CNU’s 2018 Transportation Summit: Lessons for Greater Cincinnati

CNU’s 2018 Transportation Summit was September 16-17 in New Orleans. The purpose of the summit was to bring together people focused on the revitalization of urban neighborhoods disrupted by freeways. In attendance were people from Massachusetts, California, Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, Washington DC, and two members from CNU Midwest, Chris Meyer and Brian Boland. There were many takeaways from the summit but three lessons seem applicable to Greater Cincinnati.

The first is that freeways and urban fabric are incompatible. Urban fabric in Greater Cincinnati typically consists of fine-grained parcels, 2-5 story buildings, and a dense street with grid pedestrian-scale streetscapes. Urban fabric is fundamentally sized for people. The 19th century blessed present-day Greater Cincinnati with an abundance of high-quality urban fabric. A minor takeaway from the transportation summit was that other cities would be jealous if they knew what we have.

Freeways are scaled for cars and trucks. They are always interruptions in the urban fabric. They break up the street grid wherever they pass through it and form barriers to people passing. The urban fabric for blocks around a freeway is degraded not only by the dirt, noise, smell, and ugliness but also by the profusion of vehicles they concentrate and deliver into the urban fabric. This is true for greater Cincinnati along the I-75, I-71, and I-471 corridors.

Freeways are a necessary part of the urban economy but they are incompatible with the urban fabric. It was a mistake to run them through central cities. Dwight Eisenhower, the father of the interstate system, certainly thought so.

Multiple people at the summit noted that urban freeways are “monuments to racism.” That’s obviously the case in New Orleans. In Cincinnati, the West End neighborhood is physically gone but the Kenyan Barr photo exhibit, currently showing at the University of Cincinnati, illustrates the neighborhood destroyed by I-75. Ninety-seven percent of the residents were black.

A second lesson from the transportation summit is that urban fabric is valuable. Anyone familiar with CNU understands that. What was new is that urban fabric can be more valuable than the freeways running through it. Implicitly or explicitly, a big part of the argument to remove freeways, be it Denver, Oakland, or Austin, is to free up land for profitable new development.

The same principle applies to Cincinnati. The value of land with urban development on it is greater than the same amount of land with auto-centric development on it. The blocks around freeways are almost always taken up with auto-centric development because of how freeway ramps concentrate vehicles in a geographic space. Cincinnati would reap greater economic, tax, and social benefits if the space around Interstate-75 followed urban development patterns rather than auto-centric development patterns.

The third lesson is that the future of urban development doesn’t have to look like the past. When the first Congress for New Urbanism met in 1991, most new development was going to suburbs and central cities were still losing money and population. That has changed. People are moving back to places where they can live, work, and play, without a car. It’s happening in Cincinnati too.
Recognizing the value of urban fabric and the cost of freeways in the urban fabric allows people to recalculate the costs/benefits of future transportation projects. Two high-profile Cincinnati transportation projects include the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar and the Brent Spence Bridge expansion.

One argument against the streetcar is that it is not “profitable,” so it should be shut down. However, streetcars are compatible with the urban fabric. Most buildings and parcels on the streetcar route have been improved. Streetlife – outdoor dining, social interaction, economic activity – along the streetcar route is as vital as it’s been for decades. The streetcar is a fellow dancer in the sidewalk ballet. It improves the value of adjacent urban fabric, in opposition to freeways that destroy value. A better cost/benefit analysis of the streetcar would include the increased tax value derived from adjacent improved parcels.

The inverse argument occurs with the Brent Spence Bridge project. The primary cost/benefit evaluation looks at congestion. The potential value of restored urban fabric has never been a part of the bridge’s cost/benefit analysis. When they factored the value of urban fabric into the Fort Washington way redesign, they decided to sink the freeway below grade so it could be capped in the future. It’s easy to envision a redesigned bridge project that includes land for new urban fabric, much as the Fort Washington Way project did.

The 2018 CNU transportation summit brought together thought leaders, local activists, transportation professionals, and city designers. A repeated statement at the 2018 summit was that multi-million dollar infrastructure projects should improve the value of places where they are constructed. In Greater Cincinnati, it seems like the value of place is often not considered in the cost-benefit analysis of large transportation projects.

In the past, it was possible to argue that urban fabric had no value, or that its value was equal to auto-centric development. Those arguments can no longer be made in good faith. If Cincinnati is going to capitalize on the wealth of its urban fabric, the value of that fabric must be included when evaluating future transportation projects. If it’s done so accurately, we should be all the wealthier.

This is a guest article by Chris Meyer reporting on the 2018 CNU Transportation Summit. CNU and CNU Midwest are content partners with UrbanCincy.

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

Opinion: A Boulevard for Brent Spence Bridge Exit

Covington is in the midst of a redevelopment wave. A number of prominent historic buildings have recently been rehabbed and several large new mixed-use buildings are in the planning stages or under construction.

Two of the new projects, “Riverhaus” at 501 Main Street, and the John R. Green Lofts at 411 West 6th Street are scheduled to bring 369 new apartments into the Main Strasse neighborhood.  Census tract 603 covers most of the Main Strasse neighborhood and it shows 1,491 residents living there in 2015. Those two new projects will add a significant increase in the local residential population density.  Their ongoing progress reflects the demand for residential development in pedestrian-friendly urban spaces.

