Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Cincinnati: How do we establish "historic value" on a national level?

Those of us who have found Cincinnati "get" what a bargain it is and the great value of its historic architecture.I know that I, as many others who come from somewhere else, shake our heads in amazement as the "powers that be" in local government, or the "smartest people in the room crowd", comes up with another "scheme or gimmick" to "magically transform" Cincinnati into a world class city. This is National Preservation Month and a city with some of the greatest architecture in the nation is doing nothing to promote Cincinnati architecture on a national level.

As a result, we often sell ourselves short. We believe that there is some "magic bullet" that will turn Cincinnati into a San Francisco , a New Orleans, or a Charleston. There is no magic bullet or formula that does that, especially given the decades of decline and "bad ideas" from city leaders over the years.

We have a city government that has no clue about the value of Historic Preservation as an economic development tool. They tear down over 650 buildings since 2005 with Federal dollars in the name of blight abatement, they pass out VBMLs and condemn notices like candy and they wonder why the city population is still in decline and , our county property tax base is decimated as the city lost huge amounts of property tax value. City leaders are "amazed and perplexed" and talk about errors or miscalculations...after all it couldn't be their fault or their bad decisions that drove people away..

Much like many Americans are screaming at their elected officials that we really are in financial crisis and must stop spending money on wastefull things, that it really is the Economy stupid. Those of us in Historic Preservation are screamings "its the architecture stupid"! You use it to turn around neighborhoods and our economy. Having a nationally read preservation blog I get tons of emails from fellow preservationists across the country, often shaking their heads in amazement at the way things work, or don't work in Cincinnati.

Case in point, the split photo at the top of this article. Two Italianate townhouses. The one of the left is on Dayton street in the West End. This house currently is divided into apartments, needs restoration and conversion back to single family. It has been languishing on the market for months now currently at a 59,900 asking price. The house on the right is also three apartments and is for sale. It's ad suggests you bring your architect and your imagination, because, just like the house on the left, it needs everything too. Its' asking price? 1.3 million.! The difference? Well its in the Park Slope Neighborhood in New York area.

Now before you say, 'well its New York area, thats why its expensive". Well it is New York, but Park Slope is hardly the "Millionairs Row" of the New York area, and this house is next to a community garden in what locals describe as a 'so-so' part of North slope. Now the forum I read discussing this house talks about the fact it will likely sell quickly because it is so "cheap", but one of the drawbacks they mention is its so close to the R train and  traffic. It really wasn't that many years ago that you probably could have bought the house on the right for 59,9 in that area. The fact is that neighborhoods like Brooklyn, Bed Stye and Park Slope were all less than desirable neighborhoods in their not that distant past.

So why is it that other cities are turning around their Urban neighborhoods? Well, possibly because they promote them. They advertise them and they have worked to establish 'Value' in them. Cities do not turn around overnight. It takes time. However you do not turn around a city if you continue to bulldoze it, set up so much Redtape and Roadblocks that no one will buy there. Turning around a city is hard work. There is no magic bullet, you do it a house at a time, a neighborhood at a time. You do it with a well funded Preservation planning department, you do it with national level advertising and media events.You tell your story, you make convincing argument about a city's value and you make the compelling case it is a smart move to come there. Cincinnati does none of that, so no one knows the architecture is great and still here

Neighborhoods are turning around all over Cincinnati, in spite of the city's efforts to screw them up. OTR is coming around and so is West End, Price Hill is doing some great things and so is my little neighborhood. of Knox Hill and there are many others.

City leaders however, and the smartest people in the room crowd, always think there is a "Magic Bullet" . Just the other day Mayor Mallory announced the "revised streetcar route". The propoents are already complaining about the route and the detractors are already talking about legal action to stop it....and the "Circus" continues and I shake my head.

I have pretty much steered clear of the "contentious" streetcar debate as I have friends on both sides and both make good arguments for their positions. On one hand,  I see how a streetcar will enhance OTR, however I realize it will not "magically transform" OTR. OTR is turning around just fine on its own, everyday attracting some new business or someone restoring a new property. I also get that 95 Million is a lot of money too and maybe there are better ways to spend it. Maybe on some other neighborhoods as well. So I see both sides.

The streetcar route? Well it sucks to many of its proponents, but I understand the "politics" of it too. If it fails, and it could,  it is far easier to tear up tracks in front of homeless shelters and Section 8 on Race and Elm than in front of trendy boutiques and condos on Vine. Much like the subway was built on the drained cesspool of the old canal... the path of least resistance and hope and pray for the best. I often wonder what Cincinnati would be like today if we had that canal? Probably flanked by high end restaurants and condos and maybe gondolas? In case you want to see what that looks like take a trip to Indianapolis some time and visit the site of the "restored" canal. Thousands of new housing units several museums, jogging paths and it single handedly created millions in private investment and generates millions in property tax revenue for the city every year plus is a major source of tourism dollars.

