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. Chris is an Architect at Hub + Weber, PLC

If you would like to have your thoughts and opinions published on UrbanCincy, simply contact us at editors@urbancincy.com.

Popular Walking Tours Showcasing Cincinnati’s Evolution Since 1940s To Return This June

Max Grinnell is an author, historian, and professor who enjoys sharing unique perspectives of American cities. Last summer, he visited Cincinnati to host a series of walking tours that offered a historical look at the city’s urban core. This June, Grinnell is bringing back the tour, which compares the Cincinnati of 1943 to the city today.

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.

“I consider it one of the better city guides produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, and that’s significant, considering other volumes considered New Orleans, Philadelphia, and others,” Grinnell told UrbanCincy.

The 60-minute tour will be similar to the ones Grinnell hosted last year, but also include some new elements, such a focus on the Netherland Plaza Hotel and its intricate details.

The tours will take place on June 2, 3, and 6, and will cost $15 per person. Tickets can be purchased at Grinnell’s website.

AC Hotels by Marriott to Partner With Eagle Realty on $35 Million, 165-Room Location at The Banks

After several years of trying to attract a hotel to The Banks, the project has landed a brand that is sure to attract the fastest growing customer segment in the industry – millennials.

In a special meeting before the Joint Banks Steering Committee, Eagle Realty Group development affiliate Main Hospitality Holdings and Blue Ash-based hotel operator Winegardner & Hammons announced plans to build a seven-story, 165-room AC Hotels by Marriott on the southwest corner of Freedom Way and Joe Nuxhall Way, directly across from Great American Ball Park.

The news was broken was UrbanCincy last month and comes one year after the brand backed out of a deal to redevelop the former School for Creative and Performing Arts in Pendleton.

Known for its upscale, contemporary European influences, the brand began as a joint venture between Marriott International and leading European hotel developer Antonio Catalán in 2011. The brand officially launched in the North American market in 2013 and now boasts locations in Chicago, Kansas City, Miami Beach, New Orleans, and Washington, DC, making it the fastest launch of a Marriott brand in history.

“We’ve wanted this brand for over five years,” explained Mike Conway, president and CEO of Winegardner & Hammons, with regard to why the third largest hotelier in the world wants to grow in the Cincinnati marketplace. “We think it’s a…absolutely home run in Cincinnati. The reason why we say that is people are moving back to the urban core; and our city, like all major cities across the country, is experiencing a revitalization of downtown.”

Adding to Conway’s enthusiasm was Cincinnati Reds president and CEO, and committee chairman, Bob Castellini.

“The Banks offers up perhaps the best location for a hotel in the city,” Castellini noted. “It took us a while to find and secure the best possible flag and developer for the hotel at The Banks, and I really believe that we have the best possible flag and developer.”

The designs show an L-shaped structure, with the main building height fronting on Joe Nuxhall Way and a smaller, one- to two-story portion to the building’s south.

Along Joe Nuxhall Way, the building will include the front desk and guest rooms – expected to have a $180 per night average rate – and will be capped with a rooftop terrace bar and deck overlooking the Ohio River. It will also include a water feature and a four-story animated LED video board.

The shorter southern portion, made necessary due to height restrictions, will include a lounge, library, fitness facility, conference rooms, and a courtyard overlooking Smale Riverfront Park.

The project team will present the plans to the Urban Design Review Board on Thursday. If all goes according to plan, construction could begin in August and be completed by spring 2017.

The development is expected to cost approximately $35 million, with the equity and debt financing already in place. But the best part, steering committee member Tom Gabelman said, was that it will require no city or county subsidies.

“That’s rather phenomenal in this environment,” he said. “And it’s rather phenomenal, too, that we basically have the quality of hotel that the city and county desired for this premier location.”

Meanwhile, construction continues on Phase 2 of The Banks, most notably on a 339,000-square-foot office building for General Electric that is expected to employ between 1,800 and 2,000 workers when completed in late 2016. Next door, a building featuring 291 apartments and 20,000 square feet of retail space is slated for completion next spring.

Project officials provided some additional details on the infrastructure buildout for Phase 3, which will be paid for with revenues produced by prior phases. This infrastructure work is critical to lift the development out of the Ohio River floodplain, and must be completed before any private real estate development can begin.

