Stars Aligning for Cincinnati to Chicago High-Speed Rail

4123288130_f7b778d9d5_bLocal and national developments show positive signs for America’s oft-criticized national passenger railroad company, Amtrak. A railroad reform bill introduced in the Senate contains many positive changes for Amtrak and local support continues to grow for increased service on Cincinnati’s tri-weekly train to Indianapolis and Chicago.

The Railroad Reform, Enhancement, and Efficiency Act of 2015 (RREEA, S.1626) was introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) to improve Amtrak service across the nation. The bill addresses several different issues for the railroad, including expansion, funding, and leadership. It also provides an increase in funding levels for the railroad through 2019.

In terms of leadership, the legislation would reorganize the board of directors for the railroad, with two representatives for the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor, two for long-distance routes (the Cardinal), and two for state-supported lines. There would also be one “floating” member.

The RREEA also includes several sections that fuel possible future expansion of the national rail network by establishing a committee to facilitate communication and cooperation between states and Amtrak on state-supported routes. In addition, it would require Amtrak to work with an independent agency to evaluate all routes and review possible elimination of routes, expansion or extension of current routes, or the establishment of new ones.

While calling this clause problematic, the National Association of Railroad Passengers acknowledges that this text includes a “comprehensive framework for analyzing a route that recognize the unique benefits rail service provides.”

Section 301 of the act explicitly requires that the Department of Transportation set up a program to assist the operating costs of launching or restoring passenger rail transportation. The section seems to be a nod towards the amount of routes cut from the system over Amtrak’s 40-plus years of operation.

Additional clauses provide mechanisms for cooperation between states and the federal government, when it comes to addressing the backlog of capital projects within the system, Amtrak’s money-losing food service, and the restoration of service along the Gulf Coast, a line that has been out of commission since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

After the deadly derailment in Philadelphia in May, safety across the network is a major component of this legislation.

Both sponsoring senators touted the bipartisan nature of the bill and Senator Wicker’s office released a statement identifying the national passenger rail system as an “integral part of our overall transportation structure and our economy,” and thanking Senator Booker for his support and help in creating the bill.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation voted on July 13 to include the RREEA Act into the broader transportation bill, the Comprehensive Transportation and Consumer Protection Act of 2015 (S.1732).

In the Cincinnati metropolitan area, support continues to grow for the expansion of rail service in the area, especially to Chicago.

The City of Hamilton recently applied to Amtrak for a stop and has passed a resolution of support for increased service. Nearby in Oxford, home of Miami University, initial approvals have been set to create a station for Amtrak, and efforts are currently underway to identify the exact location for that facility.

The effort has also gained support from the University of Cincinnati Student Senate, when they passed a resolution 31-1 in support of increased rail service to Chicago, citing Chicago as “an important transportation hub for students’ co-op travels, as well as an economic destination for students, staff, and faculty alike.”

According to All Aboard Ohio’s Southwest regional director, Derek Bauman, the UC student government president is also coordinating with other local university student governments to obtain resolutions of support; and in addition to Hamilton, both Norwood, where Amtrak employs local workers, and Wyoming, where the Cardinal line runs through, have also passed resolutions of support for increased passenger rail service.

Hamilton County commissioners also unanimously approved a resolution pursuing a feasibility study.

Going forward, Bauman says that there will be a need for increased cooperation and support from local Metropolitan Planning Organizations along the route. In Columbus, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) has actively supported the implementation of a Columbus-Ft. Wayne-Chicago rail line; and in Northeast Ohio, a consortium of local MPOs have banded together and formed a sub-group to support increased rail service to the region.

From here, leadership at All Aboard Ohio says that they hope the OKI Regional Council of Governments will take a similar approach on behalf of the Cincinnati region.

Physical Redevelopment of Cincinnati Also Reinvigorating Local Art Community

Everyone has heard about the craft beer movement and the desires for locally sourced food, but Cincinnati is also experiencing a similar renaissance in the art community.

The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) has become well-known for the work they are doing to redevelop the city’s historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Their work has created hundreds of new residences and dozens of new shops. Perhaps lesser known is the fact that many of these residences and shops are being designed and outfitted with custom, local art.

