APA14: Atlanta and Its Evolving Relationship with Urbanism

A few weeks ago I journeyed seven-plus hours by car from Cincinnati to Atlanta for the American Planning Association’s (APA) national conference. The five-day conference was held in the Georgia World Congress Center in the core of Atlanta between downtown and Vine City.

This was my first trip to Atlanta since passing through the city in the early 1990’s.

For an urbanist, the city of Atlanta at first glance is a conundrum. Subway stations that seem to feed park and rides, buildings that barely front the street and streets with no crosswalks where pedestrians play a dangerous game of Frogger just to cross to the other side are all typical occurrences in the city.

However the city is all of these things and more. Atlanta boasts beautiful and funky neighborhoods such as Poncey Highlands, Little Five Points and Castleberry Hill. Beautiful parks such as Inman Park and the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Piedmont Park.

The BeltLine, a multi-modal transportation corridor we reported on last week, has sparked development along its route and spurred pedestrian and bicycle connectivity between many of Atlanta’s intown neighborhoods.

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During the conference I also had a chance to view the Atlanta Streetcar, which could begin operating later this year. Planners in Atlanta have tucked the streetcar’s maintenance facility under a highway viaduct. This is where the streetcars that have already arrived are now being stored.

As you might expect, social divisions by income were evident. I had a chance to explore some of Vine City, which is located just west of where the conference was held and was also home to Martin Luther King Jr. This neighborhood has given way to abandonment and decay. Empty lots, run down houses and discarded vehicles littered the streets.

At the conference, one particular session focused on the redevelopment of Vine City and the adjacent English Avenue. During that session, neighborhood leaders and proponents of the redevelopment plan were questioned vigorously by a representative from a community group that is active in those neighborhoods. The challenges reminded me of the not-so-distant past for Over-the-Rhine and other Cincinnati neighborhoods, such as the West End or Avondale, that are still struggling to rebuild what they have lost over the years.

On the last day of the conference, the APA announced that they had completed a survey which found that both Millennials and Baby Boomers prefer to live in urban settings where there are plenty of transportation options and walkable neighborhoods.

“If there is a single message from this poll, it’s that place matters,” stated APA’s executive director, Paul Farmer, in a prepared release. “Community characteristics like affordability, transportation choices, safe streets, high-speed internet and housing that can accommodate others or enable you to live there as you grow older matter as much as job opportunities.”

It seemed odd that the APA would choose to release this information while hosting a conference in an infamously automobile reliant city; but, while Atlanta is a city that is still overrun by the automobile it is showing signs that communities, residents and activists are coming together to push for neighborhood connectivity and pedestrian improvements.

Even though my initial impression was that the city serves as a dystopian future for urbanism where pedestrians are marginalized in urbanized places, after learning more about the city at the conference, it is encouraging to see that old mentality is changing.

Western & Southern Aiming to Alter Lytle Park Historic District Boundaries

The construction of Interstate 71 spelled the permanent division of several east side neighborhoods in Cincinnati including Evanston and Walnut Hills. But in the early 1960′s, an effort arose from downtown land owners around historic Lytle Park to preserve one of the oldest areas in the city.

Enacted in 1964, the Lytle Park Historic District has protected this area of the city which I-71 now passes under. Now, per city regulations, the city’s oldest historic district is up for renewal. A city staff report to the Cincinnati Planning Commission, however, reveals that several changes may be afoot.

The district has historically been split into two types of regulated areas. Area A properties were those that had to meet the strictest requirements of the historic district’s guidelines; while Area B properties were granted special allowances to accommodate some changes.

Over the last few decades Western & Southern Financial Group has slowly acquired many of the properties that make up the district. Most recently, the company acquired the 105-year-old building the Anna Louise Inn had long called its home.

The proposed district changes would remove some properties from the historic district altogether, and would also eliminate the distinction between properties. Specifically the Woodford Building along Fourth Street, a building along Fifth Street, a parking garage, and several historic buildings along Third and Arch Streets would be removed under the proposal.

