PHOTOS: Washington D.C.’s Model Transportation Investments Paying Dividends

Washington D.C. has, perhaps, the nation’s most prosperous and booming urban economy. It is a city that has also become defined by its highly educated, young workforce.

Over the past decade or so, the nation’s capital has also been transforming its transport network in a way to make it more multi-modal and improve mobility.

One of the most striking things upon arriving in Washington D.C. is the sheer number of bike lanes. And not just bike lanes, but protected bike lanes. As many cities have begun noticing in recent years, striped bike lanes next to moving traffic are not enough, and that protected bike lanes that separate cyclists from moving traffic with bollards or on-street parking are far superior.

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As a result, you see many of the newer bike lanes in Washington D.C. receiving this treatment, and many of the older lanes being transitioned over, as possible, to protected facilities. To this end, it should come as no surprise that the city has one of the nation’s highest percentages of people commuting by bike.

In addition to that, Washington D.C. launched North America’s first bikeshare system in 2008 when SmartBike DC opened with 120 bikes at 10 stations. After some initial struggles, a new system called Capital Bikeshare was launched in September 2010 and currently boasts more than 2,500 bikes at more than 300 stations.

This new system extends beyond the District of Columbia into three additional nearby jurisdictions and stands as one of three biggest bikeshare systems in the United States along with New York City’s CitiBike and Chicago’s Divvy.

I used Capital Bikeshare to make an approximate two-mile trip from near the U Street Metro Station to Washington Union Station. The journey was a breeze and preferable, to me at least, to using a taxi or the city’s well-functioning transit system.

Upon arriving at Union Station I met a friend to check out one of Washington D.C.’s other marque transportation projects at this time. The H Street/Benning Road modern streetcar line terminates here and extends approximately 2.4 miles to the east, and is part of a larger 37-mile streetcar network that will include five lines in total.

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The $137 million starter line is in the final stages of construction, with train vehicles and their drivers currently being tested and trained along its route. Project officials expect it to open to riders in early 2015.

Walking the route was not all that pleasant thanks to the hot temperatures and only brief areas of shade along the busy street, which serves a bevy of transit operations including Megabus, Greyhound and Bolt intercity buses, articulated city buses and now the streetcar. Fortunately a mid-afternoon stop at a local Mexican eatery, with plenty of guacamole to go around, made the overheated outing more tolerable.

While H Street is a largely a hit-or-miss commercial corridor, its immediately surrounding residential streets are expectedly charming and offer a good foundation from which to build. Some development has already begun to spring up along the line, including a slew of residential projects and a 41,000-square-foot grocery store. There are also signs of renewed interest in many existing buildings that have new restaurants and shops opening up within them.

Of course not everything that is happening in Washington D.C. is related to infrastructure or transportation enhancements. There is, overall, just an extraordinary amount of new construction taking place and a far-reaching sense of vitality. One cannot help but think that there is at least some connection between these policy decisions and investments, and vibrancy on the ground.

EDITORIAL NOTE: All 39 photos were taken by Randy Simes for UrbanCincy between Wednesday, September 3 and Friday, September 5.

Dive Into the Topic of Tiny Living Spaces This Friday at the Niehoff Urban Studio

Tiny Houses Event FlyerTo most people, tiny homes often are viewed as a novelty. The idea of building a small house or living in an apartment with less than 500 square feet sounds like living in a closet.

However; with the rising cost of housing and the growing desire for people to do more outside their homes, the idea of tiny living is stirring a new conversation. Tiny homes, for example, could be used to address urban revitalization, homelessness or retrofitting existing structures, such as this garage project in Atlanta.

This is why UrbanCincy has partnered with the Niehoff Urban Studio to host Tiny Living as part of Digressions in Art, Architecture and Urban Design. The event, which will take place this Friday, will feature presentations on the subject of tiny homes and an expert discussion panel.

Writing about the event, organizer Ana Gisele Ozaki postulated that tiny homes are “an antithesis of suburbanization and the ‘American Dream’ as we know it, tiny spaces/living fundamentally question consumption of our current system by proposing repurpose of materials, as a clear response to the 2009 housing crisis and many other flaws of our current economic/financial system.”

This event is part of the continuing partnership between the Niehoff Urban Studio and UrbanCincy to examine complex urban issues. Earlier this year UrbanCincy moderated the panel discussion for the Metropolis & Mobility workshop focused on Cincinnati’s Wasson Way Corridor.

The Tiny Living event is free and open to the public, and will run from 5pm to 8pm. The evening will begin with interactive pieces produced by the DPMT7 and ParProjects, and will be followed by a series of short presentations at 6pm to get the discussion started. The panel discussion will begin around 7:30pm.

The Niehoff Urban Studio can be reached via Metro*Plus and the #24, #78 Metro bus lines. The collaborative, public studio is also within one block of a Cincy Red Bike station.

