CNU23: Unsure About Expectations, Dallas an Unexpected Delight

I saw my first cowboy hat within my first five steps off of my Frontier Airlines flight into Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

The truth is, I didn’t really know what to expect from Dallas – hell, I’d never even been to Texas. What I found during last week’s visit was a clean, cosmopolitan city filled with music, art, and a personable populace that exceeded my expectations.

Things didn’t get off to the best start. I had to spend a couple of hours at the airport waiting for my girlfriend’s flight to arrive. Leaving Terminal E for the train at Terminal A, the Terminal Link bus felt, indeed, terminal, as it would its way through an unintelligible maze of ramps and roadways.

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We then faced another hour on Dallas Area Rapid Transit‘s (DART) Orange Line to our accommodations, the historic Hotel Lawrence in the West End of Dallas. I would not recommend this hotel unless you’re looking for something cheap and you’re not planning on being there much, because it’s currently under a heavy renovation to rebrand it as a LaQuinta Inn & Suites and won’t be completed until early next year. But it is served by several bus lines, is across the street from Dallas Union Station, and is a short walk from Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum, which is located in the building from which President Kennedy was shot. Oh, and the 561-foot Reunion Tower (1978), where for $16 you can access the GeO-Deck. (I declined.)

(Tip: Buy a 7-day DART pass for $25 and enjoy unlimited rides on all trains and buses!)

I was in town for CNU23, which was being held downtown at the beautiful Hotel Adolphus (1912) on Commerce Street. The first two days were spent getting to know writers from other Streetsblog affiliate sites and brainstorming ways to build better stories, better sites, and a better national network. We also traveled to the adjacent Deep Ellum neighborhood, which, with its restaurants and bars, would be considered the city’s hipster enclave. While there, we heard a presentation on tactical urbanism and took part in a project to build seating out of reclaimed wood pallets for a street festival.

The rest of the conference – which was extremely well-run, by the way – was focused heavily on transportation and designing around transit. Called “Meeting the Demand For Walkable Places”, the conference featured speakers presenting on topics ranging from in-depth to broad, tours of place making initiatives that are working, and meet-ups.

I will say that the architecture in Dallas left me a bit wanting. Many of the downtown buildings are constructed in the modern/brutalist and postmodern styles, indicative of the postwar boom that saw the city grow from a population of under 300,000 in 1940 to an estimated 1.3 million today. But there are pockets of “old” Dallas here and there, and numerous public plazas from which to enjoy them.

(Note: Yes, there is a McDonald’s with a drive-thru in downtown Dallas!)

On the way back to the airport on Friday, I was able to get a good look at some transit-oriented development near the Orange Line’s Victory station (near the American Airlines Center) and the massive planned community of Las Colinas in neighboring Irving.

The airport was no better the next day.

I would definitely recommend Dallas. The people were fantastic, the food was great, and the positive vibe was palpable. It may have just been the great minds that were in town for the conference, but, if it’s even half as nice on a daily basis, I’d still enjoy it. And the “CVB” weather made it all the more enjoyable.

CNU24 will take place June 8-11, 2016 in Detroit. I’ve been to Detroit several times, but not for a few years. Perhaps it will be time to visit again.

EDITORIAL: It’s Time to Consider Moving Major Festivals to Central Riverfront

There has been much rancor over the past week about how or if to operate the streetcar during major events such as Oktoberfest or Taste of Cincinnati. The perceived problem is that the streetcar’s tracks cross the existing location of those major festivals, and would thus pose a conflict.

It is worth taking a look at these festivals and their locations along Fifth Street, along with what other options might exist.

Historical Context
Both festivals got their start in the 1970s, with Oktoberfest tapping its first keg in 1976 and the Taste of Cincinnati kicking off in 1979. While Oktoberfest originally began on Fifth Street, Taste of Cincinnati did not. In fact, it was not until very recently that the Taste of Cincinnati moved to Fifth Street and joined its mega-festival partner.

When Taste of Cincinnati modestly kicked off 36 years ago, it was actually held in Piatt Park. It stayed there for three short years and then moved to Central Parkway, where it remained until 2007 when the renovation of Fountain Square was completed. At that time, it made sense to host both festivals to Fifth Street around the reborn Fountain Square.

