Everything You Need to Know About the Proposed Elmore Street Viaduct

In the mid-2000s, ODOT designed a $1 billion reconstruction of I-75 between the Ohio River and I-275 that attracted little attention from the Cincinnati media. Who would win and who would lose as access points were shifted, added, or permanently closed?

Aside from a successful effort in 2006 by OKI to retain access at Galbraith Road over ODOT’s objections, virtually no public objections were made as multi-million dollar contracts were let; and work commenced in 2011 on a mega-project that will shape Cincinnati’s traffic patterns and property values for the next fifty years.

ODOT’s design strategy for the Mill Creek Expressway (Western Hills viaduct to Paddock Rd.) and Thru the Valley (Paddock Rd. to I-275) projects aimed to improve capacity and safety by reducing points of access and mitigating complex merging movements. This means most of I-75’s left-side ramps will be rebuilt as right-side ramps, and odd partial interchanges, such as the Towne Street ramps in Elmwood Place and the famous southbound “canyon” ramps in Lockland, will be permanently removed.

ODOT has already closed a lightly-used ramp providing access to I-75 southbound from Spring Grove Avenue, and another exiting I-74 westbound at Powers Street in Northside.

In 2016, ODOT plans to permanently close two ramps near Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. One provides access to I-75 northbound from Central Parkway, while the other provides access to Central Parkway from I-74. The planned closure of this final ramp – an unremarkable 250-foot deck girder overpass spanning I-75 near the Ludlow Viaduct – has been public knowledge for nearly a decade, but only recently has its closure generated opposition.

Evidence suggests that replacement of Central Parkway access from I-74 was discussed in the mid-2000s via an aerial structure approximately 10 times longer than the current 250-foot overpass. A drawing from February 2007 illustrates that the flyover ramp would have diverged from I-74 near the Colerain and Beekman Street interchange, bridged Elmore Street, then deposited traffic onto Central Parkway very close to the location of the current ramp.

Despite an effort led by Cincinnati State and then Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (D) several years ago, ODOT has not capitulated to recent pleas by Cincinnati State and the City of Cincinnati to reestablish the access provided by the existing 250-foot exit ramp with a similar ramp forking from the planned I-74 east to I-75 north ramp.

Such a ramp would not comply with current Federal Highway Administration guidelines, which discourage local access ramps built in close proximity to “system” interchanges, and local access ramps that diverge or join system interchange ramps. In fact, construction of a new ramp similar to what currently exists would violate Section 6.2.11 and Section 6.2 of FHWA code.

ODOT’s refusal to permit reconstruction of the I-74 ramp to Central Parkway, however, is inconsistent with its recent activities elsewhere in the state.

As part of the $200+ million reconstruction of the I-71/I-670 interchange in Columbus, an exit ramp to Leonard Avenue, a local residential street, was built in the middle of a “system” interchange. No reciprocal access to I-71 south was built, meaning this new ramp violates two sections of the FHWA’s guidelines and created a new situation identical on paper to the one ODOT seeks to eliminate in Cincinnati.

Access to Cincinnati State Community College from I-74 after 2017
In 2015, the City of Cincinnati, with the endorsement of Mayor John Cranley (D), outlined plans for an entirely new 2,500-foot viaduct connecting Elmore Street in South Cumminsville with Central Parkway at Cincinnati State. Ostensibly the proposed viaduct will restore the easy access from I-74 that Cincinnati State will lose in 2017; and, according to Cincinnati State President O’Dell Owens, help attract and retain students who commute from the city’s western suburbs.

To be sure, the proposed viaduct will improve access to I-74 westbound, as no direct access currently exists. But inbound travel will be significantly slower than what presently exists, and not much faster than what would exist if it weren’t built at all.

Perhaps the Elmore Street Viaduct, or something similar to it, could have been better integrated with the I-74 Beekman Street ramps if access to Central Parkway had been deemed a priority 10 years ago – instead ODOT completed a significant rebuilt of the interchange in 2014 with no provision for a new viaduct to Central Parkway.

