CNU’s 2018 Transportation Summit: Lessons for Greater Cincinnati

CNU’s 2018 Transportation Summit was September 16-17 in New Orleans. The purpose of the summit was to bring together people focused on the revitalization of urban neighborhoods disrupted by freeways. In attendance were people from Massachusetts, California, Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, Washington DC, and two members from CNU Midwest, Chris Meyer and Brian Boland. There were many takeaways from the summit but three lessons seem applicable to Greater Cincinnati.

The first is that freeways and urban fabric are incompatible. Urban fabric in Greater Cincinnati typically consists of fine-grained parcels, 2-5 story buildings, and a dense street with grid pedestrian-scale streetscapes. Urban fabric is fundamentally sized for people. The 19th century blessed present-day Greater Cincinnati with an abundance of high-quality urban fabric. A minor takeaway from the transportation summit was that other cities would be jealous if they knew what we have.

Freeways are scaled for cars and trucks. They are always interruptions in the urban fabric. They break up the street grid wherever they pass through it and form barriers to people passing. The urban fabric for blocks around a freeway is degraded not only by the dirt, noise, smell, and ugliness but also by the profusion of vehicles they concentrate and deliver into the urban fabric. This is true for greater Cincinnati along the I-75, I-71, and I-471 corridors.

Freeways are a necessary part of the urban economy but they are incompatible with the urban fabric. It was a mistake to run them through central cities. Dwight Eisenhower, the father of the interstate system, certainly thought so.

Multiple people at the summit noted that urban freeways are “monuments to racism.” That’s obviously the case in New Orleans. In Cincinnati, the West End neighborhood is physically gone but the Kenyan Barr photo exhibit, currently showing at the University of Cincinnati, illustrates the neighborhood destroyed by I-75. Ninety-seven percent of the residents were black.

A second lesson from the transportation summit is that urban fabric is valuable. Anyone familiar with CNU understands that. What was new is that urban fabric can be more valuable than the freeways running through it. Implicitly or explicitly, a big part of the argument to remove freeways, be it Denver, Oakland, or Austin, is to free up land for profitable new development.

The same principle applies to Cincinnati. The value of land with urban development on it is greater than the same amount of land with auto-centric development on it. The blocks around freeways are almost always taken up with auto-centric development because of how freeway ramps concentrate vehicles in a geographic space. Cincinnati would reap greater economic, tax, and social benefits if the space around Interstate-75 followed urban development patterns rather than auto-centric development patterns.

The third lesson is that the future of urban development doesn’t have to look like the past. When the first Congress for New Urbanism met in 1991, most new development was going to suburbs and central cities were still losing money and population. That has changed. People are moving back to places where they can live, work, and play, without a car. It’s happening in Cincinnati too.
Recognizing the value of urban fabric and the cost of freeways in the urban fabric allows people to recalculate the costs/benefits of future transportation projects. Two high-profile Cincinnati transportation projects include the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar and the Brent Spence Bridge expansion.

One argument against the streetcar is that it is not “profitable,” so it should be shut down. However, streetcars are compatible with the urban fabric. Most buildings and parcels on the streetcar route have been improved. Streetlife – outdoor dining, social interaction, economic activity – along the streetcar route is as vital as it’s been for decades. The streetcar is a fellow dancer in the sidewalk ballet. It improves the value of adjacent urban fabric, in opposition to freeways that destroy value. A better cost/benefit analysis of the streetcar would include the increased tax value derived from adjacent improved parcels.

The inverse argument occurs with the Brent Spence Bridge project. The primary cost/benefit evaluation looks at congestion. The potential value of restored urban fabric has never been a part of the bridge’s cost/benefit analysis. When they factored the value of urban fabric into the Fort Washington way redesign, they decided to sink the freeway below grade so it could be capped in the future. It’s easy to envision a redesigned bridge project that includes land for new urban fabric, much as the Fort Washington Way project did.

The 2018 CNU transportation summit brought together thought leaders, local activists, transportation professionals, and city designers. A repeated statement at the 2018 summit was that multi-million dollar infrastructure projects should improve the value of places where they are constructed. In Greater Cincinnati, it seems like the value of place is often not considered in the cost-benefit analysis of large transportation projects.

In the past, it was possible to argue that urban fabric had no value, or that its value was equal to auto-centric development. Those arguments can no longer be made in good faith. If Cincinnati is going to capitalize on the wealth of its urban fabric, the value of that fabric must be included when evaluating future transportation projects. If it’s done so accurately, we should be all the wealthier.

This is a guest article by Chris Meyer reporting on the 2018 CNU Transportation Summit. CNU and CNU Midwest are content partners with UrbanCincy.

If you would like to have your thoughts and opinions published on UrbanCincy, simply contact us at editors@urbancincy.com.