When the city’s first modern streetcar line opens next year, it will have been nine years since both festivals were regularly being held on Fifth Street. Following this year’s scheduled events, it will also be time for both festivals to consider moving to even better environs along the central riverfront. Of course, since the streetcar isn’t planned to open for operations until September, that means Taste of Cincinnati could stay where it is without any problems for 2016 as well.

Accessibility
One of the biggest positives and negatives about Fifth Street is its central location and connectivity to Fountain Square – the traditional public gathering point for Cincinnatians. Everyone knows where it is. The problem with it is that it is also all of that for everyday residents, visitors and workers in the bustling central business district; and these events shut down that corridor for days at a time.

With the events typically extending from Race/Vine Street to Sycamore/Broadway Street – a four- to five-block span – they also require a number of cross streets and major transportation hubs like Government Square to shut down. When the streetcar begins its operations, it too will have to alter its operations and only run approximately half of its initial route during the events.

By moving both festivals to the central riverfront they would be able to take advantage of the huge Central Riverfront Garage underneath The Banks, and also be able to take direct advantage of the Riverfront Transit Center, which was custom built for serving massive crowds such as those that attend Oktoberfest and Taste of Cincinnati.

At the same time, Metro bus service and streetcar operations would be able to continue uninterrupted.

Furthermore, unlike Fifth Street, the streets at The Banks do not serve as major access points for the regional highway system, so closing those streets off would not severely disrupt the flow of goods and people in the central business district. Without that restriction, Oktoberfest and Taste of Cincinnati could explore the idea of taking place over additional days, instead of being limited to three-day weekends.

Accommodations
Like Fifth Street, the central riverfront is within close walking distance of the many hotels located in the central business district, but it doesn’t serve as a barrier to them with its tents, debris and staging.

In addition to the hotels, businesses at The Banks would be much better-suited to handle mega events such as these. Buildings and storefronts along and around Fifth Street have been designed in a traditional sense, while those at The Banks have been custom built to accommodate large street crowds and festivals with walk-up windows, fold open walls and the forthcoming open-container law.

In fact, the huge popularity of Oktoberfest has already begun to spread beyond Fifth Street. UberDrome is now set-up in Smale Riverfront Park by the Moerlein Lager House and Paulaner; and the growing number of breweries in Over-the-Rhine are also now hosting special events during the period during and around Oktoberfest. A perfect connection between all of the festivities, as has been suggested by Christian Moerlein’s owner Greg Hardman, is the first leg of the streetcar.

Organization and Set-Up
Fifth Street, unlike the central riverfront, has very little in terms of open areas for special activities. With the $125 million dunnhumby Centre now complete at Fifth and Race, Fifth Street has also lost a large surface parking lot that had served as a staging area for these festivals. Along the central riverfront there are several event lawns that not only offer more flexibility for programming, but also are more comfortable for event-goers than the hardscapes offered along Fifth Street.

Furthermore, while Cincinnatians have grown accustomed to the linear organization of these types of festivals, which may not be the best set-up for them. With the ability to shut down multiple streets at a time without causing problems for traffic flow, The Banks allows for a more district-oriented festival. This would allow people to more easily get from one spot to another, without needing to go back against the grain an entire four blocks to meet friends just arriving.

In addition to all of this, The Banks development and Smale Riverfront Park are only getting bigger. So as they expand over the coming years, so will the possibilities for both of these great festivals that help to define the spirit of Cincinnati and its people.

While the Cincinnati Streetcar may be sparking this conversation, the decision to move Oktoberfest and Taste of Cincinnati to the central riverfront is clear on its own merits and should be seriously considered. Both continue to grow in popularity and set record crowds each year. At some point soon we are going to have to make a decision about how to accommodate these growing crowds.

Let’s allow our companies in the central business district to flourish without interruption, our transit systems to serve huge crowds at full capacity, and two of our greatest cultural festivals the ability to grow and prosper for generations to come. Move Oktoberfest and Taste of Cincinnati off of Fifth Street and to the central riverfront.

