center at its municipally-owned golf course.

In early 2007 Cincinnati City Council authorized a streetcar study and proposed using $11 million of the airport’s $38.5 million sale price for construction of the streetcar’s first phase. Cincinnati never proposed using more than this $11 million sum – approximately 29% of the airport proceeds – for streetcar construction, yet Chris Finney has convinced streetcar opponents that the entirety of the proceeds have been programmed for the streetcar.

On August 7 of this year, after a week of talk radio hype, Finney brought his political circus to a Blue Ash City Council meeting and threatened the small city with a ballot referendum similar to those he had repeatedly placed before Cincinnati’s electorate over the past 20 years.

Finney has since backed away from his promise to cause trouble in Blue Ash — a move that was hardly covered by the local media — but much damage has been done. His smear tactics succeeded in villainizing Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory (D), the City of Cincinnati, and the streetcar project itself. And instead of work beginning on Blue Ash’s new airport park with a sense of optimism, it is instead clouded by suspicion.

The $13.5M Blue Ash Airport Park will transform the suburban city on Cincinnati’s north side. Rendering provided.

The New Airport Park
The planned Blue Ash Airport Park will be the first large new park in suburban Cincinnati since the Federal Government transferred the 435-acre Voice of America grounds to Butler County in the early 2000s. While the Voice of America Park has seen minimal physical improvements, and some of the land even sold off for a strip mall, Blue Ash boosters have announced that the new Airport Park will be “world class”.

Given the quality of the city’s new recreation center and event space, and the continuation of the .25% earnings tax voters approved in 2006, there is every reason to expect that it will be. Unlike Voice of America Park, which is nearly entirely devoid of trees, woods are present on some of the airport property including the triangular space between the taxiways and the runway. The $13.5 million park will include a multi-purpose pavilion, two new holes for the Blue Ash golf course, a driving range, and other features.

Remaining Cincinnati-owned Property
Cincinnati’s sale of the airport land it bought in the 1940s is not over, as the city still owns approximately 100 acres, including the airport’s newly abandoned 3,500-foot runway. In 2006, after selling the land occupied by the hangers and taxiways to Blue Ash for park purposes, Cincinnati planned to reconfigure the airport along the opposite side of the runway. This did not come to pass and presumably the City of Cincinnati will sell the property in the near future.

There has been no public mention of Cincinnati’s plans for this remaining land or if Blue Ash is able to afford its estimated $20 million sale price. But even if Blue Ash is unable to buy the property and expand its new park, the small city has demonstrated that it recognizes that the quality of its built environment improves and maintains residential and commercial property values.

Plan Cincinnati aims to guide city back towards its urban roots

After a three-year planning process, Cincinnati’s first comprehensive plan in 32 years will be shared with the city’s Planning Commission. The hearing marks a ceremonious occasion for city employees that have worked tirelessly on the plan since Mayor Mark Mallory (D) tasked them to work with the community on putting together an updated plan for the Queen City.

The City of Cincinnati Planning Department will share the 228-page document with the Planning Commission at 6pm today at City Hall (map). From there the document will move on to City Council’s Livable Communities Committee, and then the full City Council for approval where officials do not expect much, if any, pushback from the nine-member elected body. After formal approval from City Council, the document will become Cincinnati’s policy guide for everything from financial to environmental decisions, and beyond.

The city’s new comprehensive plan, Plan Cincinnati, places a strong focus on creating and building upon walkable neighborhood centers. Photograph by Randy A. Simes for UrbanCincy.

The tone for the city’s new vision is set early and often throughout the document stating, “The vision for the future of Cincinnati is focused on an unapologetic drive to create and sustain a thriving inclusive urban community, where engaged people and memorable places are paramount, where creativity and innovation thrive, and where local pride and confidence are contagious.”

