GUEST EDITORIAL: Those “streetcar” rails going down on Elm Street are actually light rail tracks

A couple of years ago, an engineer designing our streetcar mentioned Cincinnati wouldn’t be installing the type of streetcar rail used in Seattle and Portland because that Austrian-made product doesn’t comply with “Buy America” requirements. He said not to worry, that the type of rail Cincinnati would be using would open up more possibilities for the future. I never thought much more about it …

… until a couple of weeks ago when I studied the end-profile of the rail they’re installing on Elm Street right now. I could see it wasn’t the streetcar rail I’m used to seeing in the Pacific Northwest. It was common “T” rail used on all kinds of rail systems across the country. So I called my engineer friend and others associated with the project, and sure enough, Cincinnati is building tracks through Over-the-Rhine today that can someday host light rail trains.

There is a similar story in Tacoma, which wants light rail to Seattle someday. Tacoma built its “streetcar tracks” to light rail specs and is now running streetcars similar to ours until the time is ripe for light rail. You can look it up: Google “Tacoma Link Light Rail”. You’ll see pictures of streetcars, not full-on light rail trains.

What Cincinnati is building on Elm Street today could easily become the light rail spine through the heart of the region, slicing diagonally across the downtown basin with seven Fortune 500 corporations, two-thirds of our region’s cultural institutions and thousands of potential new homes within a few blocks of the line.

Prowling around the web site of our streetcar-manufacturer, CAF, I found this. This is the Cincinnati Streetcar, which CAF calls a light rail vehicle (LRV). Cincinnati is buying five of these three-section Urbos vehicles shown here, but CAF makes five- and seven-section Urbos too. Even nine-section ones if you need to move enough passengers to fill a 747.

I asked around some more, and it turns out the engineers have also designed the radii of the curved track to accommodate longer trains. In order to run light rail on our streetcar line someday, we’d have to boost electrical power, change the signal wiring, and lengthen the platforms where the trains would stop. But those are small potatoes in the big picture.

You’ve heard it before, many times: “The streetcar doesn’t go anywhere,” or “I’m not crazy about the streetcar, what I really want is light rail.”

Cincinnati Light Rail Tracks on Elm Street
After new light rail tracks were installed in front of Music Hall, refurbished cobblestones were restored along Elm Street. Photograph by Travis Estell for UrbanCincy.

It doesn’t have to be this way forever. Using the Cincinnati Streetcar tracks now under construction, we could have light rail in the I-75 Corridor sooner rather than later. Cincinnatians who believe that rail is “just about downtown” need to look at this from 30,000 feet.

Here’s why. Our streetcars will travel north along Elm until they pass Findlay Market where they will turn east to head up the hill to UC. Longer, faster light rail trains can follow the same path on Elm, but turn west north of Findlay, head over to Central Parkway and then to I-75 where a rail corridor extending throughout Hamilton County is being preserved as part of the highway work now underway. That was a requirement of the I-75 Corridor Study, which found that a newly widened I-75 would attract many more cars and trucks by induced demand and that only the construction of light rail in the corridor would keep future freeway congestion in check.

The I-75 light rail might not always run alongside the highway; it probably can’t in some places. And anyway, the rail line probably wants to leave the highway here and there in order to penetrate neighborhoods and business districts where people live and work.

So our new mayor and city council can choose to cancel the Cincinnati Streetcar at great financial and reputational costs to our city. Or they can move forward and complete the project, allow Cincinnatians to become accustomed to using rail transit, and — when we’re ready to resume the community conversation on regional light rail — have the keystone building block in place. This is an important frame for the decision our city is about to make.

It’s a big decision, a defining moment for Greater Cincinnati. If we turn away from the expanded transportation choices in front of us now, we probably won’t have this chance again for a long time.

