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Thursday, August 29th, 2013

In Case You’ve Forgotten How Badly Freeways Damaged Our Cities, Cincinnati Edition

A couple weeks ago I posted a series of photos demonstrating the damage freeway construction did to Indianapolis. Since I’ve been covering Cincinnati this week, I thought I’d show the damage freeways did there too.

Over the Rhine is one of America’s most stunning historic districts. When I visited the city last year, one of the locals explained that there had been “miles” of neighborhoods just like it obliterated by freeway construction. I found this difficult to credit until I came across the photographic proof.

Here’s a picture of one such area, the West End. This photo dates to the late 1950′s:


West End Cincinnati in the late 1950s. Image via Cininnati Transit

Here’s a Google satellite view of the area today. Pretty much everything but Cincinnati Union Terminal appears to have been demolished and replaced with I-75 and an industrial park.

Lest you think Union Terminal survived unscathed, it appears in the 1950s photo that it had a sort of City Beautiful style formal plaza in front of it. Here’s a closer look:


Cincinnati Union Terminal, image via Flickr/whitehall buick

And here’s the Google satellite from today that shows it converted into – what else! – a parking lot:

Almost empty, of course.

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Is Cincinnati At an Inflection Point?

Cincinnati, like most older cities, has experienced a long period of population and economic decline, especially relative to its overall region (i.e., sprawl). Looking at recent trends in the city, I’ve been prompted to ask whether or not it has hit an inflection point where decline has been halted and a new growth cycle of sorts is underway.

Cincinnati was once something like the 5th largest city in the US and was the dominant city of the interior West during the first half of the 19th century, much like Chicago today. A failure to embrace railroads and structural factors it never could have overcome (just to cite one example, an inability to quarry Wisconsin ice fields during the winter) led to the center of gravity shifting to the Windy City. Cincinnati entered a long period of relative and decline and stagnation, though regional economic employment and population grew on an absolute basis. As with many places, a basically land-locked core city saw population peak 1950, followed by decline. A particular recent low point in the city was the 2001 race riots in Over the Rhine, which may be the most recent major racial disturbance in a major American city.

Whether triggered by this or some other factor, Cincinnati in (mostly) the post-2000 embarked on a number of changes that did quite a transforming work in downtown. This included lowering a highway that cut downtown off from the riverfront, building two new stadiums, major redevelopment in Over the Rhine, etc. Notable here was completion the first phases of the Banks, a mixed use riverfront development that had been a poster-child for many of a city that could never get anything done. Similarly, a street car system seems on track thanks to Herculean efforts in the face of stunning obstacles. There has been new major office construction and also (more dubiously) a casino. Outside of downtown Cincinnati is replete with many high quality neighborhood business districts that have seen significant improvements. The University of Cincinnati embarked on a major starchitect oriented building spree, etc, etc.

Other cities can tell similar tales, but what made me specifically consider Cincinnati was a couple factors. First is just the huge difference in feel and palpable physical change between visits I made in 2008 and in 2010. I was not the only one who noticed as even firebrand conservative talk radio host (and pretty rabid anti-city guy) Bill Cunningham changed his tune on Over the Rhine, singing its praises.

Also, there’s been a political shift as well. Previously many Cincinnati initiatives had been derailed by a very active Tea Party style group called COAST – “Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes” (which actually predated the Tea Party) They were a pretty fearsome force to be reckoned with for a period of time. However, after failing to defeat the proposed streetcar in a referendum, their power appears to have wanted considerably in the city. The locus of opposition to city initiatives now comes from the statehouse, and also from collar county politicians like Rep. Steve Chabot, who was gerrymandered into a district where he represents downtown Cincinnati while being supported by a Warren County voter base. This isn’t to say that COAST is always wrong. Cincinnati and Hamilton County have cut some astoundingly bad deals that have inflicted taxpayer torment (such as the aforementioned stadiums). But their loss of influence is suggestive of demographic change in the city. Had more urban-oriented residents been attracted to the city?

To test this, I took a look at some base data. Here’s a look at total population in the region since 1950:

Here’s a look at percentage change by Census year. The change is over the preceding decade. So 1990 represents the change between 1980 and 1990:

Lastly, here’s a look at population share within the region:

As of 2010, none of these show a material change in the sprawl paradigm. I was hoping to see especially that Cincinnati had reversed its share loss within Hamilton County and/or that its percentage loss had decreased, but this was not the case. The 1980-1990 decade was actually the best for the city, and the population percentage losses have increased in the two decades since. Similarly, share loss even within Hamilton County has continued to grow.