EDITORIAL NOTE: UrbanCincy‘s local area manager, John Yung, will be one of the panelists at this event. John is also a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s Master of Community Planning program.

Ohio River Trail Project Moving Westward from Center City

For those coming from the west side along the Ohio River, Cincinnati’s western riverfront serves as a bit of a welcome mat. However, after losing residents and jobs since mid-20th century, many in the area believe now is the time to rethink this historic area.

While oft-viewed as an industrial stretch, it is a little known fact that Cincinnati’s western riverfront is actually one of the region’s largest green corridors with riverfront parks and wooded hillsides. And just a few feet down from the busy streets and railways, there is a different Cincinnati – one community leaders believe has the potential to serve as a national example of environmental stewardship and urban recreation.

Perhaps the biggest asset this area boasts is the Ohio River with its views and access to unique amenities. The existing amenities offered by the river and surrounding hillsides, combined with potential amenities from a string of riverfront parks, have the ability to create a powerful attraction for new residents and jobs. It is because of this potential that community leaders see so much value in Ohio River Trail West, which is part of the city’s larger Western Riverfront Plan.

The proposed three-segment first phase of Ohio River Trail West. formerly known as the Western Riverwalk, ties together the reconstruction of the Waldvogel Viaduct, ongoing redevelopment in Lower Price Hill, and repurposing of the former Hilltop Concrete property into a park.

URS estimates that the first two segments within the first phase of work will cost approximately $1.3 million and build upon the much larger Ohio River Trail. This particular phase of trail would extend roughly 3.7 miles downriver to the Gilday Recreation Center.

The biggest of these three pieces of the puzzle is the $55 million reconstruction of the Waldvogel Viaduct. As part of the planning and engineering of the new viaduct, there will be improved views and access to the river from Lower Price Hill. Once the viaduct’s construction is complete, more than 16 acres of riverfront property will become accessible at the former Hilltop Concrete site, which had once been planned for a new rail-to-barge shipping facility, and will now become Price’s Landing.

The combination of all these ongoing efforts creates the possibility for a dramatically different future for the long-troubled Lower Price Hill neighborhood.

Olyer School - an architectural treasure and a foundation of the Lower Price Hill community– recently underwent a $21 million dollar renovation; and the reconstruction of the Waldvogel Viaduct will reconnect the neighborhood to the river for the first time in over 60 years.

Meanwhile, the western end of the first phase of Ohio River Trail West is the Gilday Recreation Center, which will support the trail through its current configuration and planned upgrades.

It is estimated that the stretch of properties between the former Hilltop Concrete site and Southside Avenue are controlled by no more than five entities, and project planners have already secured roughly 70% of the right-of-way needed for this first phase of work.

So while ownership and access are typically major hurdles for projects of this variety, proponents are particularly excited that all of the needed right-of-way required for the first phase of work is either controlled already, or is vacant and potentially available for the new trail. Furthermore, each endpoint is owned by the City and will be able to provide both access and parking for future users.

The efforts to make this plan a reality were given a boost by former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory (D) when he delivered his final State of the City Address and made the western riverfront a key component of that speech.

“If you think about the proposed investment here…this could serve as a landmark development for the west side of Cincinnati,” Mallory stated.

The efforts were then given another jolt in April 2014 when current Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (D) allocated $250,000 to the project for ongoing engineering work, and pledged to support the project going forward.

There is currently no timetable for phase one construction activities, but project proponents hope to finalize engineering work and secure construction funding for phase one over the next year or so.

Cincinnati Gentrified at One of Nation’s Fastest Rates Immediately Following Housing Boom

During the housing boom years between 2000 and 2007, many cities saw an influx of new housing and new wealth into their core neighborhoods. It was a trend that was consistent throughout America as wealthier individuals looked to move back into the cities that had been abandoned in prior decades.

This trend was more pronounced in some cities – Atlanta, Washington D.C., Denver, and Seattle – than others. But for the most part, the majority of the cities were gaining wealth relative to their regional average. Following the burst of the housing bubble, however, virtually every city saw this rate of improvement slow down.

According to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, the majority of 59 cities studied now fall between either a one percentile decline or one percentile increase between 2007 and 2010. This is in contrast to the housing boom period which saw cities like Atlanta and Washington D.C. move up 8.7 and 5 percentiles respectively.

“During the housing boom, a number of large cities in the United States experienced redevelopment in their lower-income neighborhoods as higher-income residents moved in, a process known as gentrification,” wrote researcher Daniel Hartley. “Since lending standards have tightened with the onset of the housing bust and the financial crisis, we wondered whether gentrification has continued after the recession in places where it was happening before.”

The results of their research found that only a select handful of regions reasonably continued to see relative wealth growth in their principal cities. The findings also detected one region that bucked the trend and actually increased its gains over the housing boom period.

“Another interesting case is Cincinnati, which barely changed in income ranking from 2000 to 2007 but has increased at a pace similar to Denver or Washington during the 2007 to 2010 period,” the research team noted.