GUEST COMMENTARY: How Personal Finances Factor Into Home-Work Commute

The recent Brookings study looking at “job growth” and “jobs near the average resident” got me thinking again about how my past two home and workplace decisions have affected my personal finances. For those not familiar with the report, it’s mostly negative news:

Between 2000 and 2012, the number of jobs within the typical commute distance for residents in a major metro area fell by 7%. Of the nation’s 96 largest metro areas, in only 29—many in the South and West, including McAllen, Texas, Bakersfield, Calif., Raleigh, N.C., and Baton Rouge, La.—did the number of jobs within a typical commute distance for the average resident increase. Each of these 29 metro areas also experienced net job gains between 2000 and 2012.

As employment suburbanized, the number of jobs near both the typical city and suburban resident fell. Suburban residents saw the number of jobs within a typical commute distance drop by 7 percent, more than twice the decline experienced by the typical city resident (3%). In all, 32.7 million city residents lived in neighborhoods with declining proximity to jobs compared to 59.4 million suburban residents.

As poor and minority residents shifted toward suburbs in the 2000s, their proximity to jobs fell more than for non-poor and white residents. The number of jobs near the typical Hispanic (-17%) and black (-14%) resident in major metro areas declined much more steeply than for white (-6%) residents, a pattern repeated for the typical poor (-17%) versus non-poor (-6%) resident.

Residents of high-poverty and majority-minority neighborhoods experienced particularly pronounced declines in job proximity. Overall, 61% of high-poverty tracts (with poverty rates above 20%) and 55% of majority-minority neighborhoods experienced declines in job proximity between 2000 and 2012. A growing number of these tracts are in suburbs, where nearby jobs for the residents of these neighborhoods dropped at a much faster pace than for the typical suburban resident (17% and 16%, respectively, versus 7%).

For local and regional leaders working to grow their economies in ways that promote opportunity and upward mobility for all residents, these findings underscore the importance of understanding how regional economic and demographic trends intersect at the local level to shape access to employment opportunities, particularly for disadvantaged populations and neighborhoods. And they point to the need for more integrated and collaborative regional strategies around economic development, housing, transportation, and workforce decisions that take job proximity into account.

Now looking at this from a personal finance perspective, I previously lived and worked in Indianapolis where my one-way commute was roughly 16 miles. For this distance, I found over time that it cost me about $5 a day to get to work.

When I moved to Cincinnati for a new job, I first lived in Covington where I paid $1 to ride the Southbank Shuttle in the morning and usually walked home. After moving to Clifton, I still found that my now driving commute of less than 3 miles came to cost around $1 per day.

So the $5 per day Indianapolis commute cost me roughly $100 per month in gas, where the $1 per day Cincinnati commute cost me only $20. Now this may not seem like a huge amount or difference, but to most people, $80 would nearly be a full day’s work. What’s not reflected in this difference is the reduced frequency and cost related to vehicle maintenance, specifically oil and tire changes. With the greatly reduced frequency of need for these two items, the monthly savings I’ve found is closer to the full $100 amount, essentially a pay raise simply for living close to work.

Employees obviously can have little impact on where an employer chooses to locate, but they do still have control over where they live and as long as I am able, 3 miles is the maximum distance I will live from work. This distance is also interesting as I’ve found it to be the maximum distance where taking the bus is a reasonable time-cost choice, a huge benefit during the recent snowy winters, and it is also a distance where my non-work trips to downtown stay at what I think is a reasonable level for places I like to visit.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This guest commentary was authored by Eric Douglas, a native of Grand Rapids, MI who currently lives in Cincinnati’s Clifton neighborhood. Eric is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism and earned a Bachelors of Science from Michigan State University. Since that time he has worked for Planning, Community Development and Public Works departments in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Detroit.

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

Four Recent Ideas Cincinnati Has Exported Around the Country

New ideas can come from anywhere and Cincinnati is no exception. People have taken notice of what is going on in Cincinnati. In the spirit of the latest episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, I thought it would be nice to highlight some ideas that worked so well in Cincinnati that other cities have adopted them.

However, it is important not to forget that great ideas often come from great turmoil. Innovative ideas often only receive the light of day because the situation they are created in is so dire. Keeping that in mind when reading this story can remind us of how far Cincinnati has come in some areas, and how that journey can inform efforts in other cities.

