Streetcar Spurs Unsubsidized Growth in Portland

Portland is often cited as the “go to” city for rail transit and good planning initiatives. As someone who had ridden a fair share of streetcar, light rail and subway systems, I traveled to Portland with a dose of skepticism. TV shows like “Portlandia” showcase the quirky and often times absurd hipster culture that has blossomed in the city despite chronic problems with homelessness.

For a Cincinnatian, downtown Portland is a showcase of what could have been for downtown Cincinnati. A brief detour into Pioneer Place mall shows the potential of the failed Tower Place mall in downtown Cincinnati. A block away there is a downtown Nordstroms, something downtown Cincinnati failed to land in the 1990′s. A few blocks away, there is a downtown Target and TJ Maxx. The city’s retail scene is vibrant and its eclectic arrangement of food trucks and bicycle infrastructure add to that vibrancy.

It seems strange that these similarly sized metropolitan regions have realized two very different fortunes. One is of success through investing in transit infrastructure, the other struggling to make gains so far without it. This is why the construction and success of the Cincinnati Streetcar project is so vital.

Twenty-five guests of the Alliance for Regional Transit, spearheaded by John Schneider, toured Portland last month to ride the various modes of transit in the city and tour the different areas along the city’s expanding streetcar system. This is the 30th group Schneider has led out to Portland and also the largest.

Schneider has not always been a fan of rail transit. Citing the availability of bus transit, he was often critical of the need for rail in cities like Cincinnati. After the formation of Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI), however, a survey was conducted where rail transit was found to be the top priority for downtown residents and visitors. He was assigned as the head of the Transportation Committee and tasked with bringing rail to the region, something he scoffed at at the time.

When recounting this story, he told the group in Portland that he had ridden several systems until one day he was riding a train in St. Louis and it finally clicked. The self-identified Republican has been a supporter ever since.

The tour began at the South Waterfront district, located at the southern end of the North-South (NS) Streetcar line. It is a new neighborhood that serves as the residential and office extension off the Oregon Health Sciences University Hospital, which is landlocked at the top of the adjacent hill.

The $1.6 billion development started in 2004 and is home to thousands of residents. An aerial tram serves as a direct connection between the South Waterfront and the hospital. The tram also offers dramatic views of the city and the surrounding Cascades mountain range.

The east side of Portland, opposite the Willamette River, is primarily dominated by auto-oriented developments, however there is evidence that the recently opened Central Loop (CL) Streetcar line is having a positive impact on development in the area. A $250 million upscale apartment development has already begun construction at the junction between the streetcar and light rail lines at NE 7th Avenue and NE Holladay Street in the sleepy Lloyd District.

The next phase of the Portland’s streetcar system will connect the end of the CL Line in the east end to the end of the NS Line near the South Waterfront. To accomplish this the city is building a $134.6 million cable-stayed rail, bike and pedestrian only transit bridge that will open in 2015.

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The tour also took the group through the Pearl District, which is the oft-touted renovated warehouse distinct in Portland.

While there are many comparisons to Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, it would be an unjust assumption because Over-the-Rhine features a greater amount of remaining abandoned and underutilized mixed-use multi-family buildings than the Pearl District. The Pearl District has seen over $2 billion in development, but it has largely been new construction built on sites that once were once occupied by rail yards and warehouses.

During the tour the group was introduced to different leaders who shared their perspective of Portland’s progress on its streetcar system.  People like Paddy Tillett, Principle at ZGF Architects, who is with the firm that helped spearhead the effort to establish the transit mall in downtown Portland.

“People were calling it a toy train and saying that we already had light rail,” Tillett told the group. “Even TriMet didn’t want to operate it.”

However Portlanders soon came to embrace their streetcar system, which is now in its fifth phase of construction. Tillett continued, “The streetcar helps extend peoples walking distance, it is not supposed to serve as point-to-point transit. Today it has a dedicated ridership and is helping demonstrate how streetcars can play an important role in public transit around the country.”

The tour was capped off with a meeting with Portland Mayor Charlie Hales (D). Hales told the group, “We no longer have to provide subsidies for downtown development.”

Mayor Hales also stated that it took fifteen years for developers to begin  reducing the size need of parking structures for development.