EDITORIAL: City Should Move Forward on Liberty Street

Liberty Street was originally built as a typical 30 foot wide city street, but was widened to 70 feet in 1955 to serve as a connector to Interstate 471 and Reading Road. The widening required a significant number of building demolitions and physically severed the neighborhood into two halves. Over the past fifteen years, as the southern half of OTR has redeveloped, the northern half has seen much less investment–and most of this has been in the area around Findlay Market, not along Liberty Street.

It is uncomfortable as a pedestrian to cross Liberty Street, as the walk light changes almost immediately to a countdown timer, and it takes about a half a minute to cross walking at an average speed. The current design, at 7 lanes wide, is optimized for speeding cars and is wholly inappropriate for a dense urban neighborhood like Over-the-Rhine.

Liberty Street is too wide and the City knows it. At an open house event in 2015, the City of Cincinnati first proposed a “road diet” for the street. Over the next several years, they facilitated several community input sessions regarding what came to be called the Liberty Street Safety Improvement Project. Each of these meetings was held at the Woodward Theater for a packed audience of people who live, work, or spend time in Over-the-Rhine. Members of the community spoke about the need to make Liberty Street safer for all people, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders–not just drivers.

DOTE staff took the community input into consideration and ultimately presented their final plan to OTR Community Council on October 23, 2017. The plan called for removing two lanes from the south side of Liberty Street, reducing the crossing distance for pedestrians and discouraging excessive speeding. Additionally, this will free up land for new development along the south side of the street, providing space for new housing, retail, or office space.

As of June this year, the project was set to go out for bid this fall and begin construction in 2019, according to the city’s website.

Unfortunately, in August, the City Administration decided to “pause” the Liberty Street Safety Improvement Project because of concerns about the traffic that will be generated by the new FC Cincinnati stadium in the West End and a sudden concern about how the installation of a new water main would be funded.

The Liberty Street plan, which has been in the works for years, has now been mothballed because of a stadium plan that didn’t exist until a few months ago–publicly, at least. To make matters worse, City Council previously denied the OTR Community Council’s request to be involved in the stadium’s Community Benefits Agreement, saying that OTR would not be impacted by the stadium; but now seems that Over-the-Rhine may be negatively impacted by the cancellation of the Liberty Street Safety Improvement Project.

The City Administration’s concern about traffic is bizarre, as the narrowed Liberty Street would maintain five lanes of traffic during peak traffic times, the same number of travel lanes that exist today. Typically the outer lanes would be used for parking during off-peak periods, but the city could install “no parking” signs on game days. Therefore, the impact on traffic through the neighborhood would be minimal or non-existent.

As for the water infrastructure, that can be solved through a mix of council and departmental leadership. An example of that is a potential solution presented by Councilmember P.G. Sittenfeld to use the money from the sale of the Whex garage to plug the budget gap.

We urge the City Council to keep the city’s promise to the Over-the-Rhine community and pass legislation requiring the City to follow through with the Liberty Street Safety Improvement Project.

EDITORIAL: Parking Requirement Removal Should Be First Step In Broader Reform

Recently, the Cincinnati City Planning Department sent out a notice to property owners in downtown and Over-the-Rhine regarding the implementation of an Urban Parking Overlay District. The city will hold several meetings with the next one being at the City Planning Commission meeting this Friday, July 27th at 9 a.m. If approved, the district would remove the requirement for uses in downtown to provide off-street dedicated parking.

Since 2012 when I first wrote about parking in downtown and Over-the-Rhine the number of off-street parking supplied has increased well over 3,000 parking spaces (38,760 in downtown alone according to DCI). The Banks parking garage alone with over 6,000 spaces is the third largest parking garage in the United States.

We have an abundance of parking in the urban core.

At its core function, the removal of required parking minimums has proven to allow for more creative parking solutions to blossom. As Donald Shoup, parking guru and professor at UCLA found in his book The High Cost of Free Parking, most parking minimums were established as arbitrary standards by planners in the middle of the last century. Many of these requirements are intended to account for the busiest times of the day or year. UrbanCincy interviewed Dr. Shoup in 2014 regarding a variety of local parking issues.

In Nashville for example, the removal of parking minimums helped remove barriers for small-scale developers who could not afford to acquire additional land for a few parking spaces. Instead, agreements with nearby garages helped facilitate automobile storage demands.

Back in 2012 Nashville Planner, Joni Priest told UrbanCincy, “Removing the parking requirements from downtown zoning allows flexibility for site-specific and program-specific solutions. Flexibility is key in urban environments,” said Priest. “As downtown becomes more comfortable for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users, new development will have the flexibility to build less parking.”

Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, the city continues to struggle with developers looking to build new infill or rehabilitate and reactivate the many historic buildings in the urban core.