Area businesses have also begun embracing local artists. At Taste of Belgium, owner Jean-Francois Flechet says that they worked with local carpenters and artists to design all the tables, furniture and even the bar itself at their hub restaurant at Twelfth and Vine Streets. They also commissioned a large art installation behind the bar.

Flechet says that they have continued this pattern at their newer store on Short Vine in Corryville, and even more so at their soon-to-open restaurant in Norwood.

“We are working on a really cool installation at Rookwood Exchange with Dan and Steve from Brave Berlin,” Flechet said referring to the two men behind the Lumenocity concept. As such, the installation at the new Taste of Belgium in Rookwood will be of the visual display variety.

“We will have animated projected artwork from three projectors,” he explained. “The artwork will evolve throughout the day and updated on a regular basis. It will be really fun and different.”

One of the more dramatic pieces of commissioned art in the center city is ‘Aluminnati’ at 3CDC’s new offices. There, at Twelfth and Walnut Streets, a massive piece of artwork was commissioned for the office’s two-story space connecting the reception area on the fourth floor to offices above.

“When the design team for 3CDC’s new offices created the grand interior staircase between our two levels, we knew that an original piece of art should grace the two-story wall,” explained Anastasia Mileham, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at 3CDC.

Created by Jeff Welch, the piece is an aluminum topographical sculpture of Cincinnati’s center city – a fitting installation for a development corporation that is solely focused on that geographic area. It was a job Welch says he truly enjoyed, and one that he thinks defines a growing interest in custom artwork.

“I believe they [3CDC] must support local artists if we are to rebuild Cincinnati to the cherished quality level established by our ancestors, who built OTR entirely with local artists and craftsmen,” Welch told UrbanCincy. “My experience with 3CDC is that they are very good at supporting local artists, at least in the capacity of their new headquarters, where they had total control over the project.”

Welch was not the only local artist producing work for the new 3CDC office building, and he believes that the growing interest in Cincinnati for locally produced and original artwork is part of a larger national trend, largely being driven by the Millennial generation.

“I believe there is a definitely a local trend toward commissioned art, design and craft, and I’m banking my future on it,” said Welch. “All the new restaurants, shops and businesses seem to be in a competition to feature local craft, or they are at least assuming that something has to be made local. It’s definitely a trend nationwide and Cincinnati is right on-point.”

In fact, he believes in the movement so much that after relocating to Cincinnati in 2009, he started his own design company called Modularem. It’s a movement that is not just tied directly to art, but the larger identity and culture of the city.

“I had gone to UC for undergrad in the early 2000s and had soaked up a lot of the city’s amazing urban history,” Welch explained. “But when we read about the streetcar project, we were sold. That single project represented so much commitment to progress, and enthusiasm for the future, that we wanted to be part of it.”

While his story is unique, he is certainly not alone. According to Mileham, the changing culture of the city is at the heart of its revival.

“Local art is at the heart of everything our organization believes in, and what this OTR community is about,” Mileham said. “The Italian Renaissance-style buildings we renovate are hand-crafted art, the restaurateurs who start businesses in our commercial spaces are local artists, we program the civic spaces that we manage with original music and local performing arts groups.”

Cincinnati Reaches Agreement With Norfolk Southern on Purchase of Wasson Railroad Corridor

Cincinnati City Council’s Neighborhoods Committee gave a unanimous okay to an ordinance that would solidify an agreement to purchase 4.1 miles of railroad right-of-way from Norfolk Southern for $11.8 million, providing a key piece of the 7.6-mile Wasson Way recreational trail.

The agreement would give the City a two-year purchase option for the property, which extends between the Montgomery-Dana intersection along the Norwood/Evanston line to the intersection of Red Bank and Wooster roads in Columbia Township.

The ordinance was a last minute by-leave item on the committee calendar, made necessary due to a TIGER grant application that is due on Friday. Project backers are seeking $17 million of the $20 million project cost, and City support makes their application much more attractive.

The trail has been in the works since 2011, and a group of nearly 20 volunteers with the Wasson Way nonprofit got a big boost when Mayor John Cranley (D), City Manager Harry Black, and City staff assisted with the negotiations.

“We started looking at the TIGER grant application,” said Mel McVay, senior planner at Cincinnati’s Department of Transportation & Engineering. “They really talk about ‘ladders of opportunity’, increasing mobility and accessibility for folks throughout the region, and so we saw an opportunity between the property we could purchase and some property we already had, and some existing trails.”

