Opinion: A Boulevard for Brent Spence Bridge Exit

Covington is in the midst of a redevelopment wave. A number of prominent historic buildings have recently been rehabbed and several large new mixed-use buildings are in the planning stages or under construction.

Two of the new projects, “Riverhaus” at 501 Main Street, and the John R. Green Lofts at 411 West 6th Street are scheduled to bring 369 new apartments into the Main Strasse neighborhood.  Census tract 603 covers most of the Main Strasse neighborhood and it shows 1,491 residents living there in 2015. Those two new projects will add a significant increase in the local residential population density.  Their ongoing progress reflects the demand for residential development in pedestrian-friendly urban spaces.

Part of Covington’s urban core that hasn’t seen any new residential development is the area north of 4th street between Madison Ave. and I-75.  Dubbed “Hamburger Heaven” in the city’s recent City Center Action plan, it contains multiple fast food restaurants, the sprawling one-story IRS center, and a sea of parking lots. Part of the reason the area hasn’t seen any development is that Covington’s 4th Street delivers 27,000+ cars per day to I-75. That much traffic is incompatible with pedestrian-friendly urban space.  

The City Center Action Plan makes redevelopment of the Hamburger Heaven and IRS sites a priority but it does not address the area’s inhospitable traffic. It’s a problem: How do you connect new development north of 4th street to the existing pedestrian-friendly urban fabric while maintaining all the traffic to the interstate?

The imminent closure of the IRS site presents an opportunity to address the problem. The 23-acre site covers 3-1/2 blocks of frontage on 4th street. Most of the remaining space adjacent to 4th street between the IRS site and I-75 consists of parking lots.

Once the IRS site is closed, the city of Covington should widen 4th street and convert it into a multiway boulevard.

A multiway boulevard consists of a series of central lanes to move through-traffic, side lanes with on-street parking to serve local vehicles and bicycles, and broad sidewalks to serve pedestrians. Tree-lined medians separate the local traffic from through-traffic, and trees on the sidewalk further separate pedestrians from traffic. Think of it as a “mixed-use street.” Because the street supports a different mix of uses – people, bicycles, transit, through traffic – it can more readily support mixed-use buildings at its edges. Mixed-use buildings add the density and diversity of uses that support pedestrian-friendly urban space.

San Francisco recently took an existing street and converted a portion of it into a new multiway boulevard. The creation of Octavia Boulevard was possible because an earthquake damaged a freeway and made it unusable. Instead of rebuilding the freeway, San Francisco added its right-of-way to a four-block stretch of Octavia Street, which became Octavia Boulevard.

Today, Octavia Boulevard moves 45,000 cars per day in two directions, it has side streets and broad sidewalks to serve local residents, and the creation of the street spurred new development on its edges. Octavia Boulevard sets a clear precedent for converting underutilized auto-oriented development into more productive mixed-use urban development. Octavia Boulevard is aesthetically pleasing, practical at moving traffic, and successful at promoting economic development.

To implement Covington’s “4th Street Boulevard Project” the street’s existing 50-foot right-of-way would be widened to the north to create a 100+ foot wide right-of-way.

The expanded right-of-way will accommodate the multiway boulevard’s additional lanes, medians, and sidewalks. Expanding the right-of-way will require part of the IRS parcel, a number of parking lots, and the demolition of a fast food chain restaurant.

Different design options could include making 4th street’s through lanes either one-way or two-way. A dedicated transit lane could be accommodated. Bicycles can share the local lanes with local vehicular traffic.  

Implementing the 4th Street Boulevard Project would have multiple effects that support the ongoing urban renaissance. The medians and parked cars provide protection for people to walk, eat, drink, and socialize outside. Trees also protect pedestrians and provide a canopy for shade and cooling. Bicycle use will be safe and easy. Converting 4th street from a single use – channeling cars to I-75 – into a multiway boulevard will facilitate the development of dense mixed-use buildings.

There’s a historic opportunity here. The IRS site was born out of federal urban renewal projects in the 1950s. Its time is now at an end.  The trend of the future is to live, work, and play in the urban core. The current traffic on 4th street is a barrier to urban development. Converting 4th street into a multi-way boulevard will support the traffic flow but mitigate its negative impacts. Recent examples provide good evidence.

If the ongoing urban development is to be sustained and space north of 4th street – just blocks away from the Ohio River – is to be put to its highest and best use, then the traffic along 4th street must be addressed. Converting 4th street into a multiway boulevard will do just that.


This is a guest editorial by Chris Meyer that originally appeared in the CNU Midwest blog. 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.