Even when parking requirements are reduced or eliminated most banks and investors still require parking to be provided or identified for developments to move forward. Removing zoning requirements for parking often allows the developer to build the parking that is really needed and not what is arbitrarily demanded by local zoning controls. This reduces the cost of development and in turn, allows more affordable housing to be provided.

Removing parking minimums also preserves historic structures from being demolished for parking lots and garages. Over-the-Rhine is the largest collection of German Italianate buildings in the country yet it currently has lost over half of its historic structures. If parking minimums are retained, the demolition of our communities historic assets will continue to be encouraged to meet the city’s parking requirements.

There is an abundance of alternative options to traverse to, from and around the urban core. These modes include walking, biking, CincyRedBike, buses, streetcar, uber, lyft, Gest, and Zipcar. In the near future, we’ll likely see Bird scooters and Lime bikes introduced. In the long-term, improved transit and autonomous vehicles will reduce the need to own and store a vehicle. Every one of these trips is one less parking space needed per resident, worker or visitor.

It would be wise for the City to anticipate criticisms from residents of the urban core. Some of whom recently voiced concerns regarding the increasing struggle to find on-street parking spaces. This is a struggle that is common in many dense, historic urban neighborhoods across the country where the expectation is that it is very rare to snag a parking space directly in front of a persons residence or business. However, it is important to consider this in light of a broader parking strategy, one that would balance resident, business and development demands.

There are a few additional strategies for city policymakers can consider in conjunction with approving the Parking Overlay District to remove parking requirements. Most of these are adapted from Dr. Shoup’s recommendations:

1.) Continue to pursue the implementation of the on-street residential parking permit program.

2.) Add on-street 10-30 minute convenience parking at some spaces around Findlay Market.

3.) Consider opportunities for future public underground parking facilities to serve Findlay Market and the rest of Over-the-Rhine north of Liberty Street.

4.) Enable the demand-responsive capabilities for on-street parking meters. This strategy will encourage more meter usage and could be a potential revenue add for the city’s parking meter program.

As part of a broader plan, it makes sense to remove the parking space requirements in the urban core. To quote Shoup, “If Cincinnati uses fair market prices to manage on-street parking – the lowest prices that will leave one or two open spaces on every block at every time of the day – it won’t have to require off-street parking spaces for every land use. If the government regulated any other aspect of our lives as precisely as it regulates the number of off-street parking spaces everywhere, everyone would join the Tea Party.”

Removing parking minimums is a productive first step in the city’s comprehensive strategy to balance the demands of residents, workers, visitors who help make our urban core a vibrant and attractive place. Supporting this policy is a step in support of enhancing housing affordability, historic preservation, environmental sustainability and livability in our urban core.

Banks Concert Venue Still Up in the Air

“The CSO vote has been unanimously taken care of, in case that’s all you were here for,” were city councilman P.G. Sittenfeld’s words of dismissal on Wednesday, June 20th at the city council meeting in regards to the concert venue that is in action to be developed at the Banks. Several people got up to leave after his swift comment, but the questions for city and county leaders were far from being answered.

Music and Event Management Inc., a subsidiary of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, won the vote over the Columbus based PromoWest for who would develop the venue. But we still don’t know which lot the venue will be built in, or if the City will agree to pay for the parking garage pad that will elevate the venue out of the floodplain.

The lots in question are lot 27, a space adjacent to the Paul Brown Stadium which has been a popular location for Bengals fans to tailgate prior to the games, or lot 24, a much larger space across the street just south of Radius at the Banks and General Electric’s Global Operations Center.

The Bengals, which claim to have veto rights over development over three stories in height adjacent to the stadium, are partial to the venue being located at lot 24 claiming the usage of the lot for tailgating before Bengals home games. On average the Bengals play eight games at home per season.

Lot 24, however, has already received a submission from a joint venture formed by Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate Inc., Pennrose Development and Greiwe Development Group for an $85 million mixed-use project.

A mixed-use development would be in better compliance with the Banks Master Plan, which has been the guiding planning document for the entire development since 2000. The plan identified that lot for mixed-use residential development. Additionally, county leaders have valued property at The Banks at $4 million an acre, so building on a more compact location would leave room available for future developers.

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune has commented on the matter, emphasizing that the Bengals do not have veto rights, but the possibility is open for the development to go somewhere besides lot 27.

Counter to that statement, City Councilman David Mann said that the Bengals do have veto rights over the property. Mayor John Cranley’s response to Mann was that direct negotiations should be made with the Bengals in order to come to an agreement on the location. Cranley said that he, too, is open to lot 24 being used as a music venue. The site already has the parking garage podium built.

Tom Gabelman, the attorney advising the county on The Banks has mentioned that the symphony’s proposal incorporates developing in Lot 27 adjacent to Paul Brown Stadium and keeping Lot 23 as park space for more than 90 percent of the time when it is not being used for outdoor concert space. Portune has said that the city and the county need to come to a decision about the music venue by the end of June.