The focus on a comprehensive urban approach is a bold diversion from Mayor Charlie Luken’s (D) administration which ultimately left the city without a Planning Department after a heated debate over whether to allow Vandercar Holdings to build a suburban-style development at what is now the Center of Cincinnati big-box development.

In the early 2000s, Vandercar had agreed to go along with Cincinnati’s Planning Department and build a mixed-use development on the site. Disagreements over the project led to a change of heart by the development team, and a strong reaction by both Mayor Luken and then City Manager Valerie Lemmie to dismantle the city’s planning department.

The renewed focus on urbanism in the Plan Cincinnati document establishes 11 goals that range from growing the city’s population, to becoming more aggressive with economic development, to developing a culture of health. One of the key goals set out by Plan Cincinnati calls on leadership to build on the city’s existing assets. To that end, the plan identified 40 Neighborhood Centers that should serve as the diverse, walkable centers of activity throughout the city.

Of those 40 nodes, approximately 28 percent are recognized as “urban” neighborhood centers while the remainder are identified as “traditional” neighborhood centers.

Plan Cincinnati recognized 40 Neighborhood Centers throughout the city [LEFT], and identified 14 preliminary areas to examine for future investments that could lead to new Neighborhood Centers [RIGHT]. Maps provided.

“Our neighborhoods are structured around centers of activity that contain all of the amenities that we need to go about our daily life,” the Plan Cincinnati document states. “We will focus our development on these centers of activity, and strategically select areas for new growth.”

From there the plan recognizes which of those neighborhood centers are doing a good job at serving as diverse, walkable centers. Seven are seen as well off and simply needing maintenance; 12 are identified as areas that need to evolve and become more walkable, and the remaining 21 are called on to be transformed with large-scale changes such as infill, redevelopment, and public improvements.

“We will permeate our neighborhoods with compact, walkable mixed-use development, bikable streets and trails, and transit of all types (such as bus, light rail, bus rapid transit, light rail transit, streetcar/circulator vehicles, and passenger rail),” declares the Plan Cincinnati document. “The development of a Complete Streets policy and adoption of a form-based code are tools that will help reach this goal.”

A sobering fact, presented within the plan, is that roughly 22 percent of all Cincinnati households have no automobile, while only a percentage of those households have safe and easy access to the jobs, goods and services they need.

Approximately 22% of Cincinnati households do not own a car, and are not within easy access to the goods and services they need. Map provided.

To help solve that issue, city planners hope to build upon the goal of creating a healthy, sustainable community by eliminating food deserts and providing fresh produce within a half-mile, or 15-minute walk or transit ride, from all residential areas.

City planners acknowledge, however, that building upon existing assets will not be enough in order to create the envisioned outcomes identified within PLAN Cincinnati. As a result, the document identifies 14 preliminary opportunities (see second map) for future mixed-use development that can eventually serve as new neighborhood centers where they are currently lacking.

While the visioning document looks to be unapologetic about its urbanist movement, it also looks to firmly establish Cincinnati as the unapologetic leader within the larger region, stating that consolidation of government services and municipal boundaries will be efforts led by the City of Cincinnati.

PLAN Cincinnati goes into much greater depth on many more topics. Those interested in learning more can download the entire document online, or attend tonight’s Planning Commission meeting where staff will be on hand to answer questions afterwards.

Port Authority to focus new land banking powers on demolition

The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority is moving forward with its new land bank program. Instead of focusing on existing undeveloped land, however, the Port Authority has decided to partner with Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine (R) to launch a $11.1 million demolition and redevelopment program which will focus those efforts in 14 communities throughout Cincinnati. More from the Cincinnati Enquirer:

The Port Authority-managed land bank, officially known as the Hamilton County Land Reutilization Corp., is overseeing distribution and use of the funds. The Port Authority is finalizing its demolition contract this week, and had hoped to start demolition in July, but needed more time to work with city, county and neighborhood councils and development groups to develop a strategy.