Portland is a beautiful city with vibrancy and life. However, this vibrancy was hard fought over the last three decades. The construction of the transit mall, TriMet light rail and the streetcar were huge gambles that ultimately paid off, and took Portland from a sleepy waterfront lumber town to a place where people move to even if they don’t have jobs lined up. Portland’s problems are ones born from success, not failure and even those problems are good to have.

At today’s council meeting, Cincinnati’s new political leadership will be making decisions regarding the continuation of construction of the Cincinnati’s streetcar system. The new mayor and city council will have to decide whether to continue the same hit or miss approach to development in the urban core, or decide to embrace a system that has a proven track record of success in many cities throughout the country and the world.

Cities like Portland are where the future is headed, Cincinnati’s new leaders should take heed.

GUEST EDITORIAL: Get Over It, Then Get Ready

Don MooneyStreetcar supporters. Vine Street Taco- Noshers. Urbanistas. Roxanne and Quinlivan dead-enders. I feel your pain. We just had our butts kicked in city elections where only 29% of the electorate bothered to show up.

If you own property or a business in OTR you may be calling a realtor. Maybe you’re checking to see if it’s too late to cancel the granite countertops for that flashy new Main Street kitchen. Or just banging your head against the wall while trolling through Kayak.com for a one-way ticket to Portland.

Before you bail out, listen to a grizzled, cynical political warrior who has been on the losing side of plenty of elections, and won a few too, over 40 years on these mildly mean streets.

First, the election is over. Your team lost. Did you vote last year for 4 year terms? Oops. Get over it. Licking wounds for more than 48 hours is unsanitary.

Give some grudging credit to John Cranley and his handlers. He put together an unlikely coalition: Tea Partiers who just hate the messy melting pots of cities; (some) African American voters led to resent the idea of white urban professionals insisting on rides cushier than smelly Metro buses; and more than a few west siders convinced that “gentrification” in your neighborhood means more “undesirables” in theirs. (See Pete Witte’s twitter feed if you think I’m making that up.)

Mr. Cranley is hardly the first candidate to win an election by whipping up resentment in the “neighborhoods” about spending on development “downtown”. He won’t be the last. Many politicians have built entire political careers in this town on being against stuff.

The mayor-elect could care less if you call him “Can’t Do Cranley”. At 39, he sees this as a launching pad to greener pastures, even if he leaves shoe prints on your backs to prove he keeps his promises.

Advocates of the streetcar – and I’ve been one of them – have allowed their pet project to be painted by COAST and Chris Smitherman as a wasteful contraption designed for Chablis sipping metrosexuals, who think they are too good for the bus or the family mini-van. Can’t these precious young professionals read their iPads on the number 24, or get stuck behind a truck on the viaduct like the rest of us? Don’t take it personally. It’s just politics.

We have not sold the incredible progress downtown and in OTR, despite the great recession, as a model for other neighborhoods with their own aspirations for cool restaurants, modern transportation and rising property values. So in Price Hill and Mt. Washington, your rising neighborhood is seen as a threat to theirs, not as a sign of good things to come to our city.

Those of you with skills and no kids to tie you down can’t be blamed for bailing out now. With Cranley in the Mayor’s office and a hostile Council majority, the streetcar is on life support, and the air soon may start coming out of the downtown/OTR balloon. No doubt there are bright folks at 3CDC, dunnhumby and all those hip new branding firms with OTR addresses already tuning up their resumes.

We are now in an age when public investment will comes in the form of hiring the 200 more cops Mr. Cranley has promised, to protect us from ourselves.

But if you choose to stick around and fight another day, think a little more strategically:

Get to know the neighborhoods and convince them that what is good for the central city is not a threat to Westwood or Oakley. There is life on the other side of I-75 and Mt. Adams. Explore. Collaborate. Cross-Pollinate a little. Try the burgers at Zips and Camp Washington Chili.

Create a vision for a modern transportation system that does not begin and end in downtown and OTR; then sell it. Gas prices aren’t going down. Work with the Uptown institutions to develop a funding model that does not rely on council to come up with more cash. Develop a long-term vision that includes connections to Price Hill, Northside, Avondale and Walnut Hills.

