Friday, May 22, 2009

Streetcar,COAST,NAACP,OTR: my two cents!

I rarely if ever, jump out on the proverbial limb and comment on issues other than historic preservation issue but it is time for me to weigh in on this. As someone relatively new to Cincinnati I have a more objective view of this. As someone with 20 years in historic preservation, neighborhood and urban planning experience I am perhaps better qualified than many to speak on this issue. Most importantly, I have no political aspirations ( despite all of you who read this blog and have expressed I should be on the council as a voice of common sense) so I am an equal opportunity critic of city government and I don't care which political party you belong to.

First of all I SUPPORT the idea of the streetcar. However, it will not, in and of itself, turn around OTR. It will contribute to it, and, as such, It means we can turn around OTR in 10 years rather
than 20-30. To those in the "pro streetcar" movement who use this argument, you are doomed to fail because Business owners aren't going to say. "Oh there is a streetcar I am opening a business in OTR!"A streetcar won't make people "magically" want to move to OTR either. The streetcar has to be a part of a bigger approach to OTR. If you want to sell the streetcar you have to start talking about it as a part of a larger redevelopment plan.

OTR has serious issues that will take a comprehensive approach to solve. The streetcar is an excellent component in solving OTR problems but it is ONLY one component and in order for OTR to be successful you need a "Big picture approach"

Cincinnati is not Portland, a common argument used by pro streetcar forces. Portland is a more progressive city than Cincinnati will EVER be. It has a real bike lane system AND it has an anti sprawl plan and tough zoning restrictions that basically keeps people in downtown areas because they limit development in outlying areas.

Cincinnati on the other hand is a "backward thinking"city. It has a council that is ineffective and easily distracted. The business community is not organized enough to be an active lobbyist for progressive ideas. Cincinnati is still in "sprawl stage", while other more progressive cities and successful cities aren't. Cincinnati still has a "bulldoze mentality" and clings to a failed 1960-70's urban planning model that you cure blight with a bulldozer. While other cities have restored their Urban neighborhoods and the idea of demolishing a 100 yr old house would be met with public outcry, a plethora of lawsuits and where demolishing is necessary , plans would be in the works to move that building rather than tear it down. Cincinnati is still using the failed Detroit Urban planning model when other competing cities like Indianapolis and Louisville have restored their Urban neighborhoods and have huge property tax bases to help fund their budget. We rely on income taxes and we have a huge deficit. You have to frame the streetcar in terms of Job development and increasing the tax base. People will support something that will help them get
a job. People will support something if you can show it will increase the tax base and lessen their own tax obligation because there are more people paying taxes,

Cincinnati however has one thing that other Midwestern cities don't. It is the most "Eastern City" in the Midwest. By that I mean it has urban density and that makes it more like a Boston or New York than say Columbus. It also has the greatest collection of Federal and Victorian architecture in the Midwest, if not the country, and THAT is something most Urban planners would give their right arm for, because, believe it or not , that is something that will bring people to the city.

In order for OTR to work the city has to make some hard choices and some of those choices are not "politically correct" ones but are necessary for the overall good of the city. OTR's ONLY chance for a turnaround is to bank on its history and its architecture. The city needs to make OTR the next Charleston SC, Savannah GA, or French Quarter of New Orleans. The city needs to bank the future of OTR on Historic Tourism as an economic redevelopment tool and the streetcar is an integral part of that redevelopment. People will want to live in OTR because its historic and an exclusive address, like the Battery or Victorian lake in Charleston or the French
Quarter in New Orleans. It CAN be an alternative to a 2hr commute everyday, but you have to make it a place people WANT to live in. You have to have high end historic restoration and luxury infill with mixed use live/work lofts and is has to be safe, clean,well lighted place.