John Schneider is a local businessman who has long been an advocate for rail transit. In 2002 he helped lead the MetroMoves campaign and was instrumental in both Issue 9 and Issue 48 victories. He has personally led hundreds of Cincinnatians on tour of Portland’s streetcar and light rail system, and the development it has caused. Schneider is also the chairman of the Alliance for Regional Transit and sits on Cincinnati’s Planning Commission. If you would like to submit a guest editorial to UrbanCincy you can do so by contacting our editorial team at editors@urbancincy.com.

GUEST EDITORIAL: Get Over It, Then Get Ready

Don MooneyStreetcar supporters. Vine Street Taco- Noshers. Urbanistas. Roxanne and Quinlivan dead-enders. I feel your pain. We just had our butts kicked in city elections where only 29% of the electorate bothered to show up.

If you own property or a business in OTR you may be calling a realtor. Maybe you’re checking to see if it’s too late to cancel the granite countertops for that flashy new Main Street kitchen. Or just banging your head against the wall while trolling through Kayak.com for a one-way ticket to Portland.

Before you bail out, listen to a grizzled, cynical political warrior who has been on the losing side of plenty of elections, and won a few too, over 40 years on these mildly mean streets.

First, the election is over. Your team lost. Did you vote last year for 4 year terms? Oops. Get over it. Licking wounds for more than 48 hours is unsanitary.

Give some grudging credit to John Cranley and his handlers. He put together an unlikely coalition: Tea Partiers who just hate the messy melting pots of cities; (some) African American voters led to resent the idea of white urban professionals insisting on rides cushier than smelly Metro buses; and more than a few west siders convinced that “gentrification” in your neighborhood means more “undesirables” in theirs. (See Pete Witte’s twitter feed if you think I’m making that up.)

Mr. Cranley is hardly the first candidate to win an election by whipping up resentment in the “neighborhoods” about spending on development “downtown”. He won’t be the last. Many politicians have built entire political careers in this town on being against stuff.

The mayor-elect could care less if you call him “Can’t Do Cranley”. At 39, he sees this as a launching pad to greener pastures, even if he leaves shoe prints on your backs to prove he keeps his promises.

Advocates of the streetcar – and I’ve been one of them – have allowed their pet project to be painted by COAST and Chris Smitherman as a wasteful contraption designed for Chablis sipping metrosexuals, who think they are too good for the bus or the family mini-van. Can’t these precious young professionals read their iPads on the number 24, or get stuck behind a truck on the viaduct like the rest of us? Don’t take it personally. It’s just politics.

We have not sold the incredible progress downtown and in OTR, despite the great recession, as a model for other neighborhoods with their own aspirations for cool restaurants, modern transportation and rising property values. So in Price Hill and Mt. Washington, your rising neighborhood is seen as a threat to theirs, not as a sign of good things to come to our city.

Those of you with skills and no kids to tie you down can’t be blamed for bailing out now. With Cranley in the Mayor’s office and a hostile Council majority, the streetcar is on life support, and the air soon may start coming out of the downtown/OTR balloon. No doubt there are bright folks at 3CDC, dunnhumby and all those hip new branding firms with OTR addresses already tuning up their resumes.

We are now in an age when public investment will comes in the form of hiring the 200 more cops Mr. Cranley has promised, to protect us from ourselves.

But if you choose to stick around and fight another day, think a little more strategically:

Get to know the neighborhoods and convince them that what is good for the central city is not a threat to Westwood or Oakley. There is life on the other side of I-75 and Mt. Adams. Explore. Collaborate. Cross-Pollinate a little. Try the burgers at Zips and Camp Washington Chili.

Create a vision for a modern transportation system that does not begin and end in downtown and OTR; then sell it. Gas prices aren’t going down. Work with the Uptown institutions to develop a funding model that does not rely on council to come up with more cash. Develop a long-term vision that includes connections to Price Hill, Northside, Avondale and Walnut Hills.

Dig in for a long, hard but constructive fight with the new mayor and right-leaning majority on City Council. Give some credit to COAST and Smitherman for their relentless opposition to the outgoing regime. Now they hold sway with a mayor and council that owe them big time.