Dig in for a long, hard but constructive fight with the new mayor and right-leaning majority on City Council. Give some credit to COAST and Smitherman for their relentless opposition to the outgoing regime. Now they hold sway with a mayor and council that owe them big time.

Progressives may need their own version of COAST to litigate, referendize and challenge the mayor and council. Look for wiffs of scandal and corruption to expose. And remind the city of their promises: restore 200 cops, fix the pension system, neighborhood development and no new taxes. No problem.

Recruit and bolster the next generation of city leadership. Low turnout says more about the candidates than the voters. Don’t expect voters to show up when the candidates don’t persuade them they have something at stake.

The absence of an African American candidate in the mayor’s election explains a lot about turnout in 2013. For eight years you were fortunate to have an African American mayor who “got” your aspirations. Find the next one: Yvette Simpson? Eric Kearney? Rob Richardson? Work with them or others and prepare them for 2017. You can’t beat somebody with nobody.

Remember that politics is cyclical. The faction that will take over at City Hall come December are political heirs to the crew that ran the city from 1997-2005; and before that in the 1980’s. They had their ups and their downs. But no cycle lasts forever. Be ready and rested when the next wind of change blows.

Don Mooney is a local attorney and longtime Cincinnati political activist. He served for more than 20 years on the Cincinnati Planning Commission and is a former Treasurer of Cincinnatians for Progress. If you would like to submit a guest editorial to UrbanCincy you can do so by contacting our editorial team at editors@urbancincy.com.

Episode #27: Election 2013 Wrap-Up

Cincinnati-Parking-MeterOn the 27th episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, we’re joined by former city council candidate Mike Moroski to discuss the outcome of the November 5th election. We also speculate on why voter turnout was so low and which issues motivated voters to actually show up at the polls.

PHOTOS: All Aboard Ohio Visits Cincinnati to View Streetcar Construction Progress

On October 26, rail transportation advocacy group All Aboard Ohio hosted their fall meeting in Cincinnati. Members came from across the state, and other states including West Virginia and Iowa, to see how the construction of the Cincinnati Streetcar is progressing.

Members were able to ask questions of Paul Grether, Metro’s Director of Rail Operations, who was leading the walking tour. Grether answered many technical questions relating to the streetcar’s rail gauge, power system and the light rail vehicles. He also addressed many of the urban legends that still surround the project — yes, our streetcars will be capable of climbing the steep Vine Street hill.

Streetcar advocate John Schneider also gave a presentation on the history of the project and the many political hurdles supporters have had to overcome. He explained one of his most effective methods of promoting the project: taking skeptics to visit one of the modern streetcar systems currently operating in the United States.

Schneider went on to say that a number of local leaders, including former Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis (R), became supporters of the project after seeing the benefits of modern streetcars in person.

Late October was a good time for the group to visit, as construction was highly visible around Over-the-Rhine.

On Elm Street, various phases of work stretched approximately one half mile, from 12th Street to Elder Street. The first rail was installed near Washington Park on October 16, and crews started pouring concrete and shaping the track bed on October 25. Utility work is also taking place on Race and 12th streets in advance of track work.

The project is on schedule, and track work on Elm Street (from 12th Street to Henry Street) is expected to be completed by January 9, 2014.

All photos by Travis Estell for UrbanCincy. Click any photo to view larger size.

Color Scheme, Final Design Unveiled for North America’s Most Advanced Light Rail Vehicle

The City of Cincinnati unveiled the official design of the streetcar to supporters in a gathering in Over-the-Rhine. With standing room only, crowds filled the Christian Moerlein Brewery with anticipation of the mystery to be revealed by Mayor Mark Mallory (D). The UrbanCincy team was there to film the event:

Daffodil Yellow, which actually looks closer to light orange, was selected as the primary exterior color based on a recommendation from a panel of 20 community members, which was then presented to the mayor for the final say.

Fade resistance and easy maintenance were deciding factors, city officials say, in addition to the overall design aesthetic. Inside the vehicle, Capri Blue seats provide a burst of modern color to the soft grey and stainless steel accents. Interior side panels highlight the walls with a matching shade of light orange.