COAST is opposed to the streetcar, because, well, they are opposed to everything. Never mind most of this will ultimately be federally funded. The Obama administration is making transportation and Urban redevelopment a priority and if Cincinnati doesn't go after these monies some other city will. Cincinnati is better positioned than most. It has a partially built subway sitting under it that could be part of a greater transportation system. The money is there we just need to go after it. Yes,I just said it, Cincinnati needs to restore its streetcar system and connect it to a train system that runs right up the freeway and connects the Urban Sprawl with the downtown. Train stops with Park and Ride parking lots, if we don't, in 10 years when gas is 8.00 a gallon we will be competing with every other city for very limited Federal dollars. NOW is the time and the benefits wont be seen immediately but in the future we will be glad we took the risk.

The NAACP is against the streetcar because they do not want OTR turned around. They want OTR to remain a dumping ground for the homeless, and drug addicts, the majority of whom are black. If OTR turns around they are worried that those people will wind up in their Middle class Black Neighborhoods and for all their talk of "fairness and equality" they don't want that problem in their neighborhood and they want it isolated in OTR for as long as possible because they don't want to deal with the issue because they do not have a solution.

And "gentrification' is an issue NO ONE wants to talk about. Groups in OTR talk about some kind of "Utopia" where the affluent live next to the homeless and we all sing " Cum Bay Yah". That is NOT going to happen! It hasn't happened ANYWHERE run down, urban neighborhoods have been turned around, and we need to face the reality, that homeless shelters and social service agencies and their clients have to go from OTR. The city at some point is going to have to really DEAL with this. The poor will have no place in OTR. It is a fact, and its not politically correct to say this but deep down we all know its true and the sooner we deal with it and plan for it the better for everyone including the homeless and the social service agencies who will ultimately be displaced. It is time to have an adult conversation about this and stop pretending the issue is not there.

If you look at cities like New Orleans and Charleston SC, the people who work in the historic tourism industry in those cities, the busboys, waiters and retail shop help, do not live in the area because they can't afford a 500K house or apartment. That's why you need a transportation system , to get the workers , who make the area successful to get to work and home at the end of the day in a cost efficient manner. But let me point something out. If, OTR is turned around you will have tons of restaurants, boutique hotels, Museum houses, and "touristy gift shops" that will provide hundreds if not thousands of entry level 8-20 hr service industry jobs that this city "desperately needs". The NAACP should , in reality,be a strong advocate of the streetcar but they can't see beyond the inevitable 'displacement' of the homeless. They should be advocating and lobbying for an OTR turnaround as it will ultimately help their community and provide jobs for a group with one of the highest levels of unemployment in the area.

Perhaps the best argument for the streetcar is that the workforce that will be generated by OTR turnaround will need the streetcar to easily get in and out of the area?

And as a responsible city we DO have to think of away to address the homeless issue and just how and where those people will wind up when OTR turns around. It IS the responsible thing to do, but we need to stop "kidding' ourselves that this is not going to be problem or won't happen.

We need to start looking at the big picture. We need to start thinking about using eminent domain to get properties out of "investor types' and social service agencies who are holding on to property they have no intention of developing. the city needs to "let go" of the Property it is hoarding in OTR. we need an Urban Pioneering program to get single families back to OTR and we need to be thinking about long range goals like Private Schools which will be a necessity to bring families into OTR. We can't rely on Condos, condos, condos to bring people back to OTR. 20 somethings is not the only group we can rely on to make OTR happen.

We need to start on things like "Facade restoration" so Elm and Race streets North of Liberty
look like people could live there. We need a full time housing court JUST to deal with all the OTR vacant property. You have to shake this property loose to make OTR work. We need to offer 'serious incentives' to business people willing to come to OTR. we need to offer serious incentives to people willing to buy a house and restore it in OTR, things like facade grants.

We need to take an inventory of vacant land and we need dedicated,secure, neighborhood parking lots for residents only, so street parking is available for tourism. The city should get rid of every parking meter North of Liberty and encourage people to come to Findlay Market. We also need real police presence and we need to take a hard line on loitering, panhandling and criminal activity, we need to stop the "free food and clothing pass outs" in the Park and let some agency better suited with the resources to do it. We need new streets and sidewalks and Federal monies are out there for it and we need to go after it.

