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.

Community Input Sessions Showcase Plans for $5M Ziegler Park Overhaul

The public will have another opportunity to weigh in on the proposed renovation of Ziegler Park on July 23. This will be the third in a series of meetings focusing on the renovation and potential expansion of the park, which is located at the northwest corner of Thirteenth and Sycamore streets.

The community input session will be held at the Woodward Theater, located at 1404 Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, at 5pm on Thursday.

The 1.4-acre park currently contains a pool, playground area, and shelter with picnic tables. To its east sits Cutter Playground and the former School for the Creative and Performing Arts building, which is being converted into a 142-apartment development called Alumni Lofts. Then, to the north, is a large parking lot, with a basketball court located just across Thirteenth Street to the south.

The latest proposal for the park was presented in late June at the launch of the Citizens for Cincinnati Parks levy campaign. The plan, said to cost $5 million, depicted the current Ziegler Park site renovated into a large, open lawn space, with the removal of the existing pool; and the parking lot to the north being removed and converted to an aquatics and play area.

A parking garage would be built under Cutter Playground, serving both the residents of Alumni Lofts and visitors to the park and surrounding area. Several enhancements along Sycamore Street would make it easier for pedestrians to cross between Ziegler Park and Cutter Playground.

According to the project team, which consists of the Cincinnati Park Board, Cincinnati Recreation Commission, City of Cincinnati, and 3CDC, the latest site plan will “maintain and expand park amenities while meeting the parking demands of the neighborhood.”

After gathering feedback, organizers say they will prepare a preliminary master plan that will be presented at a fourth community input session. From that, the final master plan will then be developed.

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.

What Does Anthem’s Relocation to Oakley Mean for East Walnut Hills?

After having been located in East Walnut Hills along William Howard Taft Road for many years, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield recently announced that they would move to Oakley into a new $13 million, 80,000-square-foot office building at Oakley Station.

Shortly after the announcement, Mayor John Cranley (D) said that the insurer was prepared to move its 400 jobs outside of the city, should the economic incentive deal not have been struck.

“We’ve got to keep these jobs in the city,” Cranley told the Business Courier on June 25. “The infrastructure that we’re building – the public garage – is not going to just support Anthem but the entire Oakley Station development.”

There is a lot of truth to what Mayor Cranley said, considering the City of Cincinnati generates the majority of its revenues from income tax collections. This means the preservation and growth of jobs – particularly high-paying ones like these – is of the utmost importance for leadership at City Hall.

But this move does a lot more than maintain 400 high-paying jobs; it also will open up a key piece of property in one of the city’s up-and-coming neighborhoods.

Walnut Hills is booming so much that it will create a really exciting development pad,” Cranley continued. “I’ve heard people think they can reuse it as office. People say that they want to tear it down and use it for market-rate housing. In concert with the neighborhood, either one of those can make a lot of sense. It will see new life quickly.”

While the loss of that many jobs is rarely welcome news for a neighborhood, leadership at the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation says that they have been prepared for it.

“We have known about Anthem for a few months and have been brainstorming,” Kevin Wright, Executive Director of the WHRF, told UrbanCincy. “We haven’t been involved in anything specific, but there is a great opportunity to do something with this site that further connects the McMillan and Woodburn commercial corridors.”

Wright went on to say that the neighborhood is focused on enhancing the walkability of the area. One such effort to do that is the conversion of surrounding streets from one-way to two-way traffic.

Located on the eastern end of the McMillan business corridor, the Anthem site occupies 6.3 acres of land, with nearly 70% used as surface parking lots. A redevelopment of the site, which is one of the largest of its kind in this part of the city, could free up enough land to develop hundreds of housing units, along with thousands of square feet of commercial space.

“There’s momentum in Walnut Hills, both east and west of Gilbert, as well as in East Walnut Hills,” said Blake Bartley, a commercial real estate agent with Urban Fast Forward who is working on several projects in the neighborhood. “This site could be the catalyst for bridging the gap between development in both neighborhoods. Plus, you don’t often find a redevelopment site of that caliber located so close to the urban core.”

While neighborhood and city leaders see great potential for the site, it is not yet known what will happen to the site when it is sold. The hope is that Anthem, through its subsidiary Community Insurance Co., will do something in coordination with neighborhood leaders to ensure that it is redeveloped in a manner that fits with the community’s vision for it.

