CNU’s 2018 Transportation Summit: Lessons for Greater Cincinnati

CNU’s 2018 Transportation Summit was September 16-17 in New Orleans. The purpose of the summit was to bring together people focused on the revitalization of urban neighborhoods disrupted by freeways. In attendance were people from Massachusetts, California, Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, Washington DC, and two members from CNU Midwest, Chris Meyer and Brian Boland. There were many takeaways from the summit but three lessons seem applicable to Greater Cincinnati.

The first is that freeways and urban fabric are incompatible. Urban fabric in Greater Cincinnati typically consists of fine-grained parcels, 2-5 story buildings, and a dense street with grid pedestrian-scale streetscapes. Urban fabric is fundamentally sized for people. The 19th century blessed present-day Greater Cincinnati with an abundance of high-quality urban fabric. A minor takeaway from the transportation summit was that other cities would be jealous if they knew what we have.

Freeways are scaled for cars and trucks. They are always interruptions in the urban fabric. They break up the street grid wherever they pass through it and form barriers to people passing. The urban fabric for blocks around a freeway is degraded not only by the dirt, noise, smell, and ugliness but also by the profusion of vehicles they concentrate and deliver into the urban fabric. This is true for greater Cincinnati along the I-75, I-71, and I-471 corridors.

Freeways are a necessary part of the urban economy but they are incompatible with the urban fabric. It was a mistake to run them through central cities. Dwight Eisenhower, the father of the interstate system, certainly thought so.

Multiple people at the summit noted that urban freeways are “monuments to racism.” That’s obviously the case in New Orleans. In Cincinnati, the West End neighborhood is physically gone but the Kenyan Barr photo exhibit, currently showing at the University of Cincinnati, illustrates the neighborhood destroyed by I-75. Ninety-seven percent of the residents were black.

A second lesson from the transportation summit is that urban fabric is valuable. Anyone familiar with CNU understands that. What was new is that urban fabric can be more valuable than the freeways running through it. Implicitly or explicitly, a big part of the argument to remove freeways, be it Denver, Oakland, or Austin, is to free up land for profitable new development.

The same principle applies to Cincinnati. The value of land with urban development on it is greater than the same amount of land with auto-centric development on it. The blocks around freeways are almost always taken up with auto-centric development because of how freeway ramps concentrate vehicles in a geographic space. Cincinnati would reap greater economic, tax, and social benefits if the space around Interstate-75 followed urban development patterns rather than auto-centric development patterns.

The third lesson is that the future of urban development doesn’t have to look like the past. When the first Congress for New Urbanism met in 1991, most new development was going to suburbs and central cities were still losing money and population. That has changed. People are moving back to places where they can live, work, and play, without a car. It’s happening in Cincinnati too.
Recognizing the value of urban fabric and the cost of freeways in the urban fabric allows people to recalculate the costs/benefits of future transportation projects. Two high-profile Cincinnati transportation projects include the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar and the Brent Spence Bridge expansion.

One argument against the streetcar is that it is not “profitable,” so it should be shut down. However, streetcars are compatible with the urban fabric. Most buildings and parcels on the streetcar route have been improved. Streetlife – outdoor dining, social interaction, economic activity – along the streetcar route is as vital as it’s been for decades. The streetcar is a fellow dancer in the sidewalk ballet. It improves the value of adjacent urban fabric, in opposition to freeways that destroy value. A better cost/benefit analysis of the streetcar would include the increased tax value derived from adjacent improved parcels.

The inverse argument occurs with the Brent Spence Bridge project. The primary cost/benefit evaluation looks at congestion. The potential value of restored urban fabric has never been a part of the bridge’s cost/benefit analysis. When they factored the value of urban fabric into the Fort Washington way redesign, they decided to sink the freeway below grade so it could be capped in the future. It’s easy to envision a redesigned bridge project that includes land for new urban fabric, much as the Fort Washington Way project did.

The 2018 CNU transportation summit brought together thought leaders, local activists, transportation professionals, and city designers. A repeated statement at the 2018 summit was that multi-million dollar infrastructure projects should improve the value of places where they are constructed. In Greater Cincinnati, it seems like the value of place is often not considered in the cost-benefit analysis of large transportation projects.

In the past, it was possible to argue that urban fabric had no value, or that its value was equal to auto-centric development. Those arguments can no longer be made in good faith. If Cincinnati is going to capitalize on the wealth of its urban fabric, the value of that fabric must be included when evaluating future transportation projects. If it’s done so accurately, we should be all the wealthier.

This is a guest article by Chris Meyer reporting on the 2018 CNU Transportation Summit. 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.

Foundation Event a Deep Dive into Bath House History

For decades these peculiar historic buildings sat hidden in plain sight. Maybe it was a house with two front entrances or a church. Maybe a building had a lot of hard concrete floors. In Over-the-Rhine, these could have been breweries, factories, or….a bath house?

Highlighting the history of one of the neighborhoods more hidden quirks, the Over-the-Rhine Foundation will host an event later this month in a former bath house.

A Sanborn Map showing the Pendleton Bath House

“In the early 20th century, the high cost of in-home plumbing and water heaters meant that Cincinnatians bathed at commercially operated bathhouses,” Foundation Trustee Tom Hadley told UrbanCincy, “Social reformers advocated for publicly funded baths as a way to check the spread of disease, improve living conditions and educate about the benefits of cleanliness.” He hopes the event can showcase this particular aspect of OTR history.

