New Parks Levy Plan Appears to Scrap Vision for Westwood Square

Imagine a picturesque park that is easily known as the center of a neighborhood district. A square with lush landscaping, a stage for plays and space for a farmers market. It’s a square that is easily the envy of Hyde Park or Mt. Lookout or Oakley. That was the vision of Westwood Square.

Westwood Square was born out of the month-long city-wide charrette that helped formulate the city’s four form-based code districts. The vision was further refined in the fall of 2012 by community groups Westwood Works, Westwood Civic Association, Westwood Historical Society, Westwood Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation.

As part of the process, citizens, planners and engineers looked at the problems Harrison Avenue had been causing the neighborhood. Serving mostly as a four-lane connector to Cheviot, ideas were floated to design some traffic calming measures for the corridor.

The idea was that Westwood should not be a place for cars to fly through on their way to downtown, but instead a place to be visited and enjoyed.

Through this process, which was championed by then Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (D), the team came up with the idea for a central square. By taking a section of Harrison Avenue at the intersections of Epworth and Urweiler Avenues, the square would be constructed to deliberately force vehicles to slow down and turn to navigate around the public gathering space.

City planners found that they could create an opportunity to form a community green space, slow traffic and make the area safer for people walking and biking by implementing such a change.

After MadCap Puppet Theater moved into the old Cincinnati Bell switching station, they cited the plan as one of their main draws to the area. Theater director John Lewandowski spoke about that plan, and the hopes for the neighborhood last year on The UrbanCincy Podcast.

During the 2013 mayoral campaign, Qualls lost to Mayor John Cranley (D), who spoke against the idea of form-based codes during the campaign, and has continued to challenge them ever since.

The recent parks levy announcement from Mayor Cranley and other city leaders included a notable change to the long-held and developed plans for Westwood Square. The adjustments to Harrison Avenue, and creation of the square, are now gone.

Instead, City Hall is now calling for $2 million to renovate the existing green space adjacent to Westwood Town Hall. The new vision will do nothing to slow the traffic at the intersection and appears to make feint aspirations at building the kind of place originally envisioned by the community in 2012.

Such changes were first hinted at during Mayor Cranley’s campaign, and emphasized during his inaugural State of the City address last September.

While specific details for the new plan have yet to be provided, the end result is now expected to be a major departure from the form-based approach that was first laid out.

City Hall Inching Forward With Overhaul of Cincinnati’s Zoning Code

Zoning. The word evokes a sense of bafflement from many people – often serving as a Rorschach test for those outside the urban planning profession. Even to experts, there are different ways to tackle the term; however, the term simply refers to the method of how municipalities regulate the usage of land and dimensional placement of buildings.

Almost every community has them, with the notable exception of Houston, and most two zoning codes are never the same.

In Cincinnati, the last time the city passed a zoning code was in the 1960’s. At that time shopping malls, office parks and subdivisions were all the rage, and the zoning code reflects it. Many zones called for large yards, two cars per dwelling unit, and large parking lots for commercial strip malls. The code was updated over time, with the last significant overhaul occurring more than a decade ago in 2004.

Since that last update, the city has undergone a renaissance that has focused on urban development in previously long-neglected neighborhoods. The current zoning code does not adequately address that change, nor does it address many emerging trends as they relate to sustainable development, bicycle infrastructure or even tiny homes.

In 2012, the City of Cincinnati undertook an effort to redesign the zoning code around the changing development patterns of the city. The code, which is referred to as the Land Development Code, is still in the early stages of drafting and review. The second draft was released in October 2014 and the Planning Department has been making changes and soliciting input in preparation for releasing the third revision.

“Incorporating public input into any draft revising the zoning code is a top priority, and we are making every effort to receive and incorporate public input prior to any draft being presented to the City Planning Commission or mayor and council,” explained Charles Graves III, Cincinnati’s Planning Director. “They will gather additional public feedback and ultimately have the final say on any changes to the Code.”

After looking through the draft code posted on the City’s website, the biggest difference is the visuals. There are plenty of diagrams and drawings that assist with interpreting the code. Aside from that, here is a breakdown of a few major issues the new Land Development Code could potentially address:

Lot Sizes
Lot sizes generally will remain the same for all residential zones; however, there are some proposed changes to mixed commercial zones and other zones. The Planning Department is considering the concept of tiny houses, something UrbanCincy hosted a forum on in 2014, and is a media partner on with to Bradley Cooper’s effort to construct Tiny Houses in Over-the-Rhine.