Part of Covington’s urban core that hasn’t seen any new residential development is the area north of 4th street between Madison Ave. and I-75.  Dubbed “Hamburger Heaven” in the city’s recent City Center Action plan, it contains multiple fast food restaurants, the sprawling one-story IRS center, and a sea of parking lots. Part of the reason the area hasn’t seen any development is that Covington’s 4th Street delivers 27,000+ cars per day to I-75. That much traffic is incompatible with pedestrian-friendly urban space.  

The City Center Action Plan makes redevelopment of the Hamburger Heaven and IRS sites a priority but it does not address the area’s inhospitable traffic. It’s a problem: How do you connect new development north of 4th street to the existing pedestrian-friendly urban fabric while maintaining all the traffic to the interstate?

The imminent closure of the IRS site presents an opportunity to address the problem. The 23-acre site covers 3-1/2 blocks of frontage on 4th street. Most of the remaining space adjacent to 4th street between the IRS site and I-75 consists of parking lots.

Once the IRS site is closed, the city of Covington should widen 4th street and convert it into a multiway boulevard.

A multiway boulevard consists of a series of central lanes to move through-traffic, side lanes with on-street parking to serve local vehicles and bicycles, and broad sidewalks to serve pedestrians. Tree-lined medians separate the local traffic from through-traffic, and trees on the sidewalk further separate pedestrians from traffic. Think of it as a “mixed-use street.” Because the street supports a different mix of uses – people, bicycles, transit, through traffic – it can more readily support mixed-use buildings at its edges. Mixed-use buildings add the density and diversity of uses that support pedestrian-friendly urban space.

San Francisco recently took an existing street and converted a portion of it into a new multiway boulevard. The creation of Octavia Boulevard was possible because an earthquake damaged a freeway and made it unusable. Instead of rebuilding the freeway, San Francisco added its right-of-way to a four-block stretch of Octavia Street, which became Octavia Boulevard.

Today, Octavia Boulevard moves 45,000 cars per day in two directions, it has side streets and broad sidewalks to serve local residents, and the creation of the street spurred new development on its edges. Octavia Boulevard sets a clear precedent for converting underutilized auto-oriented development into more productive mixed-use urban development. Octavia Boulevard is aesthetically pleasing, practical at moving traffic, and successful at promoting economic development.

To implement Covington’s “4th Street Boulevard Project” the street’s existing 50-foot right-of-way would be widened to the north to create a 100+ foot wide right-of-way.

The expanded right-of-way will accommodate the multiway boulevard’s additional lanes, medians, and sidewalks. Expanding the right-of-way will require part of the IRS parcel, a number of parking lots, and the demolition of a fast food chain restaurant.

Different design options could include making 4th street’s through lanes either one-way or two-way. A dedicated transit lane could be accommodated. Bicycles can share the local lanes with local vehicular traffic.  

Implementing the 4th Street Boulevard Project would have multiple effects that support the ongoing urban renaissance. The medians and parked cars provide protection for people to walk, eat, drink, and socialize outside. Trees also protect pedestrians and provide a canopy for shade and cooling. Bicycle use will be safe and easy. Converting 4th street from a single use – channeling cars to I-75 – into a multiway boulevard will facilitate the development of dense mixed-use buildings.

There’s a historic opportunity here. The IRS site was born out of federal urban renewal projects in the 1950s. Its time is now at an end.  The trend of the future is to live, work, and play in the urban core. The current traffic on 4th street is a barrier to urban development. Converting 4th street into a multi-way boulevard will support the traffic flow but mitigate its negative impacts. Recent examples provide good evidence.

If the ongoing urban development is to be sustained and space north of 4th street – just blocks away from the Ohio River – is to be put to its highest and best use, then the traffic along 4th street must be addressed. Converting 4th street into a multiway boulevard will do just that.


This is a guest editorial by Chris Meyer that originally appeared in the CNU Midwest blog. CNU and CNU Midwest are content partners with UrbanCincy.

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

Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation Refocusing Efforts on Inclusive, Equitable Change

Recently, David Brooks wrote an article for the New York Times about Vice President Joe Biden. The article referenced Biden’s ‘Formation Story.’ Regardless of the politics of the article, we were drawn to this term. In order to be effective in civic work we must have a deep understanding of who we are and what drives us to get out of bed every day and fight.

Most people don’t realize that the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation has been around for almost 40 years. We were created by the community council in 1977 to develop quality affordable housing in a time when places like Walnut Hills were being abandoned and, in many cases, forgotten.

After decades of assorted success, the organization was at a crossroads five years ago. We could close our doors … or innovate into an organization that reimagines our role as much more. Having chosen the latter, we maintained that we didn’t just want to be a developer. We wanted to be a catalyst for sustainable and positive change. Partnerships with the Walnut Hills Area Council and Walnut Hills Business Group ignited that course, yet, we have still struggled to establish an identity.