Leadership also said that there is a desire to diversify the retail environment along the central riverfront, and further add to the “live, work, play” mantra driving the development.

“I want to add another word there pretty soon, because we hope to have there not just a hotel, but a grocery store and some other retail opportunities so it will be a great place to live, work, shop and play,” said Castellini, who also explained how he used to have to walk down to the river at 4am to make sure it was below 52 feet so that he could open his produce business.

Much has changed along the northern banks of the Ohio River since the days of Castellini’s produce business, and much more will change over the coming years. Project officials say that they will bring a detailed plan for the next round of work to City Council within the next one to two months.

Will AC Hotels by Marriott Open Second Regional Location at The Banks?

The Banks development team is close to finally securing a hotel at the multi-billion dollar development, according to multiple sources close to the project. After years of failed starts and negotiations, UrbanCincy has learned that AC Hotels by Marriott is the hotel now being eyed for the prominent central riverfront location.

The news is yet to be officially announced or confirmed by The Banks development team, but UrbanCincy has confirmed the information over the last week with individuals who have requested to remain anonymous due to the ongoing negotiations taking place.

The understanding is that construction could begin prior to the All-Star Game in July.

The news comes after AC Hotels backed out of a deal at the former School for Creative and Performing Arts in Pendleton. Had that deal moved forward, it would have put it on track to be one of the boutique hotel’s first locations in North America, after establishing itself as a household name in Europe.

According to those sources close to the project, the AC Hotel at The Banks would be a seven-story structure with a rooftop bar named AC Lounge. Once open the hotel, which is expected to have between 150 to 200 rooms, would be managed by Cincinnati-based Winegardner & Hammons, which has close relationships with Marriott and Western & Southern, and has overseen the development of numerous hotels in the region.

According to Winegardner & Hammons’ most recent company report, they also recently signed a contract to manage an AC Hotel in Louisville that is scheduled to break ground in August of this year.

AC Hotels announced their aggressive North American expansion plans in 2013, and opened their first hotel in New Orleans in December 2014. After plans were scuttled for the SCPA project, developers at the $350 million Liberty Center announced that a 130-room AC Hotel would open there in late 2015.

Senior management at Marriott International says that AC Hotels is one of their select-service brands and targets a young clientele seeking a “design-led sensibility.” Overall, Marriott’s president and CEO, Arne Sorenson, says that AC Hotels has some 50 development deals signed nationwide, with dozens more in the works.

In an interview with Hotel News Now, Sorenson specifically identified North Carolina and the Midwest as opportunity markets.

In perhaps a view into one of the reasons behind the failed deal at the former SCPA in Pendleton, Sorenson also told Hotel News Now that the vast majority of the deals AC Hotels has in the pipeline are new construction. In fact, aside from the New Orleans project, he said that only one other project was a conversion.

AC Hotels include more European design influences and place a focus on sleek, tech-focused accommodations that appeal to Millennials. In addition to the rooftop AC Lounge, the new location at The Banks would likely include a communal working space, two to three meeting spaces, and a mixture of one- and two-bed guest rooms.

One of the company’s standard approaches is to locate in vibrant urban areas where significant activity already exists. Hotel management says this is to encourage guests to go outside of the hotel and patronize area businesses. To help further encourage that, most AC Hotels do not include an in-house restaurant, and instead allocate more area for public spaces where guests can mingle and interact with their surroundings.

It is not yet known where exactly the hotel will be located at The Banks, but it is assumed to be targeted for the long-vacant placeholder site along Main Street across from Great American Ball Park, which also happens to be located directly on the Cincinnati Streetcar‘s starter line.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Representatives with The Banks development team did not respond to UrbanCincy’s request for comment; however, sources say an official announcement is expected within the coming weeks. We will update this story with more information as it becomes available.

EDITORIAL: Dîner en Blanc – A Social Experiment

The Question: Would a couple pay $70 to attend an event where they do all of the work? The answer was yes for the 1,750 attendees of Cincinnati’s Dîner en Blanc, hosted two weekends ago in Washington Park.

Originating in 1988 in Paris, France, organizer François Pasquier invited friends to a dinner party. According to the Dîner en Blanc website, “So many wished to attend that he asked them to convene at Bois de Boulogne dressed in white, so as to be recognizable to one another.”