However, I find the numbers interesting. Suburban Hamilton County was the growth juggernaut in the 50s and 60s, but it basically flatlined in 1970. I know geography complicates things in the area, but from my drives about town, there appears to be land left that could be developed but hasn’t been. Suburban Hamilton County itself actually lost population during the 2000s. This is in line with general inner suburban declines around America. I suspect this has had an impact in bridging the city-suburb divide within Hamilton County because now almost the entire county can related to being the “inner city” if you will. Many of these areas are in pretty much the same boat as the city, and thus could find alignment of interests.

Also, the loss of population in the city suggests a possible alternative narrative for why the Tea Party lost influence. Namely that its political supporters in some Cincinnati neighborhoods gave up and left, leaving a pro-downtown type majority coalition. Whatever the case, it provides an opportunity to achieve civic momentum because there’s more policy consensus, though state level Republicans can continue making things difficult. (Again, this says nothing of the merits of various policies themselves, merely consensus for action). The core population growth was real in the past decade, but concentrated in downtown and though the percentages were pretty high (around 30%) it was on a pretty small base so the total gains were only about 1,350 people. Good, but not good enough. Here’s the NYT Census map:

Looking at jobs, the core zip code of downtown, 45202, lost 19,500 private sector jobs between 2000 and 2011, a drop of 23%. (Zip code 45219, which includes the University of Cincinnati, had a slight job gain, but on a comparatively smaller base of only 14,400). This suggests that there hasn’t been an economic inflection point either.

To date the data would not appear to have confirmed the notion of a center city inflection point in Cincinnati. However, the change in the feel of the city is, as I said, palpable. Last time I was there I just generally got the feeling that the wind was back in the city’s sails. Time will tell if this is the start of a real trend or whether it is just a bump created by unsustainable public investment and a change in national trends. Given the high quality “bones” of the city, Cincinnati is one of the place I’d be watching to see if post-industrial cities can really pull off a turnaround.

If you’re interested in the raw data and charts I created for this post, here’s the Excel file.

Friday, July 26th, 2013

Exploding the Myth of the Fiscally Conservative Republican Governor

Republican governors like to strut around like they are the adults in the room, making the painful cuts and decisions needed to balance budgets and propel economies. This lets them portray their policies as somehow rooted in some different and better philosophy of government than their Democratic opponents. But peek under the covers, and you’ll see that all too often these Republicans are just as much big spenders as their Democratic brethren. The only difference is the list of boondoggles they want to waste money on.

Exhibit A is Ohio Governor John Kasich. One of his first acts in office was to strip Cincinnati of $52 million in federal fund allocations for the downtown streetcar project. Not content with a mere administrative decision to defund, a Republican legislator actually introduced a budget amendment to legally prohibit any state allocations for the streetcar. The state’s transport policy committed had previously ranked the streetcar the top project in the state. After Kasich took over, he cancelled it completely from the state’s perspective.

Was this because he wanted to run a tighter fiscal ship? Or put money toward higher cost/benefit projects? No. Look at how he’s actually governed and it’s clear he wanted to cancel projects like the streetcar so he could spend it on his own personal boondoggles.

Kasich recently put forth a $3 billion transportation plan. Of the 41 tier one projects, which one is the most expensive, the most strategic investment the state is making?

Kasich’s biggest investment is a $440 million bypass around Portsmouth, a town of 20,000 people. That’s almost $22,000 for every man, woman, and child in town. (Even expand the look to the entire county and there are only 80,000 people). Ask the people of Portsmouth whether they would rather have this road or a check for $22,000 each, and I know where my money is. To put in perspective how crazy this is, remember those $300 stimulus “rebates” from a while back? Even at today’s ridiculously low interest rates, 30 year treasuries are yielding about 3.5%. Invest the $22K per person in treasuries and you could pay them a $750 “stimulus” every year in perpetuity.

Kasich is hardly alone in this category. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ most expensive project was a highway in another state that costs over $100,000 per foot and includes a tunnel that passes only under trees local residents didn’t want to cut down. Daniels also enjoys a high reputation in Republican circles for fiscal rectitude. Though not a governor, it was Republican Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens who championed the original “Bridge to Nowhere”, a $400 million span to an island of 50 people. Kentucky Rep. Hal Stevens, dubbed the “Prince of Pork” by the Lexington Herald-Leader, has single handed kept plans for an I-66 interstate through rural Kentucky that nobody else seems to want alive.