“There is the opportunity to write some language in the draft Code that would permit the newer concept of tiny house; however, we are seeking input from the public and developers,” Graves said.

Parking
Parking regulations have been revised after consultants made recommendations to the department, but planning staff decided to delve deeper into the issue as parking regulations can be a complex balance between the needs of developers, the surrounding community and other variables. The department has assembled a parking and zoning working group to study best practices from around the country and analyze what works best for the City to use in the update.

Bicycle Parking
Bicycle parking is already required in new private and city-owned parking garages, but it is not generally required for other development. The current draft code calls for a minimum number of bicycle parking spaces for multi-family residential development, commercial, industrial and public development, but Graves told UrbanCincy that his staff is reviewing and having discussions regarding bicycle parking as part of the working group.

Administrative Changes
One of the Planning Department’s main goals in this effort is to allow for an easier and more streamlined permitting process. A part of this is creating something called minor variances that can be approved by a newly created Zoning Administrator position. Minor variances would not need to go through the entire hearings examiner process, which would reduce the wait time for minor and non-controversial variances by weeks. Other initiatives have been proposed by the City Manager Harry Black, which could occur outside the code which could streamline the processes related to permitting and plan review.

Other things such as incorporating green development and sustainability practices into the code are being evaluated in the “light impact development” chapter; however, these items are still being discussed by the staff and their consultants. Planning staff has indicated that they do not have a set date for the release of the third review draft because it is still a work in progress.

“In order to ensure adequate and thorough input there will be plenty of time given for a third public review period once that point is reached,” Graves said.

Public comment is still welcome for review of the second draft code which is available on the City Planning Department website.

Record Crowd at Niehoff for Burnet Woods

Over one hundred and fifty people gathered at the Niehoff Urban Design Studios in Corryville to see and hear what University of Cincinnati design students had come up with on a reimagining of Burnet Woods. The Woods, which once included the land that is now the University’s west campus, is still one of the largest parks in the Cincinnati Park system and also the central focal point of three Cincinnati neighborhoods.

Both Masters and Bachlors degree students from the School of Planning at DAAP focused on the park as part of a year long planning effort coordinated by the City of Cincinnati and the university to envision a revitalized Burnet Woods.  A recent study conducted by the university polled 2,000 students. One of the biggest findings from the study is that 87% of the students polled do not think the Woods are safe. Another 7% did not know it existed at all.

As part of the event, UrbanCincy moderated a discussion panel with some of the regions’ top experts on park planning and programming. Chris Manning from Human Nature joined Ken Stapleton from Ken Stapleton & Associates and Christy Samad from Center City Development Corportation (3CDC). Panelists discussed ways to make the park appear safer including better lighting, more programming and activities and better gateway connections into the park.

The hour long panel focused on a range of topics regarding Burnet Woods including a student proposal for a green land bridge between the park and the school. The bridge proposal was praised by the panelist for its outside the box approach at incorporating an aspect of the park in a way that overcomes the physical separation caused by the wide and traffic heavy Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Audience members were also encouraged to participate and some voiced concerns about the park being underutilized. One participant asked about residential housing on the periphery as part of the park redevelopment noting that connecting residential to the park would be an opportunity for change.

UrbanCincy media specialist Travis Estell was on hand to take photographs and record the conversation which will appear later this week on The UrbanCincy Podcast.

The open house was a joint event between the Niehoff Urban Design Studio, the Urbanists and UrbanCincy. Stay tuned for our next joint event in the fall!

New Payment Technology Allows Metro, TANK to Partner on Regional Fare Card

Regular commuters who cross the Ohio River, either into Cincinnati or Northern Kentucky, are well aware of bringing the required amount of change to transfer between Metro and TANK buses. Other non-seasoned riders, however, were stuck with navigating a complex combination of transfer fees and payment options.

The region’s two largest transit agencies announced that technology afforded to them in 2011 will support the introduction of a long-anticipated regional fare payment card. Metro unveiled the shared stored-value card earlier this month at The Westin’s Presidential Ballroom during the annual State of Metro address.

