City Planners Recommend Transportation Overlay District for Wasson Railroad Corridor

Following the guidance of City Council, Cincinnati’s Department of City Planning & Buildings has completed its land use study for the Wasson Railroad Corridor. The study’s findings and recommendations offer the clearest guidance to-date as to how to proceed with redeveloping the abandoned freight rail corridor, following the issuance of preliminary designs in July 2014.

City planners took a comprehensive look at the history of the corridor, its current conditions and the best path forward that respects the desires of the city and the impacted neighborhoods.

In that analysis City staff revealed seven studies and plans that recommend the corridor either be used for rail transit, or a combined multi-modal network that accommodates rail transit, bicycles and pedestrians. Some of the most notable of these include the 2002 MetroMoves regional transit plan, 2010 Bicycle Transportation Plan, 2012 comprehensive Plan Cincinnati, and the 2013 Railroad Safety Improvement Plan – all of which either specifically call for the corridor to be used for rail transit, or a multi-modal corridor.

The history is important as it influenced the study’s recommendation as to how to proceed with acquiring and preserving the corridor. As of now, the 5.7-mile Wasson Railroad Corridor is still owned by Norfolk Southern, but the City of Cincinnati has stated that they are in the process of acquiring the property from them.

“With this corridor being so crucial to the future development of multi-modal transportation in the City, the threat of potential development within the railroad right-of-way would significantly slow down, if not completely hinder, those possible public transportation opportunities from occurring,” city planners wrote in the 32-page land use study released earlier this month.

Of course, this fact has been known by policy makers at City Hall for years. As a result, City Council has, on several occasions, approved interim development controls to protect the corridor from being built upon. These controls, however, are just temporary and city officials must now decide how they would like to move forward.

In the study city planners examined the pros and cons of three potential options for accomplishing this.

The first option examined the idea of rezoning the property to a Parks and Recreation classification. This would offer the corridor significant protections, but it would also severely restrict the City from being able to implement rail transit in the future due to federal regulations that prohibit the use of public parks or wildlife refuges for transit corridors.

A second option studied looked at simply dedicating the land as City right-of-way. This too would offer significant protections, but is not possible until the City acquires the land from Norfolk Southern.

The third option, and the one recommended by city staff, is enacting a Transportation Overlay District over the corridor. While planners admit that crafting the language for such legislation may be complicated, they also stated that it would be most aligned with the preferences of neighborhood residents and publicly adopted planning documents.

In order to address the complexity of the legislation required for such an overlay district, city planners recommended looking at the Atlanta BeltLine Overlay District that was implemented to protect a 22-mile abandoned freight rail corridor. In Atlanta civic leaders are currently in the process of converting the corridor into a similarly envisioned multi-modal network with rail transit, bikeways, parks and pedestrian paths.

“While all options present advantages and disadvantages, the Transportation Overlay District is seen as the best solution for preservation of the Wasson Railroad Corridor,” city planners wrote. “This tool, while it may take a bit longer to craft the ordinance language, will provide more flexibility and also protect the contiguous nature of the corridor.”

City officials say that this solution will allow for the development of the Wasson Way Trail to move forward in the near term, while affirming the City’s intentions to develop the corridor as a multi-modal transportation facility that includes rail transit in the future.

The solution crafted by the Department of City Planning & Buildings appears to be a perfect compromise between the two constituencies looking to use the corridor. Bicycle advocacy groups can see the right-of-way acquired and preserved so that they can move forward with their plans for a bike and pedestrian trail, while transit advocates can rest assure that those immediate efforts are not being done in conflict with ongoing planning and design work for a future light rail line.

With the Wasson Railroad Corridor Land Use Study now complete, it will go before the city’s Planning Commission. Should it be approved by Planning Commission, it will then go back to city staffers so that draft overlay district language can be crafted and recommended to City Council. From there, it would go before City Council for approval.

It is a standard process and one that advocates hope can be completed in the coming months.

ArtsWave Announces Recipients of $10.4 Million in Grants

ArtsWave finalized their list of grants to arts organizations throughout the region last Friday. This year’s distribution doles out $10.4 million to 35 different local arts organizations, ranging from $12,500 for the Contemporary Dance Theater to $3,020,000 for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to what ArtsWave calls their impact grants, they also distributed $435,000 for small project grants and strategic local partnerships.

The money comes from a fund that ArtsWave officials say is the largest of its kind in the United States, distributing more than $50 million to regional arts organizations over the past five years.