Cincinnati Well-Positioned to Become America’s Air Pollution Leader

As if the Ohio River valley was already enough of a factor in the stagnation of air pollution in this region, now Cincinnati leaders have charted course on an effort that would advance the city’s ranking on the list of most polluted cities in America.

The list, released last month, shows that out of the top 100 metropolitan areas Cincinnati’s air quality is the eighth worst, with Cleveland coming in right behind us at number 10.

“We’re in a good position to close the gap to being in the top five over the next few years,” a layperson told UrbanCincy. “As long as our region keeps on driving everywhere those numbers are bound to increase.”

In fact, as construction continues on the new MLK Interchange along I-71, and the widening of I-75, the induced traffic demand from those two projects alone will allow for even more cars to become stuck on the region’s already gridlocked highways during rush hour.

“Widening highways to relieve traffic congestion is like an overweight person loosening their belt to lose weight,” someone smart once told us.

The $2.6 billion Brent Spence Bridge project, if it ever gets off the ground, would also do much to help push the region up the charts toward the most polluted city in America. In particular, many motorists look forward to the more pronounced smog and foggy orange haze expected to hang over the city and region for years to come.

Air quality is very important to Suburban Person, a financial analyst that works downtown. He tells UrbanCincy that he moved thirty miles out of the city just to escape the smog. Since he still works downtown he informed us he is sitting stuck in traffic on I-75 as of the writing of this article.

Time will tell if those evil progressive urbanists will get in the way of the grand plan by succeeding in actually passing some sort of regional mass transit plan, or even a streetcar extension, but until then the best way to the top is to keep on driving. Happy motoring everyone!

EDITORIAL NOTE: If it was not abundantly clear already, this is a satire post. No one should be proud of the fact that Cincinnati has the 8th worst air pollution in America.

Connecting Cincinnati With What’s Happening ‘Inside The Beltway’

The dome of the United States Capitol, one of the most recognizable landmarks in our nation’s capital, is currently under construction. Scaffolding is draped against it, as the Capitol Dome is in the process of being restored. Many would argue that the scene of construction is an apt metaphor for what is happening in Congress today.

By many accounts, the Congress is broken—plagued by soaring partisanship, ineffective leadership, and near historically low levels of public approval. Despite all these things, the federal government is as important as ever to the well-being of states and municipalities.

Aside from the billions of dollars that make their way from the federal government’s coffers to localities each and every year, how does the federal government truly matter to the lives of people in Cincinnati? Washington is so far removed both physically and culturally from most of the country that many people feel both disconnected from and discouraged by the political process that they see as out of their control.

Many argue that the government that governs closest governs best, but that is not always the case, particularly when it comes to truly monumental issues. Besides the lack of fiscal capacity, states and municipalities are often strategically disincentivized to handle these issues alone.

This might include something like the replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge, which has stakeholders in Kentucky and Ohio in a tizzy over how to reach a solution to fortify one of the Cincinnati regional economy’s most important assets. It might also include issues that seem far away, like climate change. In this case, no one individual actor has the appropriate role or responsibility to deal with problems of such a large magnitude.

From many people we are one. And there may not be a better time than now to be reminded that what happens in the city along the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers has the potential to have a large effect on what goes on in a city along the banks of the Ohio River. Our government is a federalist system with power devolving from the top, and where even the smallest of decisions can have large and far-reaching implications.

Bruce Katz of Washington’s Brookings Institution, one of the city’s most venerable think tanks, has said on many occasions that “the cavalry (the federal government) is not coming…we (state and local governments) are on our own.” While I agree with his sentiment that there is much more that the federal government could be doing to help improve cities and regions.

In future writings I hope to illuminate some of the implications, both big and small, of federal action to show the power of decisions that happen in Washington matter for the places we call home. In addition, I hope to provide more of a data-informed perspective to the issues of the day in Cincinnati, and use this space as a platform to elevate the discussion around the importance of community-level data to better understand our regions, cities and neighborhoods.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Ben Robinson is a Cincinnati native that currently lives in Washington, DC, where he does not work for the federal government. He currently works as a data analyst for the Washington DC School System. As our new Washington correspondent, Ben will be covering topics from Capitol Hill for UrbanCincy as they relate to local issues and projects.

Ben is a graduate of Walnut Hills High School, and holds a BA in economics and urban studies from the University of Pittsburgh, and a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Southern California. In addition to Cincinnati and Washington DC, Ben has also lived in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.