Hints of such activity were realized in December 2013 when UrbanCincy uncovered that census tracts all over the city were experiencing wealth increases.

While the gains in wealth may seem like a positive thing for the city, not everyone is so thrilled about the changes taking place in Cincinnati.

“It seems to me what this information really indicates is how, when people experiencing poverty are systematically removed from a certain area, and housing stock is renovated with the goal of selling to wealthier people, property values increase,” says Jason Haap, an area teacher and prominent advocate for the city’s homeless population. “The fact that Cincinnati has seen gentrified growth during a time of slow economic growth in minority communities further exacerbates the situation.”

One of the tools in order to prevent the displacement Haap mentions from happening is including ‘set asides’ in new developments for affordable housing. The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) has done this a bit in Over-the-Rhine at projects like Mercer Commons and Bremen Lofts, but there is no official city policy or requirement to do so.

What also factors into the relative changes studied by the Federal Reserve Bank is the widespread poverty and low income levels of those living within city limits. Thus, even nominal improvements would show up as a potentially significant increase.

We do know, however, that some housing prices, particularly in the city center where demand is highest, are starting to get out of hand. Most new apartment developments in the Central Business District now feature rents of $2,000 or more per month, and in one recent case, a three bedroom flat on Sixth Street rented for a whopping $4,600 per month.

In such cases it is leaving many now wondering if these prices are not only driving out existing residents but, paradoxically, also preventing many new potential residents from moving in.

“Demand in Cincinnati’s core is insatiable, and supply is only coming online at a trickle,” explained Derek Bauman, an urban development consultant and chairman of Cincinnatians for Progress. “Without urban housing supply, we may miss the coming wave of new residents. At nearly $2 per square-foot rents and $250-$300 a square-foot sales, we may not have Manhattan prices yet, but we’re damn near Brooklyn.”

Second Phase of Newport on the Levee to Come More Than 15 Years After First

Newport on the Levee was the talk of the town in the late 1990s. It was to be one of the most prominent development projects in the urban core for some time, and transform Newport’s riverfront into a place that would attract tourists year-round.

There were also lofty visions that the development of Newport on the Levee would spark a wholesale redevelopment of the Northern Kentucky river city, including virtually every neighboring property and the development of the 1,000-foot-tall Millennium Tower.

These ambitions, however, were never fully realized. Newport on the Levee experienced a number a setbacks and never fully embraced the mixed-use nature that would ensure its success, Millennium Tower was cancelled almost as quickly as it was proposed, and while surrounding development has taken place, it has come at a much slower pace than envisioned.

Earlier this month developers took the next step forward with a plan to build on the long vacant Lot B next to the Purple People Bridge that would aim to address those issues.

According to Capital Investment Group (CIG), the investment would total $80 million and add 238 residential units, 8,000 square feet of street-level retail space, a 150-room hotel and an 800-space parking garage.

Newport city officials and CIG representatives say they intend to start construction in July 2015 and wrap-up a year later.

While this is good news for Newport on the Levee, it is certainly not when or how developers and city officials had originally envisioned the riverfront development taking shape.

In 2000, the plan was for Newport on the Levee to include a mall with a movie theater complex, an aquarium, a state-of-the-art 3-D IMAX theater, and a second phase of development that would begin just two years later and be anchored by a 200-room hotel.

Problems arose almost immediately when the 3-D IMAX shut down just two years after it opened in 2001. The retail portions of the mall also never seemed to live up to expectations, perhaps following in Tower Place Mall’s footsteps and illustrating that enclosed shopping malls tend to not work in urban settings.

As a result, the mall portion of the development has seen a constant cycle of tenants in and out, and more recently the replacement of most retail inside the mall structure by office tenants. Several restaurant operations have even relocated across the river to The Banks development. The former 456-seat IMAX theater has since been filled by the successful Newport Aquarium.

Shortly after the opening of the first phase of work at Newport on the Levee, city officials also pursued the USS Cincinnati submarine in an effort to dock it along the shore of the Ohio River next to Newport on the Levee. Those plans never materialized and now only a portion of the submarine vessel will be returning to the region – at a location in a future phase of Smale Riverfront Park along Cincinnati’s riverfront.

During all of this Newport Aquarium has been a particularly bright spot for the development. It is consistently named one of the nation’s best aquariums and is a constant draw for tourists and locals alike – attracting more than 11 million visitors since it opened 15 years ago.

With the Great Recession now in the past and new competition from The Banks, Newport officials and developers are looking to jump start things once more. The second phase of Newport on the Levee may be more than a decade behind schedule, but it will add a critical component that was sorely missing from the original development.

Full-time residents and a hotel at the site will help drive more business to shops and restaurants operating outside of the typical weekend hours popular for tourists. The revived talk of extending the streetcar system across the river also shows a new sense of collaboration and possibility that did not exist in the lead up to the new millennium.