Access to Cincinnati State Community College from I-75 after 2017
Missing from the Elmore Street Viaduct conversation, however, is the character of Cincinnati’s access from I-75. Currently, commuters from city’s northern neighborhoods must pass Cincinnati State on southbound I-75, exit at Hopple Street, then backtrack one mile north along Central Parkway. Commuters using I-75 north must exit a mile south of the college, traverse the new jug handle connection between Martin Lurther King Drive and Central Parkway, then drive one mile north.

If the current circuitous path I-75 commuters use to reach Cincinnati State isn’t discouraging attendance by prospective students from those neighborhoods, why does President Owens contend that use of the very same Hopple Street exit ramp will discourage I-74 commuters?

Why No Ludlow Avenue Interchange?
Missing from I-75’s initial 1950s construction, and its current reconstruction, is a full interchange at Ludlow Avenue. A new diamond interchange on the Ludlow Viaduct would have created ideal access to Cincinnati State, a new alternative route to the University of Cincinnati and the hospitals, and significantly increased property values in Northside.

Construction of a new interchange at Ludlow Avenue does not appear to have entered into ODOT’s conversations a decade ago, nor did construction of an interchange at Vine Street in St. Bernard.

MetroMoves and the Future of the Rapid Transit Right-of-Way
In 2002, Hamilton County voters defeated MetroMoves, a half-cent sales tax that would have funded improved countywide bus service and construction of various modern streetcar and light rail lines. The initiative planned for the convergence of two light rail lines above the I-75/I-74 interchange that would have provided direct access to Cincinnati State via a station located on the west face of its hill above Central Parkway.

The convergence of two lines just north of the property promised frequent train service for the community college, even during off-peak hours; however, no call for improved public transportation has been heard from those currently pushing for the Elmore Street Viaduct.

What’s more, there has been no call to incorporate a provision for rail transit on the proposed Elmore Street Viaduct. When looking at ODOT’s 2007 drawing, it is plain to see how the proposed structure could be integrated into the light rail network, thus eliminating the high expense of a dedicated light rail viaduct over the I-75/74 interchange in the future.

Meanwhile, ODOT’s reconstruction of I-75 will leave the old Rapid Transit Loop right-of-way mostly intact between the subway portals and Cincinnati State – meaning only a 100-foot bridge over Marshall Avenue will be necessary to construct a fully grade-separated surface line between the subway portals and Cincinnati State.

EDITORIAL NOTE: After this article was published, Mayor John Cranley’s office, through spokesperson Kevin Osborne, contacted UrbanCincy and provided additional information regarding the efforts of then Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls to piece together funding for a smaller, yet similar project years ago. This article has been updated to reflect that reality.

Uptown leaders should copy Buffalo and develop a street-calming plan

Cincinnati’s uptown neighborhoods are experiencing a bit of a boom. Hundreds of residential units are being developed, new transportation infrastructure and capacity is coming online, and smaller, historic buildings are controversially making way for new, taller ones. While significant changes are underway, one thing that remains the same, and seems poised to only get worse as new roadway projects are built, is the fact that most major thoroughfares uptown are inhospitable to people who wish to walk or bike to get around. In Buffalo they have developed a plan to address just that in the city’s historic downtown. A similar plan should be considered for Cincinnati’s second largest employment center. More from Buffalo News:

The new Downtown Infrastructure Master Plan lays out a series of enhancements to key streets, districts and public squares to bolster the appearance and feel of the city center for residents, employees and visitors, while making the downtown more vibrant. At the same time, it seeks to make the area more cohesive and pedestrian-friendly, by improving access and connections. And it calls for traffic calming, more accessible green space and public space, and a “softening” of barriers like highway overpasses.

The goal is to provide a framework for future public-sector investments and projects, using shared objectives in making decisions about where to target new initiatives. But it’s also flexible enough, officials said, so that it can be adapted to tie in new projects to downtown and neighborhoods.

State Historic Tax Credit Expected to Boost $3.1M Renovation of Goetz Tower

The seven-story Middletown Building & Deposit Association tower in Butler County was one of 12 projects in southwest Ohio to receive historic tax credits last month from the State of Ohio. As part of the deal, the $3.1 million project will receive $600,000.

The redevelopment of the 85-year-old structure will result in expanded and renovated street-level retail space, with 24 market-rate apartments on the six floors above that.

The hope is that other similar, but smaller-scale, projects come online, as is expected, after the next round of historic tax credits are awarded this spring.