OTR can be successful but it needs a plan, a real plan, a comprehensive plan with many different ideas. Some will work and frankly some may not. But OTR could be a major source of tax revenue for this city. Imagine the property tax revenue, the sales tax revenue and income tax revenue created by a restored, historic, OTR. People traveling from other states to spend the weekend in OTR, staying at B&B's and boutique hotels, Hopping on the trolly to go downtown or Findlay Market, or historic walking tours. People going to shops , art galleries , micobreweries and restaurants. It can happen, but we need a real plan. The streetcar is a good start lets build on it.

Now unleash the critics on both sides and the social do gooders who don't want to hear the TRUTH!


Randy Simes said...

Great post. I agree with a lot of what you have to say, but do disagree on a couple of points.

First I agree that the streetcar, or any one thing alone, will be the thing that will turn around OTR. You are absolutely right that it has to be done in a comprehensive sense. Luckily right now we are seeing the development community really start to pick up steam and there seems to be a plan for neighborhood retail diversity and also sub-neighborhood plans for areas like Findlay Market and the Brewery District, Pendleton and the area south of Liberty. Add in the streetcar which allows you to continue to develop the neighborhood in a pedestrianized way and you really have something. I feel that OTR will continue to be developed with or without the streetcar, but without it I fear that many of the projects will be auto-oriented and from a preservation stand point that's the last thing we would want.

Second, gentrification is the elephant in the room that not many people are talking about right now. Primarily because the neighborhood is so vacant that the projects happening so far really haven't caused any harm in this sense. Additionally, 3CDC has made several efforts and even provided some affordable housing units based on income levels. Now long term everything won't be this rosy, because as things continue to progress the situation will become more difficult. I think that discussion will continue to develop with it, but it would be ideal if we started the conversation now instead of waiting until it's too late. But I was on the Explore Cincinnati radio show and discussed this very issue with several people a couple of weeks ago and plan to continue this dialog as I have the opportunity.

The other issue is that I know for a fact that people will move to OTR or open a business there specifically for the streetcar. I have spoken to a number of people both from Cincinnati and outside who said they have been considering a move here, and this would be the final push that would do it for them. It allows someone to live say in the Brewery District and take a quick 5 minute ride into the CBD for banking services, dining, entertainment, etc. If this was not there your other options would be to drive (which means we're at the auto-centric end again) or take a 15 or so minute walk. I've done it before and it's not bad, but on unpleasant days or when you're on a crunch for time then the 10 minute difference could mean a lot (like over a lunch break for example).

OTR shouldn't try to compete with the CBD and what not. It can be a completely unique neighborhood as you suggest, but the reality is that the people who end up living there are going to need to services and offerings of the CBD to make their day-to-day lives work. That's fine and the streetcar will allow them to do it in a pedestrian-focused way instead of an auto-focused way.

Once again, great post and thanks for sharing all your incredible thoughts on this extremely important issue in Cincinnati.

Quim said...

I know there's a NIMBY thing in Cincinnati, and everywhere else, but Cincinnati, with it's very distinct neighborhood structure leaves a lot of locals being less NIMBY than having a
"You have your own neighborhood. Stay there, I will leave you alone and you will leave me alone." attitude.
I think a lot of the native people really believe that OTR is a place for the dregs of society and they are honestly puzzled why anybody would want to live or invest in the area.

Paul Wilham said...

Thanks for the comments. We are planning on locating our business in OTR and the streetcar is not a determiining factor. Most of our 'local' business will come from outside of OTR, on the antiques side. However on the restoration side of the business, things like historic wallpapers, ceiling medallions and period lighting we "think" we will get a lot of business from those actually restoring houses in OTR instead of the HGTV 'loft' look.

Of course our biggest thing is finding a building and in OTR it's not easy to do believe it or not.Too many buildings are siting with investort types who are willing to wait to get "top dolllar", or they are owned by the city and have so much redtape attached to make restoration cost twice as much.

We haven't given up but its been a year long search , so far, for a building to put our business in.