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.

DOTE Hosts Final Open House for Liberty Street Narrowing Alternatives

The City’s Department of Transportation and Engineering will present the final two design alternatives for consideration at its third public open house tomorrow night at the Woodward Theater. The study which began in 2013 as a Complete Streets initiative proposed by the OTR Brewery District Master Plan now lives on as a proposal to physically narrow the street by ten to twenty feet on the south side. The new land could potentially unlock development sites along the street.

In its original configuration Liberty Street was once the dividing line between unincorporated territory and the city of Cincinnati. It was a narrow street with enough room for parking and less than two full lanes for traffic. In 1959 the City began to demolish properties along the south end of the street to widen the street to seven vehicle lanes and two parking lanes. The once quiet side street became a thru-way for automobile traffic looking to connect to the interstates and Central Parkway.

As revitalization progresses in Over-the-Rhine renewed attention is being paid to the street. The narrowing is an attempt to stitch back the fabric of the north and south halves of the neighborhood. Because of its configuration it is difficult for pedestrians to cross the street in the provided amount of time and bicycling is unsafe due to the high volume and speeds of automobile traffic.

Initial configurations were many ranging from a restoration of the original street width to preserving the current set up. In between proposals called for a reduction to four or five lanes with bicycle lanes or rush hour traffic configurations. After two subsequent meetings the options are down to two: A five-lane and a six-lane configuration. Input taken from this open house will be used to narrow down to the final alternative. Once that alternative is selected it will be presented for adoption at the Over-the-Rhine Community Council in September.

The meeting is this Tuesday evening, 6PM at the Woodward Theater on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. The Theater is accessible by the #17, #19 and #24 Metro bus routes, and is within 100 feet of a Cincy Red Bike Station located at Main Street and Orchard Street.

Cincinnati’s business community supports idea of putting Liberty Street on ‘road diet’

So far, neighborhood residents have been quite consistent in their support for reducing Liberty Street’s width. As of now, residents appear to be supportive of a plan to reduce it by 20 feet, while other neighborhood groups want it to be reduced by even more to allow for dedicated bike facilities and more developable land along the street’s southern side.

In an informal poll, the Business Courier recently asked their readers if they supported the idea of reducing the width of Liberty Street. The response from the city’s business community was overwhelming, with 78% of respondents saying that they support the idea.

More from the Business CourierDo you the support plan to shrink OTR’s Liberty Street?

Alternatives For Liberty Street Reconfiguration Improvements Vary Widely

Following a public meeting at the Woodward Theater on November 18, Cincinnati’s Department of Transportation and Engineering is asking for feedback on the latest proposed alternatives to potentially narrowing the seven-lane, 70-foot-wide road corridor.

At the meeting, City staff provided drawings for seven alternatives to the existing design. Drawings included configurations for two-, four- and seven-lane configurations of the street, along with commentary on the pros and cons of each.

The two- and four-lane configurations would give a certain amount of space back to property owners along the south side of the street, thus increasing the development potential of some corner lots. Only a few of the seven-lane configurations included bicycle lanes on each side of the street, while others sacrificed some on-street parking to make way for bike lanes.

At the public meeting, neighborhood residents raised concern about the impact of through traffic and trucks on the street. In particular, the concern was that the street is too wide and acts as a barrier for pedestrians.

The Over-the-Rhine Brewery District, which has been the leading group pushing for this project, asked at the public meeting why the reconfiguration developed as part of their Master Plan was not included. After some consideration, City Hall has since added an alternative based on the Brewery District’s concept that included a three-lane road configuration with protected bike lanes on each side.

The proposed narrowing of Liberty Street, which was originally built as a 25-foot-wide neighborhood street, is seen by many as an opportunity to bridge the physical and psychological divide between the northern and southern portions of Over-the-Rhine.

“Minimizing the number of lanes on Liberty Street is important so the neighborhood can take over the streets,” Jean-Francois Flechet, owner of Taste of Belgium, commented after the public meeting. “I think it is important to have development on the south side, but we should also accommodate bicycles.”

Allowing for new development, while also accommodating bicycles and preserving on-street parking seems to be the biggest challenge currently facing the project. At some point, one of the items will have to give.

“I bike on Liberty Street, but I bike everywhere, and the majority of people would not find this comfortable,” Flechet continued. “I have never done it during rush hour, and I cannot imagine this would be any fun.”

City officials are accepting public comment on the various alternatives until Wednesday, December 16. The city has posted the alternatives and a public feedback form has been posted on their website. Once the public comment period is closed, City staff says they will narrow the number of alternatives down to two, and recommend one to proceed to final design.