As earlier reported by UrbanCincy, this award was part of a larger $42 million distribution of historic tax credits state-wide by the Ohio Development Services Agency. The goal of the tax credits, public officials say, is to spark economic development while also preserving historic structures. It is anticipated that this round of awards will spur an estimated $600 million in private investment.

This award comes after nearly $150,000 in grants for assessments and site preparation awarded by the Duke Energy Foundation, US Environmental Protection Agency, and Cincinnati Development Fund. The moment that really gave the project its initial boost, however, came in 2012 when the building was donated to Grassroots Ohio by Fifth Third Bank.

In conjunction with the $10 million rehabilitation of the Sorg Opera House, city officials and private developers are expecting to leverage this initial project to spur additional development nearby. They are also hoping to leverage its location across from Cincinnati State’s Middletown campus as a walkable alternative to students who are primarily commuting from outside the city.

Built in 1930, the seven-story, Art Deco building has survived decades of changes in the heart of Middletown. Upon completion of renovations, project officials say that the building will be renamed Goetz Tower in honor of its original architect.

Construction is anticipated to start in March and last approximately 18 months.

New Payment Technology Allows Metro, TANK to Partner on Regional Fare Card

Regular commuters who cross the Ohio River, either into Cincinnati or Northern Kentucky, are well aware of bringing the required amount of change to transfer between Metro and TANK buses. Other non-seasoned riders, however, were stuck with navigating a complex combination of transfer fees and payment options.

The region’s two largest transit agencies announced that technology afforded to them in 2011 will support the introduction of a long-anticipated regional fare payment card. Metro unveiled the shared stored-value card earlier this month at The Westin’s Presidential Ballroom during the annual State of Metro address.

Transit officials say that the card works with both TANK and Metro buses, thus eliminating the need for carrying change on either system. The card deducts the correct fare amount for each agency so if a rider boards a Metro bus it will deduct $1.75 for Zone 1 or $1.50 for a TANK bus fare.

“We are trying to make this a more seamless and integrated approach to transit.” Metro spokesperson Sallie Hilvers told UrbanCincy.

While there already is a monthly pass that can be used for both systems, the pass is limited to rides on TANK and Metro buses within Cincinnati city limits. As a result, officials from Metro and TANK believe the new shared stored-value card provides better accessibility and flexibility to people who use both systems on both sides of the river.

Behind the scenes, Metro handles the accounting for the stored-value cards so if the card is used on a TANK bus, the agency reports that usage to Metro, which then reimburses TANK for the fare.

“We’ve seen more people buying day passes and stored value passes since we introduced them.” Hilvers said.

The pass is available for purchase online, and at the 24-hour ticketing kiosks Metro began installing earlier this year. TANK’s Covington Transit Center is not yet selling the new stored-value cards, but transit officials there anticipate it becoming available in the near future.

This kind of collaboration is not what has traditionally defined the relationship between Metro and TANK, but Hilvers said that this has been years in the making and hopes that it will lead to even more collaboration in the future.

According to Hilvers, the next goal is to work with local universities to develop a standard student and faculty card that would cover access to area institutions served by both transit agencies. Currently Metro has separate agreements with the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati State, while TANK has an agreement with Northern Kentucky University.

Such changes would seem to bode well for both Metro and TANK. In 2013, Metro reported surging ridership due to the implementation of new collaborative programs and improved fare payment technology.

While the new technology and services are a step toward a broader overhaul of the way area residents and visitors pay for and use the region’s transit networks, it is still a ways from what is considered industry best practices.

Leadership at the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), which oversees Metro bus and streetcar operations, says that they are working on ways for riders to get real-time arrival information system-wide.

The challenge, they say, is to make sure it is a benefit available to all users. Therefore, transit officials are working to implement real-time arrival information that utilizes smartphone, adaptive website and phone service technologies. Metro representatives are tentatively saying that they are hopeful such services could be in place by spring 2015.

Lower Price Hill Community School Aiming to Rebuild Neighborhood, Lives through Cooperative Approach

The efforts to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods across the country have been well-documented, but it is not often that these efforts revolve around a truly cooperative approach. But this is exactly what Lower Price Hill Community School’s (LPHCS) Community Matters non-profit organization is trying to do.

