LOT Expo Looking to Tackle Problem of Vacant Properties Throughout City

Just think if a vacant lot near you could be turned into a solar-powered wi-fi hub and electric car charging station, a home for egg-laying chickens, or any number of other creative and productive uses. That is what a group of thought leaders are trying to accomplish with a new program they hope will gain traction at City Hall.

In an effort to promote vacant properties as entrepreneurial and sustainable turnaround opportunities, Lots of Tiny Exposition will be held this week in Over-the-Rhine.

The brainchild of local U. S. Green Building Council activists, LOT Expo is an upcoming free two-day open air exhibit in OTR to draw attention to the “sub-prime” real estate plaguing many neighborhoods.

Specifically tied to the tiny house movement, LOT presents exhibitors that showcase inventive, small scale installations for big, immediate vacant lot impact. Exhibitors will include a tiny house on wheels, vertical garden systems, solar and wind power operations, mobile mini-chicken coops, a 1950’s Airstream retrofit, and pervious parking pads.

Organizers say that they hope visitors bring property addresses for vacant lots that they believe have potential. At that moment, they say an on-the-spot professional laptop “green diagnosis” rating report will be produced. Designers who want to stimulate new ventures for abandoned property blight will be on the lookout for those projects brought to attention.

While the idea seems easy enough, vacant lot redevelopment can actually be a complicated, multi-faceted subject requiring professional knowledge.

As a result, the LOT Forum Panels at the Expo are meant to offer public and private sector professionals to bring expertise, experience, and skills to the vacant lot syndrome – the knowhow for sustainable success. Four different panels are convening under roof at a three-minute walk from the LOT Expo venue; and panel discussions will turn attention to vacant lot gridlocks and reinvestments that lessen public subsidy supports.

Individual Lots on Massive Scale
According to Vacant Lots: Occupied – a guide produced by a group of University of Cincinnati students with the help of Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, the City of Cincinnati Department of Community Development and Building Value – there are approximately 22,000 vacant properties in the City of Cincinnati. These properties are classified as land with or without a structure that have been abandoned by its owners. It is estimated that 8,000 of these are without any structures.

Though not as dismal as some other American cities, vacant properties account for about 10% of Cincinnati’s parcels.

Keep Cincinnati Beautiful has successfully ‘cleaned and greened’ vacant lots throughout the city. This typically means cleaning up the lot before planting grass that then requires continued maintenance. Not satisfied with that approach, KCB collaborated with the University of Cincinnati Horticulture Program to develop Vacant Lots: Occupied. This award-winning manual established an analytical guide to select and transform abandoned lots.

While many individuals and families are already helping to stabilize lots in their community, 8,000 is a big number. Ryan Geismar, one of the professors that led the UC students, says the guide was originally intended for KCB and other organizations, but that it became clear that collective effort is needed to address the blight problem.

From a large-scale planning perspective, Geismar says the best approach is to “Identify assets within neighborhoods and use strategic investment catalysts that inspire others to take action.”

Return on Investments
Neighborhood developers are drawn to prime property, usually clear, open lots with existing infrastructure. There is a dire need to address the marginal, by-passed lots that are an economic drain on our city and region. Though numbers aren’t available in Cincinnati, the city of Philadelphia highlights the imperative of critical action. In 2010, their approximately 40,000 vacant parcels consumed about $20 million in city services (fire, police, maintenance, pest control, etc.) and represented $2 million in uncollected property tax revenue.

Vacant properties have always been around; their numbers surged after the recent recession and spike in housing foreclosures. Many large financial institutions faced lawsuits over fraudulent foreclosures or mortgages; and Ohio’s Attorney General settled a suit against five of the nation’s largest mortgage servicers over foreclosure abuses, fraud, and unfair and deceptive mortgage practices.

A portion of that money was disbursed to Ohio counties for home demolitions. The result in Cincinnati was to tear down hundreds of buildings over the last few years, creating even more vacant lots.

Blight or Bonanza
One of the few cities with data and a comprehensive approach to the problem is Philadelphia where a study concluded that blighting effect from vacant parcels reduced values by 6.5% citywide and by up to 20% in some neighborhoods. In order to counter this epidemic, Philadelphia officials responded by offering landowners adjacent to vacant properties the land for little to no cost.

Since not every lot is the same, solutions require resourceful, frugal and innovative investments. With depreciated property values and dwindling public dollars spread thin, small business opportunists may see vacant lots as overlooked economic potential or reframe the problem as an engaging community asset.

Place from Space, a design competition to transform vacant underutilized spaces into vibrant places, awarded Renaissance Covington with a $1,000 prize to transform a parking lot into a performance space after business hours. This was achieved with financial and infrastructure support from the City of Covington, and a large amount of volunteer hours from committed citizens and professional designers. The performance space, now known as MadLot, has since hosted live music, movies, and other programming since opening.

