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.

Pay-by-Phone Technology Now Available for Cincinnati’s Parking Meters

Smart Meter IdentificationCincinnati city officials announced last week that the more than 4,000 smart parking meters that have been installed throughout the city are now functioning in coordination with a new mobile app payment system.

The announcement fulfills a long-held desire for motorists looking for more convenient ways to pay parking meter fees.

It is expected that such technology will help reduce the amount of tickets that are dolled out since drivers will now be able to refill their meter from anywhere, simply by using their phone. Those without smartphones capable of operating the PassportParking app will also be able to use their phones to reload meters by visiting http://m.ppprk.com, or by calling 513-253-0493.

“This enhancement is part of the City’s ongoing parking modernization plan to improve the quality and efficiency of the City parking system,” officials stated in a prepared release. “In accordance with these efforts parking rates were adjusted earlier this year, and motorists saw the introduction of prepay and extended hours.”

In addition to the convenience for parkers, the new technology also allows for local businesses to register so that they can discount the parking costs for their customers.

While the new technology will make payments easier and more convenient, it does not help motorists locate available on-street parking spaces, or utilize dynamic pricing that would encourage those looking for a parking space to navigate toward a lesser used area.

While dynamic pricing has been mentioned as a future possibility by both Mayor John Cranley (D) and City Manager Harry Black, it has not yet been made clear when that will take place.

“Pay-by-phone parking is representative of what we are doing across our organization. We are using technology to enhance services we offer our residents and visitors,” said City Manager Black. “This technology won’t replace more traditional means of paying to park at a meter, but it gives people a new, convenient option that makes visiting Downtown or business districts across Cincinnati easier.”

The mobile payment app, which charges a 25-cent convenience fee, will only work for on-street parking meters and kiosks – not off-street lots or garages. In order to properly use the system, drivers will be asked to input the zone, along with the meter number, into the application so that the payment can be traced to that particular space, and thus monitored by parking enforcement officers.

All of this comes after the contentious cancellation of the parking lease agreement put into place by Mark Mallory‘s administration in 2013.

Under that agreement, the City would have leased its on-street parking meters, along with a number of garages and lots, to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, which then was to enter into operation agreement with Xerox. In return, the City would have received a large upfront payment, along with guaranteed annual payments.

The new structure maintains more control at City Hall, but it misses on the upfront capital, along with the guaranteed payments.

Instead, the City takes on the risk of meeting revenue projections and keeping operation and maintenance costs within their targets. One thing that remains the same is the presence of Xerox, although their role appears to have been greatly diminished from what it would have been under the Mallory administration deal.

So far the response to the new parking meters and payment functionality has been positive, although some neighborhood business districts, where the meters are arriving for the first time, have experienced some temporary glitches with pricing and hours of operation programmed into the meter.

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.

Car-Sharing Could Reduce Costs, Improve Efficiency of Cincinnati’s Vehicle Fleet

When a brother and sister are fighting over the same toy, a parent quickly steps in and teaches the children to take turns and share.

Now that Over-the-Rhine parking is at a premium, and the residential permit plan has been vetoed, the residents of OTR are going to have to find a way to share parking, or risk losing more of the historic neighborhood to parking lots and garages. Sharing also presents an opportunity when it comes to modernizing the City of Cincinnati’s fleet of 2,149 vehicles.

Mayor John Cranley (D) received unanimous support for this year’s budget, which includes $110 million to make much-needed upgrades to the City’s fleet and roadways over the next six years. While some vehicles, like those for police and fire, cannot be shared, others certainly can; and by implementing a program like Zipcar’s FastFleet program, Cincinnati would benefit from significant savings and operating efficiencies.

In 2012, an internal audit of the Fleet Services Division found that fleet management has been “unwieldy” and mentioned that a knowledgeable and empowered staff is needed to properly manage the system. This has proven difficult over the past decade due to a severe cut in funding for the department in 2003.

“Almost the entire management team left the department near the end of 2007 and was not replaced,” the internal audit noted. “While the staff operates to the best of their abilities, they are undermanned without the resources to correct the inertia of the department.”

The Fleet Services Division operates under the Public Services Department, and controls and maintains 2,149 motorized vehicles for various departments at City Hall. These departments pay $63 an hour for maintenance and repair of the vehicles and are allocated a portion of the capital budget based on their proportion of need with regards to their percentage of obsolete fleet.

In 2011 Fleet Services was allocated $4,301,900 in capital dollars and $5,240,600 was allocated for 2012. These numbers are expected to rise as soon as the approved budget is published on July 1, but more money for new vehicles is only part of the solution. The 2012 audit also recommended reducing the size of the fleet, evaluating underutilized equipment, and examining the cost of leasing sedans and light trucks.

With services like FastFleet, City Hall could optimize its fleet without degrading operations, thus lowering maintenance and administrative costs.

