Episode #60: 2015 in Review (Part 2)

Liberty StreetOn the 60th episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, Travis, Randy, John, Jake Mecklenborg, and Jacob Fessler continue our discussion from our previous episode looking back at the 2015.

We start off with a discussion of the Liberty Street Road Diet, including whether bike lanes are needed on this type of street, and also discuss the future of the city’s master plan for bikes.

Finally, we discuss the role of industry along the Mill Creek valley and discuss whether Queensgate could have a future that incorporates other uses than industrial.

The Location of Every Job in Cincinnati Mapped

Ohio Employment Dot Map

Two years ago, University of Virginia researcher Dustin Cable put together a detailed dot map based on the racial distribution of people in the United States. This work inspired another researcher to put together something similar, but for America’s job distribution.

Robert Manduca studies sociology and social policy at Harvard University. He says that while jobs and the economy are continuously discussed, we seem to know very little about where jobs are actually located. So what he did was examine the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics data and then plot that information out on an interactive map.

The LEHD data is based on state unemployment insurance records, and tabulates the count of jobs by census block,” Manduca explained on his website. “Here, jobs are colored by type, allowing us to see how different industries and sectors exhibit different spatial patterns–some clustering in downtowns, others spreading across city and suburbs alike.”

The way the visualization works is that red represents Manufacturing & Trade; blue for Professional Services; green for Healthcare, Education and Government; and yellow for Retail, Hospitality and Other Services.

Upon examination of the map, you can see that some cities and regions have a much stronger concentration of jobs than others. When looking at Ohio from a distance, it looks like this pattern holds true for the state’s three big cities. That picture changes as a more detailed look is taken at Manduca’s research.

In Cincinnati, for example, the two largest job centers, downtown and uptown, are joined by the Mill Creek Valley and Blue Ash as areas with heavy concentrations of jobs. As expected, there is a large cluster of education and health jobs uptown, while downtown boasts the region’s heaviest concentration of professional service jobs.

Blue Ash then comes in as, perhaps, the most impressive job center for professional service jobs in the region outside of the center city.

The Mill Creek Valley, which generally runs north along I-75 from the Ohio River, serves as the region’s primary manufacturing and trade corridor. This industrial corridor is well-rooted in Cincinnati’s history, and is even reflected in the City of Cincinnati’s robust tax collections from these zip codes.

The research reveals how much of a barrier the natural landscape serves as when considering job distribution. Throughout the Cincinnati region, for example, you can see how the hills cut across the landscape.

The data also shows that while Cincinnati is often defined by an east/west divide, the distribution of jobs is far more north/south oriented than it is east/west. Of course, the same is true for the region’s population.

Report Finds Homelessness Is Decreasing in Hamilton County and Cincinnati

A newly released report shows that homelessness in Cincinnati and Hamilton County declined in 2014 to levels not seen since 2010.

The report comes from Strategies to End Homelessness, a local leader of 30 homeless service organizations. Using data from the Homeless Management Information System, the non-profit organization said that they saw positive results all around.

The number of people on the streets, which saw a large jump in 2013, returned to 2011 levels. Those staying in emergency shelters also dropped by 7% since 2012, which officials say can be attributed to the increase in people being served by permanent housing programs, which has increased 167% since 2010.

Local leaders also say that this drop is also partially a result of their member organizations’ homeless prevention efforts, which Kevin Finn, CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, told UrbanCincy in March is one of the most critical factors in reducing homelessness.

Since 2011, these organizations have seen only 10.2% of the people served by their shelter diversion programs later become homeless. Finn says that preventing people from needing a shelter is not only effective, but it saves money as well.

“Homelessness prevention activities work and at a fraction of the cost of assisting after a person is already homeless,” said Finn. “Stopping people from ever needing to enter a homeless shelter just makes sense.”

The report found that men make up 59% of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s homeless population, and that some 66% of those that are homeless are black.

One of the national trends is that women and children make up one of the fastest growing segments of the homeless population. In Cincinnati and Hamilton County, the report found that children are 29% of the area’s homeless – 6% of which are children without adult accompaniment. Furthermore, approximately 15% were found to be veterans.

In all, the number of people on the streets, in shelters, or in transitional programs in all of Hamilton County was 7,810 in 2014.