Its funny, because this streetcar project and the fight that has gone on about it, is amusing, and sad at the same time. It shows how little credit locals give their city in the first place that we resort to "gimmicks' in the hope it will turn around OTR, which compared to many other neighborhood is really doing pretty OK. As a friend of mine who lives in Portland , the city most often pointed to by streetcar proponents as what OTR could be, pointed out to me, "If Portland had Cininnatti's architecture, we wouldn't need a streetcar".

And it just points out how those who don't live here, see what an asset we have in our architecture. It will be the 'value' of our historic buildings that brings people to this city , that encourages them to open a business here. Its the architecture STUPID! Not some gimmicky streetcar so 20 somethings can conveniently bar hop, or some  pro sports team that will bring suburbanites downtown to drop some money at local restaurants. It is the fact that this city is like no other architecturally. That is has unique places found no where else and if people actually KNEW about it , it would be interesting to them.

I wish locals thought better of this city, and sometimes I wish there were some adults in the room. That they appreciated what they have and give themselves more credit than they do. And maybe, just maybe, the mayor could save a mill of that streetcar project money to actually advertise the architectural opportunities that we have nationally. Actually 95 Mill spent on Preservation would probably put  a new roof and a fresh coat of paint on every vacant building in OTR and probably create some jobs too, but I am not even touching that common sense argument..

But just 1 Million spent on actually advertising the history and architecture of this great city might be the smartest investment of all.


e5bbc82e-65d4-11e0-b927-000bcdcb8a73 said...

So says the king of the "smartest people in the room crowd".

Look, I'm all for preservation. But a city needs quality transportation options. Aesthetics are great and essential, but they are no substitute for practicality!

It seems you are substituting your own views on what makes a place great for the consensus view. Quite simply, there are more of those 20-somethings you so deride who are ripe to move based on density and transit options (as well as aesthetics) than there are people motivated primarily by preservation/restoration possibilities. Not that the latter are unimportant or the city shouldn't target them.

Calling the streetcar a "gimmick" just colors you as out-of-touch with urbanists who would be drawn in by the city's historic built environment.

John S. said...

Great article, Paul! "It's the ARCHITECTURE, stupid!" I like that slogan because Cincinnati has some of the finest 19th and early 20th century architecture in the nation yet so many just don't get it...that really IS stupid. That 650 lost structures number is the tip of the iceberg; add in the owner-initiated demos and those from redevelopment and the numbers climb into the thousands. There are thousands more on the "nuisance" properties list which may not be preserved. Since the architecture is one of Cincinnati's greatest native asset, allowing it to be lost is stupid. Got any bumper stickers?

Paul Wilham said...

As someone who has been involved in Urban turnaround for over 20 years and have lectured on the effective use of Historic Preservation in Urban turnaround and planning:

Transportaion options: getting one from point a to b can be achived by rail, a bike, bicycle cab, taxi, carriage, trolley bus, conventional bus or PREFFERABLY via a walkable neighborhood plan.

But none of those transportation options mean anything if there is no one living there to use them and their is not a perceived 'value' of that neighborhood that will compell someone to spend 250K to a million bucks to restore a building. OTR will NEVER have the density to be a self sustaining neighborhood.

In fact, the slow down in condo sales mean we may be hitting a "peak' for 1 bedroom condo units already, as many are now being turned into rentals.So the argument that there is an endless supply of people who would populate OTR "ONLY IF" they had a streetcar is a "flawed argument".

OTR's future will be as a reasonably populated neighborhood seriously engaged in "Heritage Tourism' and attacting people to visit it who will (unfortunately) likely do it by car.

Take Findlay Market: if it ONLY depended on local population it would go under. Even if OTR achieved any real density, it still would not be enough commerce to fully support it.

Citis like Charleston and New Orleans majorly depend on heritage tourism as their own econonmy and population, taken by itself, cannot sustain them.

Those are facts. City official havent learned that.

5chw4r7z said...

I've been saying for years and so agree with you we need to stop trying to be the next Portland and find the essence of and become the best Cincinnati that Cincinnati can be.
And also there is no magic bullet. Washington park isn't going to change OTR.
3CDC isn't going to change OTR. The streetcar isn't going to change OTR.
None of those things will change OTR, in a vacuum.
But put them all together with all the other changes happening and all the sudden something incredible is happening.

Quimbob said...

Unfortunately, people around here hate advertising/marketing, too. (which is pretty weird)
Look how people in Cincinnati AND Columbus don't want to market to the film industry.

Neil said...

Since the government isn't stepping up to promote the city in the way it should be promoting, it then the people have to do everything in their power to support it themselves.

A good start would be telling everyone you know (especially out of towners)about these guys - - and the tours they are running of OTR. A grass roots campaign could do wonders for the city's perception both inside and out.

Ditto for other cool events like Oktoberfest or the MPMF.