Progressives may need their own version of COAST to litigate, referendize and challenge the mayor and council. Look for wiffs of scandal and corruption to expose. And remind the city of their promises: restore 200 cops, fix the pension system, neighborhood development and no new taxes. No problem.

Recruit and bolster the next generation of city leadership. Low turnout says more about the candidates than the voters. Don’t expect voters to show up when the candidates don’t persuade them they have something at stake.

The absence of an African American candidate in the mayor’s election explains a lot about turnout in 2013. For eight years you were fortunate to have an African American mayor who “got” your aspirations. Find the next one: Yvette Simpson? Eric Kearney? Rob Richardson? Work with them or others and prepare them for 2017. You can’t beat somebody with nobody.

Remember that politics is cyclical. The faction that will take over at City Hall come December are political heirs to the crew that ran the city from 1997-2005; and before that in the 1980’s. They had their ups and their downs. But no cycle lasts forever. Be ready and rested when the next wind of change blows.

Don Mooney is a local attorney and longtime Cincinnati political activist. He served for more than 20 years on the Cincinnati Planning Commission and is a former Treasurer of Cincinnatians for Progress. If you would like to submit a guest editorial to UrbanCincy you can do so by contacting our editorial team at editors@urbancincy.com.

GUEST EDITORIAL: Absence of Language Programs Will Be Felt Across Cincinnati

On November 5, constituents in the Oak Hills Local School District will make a very significant choice: To pass or kill an emergency levy (Issue 20). This decision will impact the well-being of not only the school, but of the future of Cincinnati’s economy.

I make this claim due to the threat to the district’s German program. The Lakota School district has already quietly killed their language program, and now Oak Hills’ is under fire.

Oak Hills’ German program is the second largest in the region and strong in college placement. Students routinely advance to 200-level courses upon entering college and shine amongst other German programs in the city, achieving first place three years running at UC’s German Day language competition. Should Issue 20 fail, Oak Hills will remove German from Delhi and Rapid Run Middle Schools and one of the three remaining German instructors at Oak Hills High School.

Oak Hills High School
Oak Hills High School is one of the largest in Ohio, but the district’s German language program, the second largest in the region, may be at risk. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Why does German matter? As you probably know, Cincinnati has a strong German heritage. What you may not know is that Germany’s influence remains not only in our last names, our festivals, and the foods we eat, but is strongly represented in our business sector with over 100 German-owned companies in Cincinnati.

This translates to local jobs in industries like engineering, banking, chemistry, and medicine. Many of our leading local businesses, including P&G and General Electric, have global offices in German-speaking regions because they are some of the strongest centers of innovation and economic power in Europe.

By removing German from our middle schools and high schools, we deprive our future business leaders of exposure to a key foreign language when they are developmentally most inclined to learn a second language. We deprive them of the ability to navigate through cultural differences when dealing with their future colleagues. We deprive our city of the ability to maintain ties to the strongest economies in the European market, losing our ability to compete in regional and global market places.

Programs like Oak Hills’ are being cut all over the city. Remember that curricula are determined at the local level by voters like you. Whether you live in the Oak Hills School District or not, consider the significant impact of your vote when going to the ballots on November 5. Support your local language programs to provide our middle and high school students the tools they need to succeed and to foster the growth of Cincinnati.

Issue 20 by the Numbers:
Oak Hills School District has the third lowest total costs per pupil and administrative rates in Hamilton County at $9,166. This is $1,341 lower than the state average and $2,367 lower than the Hamilton County average.

It is the first time in 16 years that the school district has requested that voters decide on an increase in revenue for operations.

This $4.82 million operating levy translates into a $168.72 per year increase to homeowners on $100,000 of assessed property valuation.

Lisa Bambach is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning where she studied graphic design. She currently works as the Marketing and Creative Director of Cincideutsch, a local German language and culture organization. If you would like to submit a guest editorial of your own, please contact UrbanCincy at editors@urbancincy.com.

