Over-the-Rhine Wins Big in Latest Round of Ohio Historic Tax Credits

The Ohio Development Services Agency divvied up its thirteenth round of historic tax credits yesterday. As has been the case in the past, Over-the-Rhine, one of the nation’s largest historic districts, was a big winner.

In addition to the mega tax credit awarded to Music Hall, five other projects in the neighborhood received tax credits through the program.

Urban Sites received two tax credits totaling $500,000 that will enable the Over-the-Rhine-based developer to restore three historic structures on Main Street and Clay Street; and create 23 apartments along with street-level retail.

Another project at 51 E. Clifton Avenue received a $147,000 tax credit that will go to help cover the costs of the $750,000 project, and ultimately create seven market-rate apartments in the 124-year-old structure.

Another big winner, in addition to Music Hall and Urban Sites, was Grandin Properties – a company that has taken an increasing interest in the neighborhood and even relocated their office to the Washington Park district in recent months.

Through the historic tax credit program, Grandin Properties will receive nearly $400,000 for their planned $1.5 million renovation of two 136-year-old buildings on Republic Street in between Thirteenth and Fourteenth. Once complete, developers say that the buildings will have 12 residential apartments.

“These projects transform vacant and underutilized properties into viable places for business and living,” said David Goodman, director of the Ohio Development Services Agency, in a prepared release. “This program has been a valuable tool for community revitalization.”

State officials say that the application deadline for the next round of the Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program is March 31, 2015, and that approved applicants will be announced at the end of June 2015.

Ruling From Judge Stich Potentially Very Damaging for Local Governments in Ohio

Cincinnati Streetcar Phase 1 RouteThe Business Courier reported yesterday that Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Carl Stich (R) ruled that the City of Cincinnati must pay for the relocation of Duke Energy’s utilities along the first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar system.

As learned from a leaked internal memo last December, this decision was expected by city officials who will now be on the hook for an additional $15 million in costs – expenses that will be covered by the project’s existing contingency fund.

In Stich’s ruling, he cited an Ohio Supreme Court case from 1955, Speeth v. Carney, that stated government-owned transit systems are proprietary functions, not government ones. This is important because that is what lays the foundation for Stich’s ruling, but also sets a potentially far-reaching precedence for what costs local governments are expected to bear when making infrastructure investments.

As a result, former city solicitor John Curp says that Cincinnati should appeal the ruling.

“The troubling element of the ruling for local governments is that the court looked under the hood of the streetcar and based its decision on one debated effect of the project rather than principal operation of the project, which is transportation,” Curp told the Business Courier – an UrbanCincy content partner. “Nearly every government project is justified as an economic development project. If applied more broadly, this decision could add significant costs to local government infrastructure projects.”

Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black seems to agree, and says that the city will in fact appeal the ruling.

Furthermore, Judge Stich did address the fact that the rulings used to make his decision were quite old and rendered during a time when private companies owned and operated public transit systems. This is a notable difference from today where that is largely non-existent, and would seemingly change the entire discussion in a case of this nature.

“The court noted that the case it found controlling was an anachronism to a bygone era where private companies ran public transportation,” Curp said. “The current reality is that government heavily subsidizes almost all forms of public transportation. No one mistakes public transportation as a proprietary, money-making venture. An appeal would help ensure that all local governments are working on equal footing and none have a competitive advantage on costs for new infrastructure projects”

In addition to Duke Energy, there are a half-dozen other utility companies that are within the project area, but all of those companies had come to terms with the City prior to the commencement of construction. The question now is what financial obligations, if any, those companies will have on future infrastructure projects pursued by City Hall.

Furthermore, the decision shines an interesting light on how infrastructure projects and their associated costs are rarely neatly defined. These utility costs, for example, are being covered through the budget for the streetcar, but have nothing to do with rail transit. In fact, a large sum of the budget for the Cincinnati Streetcar is actually allocated to things that have nothing to do (e.g. buried utilities, utility upgrades and relocations, and road resurfacing) with the direct construction or operation of the transit system.

The project, however, brings up a very convenient and cost-effective time in which to make such improvements. As has been discovered thus far, many of these improvements have been sorely needed. In Over-the-Rhine, for example, broken water mains, wooden pipes and other outdated infrastructure has been discovered and either repaired or upgraded as a result of the project.