Throughout this time we’ve asked big picture questions like ‘What is our purpose?’ ‘What do we value?’ and ‘What will we fight for?’ Recognizing the importance of community input, we posed these tough questions in the form of neighborhood listening sessions, survey collection, and through non-traditional engagement streams. As a result, our new brand was born.

Our new brand identity is a mash up of what we’ve heard in the community over the last four years. It reflects our relentless desire for equitable change and growth. It reflects community development that values the community organizing and boots on the ground strategy of the past and matches it with the modern day approaches to big, bold and innovative ideas that are driving urban expansion across the country. It is an inclusive brand that respects and celebrates the history and identity of Walnut Hills, while inviting new stakeholders to the table to contribute to our community’s growth.

Will inclusive and equitable change be easy? Will we always be as successful as we want to be? No. It will be hard. Damn hard. But we believe that we must do what’s hard. We believe that we must lead by example. And guess what? We can’t do it alone. This type of change is going to require your participation, through both successes and challenges. It’s going to require all of us to listen to each other, to inspire each other, to be agile, smart and strategic together.

We believe that the future of community development belongs to change agents and risk takers. Those who believe the impossible is possible. Are you one of those people? Are you ready?

Let’s go.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This letter was jointly authored by Kevin Wright, Executive Director of the WHRF, and Christina D. Brown, who serves as the organization’s president. Wright was a reporter for UrbanCincy in 2010, prior to taking on his leadership role in Walnut Hills.

GUEST COMMENTARY: How Personal Finances Factor Into Home-Work Commute

The recent Brookings study looking at “job growth” and “jobs near the average resident” got me thinking again about how my past two home and workplace decisions have affected my personal finances. For those not familiar with the report, it’s mostly negative news:

Between 2000 and 2012, the number of jobs within the typical commute distance for residents in a major metro area fell by 7%. Of the nation’s 96 largest metro areas, in only 29—many in the South and West, including McAllen, Texas, Bakersfield, Calif., Raleigh, N.C., and Baton Rouge, La.—did the number of jobs within a typical commute distance for the average resident increase. Each of these 29 metro areas also experienced net job gains between 2000 and 2012.

As employment suburbanized, the number of jobs near both the typical city and suburban resident fell. Suburban residents saw the number of jobs within a typical commute distance drop by 7 percent, more than twice the decline experienced by the typical city resident (3%). In all, 32.7 million city residents lived in neighborhoods with declining proximity to jobs compared to 59.4 million suburban residents.

As poor and minority residents shifted toward suburbs in the 2000s, their proximity to jobs fell more than for non-poor and white residents. The number of jobs near the typical Hispanic (-17%) and black (-14%) resident in major metro areas declined much more steeply than for white (-6%) residents, a pattern repeated for the typical poor (-17%) versus non-poor (-6%) resident.

Residents of high-poverty and majority-minority neighborhoods experienced particularly pronounced declines in job proximity. Overall, 61% of high-poverty tracts (with poverty rates above 20%) and 55% of majority-minority neighborhoods experienced declines in job proximity between 2000 and 2012. A growing number of these tracts are in suburbs, where nearby jobs for the residents of these neighborhoods dropped at a much faster pace than for the typical suburban resident (17% and 16%, respectively, versus 7%).

For local and regional leaders working to grow their economies in ways that promote opportunity and upward mobility for all residents, these findings underscore the importance of understanding how regional economic and demographic trends intersect at the local level to shape access to employment opportunities, particularly for disadvantaged populations and neighborhoods. And they point to the need for more integrated and collaborative regional strategies around economic development, housing, transportation, and workforce decisions that take job proximity into account.

Now looking at this from a personal finance perspective, I previously lived and worked in Indianapolis where my one-way commute was roughly 16 miles. For this distance, I found over time that it cost me about $5 a day to get to work.

When I moved to Cincinnati for a new job, I first lived in Covington where I paid $1 to ride the Southbank Shuttle in the morning and usually walked home. After moving to Clifton, I still found that my now driving commute of less than 3 miles came to cost around $1 per day.

So the $5 per day Indianapolis commute cost me roughly $100 per month in gas, where the $1 per day Cincinnati commute cost me only $20. Now this may not seem like a huge amount or difference, but to most people, $80 would nearly be a full day’s work. What’s not reflected in this difference is the reduced frequency and cost related to vehicle maintenance, specifically oil and tire changes. With the greatly reduced frequency of need for these two items, the monthly savings I’ve found is closer to the full $100 amount, essentially a pay raise simply for living close to work.

Employees obviously can have little impact on where an employer chooses to locate, but they do still have control over where they live and as long as I am able, 3 miles is the maximum distance I will live from work. This distance is also interesting as I’ve found it to be the maximum distance where taking the bus is a reasonable time-cost choice, a huge benefit during the recent snowy winters, and it is also a distance where my non-work trips to downtown stay at what I think is a reasonable level for places I like to visit.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This guest commentary was authored by Eric Douglas, a native of Grand Rapids, MI who currently lives in Cincinnati’s Clifton neighborhood. Eric is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism and earned a Bachelors of Science from Michigan State University. Since that time he has worked for Planning, Community Development and Public Works departments in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Detroit.

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

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.