Episode #44: Fall Update (Part 2)

oasis_lineOn the 44th episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, Randy, Jake, John and Travis continue the conversation (part 1) and talk about Cincinnati’s new ridesharing regulations, the popularity of Red Bike, and the conversion of the Oasis Line into a bike trail instead of a rail corridor. We also discuss what could happen in future phases of The Banks and speculate on what will happpen next in the Brent Spence Bridge saga.

Republicans Sweep Through Mid-Term Elections, While Liberal Issues Pass With Voters

It was a predictably bad night for area Democrats as their party suffered strong defeats in virtually every race. Republicans retained state-level control by winning Ohio’s seats for Secretary of State, Attorney General, Auditor, Secretary of State and Governor.

John Kasich’s impressive gubernatorial win over Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald has now put the Westerville Republican onto the shortlist of potential candidates to challenge Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. For a sense of how impressive Kasich’s victory was, the incumbent won all but two of Ohio’s 88 counties, including all major urban counties that are typically Democratic strongholds.

Other localized elections in the Cincinnati area were less significant due to the massive redistricting and gerrymandering that occurred in recent years to firmly solidify districts for Republicans.

Democrats and Republicans alike were able to celebrate, however, in the overwhelming passage of Issue 8. The campaign for the so-called Icon Tax got off to a rocky start when supporters felt burned following the removal of Music Hall from the tax against the recommendations of the Cultural Facilities Task Force. The approval of Issue 8 means that a quarter-cent sales tax will go into effect in Hamilton County in 2015 and stay in effect until 2020, providing an estimated $170 million to perform a $231 million renovation of Cincinnati’s historic Union Terminal building in Queensgate.

The big national news was the Republicans retaking control of the Senate. The news was perhaps punctuated by Mitch McConnell’s (R) surprisingly large margin of victory over Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. The win now places McConnell – a 30-year Senate veteran – in position to assume one of the most powerful political seats in America as Senate Majority Leader.

During the campaign, both Grimes and McConnell campaigned heavily in Northern Kentucky. In contrast to the Bluegrass State’s other urban areas – Louisville and Lexington – Northern Kentucky voted strongly in favor of the Republican incumbent.

What is unclear as a result of this McConnell victory is the future of the $2.5 billion Brent Spence Bridge project. Both campaigns had focused on project when speaking to Northern Kentucky voters who have pushed back against the idea of using tolls to pay for the project in lieu of waiting for federal funding that has never come during McConnell’s tenure.

Back on the north side of the river, the peculiar race between Cecil Thomas (D) and Charlie Winburn (R) ended in the least dramatic way possible.

The strongly Democratic district was considered to potentially be up for grabs, but Thomas cruised to an easy victory over one of Cincinnati City Council’s two Republicans. This race was particularly intriguing due to the thought that a vacated Winburn seat on City Council would go to a special election in 2015 that would be heavily favored for Democrats, and thus allow for a significant power shift on the divided nine-member council.

In what is perhaps a nod of confidence from voters, Cincinnati Public Schools saw their levy renewal pass with a whopping 70% of the vote. CPS, the area’s largest school district, has now recorded a string of consecutive levy victories following years of significant improvement and national recognition.

For those of you who carry around a Pocket City Charter, a variety of changes to Cincinnati’s Charter through Issue 11, which proponents described generally as housecleaning items. These changes, however, are part of an ongoing effort to update the governing document. It is expected that more dramatic changes are forthcoming, but for now the 213-year-old Charter just got freshened up.

National Results With Local Implications
Going forward, two other issues that continue to move forward nationally, but have yet to come to a head locally include the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage.

Yesterday, voters in Washington D.C., Oregon and Alaska voted to legalize the use of marijuana, while voters in Florida voted against legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. This means that six states have now legalized the recreational use of marijuana, while another 19 have legalized it for medicinal purposes.

Recent polls have shown an overwhelming majority of Ohio voters approve of the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, but the matter has yet to come to a vote. Meanwhile in Kentucky, a SB 43 died when the Kentucky legislature adjourned in April of this year without taking further action on legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

While not a voting decision, a federal judge in Kansas yesterday also overturned that state’s ban on same-sex marriage. This comes at a time where judges across the nation are consistently ruling such bans unconstitutional. With this decision, same-sex couples now have the legal right to marry in 33 states, with decisions pending in Montana and South Carolina.

In both Ohio and Kentucky, judges have ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, but those rulings are currently being challenged and have moved on to higher courts. If the trend continues, as expected, both states will join the group of states where same-sex marriage is now legal.

The night was perhaps best summed up in a single tweet from FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman who wrote, “So voters want a higher minimum wage, legal pot, abortion access and GOP representation. Ok then.”

Indeed.