Lower Price Hill is a relatively small neighborhood in terms of size, but its central location, historic building stock, and close proximity to both the Ohio River and Downtown make it extremely important.

The neighborhood was originally built in the 19th century in order to provide housing for workers in the Mill Creek Valley. Today the neighborhood is largely made up of Appalachians and a more recent influx of Hispanic immigrants from Guatemala.

Knowing the community inside and out, LPHCS, which is also is made up of a second non-profit called Education Matters, has developed a unique model of community redevelopment that places the neighborhood’s residents at the center of decision making and management. To this end, Community Matters will soon embark on a number of cooperative initiatives that will aim to both empower neighborhood residents and also provide them with something their neighborhood needs.

The Sanctuary - Lower Price Hill
Interior rendering of The Sanctuary upon completion. Image provided.

“While we’re doing all of these projects, we want to help provide jobs to these groups and folks in the city, but also help employ folks in the community and even give them some ownership,” Mike Moroski, Director of Outreach Services at LPHCS, explained in a phone interview.

The first project is an $8.2 million renovation of the St. Michael the Archangel Parish buildings.

In order to move this project forward, the neighborhood took it upon itself to raise the first $2 million and using that as a commitment in order to leverage an additional $6.2 million in state and federal tax credits. Once complete, the renovated buildings will serve as a community focal point and special events venue, called The Sanctuary.

The next project will be a laundromat called Washing Well, which will feature eight washers and eight dryers. Due to the age of the neighborhood and low average household incomes, most residents need to use laundromats, but none currently exist in Lower Price Hill.

Moroski says that Washing Well will be an earned-income venture at first for Community Matters, but will be owned and managed by the Lower Price Hill community, with its revenues eventually going back into the neighborhood to support additional investment while also covering the costs of operating the laundromat.

During this process, LPHCS will also develop a co-op service learning center, along Warsaw Avenue, to support its existing GED program and a new Cincinnati State satellite operation, both of which will be managed by Education Matters.

After that Community Matters will move forward with renovating Urban Appalachian Council’s former building at Eighth and State Streets, which will then become the home of Jack’s Diner – the neighborhood’s only restaurant.

Moroski says that they decided to name it Jack’s Diner after one of LPHCS’ most engaged workers who developed a passion for the food industry after going through the Freestore Foodbank’s Cincinnati Cooks program.

Jack will manage the restaurant and has even come up with the idea of doing bike delivery service from the restaurant to businesses in Queensgate. Like the new Laundromat, the restaurant will start as an earned-income venture, but then be turned over to the community as a co-op.

In addition to all of this, Moroski says that Community Matters will open a thrift store, choice food pantry, and launch a business incubator in conjunction with Xavier University.

The cooperative visions for Lower Price Hill do not end, or even begin, with this wave of initiatives. When talking with Moroski, it is easy to see that Waterfields serves as a major inspiration for Community Matters.

Waterfields began operating in 2013 as an urban warehouse that provides restaurants with fresh micro-greens, and makes a point of employing Lower Price Hill residents at their rapidly growing aquaponics company. One of the company’s two founders also lives in the neighborhood.

Oyler School is another bright spot for the community. Since its $21 million renovation in 2012, it has been viewed as a national model for community involvement and engagement, attracting visits from prominent leaders from around the country to learn from its successes.

“What Dan started at Waterfields, what we’re doing, and with what Oyler is doing; all of these forces combining at one time is very cool,” exclaimed Moroski. “It’s all right here.”

Lower Price Hill is, perhaps, one of Cincinnati’s more overlooked neighborhoods, but with a strong neighborhood school, engaged community group, rapidly growing local food production business, laundromat, community and events center, restaurant and more all owned and managed by the community, the future only seems strong.

Those who want to help facilitate the process are encouraged to contribute to the LPHCS IndieGoGo campaign to help provide funding for these new initiatives. And Moroski says to be on the lookout for unique events that will be held throughout the year, culminating in the fall with what he is billing a “big blowout” event to close out the campaign in early October.

“With one donation you can support green energy, co-op business models, creation of pathways to careers, re-imagining historic buildings for new use, and the breathing of renewed life into a beautiful neighborhood.”