Back to the case at hand, Kasich just goes to show yet again there’s no highway boondoggle big enough that even the most ostensibly fiscally conservative governor is willing to cancel it.

It may well be that this is part of a longer, more strategic route. But with the vast transportation needs in Ohio, it’s tough to imagine this one small town project deserves the most money. And while I’m not the biggest fan of urban streetcars myself (not evil, but not my top priority by any means), at least downtown Cincinnati legitimately has millions of people visiting it every years.

It’s hard to take Kasich seriously as a conservative if this is the type of project he wants to champion. Unlike some urbanists, I like roads. I’m not ashamed to say that we need to build more of them, even some expensive ones. But we ought to at least build ones that make sense, in places where people actually live in numbers commensurate with the money spent, and where there’s a real cost/benefit to be had.

In the meantime, by no means does someone like Kasich deserve to be put in the conservative bucket. Just because someone wants to waste money on a boondoggle you actually like doesn’t make him any less a boongdoggler.

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Cincinnati 2012

Your time lapse of the week features Cincinnati this time. This one is called Cincinnati 2012. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

And since we’re on the subject of Cincinnati time lapses, here’s another. This one is called Paths and Nodes. If this one doesn’t display, you can click here.

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Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Cincinnati

Friday, July 6th, 2012

Cincinnati vs. Cincinnati

In a post on Cincinnati called “A Midwest Conundrum” I noted the apparent disconnect between a place that has probably the best collection of assets of any city/region its size in America, and the long term stagnation the region has experienced.

What’s caused that? The reasons are complex, but something that I’ve long noticed is that Cincinnati is one of the most socially fragmented cities I’ve seen, and among other things has one of the worst city-suburb divides in America. I’ve rarely seen a place where suburbanites so openly brag about how they never come into the city like they do in Cincinnati.

We see this “Cincinnati vs. Cincinnati” dynamic playing out in the debate over a new $95 million streetcar system downtown. Transit proposals always sharply divide people along philosophical fault lines and are very controversial. And honestly, I’m not 100% sold on the Cincinnati streetcar itself. Nevertheless, the city government decided to move forward with it using a mixture of local, state, and federal money. The state approved its share under the previous administration. The feds had likewise approved a large grant.

Opponents of the streetcar have done everything possible to derail it. A local organization called COAST – Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes – took the lead. They brought a long string of successes in using ballot initiatives to defeat various things they didn’t like. They tried twice with the streetcar. The first time was a charter amendment that would prohibit the city from spending any money on streetcars. After that overly broad amendment failed, a second initiative narrowly focused on the streetcar also failed.

The benefit of this for streetcar supporters is that the project had now passed the test of clear democratic legitimacy. Put directly to the voters of the city of Cincinnati – twice – they endorsed it both times.

Democracy, however, is apparently not good enough for some people, particularly of the Tea Party Republican variety. In a curious move, US Rep. Steve Chabot inserted language into the House version of the transportation re-authorization bill that would prohibit any federal funds from being spent on any fixed guideway system. His target was the streetcar. This was not something done in the dead of night, but rather something he openly bragged about on his web site:

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) authored an amendment to prohibit any federal transportation dollars from being used for the Cincinnati streetcar project….The amendment itself is only 25 words and would stop in its tracks the federal grant money sought by the city of Cincinnati for the streetcar project. The primary funding for this project came in the form of an Urban Circulator Grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for $25 million. Then, earlier this year, city of Cincinnati officials were on Capitol Hill seeking even more federal assistance.

As we’ll see in a moment, Steve Chabot is actually the representative for downtown Cincinnati. This is a curious reversal. Where in the past Congressmen would do everything possible to secure earmarks to bring home the bacon for their district, Chabot has decided instead to produce an “anti-earmark,” preventing the federal government from spending money in his district. What a novel concept.

Chabot claims his move is about priorities, saying that highway projects like the Brent Spence Bridge are more important. It’s interesting that even noted transit skeptic Wendell Cox has suggested that Cincinnati is over-freewayed, reporting that “Few American urban areas have better transport infrastructure and fewer still have as much potential for expansion. And few urban areas of 1.5 million have so many miles of 8-lane freeway. Except for part of the Ronald Reagan Cross County Highway and portions of the I-275 ring, virtually all freeway that is not eight lanes is six lanes.” Regardless, Chabot clearly knows that cancelling the streetcar won’t have any impact on any highway project in the region.