In the letter to Planning Commission legal counsel Western & Southern attorney Fran Barrett stated:

“Our client’s desires to be able to provide for keeping its home office headquarters in the area which will ensure the ever-increasing high number of wage earners who add significantly to the city’s tax base, support a number of businesses and commercial activities in the downtown area, and continue to promote a major financial services company in the Central Business District.

There is a concern that an added layer of government reviews could deter positive economic growth at this location. Western & Southern’s track record demonstrates that all concerned should have nothing but the greatest of confidence in any future development undertaken by Western & Southern.”

The removal of these areas from the historic district would essentially clear the way for the financial services giant to demolish and redevelop the properties in a way that would not have to conform to the district’s guidance on new infill development.

Such information only fuels intense speculation that Western & Southern is actively eyeing a location to build a new high-rise office tower to consolidate its headquarters, and possibly even a second high-rise tower accommodating either a hotel or residences.

While the staff report offers no comment on the removal of the buildings from the district, the three buildings along Arch Street are some of the oldest buildings in the city.

The proposed changes will go before Cincinnati Planning Commission on Friday, May 2. The meeting is scheduled to take place at 9am on the seventh floor inside the  J. Martin Griesel Conference Room at Centennial Plaza Two (map).

APA14: Demographic Preferences Shifting in Favor of Walkable, Urban Communities

One of the focuses coming out of the APA 2014 National Planning Conference in Atlanta is how to plan for the Millennials.

According to research conducted by the Pew Institute and Urban Land Institute, Millennials are driving less than previous generations, are more tuned into emerging technologies and demand living and working in, and experiencing urban settings.

“Millennials prefer amenity rich housing choices. These amenities are within walking distance,” presented Howard Ways of the Redevelopment Authority of Prince George’s County in Washington D.C. “They prefer smaller units with open floor plans and are not interested in yard work at all.”

Even though many recent numbers point to what is perceived as a huge desire for Millennials to return to center cities, data says otherwise.

According to Pew, 43% of Millennials prefer to live in the suburbs while 39% prefer to live in the urban core. This data suggests that there is great opportunity for cities and metropolitan regions to embrace urbanism through revitalizing distressed first ring neighborhoods and creating urban places by retrofitting suburbia.

The key component to attracting Millennials, however, seems to be the availability and quality of transportation options. According to those surveyed, 55% of Millennials have a preference to live close to transit.

Ways says that the transformation is not just limited to Millennials, as Baby Boomers are increasingly looking to take advantage of urban amenities.

According to AARP, 50% of seniors now want to live close to a bus stop and 47% want to live within a mile of a grocery store. Additionally, it is increasingly being seen that efforts by Millennials to influence policy such as complete streets, pedestrian enhancements and bicycle infrastructure are also helping Baby Boomers by improving the safety on our roadways.

With Cincinnati now offering more transportation choices, such as the Cincinnati Streetcar, Metro*Plus, Cincy Bike Share and private options such as Zipcar, Uber and Lyft, it seems that the city might be positioned just as well as any other city to appeal to these changing demographics. But what comes next?

With the recent controversy over the in road bicycle infrastructure and the lack of progress on the next phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar, will Cincinnati begin to fall behind in providing the necessary ingredients to continue to attract Millennials to the region?

One example offered at the conference is the success of Washington D.C.’s bike share program. With over 42,000 annual members and 410,000 causal riders, Harriet Tregoning, Director of HUD’s Office of Economic Resiliency, has found that 80% of Capital Bikeshare users bike more and 40% drive less due to the availability the system. For those users, this results in an annual cost savings of $819 over driving.

With the imminent launch of Cincy Bike Share this summer, access to bicycles will increase. However, with the lack of protected bike lanes and proper bicycle lane markings, the system may be negatively impacted.

Cincinnati city leaders should take note of shifting desires of Millennials and Baby Boomers, and continue to move forward with planning and developing new transportation choices such as an expanded streetcar system and more robust bicycle network.

John Yung is currently in Atlanta covering the APA 2014 National Planning Conference for UrbanCincy. You can follow along with additional live reporting on Twitter @UrbanCincy or on Instagram. All conference updates can be tracked by following the #APA14 hashtag.

