Regional Economic Hopes and Concerns Shifting As Cities Recover From Great Recession

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s annual survey of its district, jobs and the economy overall continue to remain the top concern for local leaders.

Each year, seeking to gauge ground-level concerns and needs, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland – which includes all of Ohio, Eastern Kentucky, Western Pennsylvania, and the West Virginia Panhandle – conducts a survey of community leaders to assess local challenges around the Fourth District.

In their 2015 survey, jobs remained the number one concern and priority for local leaders throughout region. Skyrocketing to the second place position was a preoccupation with access to quality and affordable housing; while vacant and abandoned properties were third.

While public officials acknowledge that jobs are indeed being created, the concern is about the type of job creation that is occurring in their communities. Part-time jobs, low wages, lack of benefits, and high turnover mean that being able to support a family is out of reach for many of those working in these newly created positions.

There is also growing concern about continued vacancy in high-wage, high-skilled positions where a skills gap is keeping many of those looking for work from filling these positions.

New in this report is the growing concern over affordable housing. While low-wage and part-time jobs continues to grow, new housing options are limited and those that are being developed are often either at the high or low end of the market. Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland say this is the first time the issue has registered as a top concern.

Continued in-migration to central cities, like what is being experienced in Cincinnati, is exasperating this problem throughout the Fourth District. Of course, this in-migration is seen by many as a net positive, even though the housing market has yet to catch up.

“The remarkable resurgence happening in core neighborhoods will have a very positive effect on those neighborhoods, and on the City of Cincinnati overall,” explained a professor at the University of Cincinnati in response to this survey.

A social services organization CEO in Pittsburgh also sees increasing migration to urban centers positively, but worries about the possibility of rising property driving historic residents from their neighborhoods. The concern over affordable housing is, as the Cleveland Fed puts it, “respondents grappling with the good and bad elements of revitalization occurring in their urban centers.”

While less relevant in the Cincinnati region, the Fourth District’s shale gas boom has also caused affordable housing problems in parts of West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania, as oil workers move in and are able to pay more in rent than other, longer-term residents.

Although the economic recovery is in full swing and most cities are seeing migration to their urban centers, many neighborhoods are still suffering from blight and disinvestment. According to the survey, abandoned properties were the third most-cited concern among respondents. Many cities in the region, particularly those in northern Ohio, are still saddled with significant amounts of abandoned and vacant properties, many of which left over from the housing crisis.

These properties not only require tax revenue to maintain and produce no tax revenues in return, but they are also most typically found in low-income, minority neighborhoods, exasperating already-difficult economic conditions for many of these communities.

At the end of the survey, the Cleveland Fed attempted to gauge emerging issues, both positive and negative. The biggest negative issue cited by almost all respondents was how to deal with an aging infrastructure that needs to be replaced. Budget cuts at all levels of government have lead to increased deferral of basic maintenance and improvements, especially in older municipalities that dominate the Fourth District.

While on the positive side, most respondents cited the continued migration of residents to the inner-city as having the most potential to positively impact economic recovery throughout the region.

Respondents also specifically mentioned the activation of the National Housing Trust Fund, which will provide federal support to help areas construct, preserve, and rehabilitate buildings for affordable housing. The National Low Income Housing Coalition predicts that Ohio and Pennsylvania will be some of the largest recipients of these funds, and thus have the most to gain or lose by its status.

UrbanCincy Proud to Partner in Launch of Streetsblog Ohio

Nearly eight years ago UrbanCincy came to life. The original purpose was to shine a more positive light on the things happening in our city. Over time that vision has been refined as conditions have changed locally.

Instead of focusing squarely on Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, UrbanCincy now covers urbanist news city-wide and has branched out into surrounding urban communities like Hamilton and Middletown.

Over these years many blogs have come and gone, and the local media landscape has continued to evolve. What I believe has made UrbanCincy successful over the years is our great team of contributors that have incredible knowledge about the topics on which they report.

As commented by CityBeat staff in the 2014 Best of Cincinnati awards, “UrbanCincy proved a great resource for local news in the past year, with storytelling charts and in-depth reporting shining light on issues that otherwise go ignored in local media. Its transit and infrastructure experts write with depth on issues difficult for non-beat writers to regularly cover. The best part is UrbanCincy provides all its content for free on its slick website, showing once again that good reporting doesn’t need paywalls.”

By the way, you can go in and vote for us now in this year’s Best of Cincinnati awards. We are nominated for Best Blog, Best Twitter Feed and Best Website in the Public Eye section.

This focus and expertise has firmly aligned UrbanCincy with the mission of Streetsblog. Naturally, we have been a member of the Streetsblog Network for many years and has championed the organization and worked toward its growth. That is why we are so proud to celebrate the launch of Streetsblog Ohio.

This has been something we at UrbanCincy have been coordinating with Streetsblog Network over the past several years. In addition to the new Ohio site, Streetsblog also launched regional sites in Texas, St. Louis and the Southeast last Friday.
Streetsblog Ohio
“These sites run on a different model than our other city-based Streetsblogs with full-time staff,” explained Ben Fried, Editor-in-Chief at Streetsblog. “Each Streetsblog affiliate syndicates material from several blogs in its region and runs a daily dose of headlines to satisfy the universal craving for morning news.”

Of course, we at UrbanCincy are not doing this alone. While we are producing the daily news roundup for Ohio, we are joined by five other sites – GreenCityBlueLake, Rustwire, Columbus Underground, Transit Columbus and Notes from the Underground – in sourcing content for Streetsblog Ohio.

This is an innovative new approach to news production in the 21st century and we are proud to say that Cincinnati is not just passively involved, but is an active leader in the movement.

“For readers, we hope these sites will unearth stories that might have been overlooked before,” Fried noted. “So much good stuff comes over the wire of the Streetsblog Network, which now collects feeds from more than 400 member blogs, we just can’t highlight all of it. The new format should bring more of this reporting and commentary to the surface for our audience.”

We are excited about the future as our eighth anniversary this approaches this May. UrbanCincy continues to develop new partnerships and will be unveiling several more exciting changes in the months to come. Thanks for reading.

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.