Chabot has hardly been the only political enemy of the streetcar who is nominally supposed to be representing the interests of Cincinnati. Republican Gov. John Kasich, after taking office last year, rewrote the state’s transport funding list and deleted all the funding the state was going to commit to the streetcar. Not satisfied with that, Kasich then had a provision inserted into the state budget by State Rep. Shannon Faulkner Jones (from far north suburban Cincinnati) that would prohibit the state from even administering federal grants on behalf of the Cincinnati streetcar system. (I’m not certain if this provision was adopted in the final budget).

Here we have three conservative Republican officials, the governor, a suburban state legislator, and the actual US representative for downtown Cincinnati, all attempting to kill this one streetcar project, one that passed two local votes and that is not even expensive compared to most other rail transit projects around the nation on a total price tag basis.

I hope this explodes the notion that the Republican party has any true interest in decentralizing government power. They love to rant and rave about Washington and states rights, but as I’ve noted before, when they run state governments, they gleefully set about micro-managing local governments. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that dis-empowering local governments, particularly big city governments they see as likely to be forever Democrat controlled, is a core political objective of the Republican Party. The fact that they are happy to run roughshod over the voters of Cincinnati to do so shows how little these Republicans at least respect local democracy. (Not that the Democrats are any better. They’ll happily cheer any one of their policies getting mandated by the Supreme Court if they can get it. But the Republicans like to pretend that they care about democracy and liberty more. In reality, both parties have agendas that they view as self-evidently correct and which should be imposed regardless of what the people think).

In any event, this sort of in-fighting is a classic example of why it is so difficult to do almost anything in Cincinnati and why it struggles so badly demographically and economically. The culture is broken. I was in downtown Cincinnati recently and it is really doing great, but with things like this it’s hard to get too excited about the city and region’s prospects. It’s not that I suggest a streetcar is critical to the future – as I said, I’m not even sure it’s a slam dunk project myself – but that the streetcar shows what you have to do through to get almost anything done there.

I’d like to end this with a map that shows part of what is going re:Chabot. It’s map of his newly gerrymandered district:

As you can see, his district takes in downtown and the west side of the city, then snakes around to include heavily Republican Warren County. I haven’t studied congressional maps that closely, but from what I’ve seen, generally cities tend to get to put into one district. This both helps create minority districts, but also keeps the city together as a community of interest. Especially in a place like Cincinnati, the people downtown and those in Warren County, while they should view themselves as sharing a region in common, often express outright hostility to each other. They certainly have very different outlooks and concerns. If the map was drawn to favor affluent suburban Republicans, then its effect is really to try to neutralize the voters of much of the city of Cincinnati. Maybe good electoral politics for Washington purposes, but bad policy in terms of making local regions thrive.

Contrast Cincinnati with the 7th Congressional district in Indianapolis.

That district outlines the city-county boundary except on the north, because the city is too big to fit into one district. Note that the affluent northern tier of the city is included with a Warren County analog to the north where it has a lot of commonalities.

In any event, when your own US and state representatives are trying to actively undermine the policy of the city government – regardless of policy or party – that’s a recipe for regional trouble. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Alas, that seems to describe Cincinnati all too well.

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

The Tension Between Newcomers and Oldtimers in an Old City by Richey Piiparinen

On Cleveland–out of its vast variety of worlds (i)–sometimes I feel like I’m straddling two of them, with two different sets of assumptions.

I think they’ll be familiar to some folks across the Midwest:

World 1—Younger Clevelanders who grew up here, particularly on the west and south sides. Some description: late 20s to 30s. Many Catholic—be it through Polish, Irish, Slovakian, Italian, or whatever descent. Despite the rumors of a mass exodus most of them haven’t left. But those that grew up in the city have largely moved to the suburbs. Those that grew up in inner-ring suburbs have mostly moved farther out. A few buck the trend and move closer to the core—in Tremont, Downtown, but they’re anomalies. Some have stayed put. As for attitude, work—the indigenous are closer to the Baby Boomers than they are their actual age. They are in many ways an extension of a legacy city threaded forward into the present, complete with naysaying about how Cleveland has fallen (though they only knew it on its knees)—complete with manufacturing and union ties, cop and fireman ties. They haunt West Park bars and Lakewood bars and in general: old man bars, but not for irony, but a buzz. Many smoke still. Think the term “urban ag” is some derogatory remark. They talk about high school (which one? what year?) They have kids and drive tons and see bikes as things they have to put under the tree around the holidays. But they are solid, and are attached to Cleveland like a mole is attached to the body. They are loyal that way. Perhaps too loyal.