This is a coup for any utility company that can have the cost of upgrading their systems shouldered by the taxpayers, instead of their ratepayers, as such is the case in this Duke Energy example.

Since much of the costs for the project are related to non-streetcar items, it seems to lean toward Curp’s concern of the ruling being applied more broadly.

“The case is also important for other cities in Ohio,” said City Manager Black. “The decision may ultimately dictate who pays for local infrastructure improvements that require the movement of utilities on public property: the taxpayers or the utility.”

With an appeal forthcoming, it appears that lawyers will continue to reap the benefits of this political battle. Meanwhile, construction progresses on the Cincinnati Streetcar project on-time and on-budget.

The Green Towns Model and the Future of Public Housing Preservation

Greenbelt, Maryland is a small town north of the Nation’s capital which carries a legacy larger than its hamlet appearance. As one of the nations four Green Towns built between 1935 and 1937, Greenbelt stands as a National Historic District and lasting testament to the FDR administration in its commitment to providing social programs, in particular, public housing through the New Deal.

The Garden City Movement in the United Kingdom, which valued open space, nature and balanced planning principles, and a pressing housing shortage during the Great Depression inspired FDR to action. Planners of Greenbelt and its sister towns Greenhills, Ohio and Greendale, Wisconsin, sought to create a new model of development: the suburb. Led by the newly established Resettlement Administration, the body focused on creating housing for federal workers.

These projects, in the words of Greenbelt Museum Education Coordinator Sheila Maffay-Tuthill, embodied the “coming together of urban and rural,” providing opportunities to experiment with housing, land use, and transportation policies simultaneously. In a recent tour of the site, led by Maffay-Tuthill and Megan Young, the Director of the Greenbelt Museum, staff of the National Public Housing Museum was able to see first hand the implementation of these policies.

Informed by its counterparts in Europe, the FDR Administration moved to make direct investments in public housing, a public good previously provided in large part by benevolent social organizations albeit never meeting demand. Due to its proximity to Washington and Eleanor Roosevelt’s championing, public policy experts consider Greenbelt as the most fully realized of American Green Towns with its project budget largely shielded from cuts throughout its development.

But even with this support, the Resettlement Administration did not realize the scale and vision of Greenbelt. Today, the town prides itself on its rural feel with low densities of cinder block Bauhaus-inspired row housing, modest apartment buildings, a school and community center, a shopping center with a Co-op grocery store, a bank, and a movie theater. A pathway network apart from the street network creates a peaceful walking environment completely separate from automobile traffic among plentiful trees and brooks.

While some decried the town as the epitome of federal largesse, a common criticism of many New Deal-era policies, the federal government thought methodically about shaping each Green Town. In the case of Greenbelt, all residents needed to fit within strict income and desired family demographic parameters. Planners conducted research in Greendale, Wisconsin about how wide to make pathways to encourage conversation and interaction, a fact ever apparent in the cozy sidewalk widths of Greenbelt. Public art adorns the school and community center building.

While the shovel hit the dirt for these central pieces of the Green Town vision, the plows did not hit the soil of farms outside of Greenbelt’s greenbelt of trees. As originally planned, larger farms, in addition to smaller allotment plot gardens for families would provide food for Greenbelters. Here the Green Town model would provide the amenities of a city within a decidedly rural context – a community spirit that arguably survives, if not in built-out plans, in Greenbelt’s legacy of co-op businesses, complete with a volunteer-run newspaper.

As Maffay-Tuthill reminds us, the first residents of Greenbelt, “were chosen for being idealistic people – they bought into what was being done here … they wanted this to succeed.” With such an engineered social and physical fabric, it is not surprising the various Green Towns met with varying levels of success. The monumental cost of the Green Town model and changing views on housing contributed to Greenbelt’s sale in 1952, much of it to the residents of Greenbelt.

Upon its sale and later private development of single-family homes starting in 1954, a new group of residents, less committed to the idealism of Greenbelt’s original inhabitants, reshaped the Utopian undertones. A policy shift away from the Green Towns model, coupled with the changing perception of these places presents preservationists with the question of how best to preserve the legacy and intent of these original towns.

Unlike Greenbelt, Cincinnati’s Greenhills community has not been as successful in preserving its story. Twenty-five minutes north of the city center, Greenhills suffered from an incomplete build-out of its original vision, and, as recently as 2009, wholesale demolition of a portion of its original housing units.

