CNU22: Cincinnati Wins National Planning Award for Form-Based Code

The City of Cincinnati’s Department of Planning & Buildings has been on a roll lately. This past weekend in Buffalo, at the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) national conference, the city won its third national award of the year for its new form-based code.

CNU’s grand prize for the Best Planning Tool or Process was actually a tie and thus jointly awarded to Cincinnati for its form-based code (FBC) and Station Center, a transit-oriented development in Union City, California.

As first reported by UrbanCincy, the Department of Planning & Buildings was honored with the Daniel Burnham Award for a Comprehensive Plan at the American Planning Association’s (APA) national conference in Atlanta.  Additionally, in late 2013, the Department won the Ohio APA’s award for Comprehensive Planning for a Large Jurisdiction.

In 2012, city leaders were also awarded with the Frank F. Ferris II Community Planning Award from the Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission.

In addition to city staff and thousands of Cincinnatians, those involved in developing Cincinnati’s award-winning FBC included Opticos Design, Hall Planning & Engineering, Urban Design Associates, glaserworks, Wise Economy Workshop, and Urban Fast Forward.

“It is an honor for us to have our code recognized by an organization that is on the cutting edge of best practices with regard to planning tools and good urbanism,” said Alex Peppers, senior city planner for Cincinnati. “We put a lot of work into developing a code that would fit our context and assets.”

What makes Cincinnati’s FBC unique is that it is a voluntary tool for neighborhoods who seek to preserve the character of their centers of activity and historic business districts. Thus far, it has been adopted in College Hill, Madisonville, Walnut Hills and Westwood.

Jurors noted that they were particularly impressed by the code’s extensive photo documentation and mapping analysis that calibrated the code’s application, and reinforced the unique characteristics of Cincinnati’s urban neighborhoods.

“The Cincinnati code is an excellent example of that advancement in the deployment of SmartCode, with particular attention paid to public process, neighborhood structure and graphic presentation,” explained Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, one of CNU’s award jurors. “It reinforces Cincinnati’s historic urban patterns with guidance for appropriate infill and predictable redevelopment building.”

The final draft of Cincinnati’s form-based code is available online and can be accessed here.

On the twelfth official episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, we were joined by Roxanne Qualls to discuss Cincinnati’s development and implementation of form-based codes. You can subscribe to The UrbanCincy Podcast on iTunes for free.

Cincinnati’s Streetcar Victory a Decade in the Making

The final, final, final vote for the first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar took place today. Perhaps by now you all know the outcome. A six-person veto-proof super-majority voted to continue construction. Cincinnati, as Mayor John Cranley (D) said today, will have a streetcar.

What is important in this moment is to realize that everyone involved lived up to their campaign promises. Wendell Young (D), Chris Seelbach (D) and Yvette Simpson (D) stood strong in their support of the project – even in the face of uncertain outcomes.

At the same time, Christopher Smitherman (I), Amy Murray (R) and Charlie Winburn (R) held true to their promises to oppose the streetcar no matter what. They were the three lone votes against restarting construction.

Construction work will soon resume on Cincinnati’s $133M streetcar project. Photographs by Travis Estell for UrbanCincy.

Then there are the three council members who campaigned on taking a serious look at the numbers and making a prompt decision about whether to cancel the project or proceed. P.G. Sittenfeld (D), David Mann (D) and Kevin Flynn (C) all did that once they saw the numbers in detail. Cancelling a project this far along would have been fiscally irresponsible, and they voted true to their campaign promises to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s dollars.

UrbanCincy has been covering this project since we started the website back in 2007. Our original coverage focused on redevelopment efforts in Downtown and then Over-the-Rhine, but the streetcar quickly became a big part of that redevelopment narrative. It is no secret that we are strong supporters of the project and believe it will improve mobility in the center city and set the city on a path toward building the regional rail system everyone seems to now desire.

There are many people responsible for getting Cincinnati to this stage, but the biggest credit must absolutely be given to John Schneider. If it were not for his unrelenting leadership on this issue over the past decade, we would not be anywhere close to where we are now.

The emergence of Mayor Mark Mallory (D) then gave the city a prominent leader to push the project forward, and Mallory leaned on the expertise and leadership of former City Manager Milton Dohoney and Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (D) to get it all done.

It is important to keep in mind that the person who first pushed for the Uptown extension to be included in phase one was in fact Roxanne Qualls. The Uptown Connector was never part of the original phase one plan, but was added in later as “Phase 1b” at the urging of Qualls, who then worked with Mallory and then Governor Ted Strickland (D) to secure state funding to make that happen.

Hard fought victories in 2009 and 2011 helped keep the project alive, but also delayed it and ran up the project’s costs. Those delays also allowed enough time for Governor John Kasich (R) to assume office and pull the $52 million in state funding Ohio had originally pledged.

So while Qualls’ leadership and vision to have the first phase include the Uptown Connector is not being realized at this exact moment, our attention must now turn to extending the streetcar line to neighborhoods in Uptown as quickly as possible.

Cincinnati Regional Rail Plan
The first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar system is a small part of a much larger regional rail plan envisioned by leaders. Map provided by OKI Regional Council of Governments.

A new wave of leaders and organizers has emerged in Cincinnati as a result of this most recent battle over the streetcar project. This includes the heroic efforts of Eric Avner and the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation for drumming up private support to contribute $9 million toward the project’s ongoing operations.