The selected neighborhoods were based on the number foreclosures, abandoned and blighted properties – there are 2,394 vacated residential properties in the city alone – and whether an individual community pledged funds to be matched through the state’s demolition grant program.

CNU Salons article highlights misconceptions about Cincinnati’s urban core

Cincinnatians who spend much time in the city’s urban core know there’s a big disconnect between popular opinion and reality.

I’ll witness massive crowds of people enjoying amenities such as Washington Park, Smale Riverfront Park, and Fountain Square; or visiting the restaurants in Over-the-Rhine that often require hour-long waits on weekends; or filling up the unique music venues, bars and clubs on Main Street. Then in other parts of town I will hear people claim that there is “nothing to do in Cincinnati.” These people seem to be completely unaware of the slew of things happening throughout the city, but then go on to claim Downtown is unsafe.

Washington Park panorama by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.

The problem is not aided by the fact that many of our city’s media outlets are schizophrenic in their coverage. Earlier this summer, for example, several of our local television affiliates produced stories about how much progress has been made in the Central Business District and Over-the-Rhine.

WCPO produced From Ghost Town to Night-on-the-Town, and 700 WLW’s Bill Cunningham provided a three-minute outburst of positivity where he described a night out in Over-the-Rhine and concluded that he should “spend less of [his] time crapping all over the city of Cincinnati and more time experiencing it.”

And yet those same media outlets are quick to publish sensational stories that label these neighborhoods “dangerous” without providing any analysis of actual statistics to support their claims.

Fortunately, Cincinnati has seen a tremendous amount of positive coverage recently on a national scale. The New York Times highlighted Cincinnati’s new riverfront, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer highlighted Cincinnati as a travel destination and provided a full weekend itinerary. Travel website Lonely Planet named Cincinnati as one of the Top 10 US travel destinations for 2012 for the amenities offered in the center city, and just last week, Next American City called Washington Park the tipping point that ensures continuing success in the improving Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

For these reasons, it is especially unfortunate that a self-proclaimed urbanist would publish a blog entry on the Congress for the New Urbanism’s (CNU) website that only furthers many of these misconceptions.

Written by University of Cincinnati Urban Planning student Katie Poppel, the article is part of an ongoing series of guests posts intended to cover “the latest news, developments and initiatives occurring in cities and towns where CNU members live and work.”

The focus of this particular article intends to criticize Cincinnati’s modern streetcar project. And while the debate is welcome, the article relies on inaccurate information and misleading generalizations.

Poppel says, “it’s very hard for me to accept that the streetcar is really what Cincinnatians want.” She dismisses votes of support of the project in 2009 (Issue 9) and 2011 (Issue 48), and the election of a pro-streetcar mayor and six pro-streetcar city council members.

Ground is broken on the Cincinnati Streetcar as a crowd of supporters looks on. Photo by 5chw4r7z.

She claims that uninformed voters may have been confused by Issue 48’s ballot language. While the language was certainly misleading, she fails to mention that the language was written by the anti-transit group who placed the referendum onto the ballot.

Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending & Taxes (COAST) crafted the language and was proposing a charter amendment to ban any work by the city on any rail transit for the next decade. Voting “yes” would have approved the ban and therefore halt the streetcar project. Contrary to popular belief, the City was not involved in creating the ballot language.

In Poppel’s article, she went on to hedge her bets against the streetcar project, by claiming the transit project will not spur as much economic development as the City, private industry, and academic reports are projecting. However, she claims that low-income residents will not benefit from the new “high-end boutiques and specialty restaurants” opening along the route. This common tactic has often been used by transit opponents to frame such investments as a lose-lose proposition.

Another claim made by Poppel is that Over-the-Rhine is “the most deteriorated and crime-ridden region within Cincinnati.” While the claim is attention grabbing, it is supported by no evidence or facts. Furthermore, she fails to note that crime has been dropping in the neighborhood, and that a reduction in crime is typically associated with more “eyes on the street” that come from more residents and businesses, and fewer vacant buildings and darkened alleyways, in the neighborhood.