Individual efforts should not go unnoticed. Whether guerilla gardening or picking up trash, these small steps help improve appearance and reverse the effects of the broken window theory. While the sheer number of vacant lots is large, the challenge is not insurmountable. It will take economies of thrift, practical knowhow and strategic thinking to execute solutions.

A tiny house on wheels, bocce ball court, performance stage or another enhancement might find a way to a lot near you. It might not be long before you find a goat chomping down honeysuckle next door.

LOT Expo will take place from September 19-20 from 10am to 4pm each day at the New Findlay Market Playground at 1814-1822 Elm Street. The Saturday forum panel will focus on tiny living and the Sunday forum will focus on vacant lots. Both will take place between 11am and 2pm at Rookwood Pottery Company around the corner at 1920 Race Street.

The event is free and open to the public, but organizers are asking for those interested in attending to register in advance online.

Cincy Red Bike On Pace to Shatter First Year Ridership Projections

Community leaders gathered in Covington yesterday to celebrate the opening of the first six of 11 new Cincy Red Bike stations in Northern Kentucky. Four additional stations will be opened in Newport, and one in Bellevue, by the end of the week.

The expansion south of the river is a natural expansion for the system, which has thus far focused on Cincinnati’s center city neighborhoods. After initially launching with 30 stations in Downtown, Over-the-Rhine, Clifton Heights, University Heights, Clifton, Corryville and Avondale, Cincy Red Bike has now added new stations in the West End and Northside.

Perhaps more critical for the system’s ridership, however, is the fact that many of the newer stations in Ohio are what operators call “infill” stations. For these, Jason Barron, Cincy Red Bike Executive Director, says that they are looking at locations that focus less on landmarks, and more on where people live car-light or car-free.

“The three busiest stations, by a factor of a third, are Fountain Square, 12th/Vine and Main/Orchard,” Barron previously told UrbanCincy. “We will start to look at areas in the West End like Linn Street, Bank Street, City West and maybe Brighton. We have to look and see where there are opportunities to connect people and make a difference in their lives.”

Once the remaining installations are complete, Red Bike will boast 50 stations, making it the largest bike-share operator in Ohio and the first in all of Kentucky. CoGo Bike Share in Columbus is the second largest with 41 stations following a recent expansion of their own.

After a predictably sluggish winter, it now appears that Cincy Red Bike is on pace to at the very least meet, and most likely exceed, its first year ridership projections. When the system launched in September 2014 the hope was to attract 52,000 rides within the first year. As of now, some 46,000 rides have been made on the public bike-share system.

With the system average 4,600 rides per month, including the slow winter months, the initial projection will be easily surpassed. If that monthly ridership rate increases over the forthcoming summer months, and with the added stations and bikes, the non-profit agency may be able to significantly exceed its own goals.

The enthusiasm in Northern Kentucky appears to be setting the table for even more expansions in the Bluegrass State in the near future. Already, funding is being lined up for an additional station in Bellevue, and the president of Southbank Partners told River City News that they hope to see Red Bike added to Dayton, Ft. Thomas and Ludlow as well.

In addition to Northern Kentucky, additional infill stations are anticipated uptown and neighborhood leaders continue to call for the system’s expansion to the Walnut Hills area.

Red Bikes can be used by purchasing an $8 pass that is good for unlimited rides of 60 minutes or less over a 24-hour period. Those who plan on using the system more than 10 times per year are better off purchasing an annual membership for $80.

EDITORIAL: Don’t Cancel Homearama, Relocate It

The past ten days have been interesting. A week ago I spoke with Keith Schneider from the New York Times about the booming residential property values in Cincinnati’s center city. Then, just one day later, the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati announced that they would be cancelling this year’s Homearama event in Clermont County.

The annual suburban home show has been going since 1962, and was cancelled this year due to, “increased activity in other segments of the housing market.” One of the builders that has traditionally participated in those over-the-top suburban home shows is Great Traditions, which recently expressed a growing interest in developing urban properties.

Great Traditions is not the only one. Greiwe Development has also said that they would like to start building homes along the Cincinnati Streetcar starter line, John Hueber Homes made the same transition to Over-the-Rhine, and Ashley Builders appears to just be getting started on their work in the center city.

So while homebuilders are struggling in the region’s outlying suburbs, they seem to be thriving in a manner that is pulsating outward from Downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

It seems more than likely that Homearama will return in the not-so-distant future, but should it? With all the demographic and economic trends pointing in the opposite direction, perhaps the energy and money put into the 53-year-old suburban home show should be shifted elsewhere. I could think of some very nice places to do urban home shows in Pleasant Ridge, Walnut Hills, Avondale, West End, Price Hill, East End, and College Hill. And that is not even considering the possibilities in Northern Kentucky’s river cities.

Yes, there is CiTiRAMA, but that annual home show is often limited in its scale and tends to leave much to be desired.

The writing appears to be on the wall, which makes the outlandish Fischer Homes Expressway proposal look all the more desperate. Why keep up the fight? There are plenty of opportunities in our region’s first-ring suburbs, and the city governments overseeing those sites will assuredly be more than happy to cooperate.