Foundation organizers hope the event will encourage attendees to explore the history of OTR in an informal and interactive experience.

The event called, “Taking the Plunge: History of Public Bath Houses” will be held on Thursday, Nov. 1 at 5:30 PM at the location of the former St. Mary’s Baptist Church in Pendleton. It is ticketed and tickets can be purchased here for $25. The Foundation will host a social hour at the Urban 3 Points Brewery following the program.

The event will be located within two blocks of a Cincy RedBike station on 12th and Broadway and is served by the #24 and #19 Metro bus routes via Sycamore Street.

Editor’s Note: Mr. Yung is a member of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation Board of Trustees.

Walking Tours from ‘Urbanologist’ Max Grinnell Return to Cincinnati

Max Grinnell is an author, historian, and professor who excels at sharing unique perspectives of American cities. This June, he will return to Cincinnati to host a series of walking tours titled Out of the Past: Tales from the Federal Writers Guide to Cincinnati On Foot.

Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 10.57.51 AMThe walking tours are inspired by Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors, a book published in 1943 for the Federal Writers’ Project. This book was a part of the American Guide Series, also known as the WPA guides, which was a program funded by the New Deal to employ writers during the Great Depression. Today, the book serves as a snapshot of 1943 Cincinnati, when the city’s population was 455,610 and now-iconic structures like Carew Tower and Union Terminal were just a decade old.

This time period was “a bit of an ‘amber’ moment” in Cincinnati’s history, Grinnell told UrbanCincy, “as this was the Queen City at its industrial peak. I consider [Cincinnati’s WPA guide] one of the better city guides produced by the Federal Writers’ Project.”

This will be Grinnell’s forth time hosting a Cincinnati walking tour of this nature. Grinnell says he has refined the concept over the years, adding in even more historical context from other sources. “I’ve also done a bit more original research through local papers, business directories, and photograph archives from the University of Cincinnati,” Grinnell told UrbanCincy.

The 60-minute walking tours will take place on June 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. Tickets are available for $15 per person at Grinnell’s website.

Walking Tours from ‘Urbanologist’ Max Grinnell Return to Cincinnati

Max Grinnell is an author, historian, and professor who excels at sharing unique perspectives of American cities. For each of the last two summers, Grinnell has visited Cincinnati to host a series of walking tours that offer a historical look at the city’s urban core. This June, Grinnell is bringing back the tour, which looks back on the Cincinnati of 1943 and compares it to our modern city.

Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 10.57.51 AMThe walking tour is inspired by Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors, a book published in 1943 for the Federal Writers’ Project. This book was a part of the American Guide Series, also known as the WPA guides, which was a program funded by the New Deal to employ writers during the Great Depression. Today, the book serves as a snapshot of 1943 Cincinnati, when the city’s population was 455,610 and now-iconic structures like Carew Tower and Union Terminal were just a decade old.

This time period was “a bit of an ‘amber’ moment” in Cincinnati’s history, Grinnell told UrbanCincy, “as this was the Queen City at its industrial peak. I consider [Cincinnati’s book] one of the better city guides produced by the Federal Writers’ Project.”

The 60-minute tour will include many of the same elements as previous years, but will also touch on buildings that Cincinnati has recently lost and others that have been repurposed over time.

The tours will take place on June 1st and 4th, and will cost $15 per person. Tickets can be purchased at Grinnell’s website.

Cincinnati Neighborhood Wins Major Preservation Award

In 2006, Over-the-Rhine was listed as one of America’s Most Endangered Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Today that very same neighborhood is celebrated as a tale of monumental historic revitalization and revival. That effort was honored yesterday at an awards ceremony in Washington D.C.

At a reception that is part of National Historic Preservation Advocacy Week, representatives from the City of Cincinnati’s Zoning Department, Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) and the Over-the-Rhine Foundation were presented with the “Preservation’s Best” of 2016 award by the group.

The event is sponsored by Preservation Action, American Institute of Architects, National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Trust Community Investment Corporation, Unico, Inc., and Center for Community Progress and aims to highlight significant projects developed through federal incentives such as Historic Tax Credits.

“Through federal incentives like the Historic Tax Credit, historic preservation drives economic development and community revitalization across the nation by taking historically significant buildings that are dated and abandoned and turning them into viable community assets for a 21st century economy.” spokesperson Rob Naylor said in a statement.

On hand from Cincinnati to receive the award was Kevin Pape of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation, Zoning Administrator Matt Shad and Historic Conservator Beth Johnson from the city. West side Congressman Steve Chabot (R) also attended.

Naylor stated that the award, “highlights exemplary Historic Tax Credit projects that revitalize our cities and small towns and breathe new life into our communities. At a time when the future of the Historic Tax Credit is uncertain, these projects help to highlight the impact the program has had in communities across the country.”

Since 1981, federal tax credits have helped save over 377 buildings in Over-the-Rhine for a total of $267 million dollars. Despite losing 50% of its housing stock since the 1930’s the neighborhood is still considered the largest collection of 19th century Italianate architecture in the country and has been regarded  as “the coolest neighborhood in America.

Editors Note: Mr. Yung is a member of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation Board of Trustees.