Their hard work and courage should certainly be commended, but let’s also not forget the people who have been pounding the pavement on behalf of the streetcar since the beginning. Most Cincinnatians in 2007 did not know what a streetcar was, much less a modern one and the benefits it would bring. The hard work put in by those people early on was necessary.

This movement was not built overnight and these supporters are not fair-weather fans of the city. The movement has grown in size and grown more sophisticated over the past decade and is now stronger than ever.

You too can join this urbanist movement in Cincinnati.

We gather at the Moerlein Lager House around the first Thursday of every month to host URBANexchange – an urbanist networking and social event. We also partner with the Niehoff Urban Studio at the University of Cincinnati to study complex issues facing our city and engage the public in that dialog. Please join us at our next URBANexchange and pay us a visit in Corryville for our next event with the Niehoff Urban Studio.

Now is a time to celebrate and reflect. But it is not the time to get complacent. There are more issues to address and this energy that saved the streetcar needs to be redirected there. Congratulations, Cincinnati! Let’s get to work.

Chicago leading a movement of increasingly popular participatory budgeting practice

Under Roxanne Qualls’ (D) guidance, Cincinnati dove into priority-driven budgeting in 2012. The proposal had mixed reviews and ultimately City Council ended up ignoring much of what the public had to say in order to prevent any cuts to public safety. The concept of participatory budgeting, however, is gaining popularity nationwide, and Chicago is looking to implement it city-wide in the near future. More from NextCity:

Five years after Moore’s district first tried participatory budgeting, three other wards have followed its lead, picking up a practice pioneered 25 years ago in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Since 2011, nine city council districts in New York adopted it. The city of Vallejo, Calif. did the samelast year, as did one council district in San Francisco. The results are promising, with participation levels relatively strong and zero scandals to date.

Episode #12: Cincinnati’s Form-Based Code

On the twelfth episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, Cincinnati’s Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls joins the UrbanCincy team to discuss the city’s adoption of a form-based code.

We discuss the advantages of a form-based code over a traditional zoning code, and Vice Mayor Qualls explains the process four Cincinnati neighborhoods (College Hill, Madisonville, Walnut Hills, Westwood) have used to put the code in place. John Yung shares his experiences with implementing a form-based code, and Randy Simes shares his concerns about needing to plan at a regional level.

We also discuss the now-adopted Plan Cincinnati, the city’s first comprehensive plan in 33 years. We discuss what makes Cincinnati’s comprehensive plan unique and how the plan will influence investments made by the city and  organizations like the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA).

Finally, we discuss how projects like the two-waying of Taft and McMillan Streets in Walnut Hills and a Liberty Street “road diet” could add to the livability of Cincinnati’s urban neighborhoods.

Cincinnati to examine bus rapid transit as part of expanding transit network

As Cincinnati moves forward with the development of the Midwest’s first modern streetcar system, a political leader is pushing for even greater transit improvements that would compliment an increasingly diverse collection of alternative forms of transport.

Cincinnati Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls is proposing a robust network of bus rapid transit (BRT) that would connect the region’s commuters with major employment centers like Uptown and Downtown. Qualls believes BRT is a cost-effective and innovative transit strategy.

“Bus rapid transit incorporates many of the advantages of light rail, but is cheaper and can be implemented quickly,” Qualls said in a prepared statement. “Cities around the world and the country are giving commuters a great transit option now with rapid transit.”

Many cities around the United States and internationally are beginning to look at BRT more closely as a cheaper alternative to building dedicated rail transit systems. After first being popularized in Bogotá, Columbia, bus rapid transit now exists in 33 cities throughout the world with an additional 22 systems planned.

What differentiates BRT routes from other bus routes is the dedicated lanes they use. These dedicated corridors are often complimented by signal prioritization and timing that allows for faster travel times over long distances.

“Cities are looking to rapid transit to meet increased commuter demand and to spur development,” Qualls stated. “Because the conversion to rapid transit is faster and cheaper than developing light rail, it is an important interim step that helps build transit ridership and provides a great service in the near term.”

While some transit experts agree that BRT can serve as an integral part of an overall transit system, others believe that BRT can be compromised when pitched as an inexpensive alternative to light rail.

“If you look at Oakland, who was studying BRT, they’ve been working on the project for a long time and recently had the City of Berkeley decline to even study dedicated lanes even though that was the plan all along,” explained Jeff Wood, Chief Cartographer, Reconnecting America.  “They felt like they could do it cheaper than light rail, but now they aren’t even going to get any of the benefits of bus rapid transit.”

As part of Vice Mayor Qualls’ motion, BRT would be a portion of a larger multi-modal transit plan that would include the streetcar and light rail according to Cincinnati’s existing rail plan. Major corridors would include I-75, I-71, Queen City Avenue, Harrison Avenue, Vine Street, Reading Road, Madison Road, and Martin Luther King Drive. Qualls suggested the city aggressively pursue state and federal funds to pay for the development of bus rapid transit.


Those interested in learning more about bus rapid transit have the opportunity to meet with BRT expert Jack Gonsalves at the OKI Regional Council of Governments Board Room (map) on Monday, December 6 at 1pm.  Gonsalves will be joined by a variety of local leaders to discuss BRT and how it might be developed in Cincinnati.