Each of the streetcar vehicles will be capable of carrying 154 passengers at a time and will include a total of 32 seats, six of which fold up to make room for wheelchairs, strollers and bicycles.

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One of the most noteworthy elements of Cincinnati’s rolling stock is that they will be the first light rail vehicles in North America to have 100% curb-level boarding at every stop. The manufactures say that curb-level boarding allows for easy, independent access for seniors and people with disabilities.

In contrast to a bus, which has a maximum capacity of 38-50 people, a person with mobility issues can enter and ride the streetcar without needing assistance from the driver to lower a platform and secure their wheelchair with straps. This feature is also beneficial for people with walkers, strollers, luggage and small children.

Attending the presentation were representatives from CAF USA, who was the winning bidder to manufacture five vehicles for Cincinnati’s streetcar system, and now five more vehicles for Kansas City as it piggybacks on Cincinnati’s order.

“We are so proud to be building your streetcar, which for us, is going to be a showcase,” said Virginia Verdeja, Vice President of Sales, CAF USA. “So many cities are looking at what’s happening here in Cincinnati. Our business is grateful to be part of a city that is the leading model for new streetcar systems around the nation.”

Meanwhile streetcar construction along the route continues to progress. Utility relocation is moving forward at various locations along the route and demolition is complete at Race and Henry which will allow crews to begin construction of the Maintenance and Operations Facility.  Finally, city officials have disclosed that streetcar track is expected to begin tomorrow with the first section being installed along Elm Street in front of Music Hall.

GUEST EDITORIAL: Cincinnati Could Learn from LA’s Regional, High Growth Mentality

There is perhaps no more controversial word to utter in Cincinnati than streetcar. The roughly three-mile rail project connects the riverfront to Over-the-Rhine’s Findlay Market, passing several points of interest and centers of employment along the way. The total cost for the streetcar is roughly $100 million, and it is fully funded without taxpayer assistance.

To anyone familiar with transportation projects, this price tag is on the low end of the spectrum, and actually appears to be quite affordable when compared to highway construction and more comprehensive light and heavy rail systems, which both often have project costs well exceeding a billion dollars.

In spite of this, the Cincinnati Streetcar project has been met with a very vocal public opposition from day one. The project has faced and defeated two ballot initiatives aimed at stopping the project completely, has adapted to a smaller route after having more than $50 million in state funding revoked, and has generally persevered through every challenge the opposition has created.

The question I want to answer is not whether the streetcar is a good idea; nor do I want to speculate on the future success or failure of the project. What is far more compelling of an idea to explore is the root causes of the unrelenting opposition to what is actually a modest and simple transportation and economic development project.

Perhaps no better city serves as a juxtaposition to the Cincinnati experience than Los Angeles. Having lived, worked, and studied urban planning in LA for the past 4.5 years; I was able to witness firsthand the differences from Cincinnati in the attitudes towards transit, and more generally, the city itself.

532472_608157281591_764452968_nPassengers board the Blue Line LRT in Los Angeles. Photo provided by John Yung for UrbanCincy.

In 2008, over 67% of Los Angeles County residents approved Measure R, a 30-year half-cent sales tax increase to support transportation projects. As a result of the passage of Measure R, LA is now in the process of building:

  • The so called “subway to the sea” connecting Downtown LA to Santa Monica;
  • An extension of the Green Line light rail line to connect to Los Angeles International Airport;
  • An extension of the Gold Line light rail line to serve the far eastern suburbs; and
  • Phase two of the Expo light rail line connecting Culver City with Santa Monica (phase one connected Downtown LA with Culver City, and opened in 2012).

Additionally, a downtown streetcar project (sound familiar?) was proposed a few years ago, and in late 2012, nearly 73% of downtown residents voted to create a special, localized tax district to partially fund the project.

In 2013, Los Angeles has transformed from a city known for its sprawl and obsession with freeways and cars, to a city with multiple rail lines under construction simultaneously and a regional population that has twice voted in a super-majority to increase their tax burden to fund transit. Instead of simply chalking up the different experiences in Cincinnati and LA as being the result of differing demographics, I think that there are two main underlying differences between the cities that help explain the reactions to transit.