World 2—Clevelanders who grew up elsewhere, be it out of Ohio, in Ohio, but not considered from here (granted being considered “from here” is–by the indigenous–a pretty small radius). Some description: no coalescing ethnic or religious descent—a mix of everything, nothing. They live in the core, be it city neighborhoods, Downtown, or inner ring suburbs. Cleveland is more about today to them, with the legacy ties tethered mainly to their chagrin that there’s a legacy still weighing the city down. But they appreciate the city’s past, especially it’s built past. They form Facebook groups about a lot, like micro-lending and historical preservation and bike advocacy and outings. There’s a lot of biking overall—doing it, talking about it. And the newcomers have an entrepreneurial spirit, with start-ups and worker co-ops defining the day as opposed to structured times and static work stations. Urban planning to them doesn’t arouse shrugs—like with their indigenous counterparts—but is rather part of the day, like finding food. This is partly why they are attracted to Cleveland I am told, for it’s a real city with a real history, but with an opportunity to do real shit. But it’s more than that, less a cosmopolitan thing than a rust thing. For the Rust Belt means something: not just the consequence of aged metal, but an essence of tangibility and ruggedness in an age of sprawl, sanitization, and display.

Like I said, I’m sometimes in the context of both: Mid-30′s, am from here, am Catholic, go to old man bars, have a kid, went to St. Ed’s High School, but also: I live in the urban core, blog, studied urban planning, am a Rust Belt romantic, and know urban ag isn’t a put down. But these two worlds hardly meet, despite the age similarity. At least that is my experience.

And it’s not just a Cleveland thing apparently. From a blog Cincinnati Imports (click here to see their Facebook group):

ok, we have skirted around this issue long enough so let’s just put it out there. we, and by “we” i mean “i,” think it is weird that people from cincinnati always want to know where you went to high school…i moved here from new york where nobody went to high school there and even if they did, you wouldn’t have heard of it.

i don’t blame cincinnatians, this is what they are used to. but on a general level, i really think it reflects the insular nature of the city. no wonder so many people aren’t that welcoming to newcomers to the city… they don’t even realize there are any!

And then over in Pittsburgh, blogger Mike Madison, a newcomer to the city back in 1998, recently had this to say about that fine line between attachment to place and the city’s social capital stuck in motion:

This place is full of warm and friendly people. The core decency of Pittsburgh, its communal and communitarian spirit, its family-friendliness, its respect for history and tradition…come through pretty quickly in social settings across a broad range of Pittsburgh…

[Yet] All of that neighborliness, all of that friendliness, all of that know-your-community spirit is descended from generations of Pittsburghers living in an essentially static place…

What’s missing in that lightning-quick account of Pittsburgh demographics is a story of thousands and thousands of people moving to Pittsburgh over the course of the 20th century, bringing the topsy-turviness of modern urbanity to Western PA…Today, you get that small town neighborliness, and you also get that small town insularity, nosiness, and exclusion…

Madison could have been talking about Cleveland, Buffalo, etc., and as indigenous to Cleveland, his post gave me pause. Because though I am indigenous, my interests give me the benefit of experiencing the world of the newcomer that is frankly not understood–and sometimes derided–by many I know. Yet we are called legacy cities for a reason. And for long we have been molded in a way of doing and being that eventually tilted our attachment to Rust Belt tradition into the stasis that enabled our oxidation in the first place.

And while I began this piece simply describing the gaps between two sets of groups, I finish it a bit more declarative than I intended: by saying that the world of the indigenous Clevelander has been less a world than it has been a fish tank—and we have been suffocating in our exclusion of fresh air and ideas for too long.

(i) Yes, this is a small representative of the world, and all the worlds of Cleveland, but it is used as a fine-grain example of a macro-level issue in a lot of Midwest cities dealing with the inability to take in new ideas. Be it the aversion to risk-taking, or the reluctance to accept others unlike what you came from, sometimes section of Cleveland retain an insularity that are not good for the city, and that serve to push newcomers and/or outsiders out. Not good for a place needing an influx of youth, diversity, and new ideas.

This post originally appeared in Rust Wire on March 8, 2012.

