GUEST EDITORIAL: Is Society Too Demanding When it Comes to Urbanity?

As new cities and neighborhoods emerge these days, with tall buildings and structures, one can’t help but notice and say that urbanity is indeed here.

But the word ‘urbanity’ doesn’t even have a concrete definition being discussed. Henri Lefebvre is even critical of the definition of modern urbanism because it does not define urban life really well. For him, urbanity is an encounter saying that it is “the meeting of difference, of strangers in the city, it was about everyday life and play, the sensuality of the city.”

Urbanity principles are also said to be applicable to any land projects from a single building to an entire city. More so, in urban planning debates, the concept of urbanity is always present but only to the visions of governments, architects, landowners and developers. But what is urbanity in its truest sense? And if defined, does it clearly serve its purpose, or does it give a meaning different from what we expect? And if people understood urbanity, will they be totally sold out to the idea, or will they contest it?

The Hard (or Strong) Way of Urbanity
People, who strongly support the idea of urbanity, bank on its benefits to the people who might reside or work in an urban setting. In fact, Congress for the New Urbanism details four primary benefits of urbanism.

For people who will reside or work in urban cities, it means being able to achieve a higher quality of life including improved living places and improved building and property architecture such as a condo; work and play included. Property lands are valued higher, yet are more stable. Experts highlight the idea of being close to everything that you need. Residents are able to feel safe and secure thanks to pedestrian-friendly sites and reduced transportation costs since you can simply take a walk or have a short ride to your destination anywhere in the city.

It also includes additional benefits to businesses, focusing on increased sales and revenues. It also drives loyal customers living in the city itself, and better lifestyle for business owners by having spaces above their stores also known as live-work units.

Developers also have reasons to be happy for urban cities. Communities will be able to adopt smart growth principles which in turn can save more money and time. A higher density mixed-use land project can also generate a greater income potential thanks to more leasable square footage of land, high selling prices, and high property values.

Municipalities embracing the idea of urbanity will benefit as well, with less crime rates due to enhanced security and presence of more people at day time and night time. Compact and high-density projects will allow governments to spend less on infrastructure and utilities, compared to a suburban development.

The Harder Resistance for Urbanity
Looking on the other side of urbanity, those who are against it point out several factors why urbanity does not work at all. In one case, urban areas experience more traffic congestion with the increased growth rate of its population.

Also, there are new urban developments that just aren’t for everyone; say for those who want wider spaces in their condominiums, people living in close proximity to each other thus providing small living spaces pose a problem. Even though pro-urbanists will say that their innovative structures are adapting through the needs of time, anti-urbanists will be more skeptical of it and instead pose more questions on what those structures can do for them based on their preferences.

And the stronger opposition comes from the idea of affordable spaces in these urban cities. Searching for good places is harder because of high prices especially for those lands near shopping malls, parks, schools, etc. Anthony Flint, in his article, ‘A Tipping Point—But Now the Hard Part‘ talks about the increasing demand for alternatives due to high prices. In Little Elm, Texas, homes are priced starting at $100,000. Add to it heating and cooling bills for large homes which greatly affects a family’s budget.

The Hard or Easy Way for Urbanity?
There are certain ideas that are totally applicable to urban cities, but some can’t be implemented due to certain factors.

Skyscrapers are also included in urban planning and land development. But certain cities in the U.S. can’t build skyscrapers that are too tall and too thin or what they call “superskinnies”, because of land availability. According to architect Gordon Gill, together with his firm Adrian Smith+Gordon Gill, there are some places where superskinnies are not possible.

“We cut slots, we punch holes, we create notches in the corners of the buildings to mitigate the effects of wind, on tall and thin buildings alike. But there are some places where superskinnies will just never go. No matter how pitched income inequality comes to be in San Francisco, these towers will never rise there. For areas that are seismic, the slenderer buildings are not advisable,” Gill says.

Pro-urbanists will also push the idea that green architecture has impacts on energy use and sustainability trends are here to stay. And the anti-urbanists will continue to look for loopholes on their arguments.

The decision of embracing the idea of urbanity lies on the people itself, and how they will see their roles in it. It might be hard for some, but still others will be comfortable in living in an urban setting. Certain improvements need to be in place, such as government policies, improved infrastructure and living spaces. With all of these factors in place, people might be possibly united in the concept of urbanity.