FastFleet works by tracking vehicle usage by employees through GPS monitoring systems. This enables the service to produce real-time data, with recommendations on synergy and optimization. Once this data is analyzed, car assignments can be reorganized to allow for sharing of each vehicle by city employees, ultimately allowing for more efficient usage of vehicles.

In Washington D.C., city officials there were able to benefit from $6 million in savings over a five-year period by eliminating more than 200 administrative vehicles from their fleet. While Cincinnati’s fleet is smaller than the nation’s capital, proportional savings are safe to be assumed.

With City Hall poised to invest millions into its fleet operations, now is the perfect time to look into a solution such as this that could potentially reduce the City’s fleet, while also improving its performance.

A program could even be put in place to allow for public use of the vehicles, akin to the city’s existing Zipcar system, when city employees are not in need of the fleet. The revenue collected from these services could then be used to offset the public’s cost of maintaining the city’s fleet, while also expanding car-sharing services to other neighborhoods outside of the city center.

As it stands now, the City of Cincinnati does not even know what the optimal size is for its vehicle fleet. Tracking the performance of the fleet and analyzing the data will help bring clarity to the matter, and allow for the fleet to perform more efficiently.

Implementing a vehicle sharing program for Cincinnati’s municipal fleet would help save additional taxpayer dollars, improve operations and bolster car-sharing throughout the city.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Chad Schaser contributed to this article.

Stars Aligning for Cincinnati to Chicago High-Speed Rail

4123288130_f7b778d9d5_bLocal and national developments show positive signs for America’s oft-criticized national passenger railroad company, Amtrak. A railroad reform bill introduced in the Senate contains many positive changes for Amtrak and local support continues to grow for increased service on Cincinnati’s tri-weekly train to Indianapolis and Chicago.

The Railroad Reform, Enhancement, and Efficiency Act of 2015 (RREEA, S.1626) was introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) to improve Amtrak service across the nation. The bill addresses several different issues for the railroad, including expansion, funding, and leadership. It also provides an increase in funding levels for the railroad through 2019.

In terms of leadership, the legislation would reorganize the board of directors for the railroad, with two representatives for the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor, two for long-distance routes (the Cardinal), and two for state-supported lines. There would also be one “floating” member.

The RREEA also includes several sections that fuel possible future expansion of the national rail network by establishing a committee to facilitate communication and cooperation between states and Amtrak on state-supported routes. In addition, it would require Amtrak to work with an independent agency to evaluate all routes and review possible elimination of routes, expansion or extension of current routes, or the establishment of new ones.

While calling this clause problematic, the National Association of Railroad Passengers acknowledges that this text includes a “comprehensive framework for analyzing a route that recognize the unique benefits rail service provides.”

Section 301 of the act explicitly requires that the Department of Transportation set up a program to assist the operating costs of launching or restoring passenger rail transportation. The section seems to be a nod towards the amount of routes cut from the system over Amtrak’s 40-plus years of operation.

Additional clauses provide mechanisms for cooperation between states and the federal government, when it comes to addressing the backlog of capital projects within the system, Amtrak’s money-losing food service, and the restoration of service along the Gulf Coast, a line that has been out of commission since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

After the deadly derailment in Philadelphia in May, safety across the network is a major component of this legislation.

Both sponsoring senators touted the bipartisan nature of the bill and Senator Wicker’s office released a statement identifying the national passenger rail system as an “integral part of our overall transportation structure and our economy,” and thanking Senator Booker for his support and help in creating the bill.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation voted on July 13 to include the RREEA Act into the broader transportation bill, the Comprehensive Transportation and Consumer Protection Act of 2015 (S.1732).

In the Cincinnati metropolitan area, support continues to grow for the expansion of rail service in the area, especially to Chicago.

The City of Hamilton recently applied to Amtrak for a stop and has passed a resolution of support for increased service. Nearby in Oxford, home of Miami University, initial approvals have been set to create a station for Amtrak, and efforts are currently underway to identify the exact location for that facility.

The effort has also gained support from the University of Cincinnati Student Senate, when they passed a resolution 31-1 in support of increased rail service to Chicago, citing Chicago as “an important transportation hub for students’ co-op travels, as well as an economic destination for students, staff, and faculty alike.”

According to All Aboard Ohio’s Southwest regional director, Derek Bauman, the UC student government president is also coordinating with other local university student governments to obtain resolutions of support; and in addition to Hamilton, both Norwood, where Amtrak employs local workers, and Wyoming, where the Cardinal line runs through, have also passed resolutions of support for increased passenger rail service.

Hamilton County commissioners also unanimously approved a resolution pursuing a feasibility study.

Going forward, Bauman says that there will be a need for increased cooperation and support from local Metropolitan Planning Organizations along the route. In Columbus, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) has actively supported the implementation of a Columbus-Ft. Wayne-Chicago rail line; and in Northeast Ohio, a consortium of local MPOs have banded together and formed a sub-group to support increased rail service to the region.

From here, leadership at All Aboard Ohio says that they hope the OKI Regional Council of Governments will take a similar approach on behalf of the Cincinnati region.