Here are four key ideas that have come from Cincinnati. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so please let us know in the comment section if you have other additions.

Idea 1 – Collective Impact
The concept of collective impact stems from the idea that numerous individual efforts are being undertaken in places to reach similar social goals. Thus, collective impact’s main role is to take those individual efforts and bring stakeholders together to increase the efficacy of each individual’s work around the organizing principal.

The Strive Partnership in Cincinnati was the first group to take this approach and develop a unique model that is now being applied around the country. With a focus on building what they call “cradle to career partnerships”, which seek to improve agreed upon outcomes for children throughout their growth to adults, collective impact is a truly national phenomenon.

Idea 2 – The Collaborative Agreement
In the wake of the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson and the resulting protests and social unrest, many Cincinnatians could not help but think of the parallels to the killing of Timothy Thomas by Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach.

Following the 2001 race riots in Cincinnati, a group of concerned community members and representatives from law enforcement came together around shared principles to improve community policing and engage with the stakeholder more in how they felt the department should function to simultaneously improve outcomes and relations with the communities where they work. This became the document known as the Collaborative Agreement, and is now considered a blueprint for conversations in Ferguson and beyond on how to begin creating a more inclusive environment for local residents regardless of their background.

Idea 3 – Community Learning Centers
The philosophy behind Community Learning Centers is straightforward: schools are neighborhood assets and should be utilized as such. Combine that philosophy with in-school wrap-around services that are funded in part through community relationships and you have a reproducible model for school improvement and neighborhood revitalization.

Community Learning Centers have latched on in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) has approved the creation of new community learning centers as a part of his educational platform, and within the Department of Education where a 21st Century Community Learning Centers program supports the creation of such setups around the country.

Idea 4 – 3CDC
Whether you agree with their tactics or not, it is hard to argue that the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation is not influential in the ongoing real estate redevelopment bonanza that is going on in and around Cincinnati’s center city. Perhaps not surprisingly, other cities have taken notice.

3CDC’s combination of non-profit status gives it independence, and its relationship with large local companies provides it with formidable financial resources. The potent combination has been labeled as a “model for urban transformation” by the Urban Land Institute, and other cities are considering adopting the 3CDC model that has accomplished a great amount in redeveloping socioeconomically depressed urban areas.

Architecture as Experience: The Case for Excellence in Design

During a press conference this past October, superstar architect Frank Gehry responded to criticism of his work by raising his middle finger to a Spanish journalist and saying, “Let me tell you one thing. In the world we live in, 98% of what gets built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design nor respect for humanity or anything. They’re bad buildings and that’s it.”

Gehry’s sharp retort sparked a firestorm in the press; op-ed pieces in The New York Times, Forbes, Architect Magazine, and countless blogs have chimed in with their own responses, and the inevitable responses to the responses soon followed. Despite the brash way in which the conversation started, it is a conversation about our built environment that is welcome and long overdue.

"I do not build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build." -- Howard Roark in The Fountainhead

“I do not build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build.” — Howard Roark in The Fountainhead

The Inescapable Art
Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, described architecture as the inescapable art. “You don’t have to go to a play that the theater critic pans, a movie that the film critic hates or a restaurant where, according to the food critic’s taste buds, the chef can’t cook,” Kamin writes, but terrible reviews won’t make buildings disappear, and the public can be stuck with the consequences of bad design for decades. Architecture — good, bad, or mediocre — forms the setting in which we live out our lives and it affects us in profound ways whether we consciously realize it or not. Good design is more than just superficial window dressing; it’s the difference between Mac OS X and a Unix terminal prompt, and it’s the difference between a city that’s an attractive destination and a city that merely exists.

Cincinnati is blessed with a cornucopia of notable architecture that other cities in its league can only dream of having. In addition to the well-known favorites like Union Terminal, Carew Tower, and Music Hall, there is also a wide variety of contemporary architecture that has helped put Cincinnati back on the cultural map. In addition to the usual cast of flamboyant “starchitects” like Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, and Zaha Hadid, Cincinnati is also home to projects by less flashy but no less talented firms like Moore Ruble Yudell, Architecture Research Office, and Gwathmey Seigel Kaufman. There are also homegrown firms such as FRCH, Glaserworks, and John Senhauser Architects creating notable projects in Cincinnati and beyond.  When it comes to the quality of its built environment, Cincinnati punches far above its weight.