GUEST EDITORIAL: Cincinnati Could Learn from LA’s Regional, High Growth Mentality

There is perhaps no more controversial word to utter in Cincinnati than streetcar. The roughly three-mile rail project connects the riverfront to Over-the-Rhine’s Findlay Market, passing several points of interest and centers of employment along the way. The total cost for the streetcar is roughly $100 million, and it is fully funded without taxpayer assistance.

To anyone familiar with transportation projects, this price tag is on the low end of the spectrum, and actually appears to be quite affordable when compared to highway construction and more comprehensive light and heavy rail systems, which both often have project costs well exceeding a billion dollars.

In spite of this, the Cincinnati Streetcar project has been met with a very vocal public opposition from day one. The project has faced and defeated two ballot initiatives aimed at stopping the project completely, has adapted to a smaller route after having more than $50 million in state funding revoked, and has generally persevered through every challenge the opposition has created.

The question I want to answer is not whether the streetcar is a good idea; nor do I want to speculate on the future success or failure of the project. What is far more compelling of an idea to explore is the root causes of the unrelenting opposition to what is actually a modest and simple transportation and economic development project.

Perhaps no better city serves as a juxtaposition to the Cincinnati experience than Los Angeles. Having lived, worked, and studied urban planning in LA for the past 4.5 years; I was able to witness firsthand the differences from Cincinnati in the attitudes towards transit, and more generally, the city itself.

532472_608157281591_764452968_nPassengers board the Blue Line LRT in Los Angeles. Photo provided by John Yung for UrbanCincy.

In 2008, over 67% of Los Angeles County residents approved Measure R, a 30-year half-cent sales tax increase to support transportation projects. As a result of the passage of Measure R, LA is now in the process of building:

  • The so called “subway to the sea” connecting Downtown LA to Santa Monica;
  • An extension of the Green Line light rail line to connect to Los Angeles International Airport;
  • An extension of the Gold Line light rail line to serve the far eastern suburbs; and
  • Phase two of the Expo light rail line connecting Culver City with Santa Monica (phase one connected Downtown LA with Culver City, and opened in 2012).

Additionally, a downtown streetcar project (sound familiar?) was proposed a few years ago, and in late 2012, nearly 73% of downtown residents voted to create a special, localized tax district to partially fund the project.

In 2013, Los Angeles has transformed from a city known for its sprawl and obsession with freeways and cars, to a city with multiple rail lines under construction simultaneously and a regional population that has twice voted in a super-majority to increase their tax burden to fund transit. Instead of simply chalking up the different experiences in Cincinnati and LA as being the result of differing demographics, I think that there are two main underlying differences between the cities that help explain the reactions to transit.

High Growth vs. Low Growth
While the City of Cincinnati has been hemorrhaging population since the 1970s, the metropolitan area has seen slow and steady population growth. Although slow growth is better than regional decline, a la Cleveland and Pittsburgh, the growth rate of the Cincinnati region pales in comparison to growth experienced in the Southern and Western parts of the country that constitute the Sunbelt.

Conversely, the Los Angeles story has been one of explosive growth at both the city and regional level since the 1940s. The slow growth of Cincinnati creates a situation where municipalities in the region compete with each other not just for jobs, but also residents, potential customers for businesses, and resources. The insecurities of slow growth repeatedly surface in the opposition to the streetcar. “Why not spend $100 million in my neighborhood?”

The streetcar represents an investment in part of the city that will almost assuredly give it an advantage over other parts of the metro area. As such, it is seen as a threat to the population and employment bases to many communities in the region. In Los Angeles, however, while there is still competition among municipalities, the situation is not a zero sum game, and therefore does not elicit the same threatened response that we see in Cincinnati.

Regionalism
The second of the two underlying factors that help explain the difference in attitudes toward transit in Cincinnati and Los Angeles is regionalism. Los Angeles is often described as the prototypical polycentric city. Rather than one core, Southern California is dotted with hubs of commerce, retail, and population. The city of Los Angeles itself has multiple clusters, and there are several other cities in the region such as Pasadena, Glendale, Santa Monica, Long Beach, and Anaheim that serve as nodes on the regional map.