With much of the nation’s public housing stock currently approaching the 50-year old threshold for eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places, it is imperative current planners understand the importance of these places in telling the broader public housing and American story.

Like the telling of any national narrative, there are many questions on how to best tell the story and which examples provide the best understanding of the subject. In Greenbelt, the excitement with which our tour guides present the knowledge of their community and its spirit reminds us of the promise of public housing and its ability, when planned and fully implemented, to foster a greater sense of community and affect personal change in the lives of its residents. Undoubtedly there are many more stories to be told – and, like Greenbelt, more than anything these stories require champions.

Daniel Ronan works as the Site Development & Engagement Coordinator for the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago, and is the creator of ResilientHeritage.org. His interests include, historic preservation, transportation, and resilience. In his quest to study this issue in greater detail, Ronan will be visiting Cincinnati the weekend after Thanksgiving. Those interested in joining him for a tour of Greenhills can do so by contacting him at djronan@gmail.com.

Uptown Leaders Hoping $2.4M Northern Townhomes Project Accelerates Avondale’s Rebirth

Earlier this month community leaders and City officials gathered in Avondale to celebrate the groundbreaking for eight new market-rate townhomes in the long beleaguered Uptown neighborhood.

The Northern Townhomes project, named after the street on which it is located, is just the latest evidence of a startling transformation that has taken place along the Burnet Avenue corridor over recent years, which has included the construction new office mid-rises, street-level retail and renovation of historic buildings to accommodate new residences.

Much of this transformation has been spurred by the continued growth of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, which has added thousands of jobs since 2000. But that jobs growth, however, has not yet translated into an improved housing market in the impoverished neighborhood. Community leaders are hoping that Northern Townhomes will be the first of many more projects that will work toward improving just that.

“Any community developer knows that the key to smart growth is home ownership,” stated Ozie Davis, Executive Director at Avondale Comprehensive Development Corporation, in a prepared release.

Avondale currently has one of the lowest home ownership rates in the city at just 33%. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the City of Cincinnati and State of Ohio, respectively, have home ownership rates of 40.5% and 68%.

The realization of this development has taken years, following a community-developed master plan for the area years ago. Correspondingly, the funding for the $2.4 million project also came from a diverse coalition of neighborhood stakeholders including the University of Cincinnati, UC Health, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden and TriHealth.

“The potential for the strong neighborhood revitalization like ours comes from good visioning, smart planning and patience, and this Northern Townhomes project proves that Avondale, Uptown Consortium and the Uptown institutional members have all three,” Davis emphasized.

Project officials say that each of the eight townhomes is approximately 1,400 square feet. Six are two-bedroom residences, while the remaining two have three bedrooms. Additionally, each home has a one-car garage and what the developers are calling tandem on-street parking.

As of now, the expected price point for each townhome is starting at $175,000, and may qualify for a 15-year LEED tax abatement should the developers successfully achieve LEED for Homes Silver certification.

If all goes according to plan, project construction is expected to be completed by fall 2015. After that project officials say that there is room for a second phase of another eight townhomes. The corner of Northern Avenue and Burnet Avenue, meanwhile, is being reserves for another commercial development.

“Avondale is key to the spirit of Uptown Cincinnati, and Avondale community leaders have been a great collaborator and convener as we have work together to revitalize the Burnet Avenue corridor,” concluded Beth Robinson, President and CEO of the Uptown Consortium. “Market rate housing is a fundamental anchor to a diverse residential neighborhood, and we are delighted to have this project be a significant milestone in the Burnet Avenue revitalization.”

Additional residential and mixed-use components remain to be realized as part of the Burnet Avenue corridor master plan, and no timeline has been identified for those elements as of yet.

Why did so few people vote in Tuesday’s election?

Election day was a great day for Republicans. It was was not, however, a good day for our democracy. President Obama notably commented on the fact that two-thirds of the nation chose not to participate in the election in his remarks the day after results came in. But perhaps most depressing is that Ohio set a record for the lowest turnout in history for a gubernatorial election. More from the Columbus Dispatch:

Ohio just set a modern record low for turnout in a gubernatorial election. And it wasn’t even close. Although provisional ballots and some absentees remain to be counted, the rate with all precincts reporting election-night totals to the secretary of state’s office is 39.99 percent.

The previous low since statewide voter registration data have been kept (1978) was 47.18 percent, when Republican Gov. Bob Taft won an easy re-election victory in 2002.