“ArtsWave’s grants are a differentiator for Greater Cincinnati,” Mary McCullough-Hudson, ArtsWave’s outgoing CEO, stated in a prepared release. “It is absolutely unique for a region this size to have an annual infusion of more than $10 million in its arts sector each year, creating both a stabilizing and a catalyzing effect for organizations and arts-related activity that have unexpected benefits for the community.”

The organizations and projects that were awarded money, officials say, were selected based on the input of grant making committees that evaluate submissions and determine the amount of money to be awarded to each applicant.

The average grant amount awarded this year was approximately $250,000. The Cincinnati Art Museum ($1,635,000), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra ($3,020,000) and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park ($1,210,000) were the only organizations to receive grants in excess of $1 million. When removing those outliers from the equation, the average drops to about $110,000.

Other large recipients include the Cincinnati Opera ($935,000), Cincinnati Ballet ($850,000) and Contemporary Arts Center ($405,000).

The money for these grants comes from an annual fundraising effort, which yielded a record amount last year of more than $12 million. In addition to supporting the numerous organizations and projects, the money also goes to support shared service operations arts organizations throughout the region, like board training, volunteer programs and fundraising expenses.

“Our region’s residents support this campaign because they see every day how the arts bring people together,” said Karen Bowman, Chair, ArtsWave Board of Trustees and Principal, Deloitte Consulting.

In addition to these grants, ArtsWave officials also announced that they would be awarding $45,000 to designated community revitalization organizations in Price Hill, Madisonville, Covington, Avondale and Walnut Hills as part of LISC-Cincinnati’s Place Matters campaign. Those funds, they say, will be used to support community-building arts programs in those neighborhoods.

“Successful creative placemaking is about the impact of local arts on people in these neighborhoods,” explained Kathy Schwab, Executive Director, LISC of Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky. “This exciting partnership with ArtsWave will help fuel community engagement and pride in the five Place Matters communities.”

CNU22: Cincinnati Wins National Planning Award for Form-Based Code

The City of Cincinnati’s Department of Planning & Buildings has been on a roll lately. This past weekend in Buffalo, at the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) national conference, the city won its third national award of the year for its new form-based code.

CNU’s grand prize for the Best Planning Tool or Process was actually a tie and thus jointly awarded to Cincinnati for its form-based code (FBC) and Station Center, a transit-oriented development in Union City, California.

As first reported by UrbanCincy, the Department of Planning & Buildings was honored with the Daniel Burnham Award for a Comprehensive Plan at the American Planning Association’s (APA) national conference in Atlanta.  Additionally, in late 2013, the Department won the Ohio APA’s award for Comprehensive Planning for a Large Jurisdiction.

In 2012, city leaders were also awarded with the Frank F. Ferris II Community Planning Award from the Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission.

In addition to city staff and thousands of Cincinnatians, those involved in developing Cincinnati’s award-winning FBC included Opticos Design, Hall Planning & Engineering, Urban Design Associates, glaserworks, Wise Economy Workshop, and Urban Fast Forward.

“It is an honor for us to have our code recognized by an organization that is on the cutting edge of best practices with regard to planning tools and good urbanism,” said Alex Peppers, senior city planner for Cincinnati. “We put a lot of work into developing a code that would fit our context and assets.”

What makes Cincinnati’s FBC unique is that it is a voluntary tool for neighborhoods who seek to preserve the character of their centers of activity and historic business districts. Thus far, it has been adopted in College Hill, Madisonville, Walnut Hills and Westwood.

Jurors noted that they were particularly impressed by the code’s extensive photo documentation and mapping analysis that calibrated the code’s application, and reinforced the unique characteristics of Cincinnati’s urban neighborhoods.

“The Cincinnati code is an excellent example of that advancement in the deployment of SmartCode, with particular attention paid to public process, neighborhood structure and graphic presentation,” explained Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, one of CNU’s award jurors. “It reinforces Cincinnati’s historic urban patterns with guidance for appropriate infill and predictable redevelopment building.”

The final draft of Cincinnati’s form-based code is available online and can be accessed here.

On the twelfth official episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, we were joined by Roxanne Qualls to discuss Cincinnati’s development and implementation of form-based codes. You can subscribe to The UrbanCincy Podcast on iTunes for free.