A result of this polycentricity is interdependence among different parts of the region. Someone who lives in Burbank might work in Downtown Los Angeles, shop in Pasadena, go to the beach in Santa Monica, and take their kids to Disneyland in Anaheim. When you think regionally, it is easier to view the improvements of one community as indirectly benefitting yourself.

As most regions in 2013, Cincinnati is also increasingly polycentric. However, there is a strong monocentric legacy in Cincinnati; where downtown was the undeniable heart and hub of the region. Neighborhoods take pride in their unique identities, and often times regionalism is viewed skeptically, as embracing it necessitates a departure away from the hyper-localism that Cincinnati prides itself on. With this type of perspective, it is harder for individuals to see how a transit improvement elsewhere in the region would benefit them.

The monocentric legacy of Cincinnati also has led many people to feel attached to downtown in a way that does not exist in Los Angeles. Much of the streetcar opposition is from people who live outside of the City of Cincinnati, from people who feel that, despite living far away from the project, they still have a right to comment on it because downtown is perceived as being almost a public good for the region to consume.

In Los Angeles, opposition to transit projects seems to come from groups that have a specific issue that they object to. For example, the Expo Line came under attack by environmental groups when Metro announced that a sizeable number of trees had to be removed for construction of the line. An environmental group having a problem with trees being cut down is a logical complaint that is able to be placated relatively easily. In Cincinnati, stopping the city from progressing seems to be an interest group in itself, with broad support from a variety of different populations. This type of opposition is what stymies Cincinnati, and keeps the region in relative stagnation.

There are deep, underlying issues that contribute to these attitudes- far more than I could cover in this post, but I believe that low growth and lack of regional thinking are the two underlying issues at the root of much of the opposition to the Cincinnati Streetcar. Los Angeles, for much of its existence, was the poster child for sprawl, automobile dependence, air pollution, and many other associations that are incongruent with a pro-transit city. Somewhere in the past 20 or so years, LA made a switch.

Perhaps it was a re-exposure to rail transit following the construction of the Red Line subway in 1993, LA’s first rail line since the removal of the extensive streetcar network that covered the city. Or maybe Angelenos finally got fed up with the infamous traffic that has snarled Southern California for decades. Whatever the tipping point was, Los Angeles has positioned itself as a leader of transit in the 21st century. The high growth Los Angeles region is transforming before our eyes. It’s time for Cincinnati to take a look.

This guest editorial was authored by Patrick Whalen – a Cincinnati native who currently lives in the city’s Mt. Adams neighborhood. Patrick is a member of the Urban Land Institute’s Mission Advancement Committee, and graduated from the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy. He now works for Urban Fast Forward – an urban real estate and planning firm based in Cincinnati. If you would like to have your thoughts published on UrbanCincy you can do so by submitting your guest editorial to urbancincy@gmail.com.

Greg Landsman: Riding the Cincinnati Streetcar to Success

Downtown to Uptown Cincinnati Streetcar RouteWhether you were for or against the streetcar, here are the facts: contracts have been signed, millions spent, and construction is fully underway. The proverbial train has left the station. Now it is up to both public and private sector leaders to ensure that this new transportation system and driver of economic development is a success.

Like so many, I had been frustrated with the way in which this project had been managed. But with a new and serious project manager in place, my own pragmatism, and firm desire to see Cincinnati succeed mean that I and others get fully on board – and help lead.

To achieve success, the following must happen:

  1. We need a credible operating plan, and it needs private sector support. Taxpayers should not have to pay the full cost to run the streetcar, and with the right deal makers and plan, meaningful partnerships can get done.
  2. The streetcar has to go to Uptown (the Clifton and University of Cincinnati area). So, let’s make it happen. Businesses, property owners, and our institutional partners in Uptown could very well work with the City to ensure the Uptown Connector (Phase 1B) not only happens, but happens as soon as possible.

If elected in November, I pledge to focus on getting the streetcar up the hill to Uptown, not to mention a credible, privately-supported operating plan in place. In fact, I believe we should have a framework for both plans within months, not years.