The sad irony, though, is that relatively little of what gets built today is actually designed by architects. Despite the resurgence of the urban cores of Cincinnati and other cities throughout the country, most new construction is still in the suburbs and exurbs, planned and designed by developers and retail chains according to carefully-honed formulas created to guarantee the greatest return on the dollar within the shortest period of time.

Suburban “McMansions” aren’t designed by architects to be lived in; they’re designed by developers to look good on realtor listings and be sold. Big-box retail stores, fast food outlets, and car dealerships are built from prototypes designed not to inspire or to even be pleasant, but to generate short-term profits with maximum efficiency. Some nameless architect may have stamped the construction documents somewhere along the process to ensure the structure meets applicable codes, but his or her influence on the end user experience was likely minimal at best. In the case of most single-family houses built by developers, an architect was not likely to have been involved at all.

False Choices
This is no doubt the “98% of what gets built and designed today” that Gehry was referring to, but it has remained largely unmentioned while pundits squabble over the implications of his diatribe. Some commentators have chosen to blame celebrity architects such as him for the current state of our built environment, nostalgically harking back to some mythical past in which architecture was driven by the local vernacular. What they fail to mention is that, like it or not, badly-designed sprawl is the vernacular today, and it has gone global. Blaming a few starchitects for the quality of our built environment is like bashing Kraftwerk for being too esoteric while the latest Nickelback album is at the top of the charts.

That said, architects and architectural academics are often accused of being elitist and out of touch with reality, and in many cases the criticism is well-deserved. Too many architects have read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as the manifesto it was meant to be rather than as the cautionary tale it should have been. Architecture is a collaborative discipline above all else, and there is no room at the table for an ego the size of Howard Roark’s. Too often, the prestigious design awards and glossy magazine articles have been for projects built for sheer spectacle rather than for lasting quality. Spectacle is what sells magazines and generates fodder for discussion around the water cooler, but sometimes the most appropriate design solution is to do less designing. Being a conscientious architect means knowing when to make that call.

What’s missing from the discussion is the vast middle ground between avant-garde starchitecture and crowd-pleasing vernacular design, and the idea that architecture, above all else, should be a human experience, rather than an abstract object to behold or a mere commodity to the bought and sold. It’s not a question of modernism versus traditionalism or suburban versus urban; it’s a question of bad versus good.

Healthy cities need an attractive mix of architecture; this mix includes high-profile starchitecture, anonymous background buildings, new and old, traditional and modernist, and everything in between. What matters is that what gets built is of consistently high design quality. A smattering of notable buildings within a context of ugly schlock is insufficient; what’s needed is a cohesive cityscape of well-designed buildings where the overall quality of the urban experience is greater than the sum of its architectural parts. To use a baseball analogy, one or two sluggers won’t save the season if the rest of the team is in a slump.

Good design doesn’t just happen; property owners and the general public need to realize its value, and commission talented architects who will deliver it. Samuel Hannaford didn’t leap out from behind a bush one night and create Music Hall by sheer force of will; Music Hall exists because the City of Cincinnati wanted a venue befitting its highest cultural aspirations, and they commissioned Hannaford to design it. Music Hall, while notable enough in its own right, also exists within the fabric of a historic neighborhood. Relatively few of the neighborhood’s Italianate row houses would be particularly notable as individual structures, but together they form the streetscape of Over-the-Rhine, one of the largest intact historic districts in the country. Music Hall and its surrounding neighborhood enhance and compliment each other in ways that would be impossible if either existed in isolation.

Lions Park Scout Hut by Rural Studio (photo: Timothy Hursley)

Lions Park Scout Hut by Rural Studio [Timothy Hursley]

Engineering Value
Cost considerations are often touted as an excuse for poor design, but this is a cop-out. It’s easy to clad a terrible building in exotic materials and pass it off as a notable work of architecture (see: numerous projects developed by Donald Trump), but a talented architect can creatively turn cost constraints into a brilliant design solution.