There is currently no funding identified to implement any of the alternatives, but City officials hope to secure the necessary funds at a later date.

 

Delay Presents Opportunity for 3CDC to Rethink 15th and Race Development

Between two of Over-the-Rhine’s most treasured attractions is a Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) proposal currently on hold. As a result, the non-profit development corporation will either need to obtain a new funding source or the project will need to be “a little more within the scale of the existing market.”

The current proposal for the mixed-use project at Fifteenth and Race includes over 300 parking spaces, 57 residential units, and almost 22,000 square feet of commercial space. With the project now on hold, now is the time to step back and critically evaluate a major development in the heart of Over-the-Rhine.

The unnamed development sits primarily along Fifteenth Street, between Pleasant and Race Streets, and would occupy almost an entire city block with a massive parking garage and what can otherwise be described as a lackluster design. Think Mercer Commons 2.0.

Stand at the northern edge of Washington Park and look down Pleasant Street. If your eyes are better than mine, you’ll see Findlay Market. If you’d like to walk there, it is only a leisurely five to ten minute stroll. This proposed development’s car-centric design places a parking garage exit on Fifteenth Street, and would force vehicular traffic onto one of Over-the-Rhine’s most important pedestrian axes.

Additionally, the garage packs in 200 more vehicles than is mandated by law, forces the partial demolition of two historic structures, and limits the available commercial and residential space sandwiched between the phase one Cincinnati Streetcar route. If the streetcar should increase property value as predicted, a parking garage may not be the best use of land for such a prominent location along the line.

As is currently designed, the buildings that would wrap the garage present themselves as a homogeneous wall. This character contrasts heavily with the existing fabric that presents gaps between buildings, portals to interior courtyards, and strong visual relief. While the roof line makes an attempt at creating rhythm in concert with windows, its variation is not enough to mask that it is one big building.

These characteristics detract from the pedestrian scale, though the new construction hints at these qualities with balconies, recessed entries, and slightly offset building faces. These expressions are more akin to developments at The Banks and U Square at The Loop, and are a cheap imitation of Over-the-Rhine’s authenticity.

Along Pleasant Street, the Fifteenth and Race townhomes are compressed by the large, central parking garage. The private walk at the townhomes’ rear is noted as a ‘garden space’ but these spaces are approximately 10 feet wide and will be shadowed by a three-and-a-half-story parking garage. Along the street, the crosses and boxes highlighting the townhomes’ windows are wholly contemporary, which are expressions out of place on a building that is neither modern nor traditional; it is non-committal.

It should be noted that an entire block design is a difficult task in Over-the-Rhine because its designation as a historic district stems from the collection of smaller individual buildings built over time. Furthermore, the neighborhood’s historic character, established before the invention of the automobile, does not easily accommodate cars.

However, there will be a need for more parking, and the Over-the-Rhine Comprehensive Plan recognizes this, but states that new parking should be done “without impacting the urban fabric or historic character of the neighborhood.”

Individually rehabbed buildings do not typically have the potential to alter a neighborhood’s character, but when large-scale development is proposed, community members should have a place at the table.

When asked about developers engaging community stakeholders, Steve Hampton, Executive Director of the Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation, says, “If there’s one place for community outreach it is in large-scale development because of the unique architecture, historic neighborhood, and diversity of people in Over-the-Rhine.”

In the case of this Fifteenth and Race development, the first stages of community engagement were initiated by Over-the-Rhine Community Housing (OTRCH) and Schickel Design, who completed the Pleasant Street Vision Study (PSVS) in 2013.

While the proposed development incorporates all of the individual elements from the PSVS, it is not in the spirit of the pedestrian-focused Pleasant Street Vision Study and on a very different scale. The size and location of the parking garage is a major difference between the 3CDC proposal and the PSVS, and Mary Rivers, of OTRCH, noted that this is a big issue for many people.

Of course there is a gap between a vision study that outlines a community’s desires or needs, and the market forces that drive a real development, but there are various ways a community should be engaged in a project of this scale.

While OTRCH held focus groups prior to beginning the award-winning City Home project one block south along Pleasant Street, Rivers said that 3CDC did not engage OTRCH until after the current plans had been unveiled.

Rivers said, “We asked a diversity of people, ‘What do you like in Over-the-Rhine? What are you looking for in a home?’ Their answers ultimately influenced the design.” This type of engagement is not easy; and Rivers acknowledged that the best way to engage a community is on big issues not the details.

3CDC needs to step up, engage community stakeholders, and propose a design that is more respectful to Over-the-Rhine’s residents, and its unique architectural and urban form.