The Cincinnati area received a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant of $15.4 million earlier this year to combat homelessness. This money has not yet been distributed, but once it does, it will be set aside for non-prevention programs.

Local leaders also have reason to be optimistic due to the ongoing investment in new facilities, through Cincinnati’s Homeless to Homes program, to care for the area’s homeless population.

“In 2015, three improved shelters are opening, significantly improving the quality of services being offered to the homeless in our community,” Finn said. “We are also hoping to expand prevention efforts, so that fewer people will have to experience the trauma of homelessness.”

The History of NYC’s Landmarks Law and Modern Day Preservation Movements

Historic preservation is a hot-button issue in most major cities throughout North America. While some are older than others, the same dilemma is presented about needing to preserve the past or embrace the future.

Of course, the issue is more complex than that. A city could both preserve its past while also embracing the future. Old buildings can be maintained while thoughtful modern buildings are constructed. There is a necessary balance.

The historic preservation battles of today did not always exist. In fact, one could make the argument that these battles got their start in 1963 when New York’s original Penn Station was torn down.

It is a bit difficult to say whether in fact the demolition of Penn Station is solely to thank for the creation of New York City’s Landmarks Law, or whether the law even had much power, but it was most certainly the start of a movement. In Cincinnati this movement found a common story line when Union Terminal was threatened with demolition in 1973, but was prevented thanks to a ruling from City Hall, along with public demonstrations in support of preserving the building.

Interestingly enough, even after that initial battle Cincinnati’s Union Terminal faced an uncertain fate as recently as 2014 when Hamilton County Commissioners voted on a proposed temporary sales tax to pay for the restoration of the historic landmark. The vote did end up passing in support of Union Terminal – once again showing the public’s affinity for grand train stations.

Majestic structures like Cincinnati’s Union Terminal and New York’s lost Penn Station do not, however, define most historic preservation battles. But since they grab the headlines, they often make for the critical moments in time where the public at-large makes a statement about their stance on preserving historic buildings.

To learn more about the start of this movement, listen to Episode 147 of 99% Invisible where the history of Penn Station is discussed in detail.

Lower Price Hill’s MetroWest Site Looking for Someone to Follow

Buildings ablaze 10 years ago, now long gone. The former Queen City Barrel Company site is mostly empty, but not devoid of potential.

As you travel 1.5 miles from downtown along the Eighth Street Viaduct, you pass over the 18 acres of vacant land that welcomes you to Lower Price Hill. While new construction happening elsewhere in the city is constrained by existing buildings and streets, MetroWest Commerce Park is a blank slate 4.5 times the size of a typical city block, and almost as close to downtown as Findlay Market is to Fountain Square.

Though no tenants or buyers have agreed to terms on the City-owned property, Al Neyer Inc., Resurgence Group, and Colliers International are working to market the site. Highly contaminated from previous industrial uses, redevelopment of MetroWest has been years in the making, but the City has received notice from the Ohio EPA that the site is now clean enough for new construction. Sam Stephens, an economic development officer at the city, believes in the site’s potential.

“The project is not only about cleaning up the Queen City Barrel Company site, but more importantly facilitating a development that can bring productive jobs to Lower Price Hill and positively impact the environment,” Stephens told UrbanCincy.

The team marketing MetroWest believes it is an ideal location for manufacturing thanks to its easy access to I-75, active rail lines on site, and is within 1.5 miles of downtown. Furthermore, the Metropolitan Sewer District is nearby and can offer up to 50 million gallons of any water quality daily, potentially lowering the costs for businesses that require high water use that need not be potable.

In 2008, Cincinnati completed its Growth and Opportunities Study (GO Cincinnati) with a team of national advisers in economic development and real estate. The final study categorized the Queensgate/South Mill Creek Corridor as “a generally obsolete corridor,” but also noted that “recycling South Mill Creek into the hub of green production in the region, and perhaps the nation, is indeed a unique market opportunity that could catalyze development in this aging industrial stock area.”

Perhaps serving as a contradiction is that while GO Cincinnati recommends the corridor for mostly ‘drivable sub-urban’ development, it also specifically identifies Lower Price Hill as “a ‘walkable-urban’ place, which is experiencing the beginning of a revitalization.”