The iconic cross-braces on Chicago’s John Hancock Center meant being able to eliminate a third of the structural steel that would’ve otherwise been required for a building that tall. At a much smaller scale, Auburn University’s Rural Studio designs hand-built structures of sublime beauty for disadvantaged communities in rural Alabama. These structures, often created from recycled materials and found objects, cost pennies on the dollar compared to more typical construction.

When Washington, DC was planning its Metro system, the transit authority assumed the cheapest way to construct the underground stations was to give them straight vertical walls covered in tile, flat ceilings, and a forest of columns similar to what’s found on older subway systems. Their architect, Harry Weese, was able to demonstrate that a vaulted station shell made of waffle-slab concrete actually cost less to build than a more conventional design. This motif became the most celebrated design feature of the system, subtly recalling the coffered ceilings of the District’s neoclassical civic monuments but without reflexively copying them.

What is Good?
All this talk of good architecture begs the question: What does it mean to be good? Is it something that can’t be defined, but we know it when we see it? Aaron Betsky, former director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and now Dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, recently penned an article that explicitly addresses this question:

I do not think there is one style or one approach that has all the answers. I am wary of what I think are pseudo-scientific approaches to measuring such things, though I am open to ways in which we can more clearly articulate and judge what is good and what works. However, instead of taking solace in formulas or a rote recitations of traditions, we should always ask the question what is appropriate, what is needed, what is possible, and what are our dreams and aspirations. We should build with what we know, for a reality, but also towards a better — again in a social, environmental, and aesthetic sense — reality.

Betsy concludes the article by saying, “Architecture should be neither weird nor boring, neither alien nor alienating, neither wasteful nor wanting in the qualities that make us human.”

To this we might add: In order to be good, architecture should be honest in its materiality and its place in history, and be responsive to its context. Wood should look like wood and not be painted to look like marble. A building built in 2015 shouldn’t attempt to look like a building built in 1895. A sentimental appeal to nostalgia is no excuse for faux-traditional buildings that cheapen their context with knee-jerk imitation, but a building designed for downtown Cincinnati should be sufficiently distinguishable from a building designed for a suburban office park in Southern California.

Good architecture should engage all the senses in a meaningful way, and acknowledge the web of meanings and experiences that we have come to associate with the built environment. Brick is more than just a cladding material; it imparts a sense of stability and permanence. Glass and stainless steel are associated with notions of high-tech precision. A fireplace is more than just a decorative feature in the living room; the sound and smell of burning firewood recalls fond memories of family camping trips, a bonfire on the beach during a church retreat, or a brisk fall evening with close friends on the patio at Neons. A door made of solid wood has a more substantial feel to the hand than a flimsy hollow door made of pressed paper, even if they both look the same at first glance. Whether we are consciously aware of them or not, these things matter.

Local Interest
The discussion about the nature of our built environment has been happening in Cincinnati for quite some time; debates about the streetcar, gentrification, redeveloping the riverfront, form-based codes, and historic preservation all revolve around what kind of place Cincinnati wants to be. Is it a place where one merely goes to see a Reds game once or twice a year before getting back on the freeway to a house in the suburbs, or is it a place to live and work 24/7 throughout the year? Is it a dumping ground for the indigent, a playpen for the affluent, or home to a diverse mix of people and activities? All these issues are closely related to matters of design.

The Cincinnati Enquirer recently published an angry screed by Hyde Park architect Robert-Pascal Barone that sharply criticizes a number of recent projects. Although the article contained a few valid points, the overall tone read as a shrill rejection of anything built in the city after 1950, which undermined the possibility of a constructive dialogue.

This was an unfortunate missed opportunity, because it’s a dialogue that needs to happen. Belligerent naysaying does nothing to improve the city, but even the most successful projects are not exempt from intelligent critiques that offer lessons for future projects. Cincinnati has progressed beyond the point where new development for the sake of new development, no matter how ill-conceived, should get the red carpet treatment by default. The city deserves top-shelf design, and is now in a position to demand it.