Spanish-Language Workshop Hopes to Foster Immigrant Entrepreneurship in Cincinnati

The Cincinnati region struggles with attracting immigrants, even when compared with other nearby metros like Cleveland, Indianapolis or Louisville. X-LINK, an initiative from the Williams College of Business at Xavier University, has launched a program that its organizers hope will be a small step toward fixing that problem.

In partnership with the Cincinnati Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Cincinnati Independent Business Alliance, Xavier University is starting LaunchCincy Juntos, a series of entrepreneurship workshops in Spanish (“Juntos” is the Spanish word for “together” or “united”) aimed at helping immigrants foster their ideas for starting a new business.

The group has organized four workshops to-date, with three having already taken place. Two were held in Price Hill and the third was held in Madisonville. The fourth planned workshop will take place in Norwood on June 14, and organizers say that more will follow suit.

Translated from English to Spanish by three undergraduates at Xavier University – Gali Zummar, Ronal Vieira, and Laura Forero – the first of these four workshops lit the flame for certain business ideas, and attendees were given specific assignments to develop their ideas further before their next class.

Noting that immigrants are more than twice as likely to start a business as native-born Americans, and currently lead the nation in terms of business creation, Xavier University and its partners say they want to reach out to the Latino community in Cincinnati to help create a better environment for Spanish-speakers to get their ideas onto paper and, hopefully, into business.

With immigration from Spanish-speaking nations maintaining its steady flow into the United States, Spanish is increasingly important for every aspect of American society, including business.

One example where Cincinnati’s struggles became quite clear was the relocation of Chiquita’s headquarters in November 2011. In addition to poor air service, Chiquita management cited the lack of Spanish-speaking professionals in the region as compared to Charlotte.

“Only 5% of the population speaks another language, which is very low, however 5% of two million is 100,000 people,” Alfonso Cornejo, President of the Cincinnati Hispanic Chamber, exclaimed during Episode 18 of The UrbanCincy Podcast when describing a new initiative focused on addressing this issue called Cincy Bilingual Talent. “If you can capture 3% of those 5% of them, then we’ll have thousands of people in the system who speak a lot of languages.”

X-Link plans to expand their Spanish-speaking program into Carthage this fall, in partnership with the Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio and Su Casa Hispanic Ministries.

Cincinnati Leaders Approve City’s Third Form-Based Code in Walnut Hills

Last week Cincinnati City Council approved the form-based code for Walnut Hills. The unanimous vote marks the third neighborhood to adopt this new regulatory tool for neighborhood redevelopment. Yet even after several years of development, many do not understand the basics about the new land use planning tool.

First of all, a form-based code is type of regulation that is developed by community stakeholders to guide future development or redevelopment of a community. Under a form-based code, new developments are typically configured to mesh with the character of the community’s vision.

Form-based codes get their name because it creates a type of regulation that typically focuses more on the form of the building and its relation to the public realm (i.e. the street) rather than the usage of the building. Development under the code occurs “by-right” and means if a new development complies with all the code’s provisions it can be built without having to go through the extensive and sometimes drawn-out process of traditional development.

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Over 700 American cities have adopted some type of a form-based code, with Miami being the largest city to completely adopt this type of code. Near by they have been used in Nashville and Columbus to spark development in revitalizing areas of their inner cities.

Former Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (D) championed this movement locally and actually led groups of local officials and business leaders to Nashville to study the results of their form-based codes in 2008 and 2012.

While some cities have used these tools to encourage pedestrian friendly, mixed-use developments where none exist, older more established cities such as Cincinnati have opted to implement them in order to ensure that new development integrates seamlessly into the historic charm and character of the city.

Bellevue, KY became the first municipality in the Cincinnati region to adopt this type of regulation in 2011.

Cincinnati first began pursuing the idea of developing a form-based code in 2009. After receiving funding through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, city staff selected Opticos to lead in developing the new code. Dan Parolek, principal of Opticos, wrote the book on form-based codes, quite literally.

After conducting a city-wide charrette in May 2012, the City of Cincinnati worked with Opticos to refine the code and prepare it for adoption. The form-based code was adopted in early 2013. From there staff from the city’s planning department worked closely with neighborhoods to craft the regulating plan map.

Four neighborhoods were included in the initial implementation schedule: Madisonville, College Hill, Westwood and Walnut Hills. Both Madisonville and College Hill have fully adopted the code with Walnut Hills being the latest. Westwood appears to be the next neighborhood poised to adopt the code after winning unanimous support from the city’s Planning Commission in December 2013.