Transit officials say that the card works with both TANK and Metro buses, thus eliminating the need for carrying change on either system. The card deducts the correct fare amount for each agency so if a rider boards a Metro bus it will deduct $1.75 for Zone 1 or $1.50 for a TANK bus fare.

“We are trying to make this a more seamless and integrated approach to transit.” Metro spokesperson Sallie Hilvers told UrbanCincy.

While there already is a monthly pass that can be used for both systems, the pass is limited to rides on TANK and Metro buses within Cincinnati city limits. As a result, officials from Metro and TANK believe the new shared stored-value card provides better accessibility and flexibility to people who use both systems on both sides of the river.

Behind the scenes, Metro handles the accounting for the stored-value cards so if the card is used on a TANK bus, the agency reports that usage to Metro, which then reimburses TANK for the fare.

“We’ve seen more people buying day passes and stored value passes since we introduced them.” Hilvers said.

The pass is available for purchase online, and at the 24-hour ticketing kiosks Metro began installing earlier this year. TANK’s Covington Transit Center is not yet selling the new stored-value cards, but transit officials there anticipate it becoming available in the near future.

This kind of collaboration is not what has traditionally defined the relationship between Metro and TANK, but Hilvers said that this has been years in the making and hopes that it will lead to even more collaboration in the future.

According to Hilvers, the next goal is to work with local universities to develop a standard student and faculty card that would cover access to area institutions served by both transit agencies. Currently Metro has separate agreements with the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati State, while TANK has an agreement with Northern Kentucky University.

Such changes would seem to bode well for both Metro and TANK. In 2013, Metro reported surging ridership due to the implementation of new collaborative programs and improved fare payment technology.

While the new technology and services are a step toward a broader overhaul of the way area residents and visitors pay for and use the region’s transit networks, it is still a ways from what is considered industry best practices.

Leadership at the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), which oversees Metro bus and streetcar operations, says that they are working on ways for riders to get real-time arrival information system-wide.

The challenge, they say, is to make sure it is a benefit available to all users. Therefore, transit officials are working to implement real-time arrival information that utilizes smartphone, adaptive website and phone service technologies. Metro representatives are tentatively saying that they are hopeful such services could be in place by spring 2015.

Hamilton County Could Plant Four Trees For Every Assault Rifle Received Through DoD Program

The scenes on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri have caused national outrage not only for the racial tension over the killing of a young black man by the local police, but also due to the overtly militarized response to the rioting. The City of Ferguson did not get their military supplies by accident, instead they utilized a government program that sells local police forces these items at a discounted rate.

Beginning in 1997 the U.S. Department of Defense authorized the 1033 program, which allows local police forces to buy surplus military items. The intent of the program is to  help local law enforcement officials with counter-drug and later counter-terrorism efforts. Over 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies participate in the program, and, to date, over $5 billion worth of items have been distributed to local police departments across the country. This includes, but is not limited to, assault rifles, body armor and armored vehicles.

The folks over at NextCity developed an infographic that illustrates what some of these military items could buy in terms of urban infrastructure. It’s easy to see that some of the more expensive items could translate into huge improvements for local public infrastructure repairs and fixes.

ArmsDealing_final5

Hamilton County has also participated in the program. The available data covers the last ten years and has a few noteworthy items.

The largest find in the database is a 2006 transfer of 158 5.56mm rifles for $499 each. The rifles have a total value of $78,842. Additionally, Hamilton County received night vision equipment totaling at least $5,795.

Adding even more to the Hamilton County Sheriff’s arsenal, 23 7.62mm rifles, at $138 each, were received for a total of $3,174; and 62 more 5.56mm rifles were received in 2010 at $120 each for $7,440.

In total, the database shows that Hamilton County has obtained a total of 243 assault rifles for a value of $82,760; making it the largest transfer on the list.

While the total amount may not seem like a huge impact on municipal budgets,  it is easy to imagine what even this sum of money could be used for if it was spent on more peaceful projects to keep citizens safe, such as creating more bike lanes, fixing potholes, streetlights or installing stop signs.

One such example locally is that the amount of money spent to give Hamilton County assault rifles could have covered the cost to plant more than 200 street trees.

It is important to note, however, that not all the stuff the county is getting is weapons. Hamilton County has also received medical devices and supplies, clothing, furniture, and other non-combat related accessories from the program.