UrbanCincy, Niehoff Studio to Host Regional Discussion on Wasson Corridor

In May 2013, UrbanCincy partnered with the Niehoff Urban Studio to produce an event that highlighted the final work of engineering and urban planning students studying bus rapid transit and bikeways throughout the region. We then showcased their work and engaged the capacity crowd with a panel discussion between some of the region’s foremost experts on the subjects.

One of the hot topics at that event was the Wasson Corridor, which runs through the heart of Cincinnati’s eastern neighborhoods.

The Future of the Wasson Way Bike Trail and Light Rail Corridor

The corridor has long been in regional transit plans as the location for a light rail line, but recent advocacy efforts have been working to convert the abandoned freight rail right-of-way into a recreational trail for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Following UrbanCincy’s controversial editorial opposing the corridor’s conversion into a bike/ped trail, the conversation has shifted to one focused on creating a multi-modal corridor that accommodates the long-planned light rail and the newly envisioned recreational trail.

The next stage of that dialogue will occur this Thursday back at the Niehoff’s Community Design Center in Corryville.

Over the past semester, interdisciplinary students from the University of Cincinnati have been studying the Wasson Corridor and will be presenting their work at this event.

Following the open house where guests can view the final projects, UrbanCincy will then host a panel discussion with Michael Moore, Director of Cincinnati’s Department of Transportation & Engineering (DOTE); Eric Oberg, Manager of the Midwest Rails to Trails Conservancy; Mel McVay, Senior Planner at Cincinnati DOTE; Nern Ostendorf, Executive Director of Queen City Bike. The discussion will be moderated by UrbanCincy’s Jake Mecklenborg.

The event is free and open to the public. The open house portion of the evening will take place from 5pm to 6pm, and the panel discussion will follow immediately at 6pm and go until about 7:30pm.

Light food and refreshments will be provided and a cash bar will be available during the open house. The Niehoff’s Community Design Center can be accessed directly off of Short Vine at the southeast corner of Daniels and Vine Street.

Mingle with Aaron Renn at This Month’s URBANexchange on 4/10

Aaron Renn in Cincinnati

Aaron Renn in Cincinnati’s historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in 2010. Photograph by Randy Simes for UrbanCincy.

The weather has finally warmed up so we had decided to return the Moerlein Lager House to take in the view of the ever growing Smale Riverfront Park. As to avoid a conflict with a Reds home game, and also accommodate our special guest, this month’s URBANexchange will take place on Thursday, April 10 from 5:30pm to 8:30pm.

Our monthly URBANexchange will come one night after Aaron Renn, author of The Urbanophile, speaks at University of Cincinnati about the region’s sustainability and comparative advantages.

“It’s a great opportunity to share some of my observations on the city,” said Renn who told UrbanCincy he was contacted by the university in the wake of his commentary on Cincinnati’s streetcar debate last November.

“I plan to talk about the unique environments and assets of Cincinnati, the financial unsustainability of sprawl, how Cincinnati’s sprawl isn’t even close to the best anyway, and the barriers to execution in the deep community divisions.”

Renn’s guest lecture will take place at 5pm on Wednesday, April 9 at the Main Street Cinema inside the Tangeman University Center. Like our URBANexchange the following evening, the guest lecture is free and open to the public.

If you cannot make it to Renn’s lecture, or just want to get to spend more informal time chatting with him, you will have that chance at URBANexchange where he will be our special guest this month. The event will be a casual setting where you can meet others interested in what is happening in the city.

We will gather in the biergarten so that each person can choose how much or little they buy in terms of food or drink. Although we do encourage our attendees to generously support our kind hosts at the Moerlein Lager House.

We will be situated in the northwest corner of the biergarten (near the Moer To Go window), but you can also ask the host where the UrbanCincy group is located and they will be happy to assist.

The Moerlein Lager House is located on Cincinnati’s central riverfront and is located just one block from a future streetcar stop. If you choose to bike, there is free and ample bike parking is available near our location in the biergarten outside by the Schmidlapp Event Lawn.