Moving Forward
There is reason to be optimistic that we are once again making good architecture a priority. For the past 20 years, the University of Cincinnati’s Signature Architect Program has raised the profile of the university and has led to UC consistently appearing on lists of the world’s most beautiful college campuses. Just as importantly, it has greatly enhanced the quality of campus life and has had a snowball effect on other projects around town.

Just as crucially, the city has stepped up its efforts to save and preserve the architectural landmarks that previous generations have built. The dilapidated Metropole has been beautifully reborn as the 21c Museum Hotel, Hamilton Country taxpayers recently approved a modest sales tax increase to restore Union Terminal, and the long-awaited restoration of Music Hall continues to gain support and funding.

Much work remains: the Terrace Plaza Hotel still sits vacant downtown, and despite the pace of redevelopment in Over-the-Rhine and other close-in neighborhoods, each year sees a number of vulnerable structures succumb to neglect or outright greed. The city needs to be more proactive about preserving its history, rather than merely reacting when a problem becomes a crisis.

Smaller cities like Cincinnati have a unique role to play in the design world, and offer advantages of access and affordability not found in the usual hot spots like New York and San Francisco. In a recent CityLab article titled Why Architects and Second-Tier Cities Need Each Other, Amanda Kolson Hurley notes:

New York, Boston, Chicago, and other major metros have a lot of construction activity, but also a lot of architects. It’s a competitive field made more so by the sheer number of talented firms in the same handful of cities. That contributes to the culture of stress and overwork that many architects bemoan, some of them — women in particular — even leaving the field in frustration. By contrast, an ambitious architecture practice can carve out a niche for itself in a second-tier city, where the scene is often dominated by “legacy” firms that play it safe.

Hurley goes on to highlight the example of Louisville-based De Leon and Primmer Architectural Workshop, which recently won an AIA Honor Award for their Wild Turkey visitor center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Neither Roberto De Leon nor Ross Primmer are Louisville natives; they met in architecture school at Harvard and made a business decision to open their practice in Louisville because, like Cincinnati, it was primed for growth. Cincinnati has the additional advantage of being home to one of the top architecture schools in the country, and many faculty members have their own small practices producing innovative design.

Wild Turkey Visitor Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky (photo: De Leon and Primmer Architecture Workshop)

Wild Turkey Visitor Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky [De Leon and Primmer Architecture Workshop]

Cincinnati would do well to aggressively harness that local talent as well as put out the welcome mat for transplants from outside the region. Fairly or unfairly, Cincinnati has a reputation for being a conservative, insular city that is wary of outside ideas and talent. As such, it needs to work extra hard to put that stereotype out to pasture. Civic and corporate leaders should make a point to consider emerging architects for new projects and include them in discussions about the city’s future. For its part, the architectural community needs to resist its natural inclination to circle the wagons, and make an effort to engage the public and ensure their needs are being met when designing new projects.

Most importantly, the general public needs to demand a consistently high standard of design and hold its leaders accountable when opportunities are missed. Uncritical boosterism is often a veneer for complacency, which is a far more destructive force than vigorous debate. Sometimes the boat needs to be rocked. Cincinnati has a rich history and enviable assets, but it cannot rest on its laurels. No city has ever made itself a prime destination by bragging about how magnificent it used to be.

Get Involved
At the national level, the American Institute of Architects has launched an ambitious media campaign to highlight the role of architects in shaping our built environment, and by extension, the role of the built environment in shaping our lives. The campaign features web videos, television ads, and social media content under the hashtag #ilookup.

For those wishing to become more involved in conversations about the future of Cincinnati’s built environment, the Cincinnati chapter of the AIA and the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati have full calendars of activities and events, and the annual ArchiNATI festival offers unique opportunities to engage with the city’s built environment.

In addition to the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, other nearby architecture schools at Miami University, the University of Kentucky, and Ohio State University routinely host lectures and other events throughout the year that are usually free and open to the public.

If all that sounds daunting, start by simply grabbing a sketchpad and heading off to explore some corner of the city that looks interesting. Look up, and you’ll rarely be disappointed.

David Cole is a native of Fort Thomas, Kentucky with a strong interest in architecture, urban design, transit, and social justice. He earned his Master of Architecture degree from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, and is pursuing professional registration as an architect while working as a designer at the New York office of STUDIOS Architecture.

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