Kimberly Grimms describes herself as a futurist and is a writer for Social Media Today. She studied Community Development and currently resides in New Jersey. You can follow and interact with her on Twitter @KimberlyGrimms.

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

PHOTOS: The Changing Face of Downtown Cincinnati

It’s not just housing that’s booming in the center city, there is also a slew of office, retail, hotel and infrastructure projects underway that are transforming Cincinnati’s skyline and its streetscapes.

All of the construction activity makes it feel as if there is work taking place in just about every corner of the central business district and its immediate surroundings. And for the most part, that feeling is valid.

In addition to the thousands of residential units under construction, work is also currently underway on the second phase of The Banks, which will include not only 300 additional apartments, but also General Electric’s new North American Global Operations Center, 313-room Renaissance Hotel, dunnhumbyUSA Centre, Mabley Place, reconstruction of Second Street, and work is about to get underway for the new 115-room Holiday Inn hotel at Seventh and Broadway Streets.

In addition to all of the construction work taking place, the weather earlier this month was terrific and made for a perfect time to take pictures of some of the center city’s beauty.

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EDITORIAL NOTE: All 22 photos were taken by Travis Estell for UrbanCincy between July 2 and July 9, 2014.

PHOTOS: Construction Progressing on Thousands of New Downtown Residences

Six months ago, we reported on 11 residential developments moving forward in the Central Business District, Over-the-Rhine, and Pendleton. At the time, these were expected to add about 1,500 new units of housing to the urban core. Although one of these projects has been downsized and another postponed, one new residential project was announced as well.

Most notably, the proposed tower at Fourth and Race was downsized from 300 to 200 units, and the grocery store that would have been located on the ground floor of the building has been dropped from the plan.

The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) is also shelving its plans for a new mixed-use project at 15th and Race, which would have added 57 residential units. However, 3CDC is also shelving its plan to build 53,000 square feet of office space as part of the third phase of Mercer Commons, and is considering building more residential at that location. The first two phases of Mercer Commons contain 126 apartments and 28 condos in addition to retail space.

Finally, the proposal to bring an AC Hotel to the former School for the Creative & Performing Arts (SCPA) in Pendleton has been scrapped. Developers are now moving forward with an alternate plan, which will convert the building into 155 market-rate apartments.

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The other projects still moving forward include:

  • Phase two of The Banks broke ground in April 2014. It will contain 305 new apartments and 21,000 square feet of retail space, in addition to a new office tower for General Electric.
  • AT580, formerly known as the 580 Building, is being converted from office space into 179 apartments. The existing retail spaces on the first and second floors will remain.
  • The Seven at Broadway project will feature 110 high-end apartments, built above an existing parking garage. The target demographic for these units will be empty-nesters and older professionals looking for downtown living, according to Rick Kimbler, partner at the NorthPointe Group.
  • Broadway Square, a $26 million development, is now under construction in Pendleton. Its first phase will feature 39 apartments and 40,000 square feet of retail space, and developer Model Group will add at least another 39 apartments in the second phase of the project.
  • The Schwartz Building, formerly vacant office space, is being converted into 20 apartments. Developer Levine Properties cited the building’s location along the Cincinnati Streetcar route as a driving factor for the renovation.
  • The Ingalls Building will be redeveloped into 40 to 50 condos and ground-floor retail space by the Claremont Group.
  • Peak Property Group plans to purchase and renovate three buildings on Seventh Street into 75 apartments and 15,000 square feet of retail space.
  • Developers of the Fountain Place retail building want to add 180 to 225 residential units above the existing Macy’s department store.

EDITORIAL NOTE: All 12 photos were taken by Travis Estell for UrbanCincy between July 3 and July 8, 2014.

No, Historic Preservation Does Not Inhibit Urban Growth

While the development boom being experienced in New York City, Paris and London isn’t quite the same in Cincinnati, the Queen City does share in some of these issues surrounding historic preservation. Some believe that protecting and preserving historic structures is a barrier for development.