By overlooking the details of Issue 48, failing to mention Issue 9, and repeating outdated misconceptions about Over-the-Rhine, it seems Poppel only has surface-level knowledge of all of these issues.

CNU notes that they “welcome a healthy back-and-forth between different points of view,” and that opinions posted in CNU Salons and in comments are those of their respective authors, not of CNU. Unfortunately, CNU only publishes opinion pieces authored by dues-paying CNU members, so we decided to use our own platform to respond. For those reading this response that would like to respond directly to CNU, you can do so by leaving a comment on the original article, or by tweeting at CNU @NewUrbanism.

Looking to LA: Could a Rail Transit Tax Transform Cincinnati?

America’s anti-tax zealots assert that local taxes are prime motivators in the relocation of people and businesses from one part of the country to another. By their reasoning, the Cincinnati region should be flooded with newcomers, as Cincinnatians enjoy lower rates of taxation than the citizens of nearly any major American metropolitan area.

Case in point is Los Angeles, where LA County voters have approved three separate .5% sales taxes since 1980 to support public transportation and road improvements above and beyond what is budgeted by Caltrans, California’s DOT. This 1.5% combined sales tax funds an enormous bus system and construction of a rail transit network that will soon surpass 100 route miles. Meanwhile in low-tax Cincinnati, we operate a threadbare bus system which in its entirety carries just one-third the daily ridership of Los Angeles’ Red Line subway.

The 23rd Street Station is part of the Expo Line Phase 1 segment which opened earlier this year. Construction work progresses on the Phase 2 segment, and will be completed by 2015. Photograph by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.

The revival of rail transit in Los Angeles is an important lesson to Cincinnati: if new rail transit lines can be successful in the city where the world’s largest streetcar system was scrapped and replaced by the world’s largest expressway system, it can certainly be successful here. Moreover, if a city can attract millions of newcomers while taxing them at a higher rate than the places where they originated, the anti-tax argument prevalent in the Cincinnati area is revealed to be a fraud.

Propositions A, C, and Measure R
Public transportation in Los Angeles County is funded by three .5% sales taxes approved in 1980, 1990, and 2008.

Although these three taxes total 1.5%, only .85% can fund rail transit construction projects. Of that sum, .1% is restricted to commuter rail, and only .25% can fund subway tunnel construction. This bizarre stipulation came into effect when the electorate approved the Act of 1998, which prohibited the use of Proposition A funds for subway construction. This act is still effect, but after passage of Measure R in 2008, construction of subway tunnels could resume.

Of the three taxes, Measure R is the most important as it pertains to Cincinnati’s current situation. The additional funds made available by Measure R allowed Los Angeles to accelerate its construction schedule – since 2008 two new light rail lines have opened, the south branch of the Gold Line and the all-new Expo Line. An extension of the Expo Line to Santa Monica is currently under construction, the all-new Crenshaw line broke ground in June 2012, and the long-awaited extension of the Wilshire Boulevard. subway might begin in 2013.

An Expo Line train waits at a recently opened station. Photograph by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.

Future Transit and Quality-of-Life Ballot Issues for Cincinnati
Most metropolitan areas around the country are now introducing taxes larger than the half-cent sales tax MetroMoves proposal voted on in Hamilton County in 2002. Such a tax would have generated an estimated $60 million annually split equally between improved bus service and rail construction and operation.

Should Cincinnati use Los Angeles as a model, the $120 million generated by a one-cent tax could fund much more, much faster than the 2002 MetroMoves plan which would have required 30 years to build out the system envisioned.

What’s more, with excess revenue, the FTA federal match process could be bypassed and Cincinnati could break ground quickly on the sort of construction appropriate for our city. Specifically, subway tunnels that might not win federal matching funds could become a reality in just a few years instead of enduring the decades-long struggles seen recently in New York City, Seattle, and elsewhere.