The work will not end here, of course, and our entire transportation system needs updated. The streetcar should be a catalyst for transforming our transportation system, one that better connects people to jobs and where they want to go – and does so faster.

Cincinnati is on the verge of a major comeback, but long-term growth is not inevitable. Our momentum is real but fragile, and the decisions we make now will determine whether or not Cincinnati is a great city again. Getting the streetcar right, and to Uptown, will be critical. Failure is not an option.

Greg Landsman is a Democratic candidate for Cincinnati City Council. He is currently the executive director for the Strive Partnership, a non-profit dedicated to improving public education, and previously served in the Ted Strickland (D) administration. If you would like to have your thoughts published on UrbanCincy you can do so by submitting your guest editorial to urbancincy@gmail.com.

Private Investment Continues to Flow Uptown to Corryville and Short Vine

The Short Vine Business District is starting to show signs of a revitalization that has been a long time coming.

Uptown generally is seeing a wave of real estate investment and concurrent transportation investment. City and State officials are working to put the final pieces of  funding together for a new $70 million MLK Interchange that may also include upgrades to the Taft/McMillan interchange. Current estimates foresee project completion sometime around 2016.

Further helping accellerate the reinvestment uptown is the growing number of high-wage jobs in the area. Corryville’s neighborhood business district, for example, is surrounded by the University of Cincinnati, six major hospitals, and is within one mile of two interstates.

Short Vine Master Plan_2007 Update
Short Vine’s master plan was updated in 2007 through a partnership between the City of Cincinnati and Uptown Consortium. While much of the plan has not been adhered to, significant change is taking place along Short Vine and its surrounding streets.

The last few years saw the introduction of a handful new businesses, such as Island Fridays, Dive Bar, and Zipscene, a startup company. Recent openings include Mio’s Pizza, a third Beelistic Tattoo location, Caribe Carryout and new eateries Hang Over Easy, Smoke, and Taste of Belgium will open in the near future.

The rehabilitation of these structures capitalized on the historic charms found therein; Smoke and Hang Over Easy used reclaimed doors, chalkboards and windows from the recently demolished Schiel School. The edgy interior designs employed by all of these businesses show a remarkable congruence to the unique character that has always been represented on Short Vine.

Bogart’s, the 36-year old concert venue and an anchor establishment in the business district, just underwent renovations upwards of $100,000 as it seeks to attract more national performers.

The Old Schiel School, which closed in 2010, was torn down and is being redeveloped into a $20 million structure that will include 106 apartments and street-level commercial space. The previous owner of the site, Fifth Third Bank, has already signed on as a tenant for one of the street-level retail spaces. As noted, Taste of Belgium will also grow their footprint and open their first uptown location at the site.

The project with the most potential to be truly transformative, however, might be the redevelopment of University Plaza.

Vine Street Flats
One of Short Vine’s newest buildings, Vine Street Flats, sits immediately next to one of the business district’s long-time structures. Photograph by Luca Acito for UrbanCincy.

Although there were original hopes of reconnecting Vine Street with Short Vine, the plaza site will not change but the current structure will be demolished. Kroger and Walgreens are the only current tenants expected to remain.

The Uptown Consortium thus far has served as an effective catalyst for business attraction, retention and investment in the area.

The community development corporation was awarded $40 million in tax credits in 2012, with 90% of the funds going towards the redevelopment of University Plaza and the former Schiel School site.

Additionally, last month Cincinnati City Council approved the Uptown Consortium’s application for a Community Entertainment District (CED) to cover 77 acres and 150 properties on Short Vine, thus allowing the distribution of 15 new liquor licenses within the CED.

New streetscaping will include buried utilities, wider café-style sidewalks, street narrowing, new street trees and reconfigured parallel parking are all part of the improvements approved by City Council in 2011.

“Within a few years, this area will have been transformed,” asserted John Pedro, co-owner of Dive Bar, Smoke and Hang Over Easy.