Don’t believe me? Just ask those developers that had been defined by their suburban subdivisions for decades how they are liking life in neighborhoods like East Walnut Hills, O’Bryonville, Northside, Clifton and Over-the-Rhine where condos are virtually sold-out.

I hope the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati decides to not cancel this year’s Homearama after all. I just hope they relocate it to the inner-city where the residential housing market is hot.

On-Bike Advertising, System Expansion On-Deck for Cincy Red Bike

Cincy Red Bike Phase 1 MapCincy Red Bike has been in operation for nearly six months. So far, city leaders and system operators are encouraged by the more than 600 members and roughly 18,000 trips that have been made during that time. As a result, many are now calling for the system’s expansion as it heads into the best six weather months of the year.

As of now, Cincy Red Bike’s system includes 30 stations throughout Downtown, Over-the-Rhine, Clifton Heights, Clifton, Corryville, University Heights and Avondale. While 263 bikes were originally purchased, the bike share system’s executive director, Jason Barron, says that there are normally around 220 bikes deployed, and that the number has dropped to as low as 140 during recent heavy snow events.

Barron told UrbanCincy that the goal was to reach 52,000 rides in the first year of operations. While Cincy Red Bike has so far provided approximately one-third of that, they say they are undeterred.

“We are obviously under that projection so far, but that assumes linear ride rates,” he explained. “Because of the weather, we do not expect to be above the pace so far. What we do know is that we had huge numbers in our first month, which was decent weather, and we have seen a great spike on decent weather days in the winter.”

When comparing Cincinnati’s performance to other cold weather peers, Barron’s optimism appears to be justified. In January, for example, Cincy Red Bike logged around 1,800 rides, while the system in Indianapolis had just 1,200.

While opening up to cold weather months may seem like a rough way to start a system, Barron says that it was, in part, intentional to have a slow start period in order to have time to learn how to make modifications to the system and its operations.

One of those lessons learned is that stations like the one at Main/Orchard are far more popular than what was originally anticipated. This falls in line with national research that shows stations located in densely populated residential clusters are more heavily used than those located by landmarks. As a result, the next round of expansion will most likely include stations situated in those types of locations.

“The three busiest stations, by a factor of a third, are Fountain Square, 12th/Vine and Main/Orchard,” noted Barron. “We will start to look at areas in the West End like Linn Street, Bank Street, City West and maybe Brighton. We have to look and see where there are opportunities to connect people and make a difference in their lives.”

Beyond the West End, most additional stations, which cost approximately $50,000 each, will most likely be placed near the existing service area, but much has recently been made about an expansion across the river into Northern Kentucky. Since political discussions, permitting and fundraising are still underway, Barron was naturally hesitant to discuss specific details about the number or location of new stations.

“Public space is at a premium. The trick is finding a place where people want to be, but that is also available.”

A recent partnership between Cincy Red Bike and The Enquirer yielded over 1,000 location suggestions for new stations. In addition to Northern Kentucky, Barron says that Northside and Walnut Hills were also top choices.

Rumors have it that there will be 10 to 12 stations to open initially in Covington, Newport and Bellevue; while, in Cincinnati, Northside may be the next neighborhood to be graced with a station near Hoffner Park.

What is confirmed is that four new stations will be installed in Cincinnati in March, and Barron says the goal is to roll out the initial expansion into Northern Kentucky later this summer. Like Uptown and Downtown, bike share operators clearly see Kentucky’s densely populated river cities as a major opportunity.

“It’s not enough to just launch in Northern Kentucky. We need to launch successfully,” Barron said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to raise all the funds we need to roll this out right.”

Fundraising continues to be a significant matter for Cincy Red Bike, which was launched, with much acclaim, under the auspice that it would primarily be funded with private contributions. While financial data has not yet been released, Barron says that they have been hitting their targets and plan to unveil on-bike sponsorship opportunities in the coming months.

“We going to be building out a bit here or there, but we really want to go where we think we can activate new ridership bases,” said Barron. “Really, though, I can’t wait for spring.”

New Yorkers skeptical of proposed ferry network, but could it work here?

Almost exactly six years ago, UrbanCincy proposed a comprehensive water taxi network for Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Right now, New York City is looking at expanding and developing a comprehensive, city-wide ferry network. The idea has been proposed there before, but it is being met with skepticism due to a perceived inability to provide the much greater amounts of capacity that are needed there. More from Second Avenue Sagas:

Let’s stop to acknowledge that ferry service can be useful. It’s a complementary element of a robust transit network that can bridge awkward gaps…That said, no matter how many times politicians leap to embrace ferries, the same problems remain. It is, flat out, not a substitute for subway service and, because of the scale of ridership figures and planned routing, won’t help alleviate subway congestion. If it takes a few cars off the road, so much the better, but the mayor should be looking at high capacity solutions to the city’s mobility problems.