The dinner was a hit and more friends wanted to attend the following year, which created the concept of Dîner en Blanc. In 2009, Pasquier’s son, Aymeric, brought the tradition to North America with his partner, Sandy Safi.

Cincinnati Diner en Blanc
Nearly 2,000 people gathered in Washington Park two weekends ago, wearing all white, and paid $70 for the right to join in on a dinner where they prepared their own food and brought their own tableware. Photograph by 5chw4r7z.

Somewhere in those 20 years, Pasquier’s idea turned into a lofty for-profit venture. In addition to paying a $35 per person, guests of Dîner en Blanc are required to bring their own three course meal, plates, stemware, table settings, table linens, chairs, and a square table of specific dimensions, all of course, in the color white.

Attendees at Cincinnati’s second such event packed these items into their car, drove to a group meeting place, such as Kenwood Towne Center, and then loaded everything onto a bus that delivered them to a secret location. This year it was Washington Park where the haul was unloaded and set up by the guests themselves in 90 degree weather, all while dressed in their finest white attire.

First time guest, Bob Schwartz, offered this commentary, “The event is basically every party you’ve ever been to, except you’re dressed up and it’s a total pain getting there and leaving.”

Dîner en Blanc group leaders explain the high ticket price covers bus transportation to the location, permits, and other costs associated with the experience.

Park rental fees for a private event in the bandstand area are $2,500, with no need for a liquor permit as one is held by park management.To shuttle half of the 1,750 attendees, 18 charter buses were needed at$650 each. While still an expensive party to host, organizers spent roughly $25,000 on entertainment and fixed costs while earning $61,250 from admission sales.

Where does the remaining money go? Not to a charity. The  Dîner en Blanc FAQ states:

Is the Diner en Blanc associated wit a humanitarian or social cause?
What makes the Diner en Blanc so popular is that it’s a “distinct” evening. There are no sponsors, no political or ideological agendas. Le Diner en Blanc is simply a friendly gathering whose sole purpose is to experience a magical evening, in good company, in an environment which is both unusual and extraordinary.

True, it was an unusual gathering. Several Cincinnatians found the “distinct” evening to lack the one thing its description touts: class.

For two years, Dîner en Blanc has been hosted in areas struggling with issues of gentrification. Last year’s rendezvous took place in Lytle Park across from Anna Louise Inn, an affordable housing complex for women, which lost a long conflict with developers who want to convert the building into a hotel.

While the new Washington Park has been embraced by the community, critics remind that low-income, minority residents continue to feel isolated from the growth in Over-the-Rhine. Susan Jackson was concerned that the location created an inappropriate perception.

“I’m not sure white people should wear all white and gather in secret,” she commented after observing a predominantly Caucasian turnout at the event. Local blogger Carla Streeter agrees. She expressed her distaste for Dîner en Blanc by donating the price of admission to the Drop Inn Center, an organization that provides services to the homeless population.

Cincinnati is not the only city raising issue with Dîner en Blanc. Best of New Orleans ranted about the overpriced concept, while attendees in San Francisco complained of their rainy, frigid experience held in a dog park. None of this compares to the outrage in Singapore, where event organizers banned guests from bringing local delicacies, stating that these foods “were not in line with the image of Dîner en Blanc.”

Despite the negative imagery, costly tickets, and necessary labor, the mystery continues as to why excitement builds for Dîner en Blanc. Consider the appeal targeting a specific audience: suburbanites who lack spontaneous social exchanges due to the sprawl of their auto-dependent neighborhood. City dwellers are more likely to have daily personable interactions and access to unique entertainment based on their walkable environment. Taking part in a communal feast with friends sitting next to strangers in a public Downtown setting is a lure for those seeking an experience exclusive to city living.

The question remains: has society reached a point of urban dystopia where people find it acceptable to pay organizers for a face-to-face interaction? For now, word-of-mouth continues to reveal the dark side of Dîner en Blanc.

“If I want to have a picnic, I can do that any time, any day. My friends and I can dress up in all white and wave a napkin to our hearts’ content on our own,” described guest Naoko M. “You’re paying to feel like you’re in some exclusive group, a group of a few hundred people.”

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to reflect the correct price of the event.