High Growth vs. Low Growth
While the City of Cincinnati has been hemorrhaging population since the 1970s, the metropolitan area has seen slow and steady population growth. Although slow growth is better than regional decline, a la Cleveland and Pittsburgh, the growth rate of the Cincinnati region pales in comparison to growth experienced in the Southern and Western parts of the country that constitute the Sunbelt.

Conversely, the Los Angeles story has been one of explosive growth at both the city and regional level since the 1940s. The slow growth of Cincinnati creates a situation where municipalities in the region compete with each other not just for jobs, but also residents, potential customers for businesses, and resources. The insecurities of slow growth repeatedly surface in the opposition to the streetcar. “Why not spend $100 million in my neighborhood?”

The streetcar represents an investment in part of the city that will almost assuredly give it an advantage over other parts of the metro area. As such, it is seen as a threat to the population and employment bases to many communities in the region. In Los Angeles, however, while there is still competition among municipalities, the situation is not a zero sum game, and therefore does not elicit the same threatened response that we see in Cincinnati.

Regionalism
The second of the two underlying factors that help explain the difference in attitudes toward transit in Cincinnati and Los Angeles is regionalism. Los Angeles is often described as the prototypical polycentric city. Rather than one core, Southern California is dotted with hubs of commerce, retail, and population. The city of Los Angeles itself has multiple clusters, and there are several other cities in the region such as Pasadena, Glendale, Santa Monica, Long Beach, and Anaheim that serve as nodes on the regional map.

A result of this polycentricity is interdependence among different parts of the region. Someone who lives in Burbank might work in Downtown Los Angeles, shop in Pasadena, go to the beach in Santa Monica, and take their kids to Disneyland in Anaheim. When you think regionally, it is easier to view the improvements of one community as indirectly benefitting yourself.

As most regions in 2013, Cincinnati is also increasingly polycentric. However, there is a strong monocentric legacy in Cincinnati; where downtown was the undeniable heart and hub of the region. Neighborhoods take pride in their unique identities, and often times regionalism is viewed skeptically, as embracing it necessitates a departure away from the hyper-localism that Cincinnati prides itself on. With this type of perspective, it is harder for individuals to see how a transit improvement elsewhere in the region would benefit them.

The monocentric legacy of Cincinnati also has led many people to feel attached to downtown in a way that does not exist in Los Angeles. Much of the streetcar opposition is from people who live outside of the City of Cincinnati, from people who feel that, despite living far away from the project, they still have a right to comment on it because downtown is perceived as being almost a public good for the region to consume.

In Los Angeles, opposition to transit projects seems to come from groups that have a specific issue that they object to. For example, the Expo Line came under attack by environmental groups when Metro announced that a sizeable number of trees had to be removed for construction of the line. An environmental group having a problem with trees being cut down is a logical complaint that is able to be placated relatively easily. In Cincinnati, stopping the city from progressing seems to be an interest group in itself, with broad support from a variety of different populations. This type of opposition is what stymies Cincinnati, and keeps the region in relative stagnation.

There are deep, underlying issues that contribute to these attitudes- far more than I could cover in this post, but I believe that low growth and lack of regional thinking are the two underlying issues at the root of much of the opposition to the Cincinnati Streetcar. Los Angeles, for much of its existence, was the poster child for sprawl, automobile dependence, air pollution, and many other associations that are incongruent with a pro-transit city. Somewhere in the past 20 or so years, LA made a switch.

Perhaps it was a re-exposure to rail transit following the construction of the Red Line subway in 1993, LA’s first rail line since the removal of the extensive streetcar network that covered the city. Or maybe Angelenos finally got fed up with the infamous traffic that has snarled Southern California for decades. Whatever the tipping point was, Los Angeles has positioned itself as a leader of transit in the 21st century. The high growth Los Angeles region is transforming before our eyes. It’s time for Cincinnati to take a look.

This guest editorial was authored by Patrick Whalen – a Cincinnati native who currently lives in the city’s Mt. Adams neighborhood. Patrick is a member of the Urban Land Institute’s Mission Advancement Committee, and graduated from the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy. He now works for Urban Fast Forward – an urban real estate and planning firm based in Cincinnati. If you would like to have your thoughts published on UrbanCincy you can do so by submitting your guest editorial to urbancincy@gmail.com.