The current task is marketing the site to find a buyer or tenant. Images shown to promote the site look ripped from the context of a suburban industrial park, places that are not even remotely ‘walkable-urban.’ Even though, project team members say, these images are only intended to show buildable square feet, they could quickly become reality.

The GO Cincinnati Study cites industrial tenants’ primary concern to be purely functional, with little concern for aesthetics or prestigious location. It should then fall to the City to make sure what is developed is actually beneficial to Cincinnati and the surrounding neighborhoods. Does Lower Price Hill want to welcome people on the Eighth Street Viaduct to their community with dirty manufacturing rooftops cluttered with mechanical units?

When asked about the City’s vision for the site, all of the development parties emphasized there will not be heavy industry and welcomed any interested manufacturing or light industrial businesses. Given the site’s history, and the City’s spotty responsiveness to environmental concerns in the past, the neighborhood would be right to be weary of new industrial development.

Eileen Gallagher, Lower Price Hill Community Council Secretary, says that the neighborhood is open to a variety of businesses but would want express their opinions on any business, saying, “LPH would welcome positive, safe development that would utilize potentially valuable land, create jobs, expand the city’s tax base, and perhaps give training and employment to neighborhood people.”

A vision should be expected from the city, one to which residents can respond. GO Cincinnati began that vision, but the recommendation for a “green industrial park” is not being followed. The City has owned the property for almost a decade and has spent years marketing the site without finding a buyer or tenant. Stephens, however, puts the idea of visioning a little differently.

“It’s the city’s job to serve our citizens, not define communities,” Stephens explained. However, even if Lower Price Hill creates a vision, will the City listen?

Alternative Vision: Industrial Mixed-Use with Residential
MetroWest is a few hundred feet east of Oyler School, and another few hundred feet from the LPH Community School. Paired with Evans Field Park, it will be a gateway to the future Price Landing park and Ohio River Trail West.

Increasingly, developers are recognizing the potential benefits of light industrial mixed use as manufacturing becomes greener, lighter, and cleaner. A Los Angeles study showed tax income on mixed-use development to be five times greater than solitary industrial uses. With a prime location near downtown and access to transportation, it would seem that MetroWest is a great location for residential use. Perhaps even the Eighth Street Viaduct could once again allow access to buildings from the sidewalk.

Ohio EPA’s approval for development at MetroWest, however, came with a caveat: the site can only be used for industrial and commercial uses. While the site is approved as safe, residential uses are prohibited. City officials say that the decision was made to only clean the site to commercial/industrial standards because the remediation grant would not cover the increased cost of cleaning the soil to a residential standard.

Another problem is that the site is currently zoned Manufacturing General, which would limit residential use. While the site, as is, cannot be used for residential, the decisions leading to this circumstance now appear short-sighted. Cincinnati’s zoning code is changing; and MetroWest will likely become Industrial Mixed Use (IX) in the current draft of the City’s Land Development Code. This important change would allow for residential use on upper floors, except for the covenant with Ohio EPA.

The city could go after more grant money to remediate the site to residential standards, but this would require a total restart of the remediation process – something that may very well be a bridge too far.

Alternative Vision: Sustainable Dreams
Without changing the site plan in marketing images, these are a few solutions that could significantly enhance the property.

  1. Densely plant trees around the building. Over time the ‘forest’ would help absorb air and noise pollution, and would be aesthetically breathtaking.
  2. Where deeper soil is clean enough, water gardens surrounding buildings could help contain storm water and provide an ecological habitat to complement the Mill Creek and Ohio River.
  3. Rooftop gardens could be used for edible or non-edible plants. If a nursery were created for native trees, any nearby resident could pick up a sapling (ash, maple, oak, walnut, cherry, locust) for free. In 40 years the neighborhood could be heavily forested. Alternatively, Kroger might be interested in a new distribution center with edible greens on their roof similar to what Whole Foods had done with one of their stores in Brooklyn, NY.

While much is not yet clear about the future of this site, it is evident that something will be built at MetroWest; and when it is, it will bring some amount of jobs to Lower Price Hill. The question now is whether a developer or industrial tenant will dictate the development, likely benefiting their own interests, or if the City of Cincinnati will work to enhance its environment with sustainable infrastructure and buildings that benefit Lower Price Hill.