Director of Department of Trade and Development Oscar Bedolla spelled out the project’s urgency.

“One of the statutory requirements associated with the scoring for TIGER is related to readiness,” he said. “And so, the more that we can do to show that the project is potentially shovel-ready enhances our ability to acquire or be selected for TIGER funding.”

Bedolla added that under the terms of the agreement, the City would pay nothing in the first year if it does not proceed with the purchase. If the purchase is pursued within the second year, there would be a 5% fee added to the price.

The City’s matching funding of between $3 million and $4 million for construction costs could be made up of a combination of state and federal grants, plus funds raised by Wasson Way, he said.

Still up in the air is approximately two miles or the corridor between the Columbia Township end point and Newtown, where it could connect with the Little Miami Scenic Trail.

“We’re working on it,” McVay said. “Unfortunately, the railroad was not open to selling any additional property east of that point. We’re investigating three or four ways that we can get farther east to the existing Little Miami Trail. We’re very confident we can get there.”

David Dawson, a resident of Mt. Lookout and realtor with Sibcy Cline, expressed concern about how a long-envisioned light rail line could be brought to the corridor once its freight rail designation is abandoned – a legal process that is handled by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

“It just can’t be said enough, in my view, that the City will now become the steward of a very valuable asset,” Dawson said. “This is a regional corridor that, in this day and age, cannot really be duplicated. If we lose that ability to eventually have transit, rail transit, or some sort of transit in the future, we won’t be able to put it back.

Dawson and other rail advocates are calling for the corridor to be railbanked, so that the addition of light rail transit remains an option in the future.

“This doesn’t just connect our neighborhoods, but in the future it has the potential to connect the entire region out to Clermont County,” Dawson said.

The use of this corridor has long been eyed for light rail transit, including in the 2002 MetroMoves regional transit plan. A 2014 study by KZF Design recommended a design solution that would preserve the ability to develop both light rail transit and a trail; and estimated that such an approach would bring the cost of developing the trail to approximately $11.2 million.

Andrea Yang, senior assistant City solicitor, said that the purchase agreement would give the City some time to work out those issues.

“The way that the abandonment process is structured, there is a time period which we could utilize to further investigate other options,” Yang said. “Had we chosen to railbank the property and attempt to preserve it, it would actually follow the same process for abandonment, so there’s definitely time to look into that if that is what Council’s interested in seeing.”

In April, Cincinnati’s Planning Commission voted to place an Interim Development Control Overlay District on this corridor in order to give the city more time to allow plans to progress without new development creating new conflicts.

Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood Leaders Hoping to Build on Current Momentum

Last month UrbanCincy broke the news that a new brewpub would be opening in the heart of the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood business district. The announcement was much bigger news that we had anticipated, but during the research for that story we found that even that was only the tip of the iceberg.

Neighborhood leaders in Pleasant Ridge say the community has been meticulously studying and developing ideas for how to improve the business district for more than a decade. Research on demographics, assessments of existing conditions, and visioning sessions have all been conducted over the years. This work has resulted in numerous planning documents that neighborhood activists today believe create a strong foundation for future success.

The Pleasant Ridge Development Corporation (PRDC) has been the driving force behind much of this work. The organization has seven board members, and has been led for the past several years by Jason Chamlee.

A neighborhood resident for the better part of the past seven years, Chamlee is also part of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority’s real estate team and is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s Masters of Community Planning program. Almost by definition, he would appear to be just the kind of person you would want to have steering a community development corporation like PRDC.

“We’re trying to stimulate development in the neighborhood as we can,” Chamlee explained to UrbanCincy. “Pleasant Ridge is kind of an untapped market in terms of clusters of neighborhoods since it is geographically near so much.”

One of the problems, he notes, is that I-71 and the big box developments to the south often serve as a physical or, even worse, mental barrier for people not familiar with the neighborhood. Unlike Oakley Station and Center of Cincinnati, the Pleasant Ridge business district, primarily organized along Montgomery Road, has a distinctive historic character to it that is only moderately marred by late 20th century planning failures.