Preliminary construction work has already taken place at the sprawling, 74-acre Oakley Station site, and it is expected that Anthem will be able to move into the new office building as early as summer 2016.

Proposed Tax Would Provide Dedicated Parks Funding Stream, $85M in Improvements

A campaign to improve Cincinnati’s parks by raising the City’s property tax by 1 mill will “change the city for the better,” according to Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (D).

Cranley made his remarks during the official launch of the Citizens for Cincinnati Parks levy campaign on Saturday morning at New Prospect Baptist Church in Roselawn.

The charter amendment would raise the City’s property tax rate to 13.1 mills and would bring in approximately $5.3 million a year. The move would require City Council to fund the Parks Department’s capital budget at its 2016 budget level, and approve bonds for capital improvements using levy revenue.

Proponents say that 75% of the levy revenue will be available for the City to borrow against in order to fund 13 designated capital projects selected by the mayor and city manager. The remaining 25% will go to system-wide maintenance and operating costs.

“We’re asking to voters to pass a very small property tax that we believe, for that small amount of money – $35 a year per $100,000 value – will increase property values and increase the quality of life for all Cincinnatians as we take the wonderful park system and we bring it to the neighborhoods,” Cranley said.

The group needs to collect approximately 6,000 signatures by August 15 to make it on to the November 3 ballot. Cincinnati Parks has not placed a levy on the ballot since 1927.

“We have decided that the only fair way to do this, if we’re going to be asking the taxpayers to pay more money, is to ask the citizens first to even let us put it on the ballot,” Cranley said. “At the end of the day, we’re putting this decision in the hands of the voters, and we believe the value proposition is there. We believe that this will build a better city.”

Vision needs funding
Board of Park Commissioners President Otto M. Budig, Jr. said that his organization has been charged with creating the best parks system in the country, but despite generous City funding and donor contributions, it continually finds itself short on money for major initiatives.

“We have had some difficulty in developing major projects that have long been needed,” he said. “I went to the mayor and I said, ‘We need these funds to bring about a new vision. You give us a vision, we’ll take care of the details.’ The mayor has given us the vision.”

While many of the projects are only in the conceptual stage at current time, the Citizens for Cincinnati Parks website says that they were chosen due to being the most shovel-ready, with the ability to be completed quickly.

Multipurpose recreational trails are a major component of the plan, including the Oasis River Trail ($8 million), Wasson Way ($12 million), Mill Creek Greenway Trail ($5 million), and the Ohio River West Trail ($6 million). The City also plans to work with the Cincinnati Off-Road Alliance to develop more than 20 miles of off-road trails in Mount Airy Forest ($11 million).

“The bike system that will be created as a result of this levy, off-road, which is a big thing for me – I think off-road is a much safer, dedicated path that doesn’t have as many accidents – the most extensive, bicycle urban path in America,” Cranley said.

The plan would also raise $10 million for a joint venture between the City, the University of Cincinnati, and Clifton Town Meeting to create a new master plan for Burnet Woods.

“As I often say, Burnet Woods – even more so that Washington Park – could be the Central Park of Cincinnati,” Cranley said. “If you think about Corryville, CUF, Clifton, Avondale…all surround this park. It’s the densest part of the city and it’s right across the street from 30,000 students. We can have the same impact with that park as we did with Washington Park.”

Other projects include:

  • Developing part of the 20-acre New Prospect Baptist Church grounds into a communal programming center, athletic fields, and an urban camp site that would cost $8 million;
  • A public-private partnership with Western & Southern Financial Group that would provide $5 million to renovate and reprogram Lytle Park;
  • $5 million for the redevelopment of a portion of the former Mercy Hospital complex in Westwood into athletic fields and green space for an expanded Oskamp Park;
  • A $5 million redesign of Ziegler Park in Over-the-Rhine/Pendleton, in conjunction with the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC);
  • $4 million for streetscape and roadway improvements surrounding Christ Hospital and improvements to Inwood Park in Mount Auburn;
  • $2 million for the preservation of the historic King Studios site and development of a small café/museum in Evanston;
  • $2 million for upgrades around Westwood Town Hall and Epworth Avenue; and
  • $1.8 million for a new boat dock/marina at Smale Riverfront Park.

“Now we have this new vision,” said Parks Director Willie Carden, who already has overseen the amazing transformations at Smale Riverfront Park and Washington Park, among others. “The vision brings ‘parkonomics’, partnerships to the neighborhoods. We can do this. We can make this a safer, healthier community, but we need your help.”