Yet to be addressed is the status of the parking garage. Presently, Hamilton County commissioners expect the city to contribute up to $10 million for the garage, with all revenue going towards the county. The theory behind having the city contribute is that they would receive financial benefits from the income taxes of the people who lived and worked there.

Cranley has said that the council needs to re-evaluate the city’s relationship with the county when it comes to the dispersion of the revenue. “With GE, we gave 85 percent of income tax back, so it has not worked out how the city believed,” Cranley stated at a joint City Council and Hamilton County Commission meeting in early June. “I’m not aware we have $10 million sitting around somewhere.”

Will the plans for lot 24 to be primarily residential be ignored in order to comply with the disputed veto power of the Bengals? And if so, what does that mean for the rest of the Banks development?

An 18-acre venue where there otherwise would have been residential housing could steer the Banks away from its original vision as a new downtown neighborhood teaming with residents, office workers and visitors to yet another entertainment district. While already bookended by two stadiums, the challenges are great but not insurmountable. Realizing the original vision adds more vibrancy to downtown and further helps grow the city and county tax base.

Ideally, even if the venue is built where MEMI proposed there will be enough land left at the riverfront to develop a complete neighborhood with a retail scene and community gathering spaces the way it was planned.

Opinion: Could Library Building Be Option for Public Radio Move?

If public libraries never existed in the United States their concept would baffle most people if proposed today: a 100% free and public space where tax dollars purchase and provide books, magazines, music, videos, technology, and other community services at zero cost to the individual. The public library has been a grand achievement in providing access to knowledge and services in this country, and the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County is no exception.

Our local library system is the 3rd largest publicly run library in the country, and the 15th largest when including university library systems. It is also the largest public library run at the county level with Boston and New York running city level systems. For perspective, Hamilton County’s library holdings are 52% larger than Chicago’s and more than double that of Cleveland, Seattle, Miami, and the state of Hawaii’s systems.

Like most public libraries, Hamilton County’s has undergone dramatic changes in services offered in the past decades due to the explosion in digital media and internet resources. While libraries still contain substantial physical holdings, most new resources are digital and require less space.

The Main Library branch in downtown Cincinnati was expanded in the 1990’s with the construction of the North Building, as the South Building was too full to hold new books and physical materials. According to the Public Library Board, the changes experienced by libraries over the past decades have rendered the North Building’s space unnecessary for current usage. Their reports suggest that the South Building could accommodate what the North Building houses today.

In 2016 and early 2017, the Board considered selling the building and underlying land to reduce its footprint and provide funds for branch renovations countywide. The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, better known as 3CDC, had been involved in advising potential futures for the building and the site. Protests followed this news, and the outcry pushed the Board to retain the property while finding new uses for the building.

This keeps the land public, alleviating concerns of those fearing a privatization of public assets in an era of dwindling public resources. To fund branch renovations the Board instead placed a 1-mill tax levy on the May 2018 ballot, which passed 63%-37%.

So what to do with the North Building? Aside from demolition the building, its redevelopment potential is restricted due to the high ceilings and massive floorplates which were necessary to hold the weight of hundreds of thousands of books.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati Public Radio (CPR), the license holder of WVXU, WMUB, and WGUC is looking to move. CPR’s current space in the CET Building and garage at 1223 Central Pkwy behind Music Hall has been rumored to be redeveloped in the near future, due to its proximity to the future FCC Stadium and the deteriorating condition of its public parking garage.

CPR has proposed siting its new facility near city hall, at 9th and Plum, a block that Indianapolis developer Milhaus has expressed interest in constructing apartments on since 2016.

Why fight over one parking lot when there are plenty of other options to pursue?

There is one option that would give CPR a new space and potentially satisfy the repositioning of the Library’s North Building: Move CPR to the North Building.

CPR needs large spaces for their studios and equipment, as well as office space. While they may not entirely fill the North Building, they could anchor a new era in the life of this critical public space in the region’s core. Ideas for the remaining space could include a museum on public radio and public libraries which could accompany CPR, as well as other public uses. There could be a news ticker that wraps around the building fronting on Vine and 9th Streets, giving updates to downtown residents, workers, and visitors.

As UrbanCincy previously explored, this area of downtown can be a reactivated with more residential housing. More residents help drive the vibrancy of the core and will help activate retail storefronts already in the area. Despite having city departments, Pure Romance, and other office users, retail activation still lags in this part of the neighborhood that has seen generations of demolition for parking.

A move to the North Building for CPR could potentially reactivate 9th street, be close the Cincinnati Streetcar and keep the space public. Likewise, continued residential development in the northwest quadrant of downtown will strengthen and reconnect that area of downtown to Over-the-Rhine and the new FC Cincinnati Stadium. Seems like this could be a win-win for everyone.