Therefore, one of the primary goals of Pleasant Ridge is to rebuild and reinforce that character. Sixty99 is the first project that will help PRDC move in that direction, but Chamlee is quick to explain how it is only the beginning.

“We believe that there is a lot of demand for this kind of business district,” said Chamlee. “There is a good opportunity to appeal to those suburbanites that want an urban experience, but might not want to head all the way to Over-the-Rhine or Mainstrasse.”

The hope is that Pleasant Ridge can become an in-town neighborhood with a walkable neighborhood business district that boasts appealing restaurants and shopping. It is not that the community wants to be a regional draw, but rather start drawing from a slightly larger zone than it does now. Based on the community’s demographic analysis, significant opportunities lie within nearby neighborhoods like Amberely Village, Kennedy Heights, Norwood and Silverton.

In order to get to that point PRDC hopes to redevelop ‘non-contributing’ properties in the heart of the business district, from Lester Road on the west to Grand Vista Avenue on the east, with infill that brings new density to help bolster business on weekdays.

One of the sites the neighborhood has its sights set on is the triangle-shaped block bounded by Ridge, Montgomery and Woodford. The site sits right in the heart of the district and is currently occupied by two one-story buildings, a gas station, and several parking lots. Sitting directly across the street from Sixty99 and Nine Giant Brewing, the hope is that the site could be redeveloped with three to five story buildings that include new street-level commercial spaces.

But Chamlee says that before they get started on pumping new commercial space into the business district, they are working to fill out and improve what is already there. To that end, he mentioned two new businesses that will be opening in the coming months. The first is a cocktail-type restaurant and bar that will feature smaller plates and be located in the former VFW Hall. The second is a coffee shop and lunch restaurant geared toward families that is called Red Balloon Play Café + Play.

It is anticipated that both new establishments will utilize some of the remaining liquor licenses made available from the Pleasant Ridge Community Entertainment District designation.

Beyond that, Chamlee says PRDC is working with building owners to help fill the three remaining spaces at Sixty99 and reimagine what they consider to be underutilized properties.

“We have found that the people that are really interested [in opening businesses] are the people that are already here and have been here,” Chamlee explained. “A lot of what is happening is from people already here who really believe in the neighborhood and are doubling down. We’re only just starting to get the attention of some outsiders.”

While Pleasant Ridge boasts a relatively stable residential base, there may be a significant opportunity should the neighboring Losantiville Country Club ever be sold off and redeveloped. The neighborhood’s 2007 vision study looked at exactly that possibility and found that the site would be ideal for walkable residential infill.

According to Chamlee, the focus on walkability is critical; and implementing a form-based code for the neighborhood would be an effective tool to help make that a reality.

“We know what we want and we know what we need,” Chamlee said in reference to the past planning exercises. “We just need to get some more momentum and find the right partners to help execute it.

Month in Review – June 2014

We Are Walnut Hills 3UrbanCincy‘s most popular stories in June were clear signs of the progress being made in Cincinnati. While a modest number of new residents have been added over the past four years, the urban core and surrounding neighborhoods continue to grow with new residential developments.

Two of the stories (#2 and #5) are in sharp contrast: while Cincinnati received national praise for its form-based code efforts, Norwood missed an opportunity and ended up with an auto-oriented development in its core.

As you enjoy your Independence Day weekend, we invite you to catch up on our top stories from June that you may have missed:

    1. Cincinnati Posts Population Gain for Second Consecutive Year
      The city has added about 1,000 new residents since 2010.
    2. Cincinnati Wins National Planning Award for Form-Based Code
      Jocelyn Gibson reports back from her trip to the 22nd Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).
    3. New Apartments, Retail Space Coming to Peeble’s Corner in Walnut Hills
      “The whole goal here is to create a concentrated effort, like what 3CDC has done in Over-the-Rhine, and reach that critical mass in Walnut Hills.”
    4. Work on $30M Corryville Apartment Project On-Pace for Fall 2015 Completion
      Uptown Cincinnati continues to molt and grow, and Randy Simes reports on the latest 300-bed Uptown Rental Properties development.
    5. Paycor’s Brand New Headquarters in Norwood Misses the Mark
      In a guest editorial, Norwood resident James Bonsall explains that the latest phase of the Linden Pointe on the Lateral development turns its back on bikes and pedestrians.