This has been seen most recently in the easy approval of the updated Lytle Park Historic District boundary, which is now much smaller than it once was. The reason such changes received easy approval at City Hall is because of the promise of new development, but is that the correct way to think about it? More from Next City:

American preservationists, too, have become so accustomed to pushing for the enforcement of preservation laws that they often are stereotyped as gatekeepers of nostalgia. Those who fought New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan for upzoning part of Midtown Manhattan were demonized as anti-development. In truth, they were trying to protect the existing development. Polyphonic streetscapes of buildings of varying heights, styles and forms blended with smart new design attract people.

[...]

Preservationists are mediators between cultural heritage and economic demands, and they often don’t win what they want. The rambling mass of buildings joined under La Samaritaine’s walls and the stately mass of Cleveland’s Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist are far from evident in the remaining fragments. Yet what has actually been saved in both cases is invisible: the integrity of preservation laws, the enhanced value of developments that incorporate elements of the past and the continuity of urban character that makes cities continue to be desirable places. Years later, no one will see the battle scars from these fights, but they will see interesting works of contemporary architecture based on historic elements, thanks to preservation activists fighting overbearing design.

New Apartments, Retail Space Coming to Peeble’s Corner in Walnut Hills

You hear a lot about the significance of creating a critical mass when it comes to changing perceptions or establishing a new hub of activity in a neighborhood. That is exactly what Kent Hardman is aiming to do at Walnut Hills’ famed Peeble’s Corner.

Hardman, as you may or may not know, is a local real estate investor that has previously redeveloped the Jackson Theater on Eastern Avenue in Columbia Tusculum. He is also finishing up work on a historic firehouse at 773 E. McMillan Stree in Walnut Hills, which will not only house Fireside Pizza, but also his home.

“I walked in the first time, about a year-and-a-half ago, and thought that I had to bring this building back to life,” Hardman explained. “I’ve always dreamed of one day living in a firehouse.”

Hardman will move into his new 1,650-square-foot apartment in the Samuel Hannaford-designed firehouse at the end of this month, and he expects he will be joined shortly thereafter by Fireside Pizza in early July. He says that he likes to focus on old buildings that are shells where he can build new on the inside.

In the case of the 134-year-old Firehouse Row buildings, that was exactly what he had. In fact, the buildings were in such poor shape when Hardman purchased them from the City of Cincinnati for $1, that one of the two, known as the Hamilton House, had a tree growing through the middle of it.

Since acquiring the properties, the Miami University graduate has invested around $450,000 into the city’s oldest standing firehouse, including $100,000 in the form of a forgivable loan from the City.

As work wraps up later this month on that building, work will then begin next door on the Hamilton House. Hardman expects that he will invest another $550,000 into that property, which he is hoping will be offset by some gap financing from the City.

“It’s amazing what can happen to a property when it’s abandoned and left to die,” Hardman recalled. “The whole goal here is to create a concentrated effort, like what 3CDC has done in Over-the-Rhine, and reach that critical mass in Walnut Hills.”

Later in the year, he hopes to begin work on restoring two more buildings across the street, which is expected to cost around $1 million. In total, this second wave of work will create a dozen apartment units, ranging in size from one to two bedroom units, and two new storefronts. This next phase of redevelopment, however, is contingent upon pending gap financing from the City of Cincinnati.

Developing a critical mass is seen as critical for the ongoing revitalization of Peeble’s Corner. According to neighborhood leaders, the redevelopment of this block is the foundation for what they hope will be a larger turnaround for the business district.

“Over the last couple of years, while strategically purchasing key blighted properties, we realized that we needed to identify a small portion of the business district as an initial focus area,” said Kevin Wright, Executive Director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. “This is that area.”

Once the rest of the financing is secured for the rehabilitation of the 114-year-old properties, located at 772 E. McMillan and 2504 Chatham, it is expected that construction work will take approximately four months to complete.

The hopes are that these restored street-level retail spaces can become additional restaurants, grocery options, cafes, clothing shops and bars, as residents have recently indicated as their top preferences for the area. Wright also says that some capital investments will be needed in the near future, but is confident that the area is moving in the right direction.

“There are some wonderful historic buildings on this block, a safe public parking lot, an office building that is fully leased and expanding, as well as the Five Points alley systems,” Wright explained. “We believe this block can and will begin bringing Peeble’s Corner back to life.”