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Downtown Cincinnati on the Rise

I just got back from the CEOs for Cities spring meeting in Cincinnati. It was the first time I got to spend any time there in a couple of years. But even in that short span of time in a bad economy, downtown Cincinnati and Over the Rhine have really boomed in a way that was beyond even what I expected. Reputedly there are still over 500 vacant buildings in OTR, so everything isn’t great, but I noticed a lot more vitality in the central area than even a short time ago.

Even the local TV news has picked up on this. Here’s a segment WCPO did on what’s happening downtown. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here). It’s a good story, but the way the anchors approach the story tells you a lot about what smaller city downtowns have to put up with.

h/t Randy Simes

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

On the Riverfront in Cincinnati

It’s about time one of the smaller Midwest cities got a cool timelapse. Here’s a short one of the Cincinnati riverfront. It’s done in an ultra-widescreen format that perfectly symbolizes a river itself. I recommend watching in full screen high definition. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

h/t UrbanCincy

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Replay: Neighborhood Redevelopment and the Downsides of Consolidation

This post is about the downsides of city-county consolidation. Actually, it might better be described as a discussion of some of the pros and cons of “big box” vs. “small box” municipal government. It is similar to business. It seems like every large business is either doing one of two things: centralizing or decentralizing. There’s a sort of cycle of reincarnation about this. Every model has its flaws, and people tend to gravitate towards the other side of the spectrum from time to time when the problems of the current mode manifest themselves in a particularly severe form. As a prologue to this, you might want to read my previous examination of city-county consolidation post, if you haven’t already.

I haven’t read all the academic literature on city-county consolidations, so won’t make any strong claims about the benefits its promoters have touted. But I will make two observations. One, I’m not aware of any city that has gone through a city-county consolidation that has become a civic failure, or which has a severely under-performing region. Most of the ones I’m familiar with seem to be doing ok or better. Two, if you look at the Midwest region, the metros that are doing well almost all feature a core city that either underwent a consolidation or has managed to maintain its ability to annex new territory. Minneapolis-St. Paul is an exception, but it has regional revenue sharing. (Landlocked and unconsolidated Chicago has a thriving core, but the regional numbers are lagging). So my gut tells me that big box solutions at a minimum don’t hurt and probably have some benefit to a region.

But they do come with downsides, and one of them is that it can make neighborhood redevelopment more difficult. The root of the problem is that with a single city covering a large area, there is only one mayor, one city council, etc. These have a large area to concern themselves with and cannot physically devote significant time and attention to each neighborhood. They inevitably spend most of their time dealing with the biggest and most visible challenges, which often means downtown development issues.

Redevelopment in Indianapolis

Indianapolis is a good example of this principle in action. It underwent a city-county consolidation in 1970. Four smaller municipalities were excluded from merger and so are known as “excluded cities”. So we get here both consolidated neighborhoods and some unconsolidated ones we can compare.

Since 1970, downtown Indianapolis has experienced a major resurgence. And Indy has emerged as what is in many ways the strongest performing Midwest metro area. I happen to believe its consolidation was instrumental in setting the stage for that. Many of its urban neighborhood have seen challenges, however. This includes many reasonably upscale areas, and I’d like to highlight two of them.

The first is an area centered around 71st and Binford Blvd on the northeast side. It was an established suburban area annexed under consolidation that started experiencing problems recently, notably with decay in its commercial developments, a common concern in aging suburbs. The population was also aging and not being renewed. This prompted a local woman to found a new neighborhood group called Binford Redevelopment and Growth (BRAG) to try to change the situation. BRAG wants more urban, mixed use development anchored by a transit stop on a future rail line, infrastructure upgrades to add basics like sidewalks that are missing in the area, and help redeveloping the commercial districts. They’ve had some successes, notably attracting investment in local strip centers, with a new Starbucks, CVS, and Kroger. But there has been little city investment.

The other is Midtown, an area encompassing the historically most desirable urban neighborhoods in the city. It includes the Meridian St. mansion district, Butler University, and Broad Ripple, the city’s main bar district. This area is loaded with gorgeous 1920′s era architecture and many independent shops and restaurants. But this area too started to experience problems, with vacant houses, some struggling commercial nodes, increasing crime, a property tax spike, and deteriorating infrastructure.

A group of neighbors here also formed a group called HARMONI designed to change this. They are also promoting neighborhood infrastructure investment, more urban development, etc. As part of this they purchased copies of Suburban Nation and distributed it to all regional elected officials. They even secured pledges of private funding for some infrastructure improvements. However, there has been little city investment in Midtown either.

But turn to the excluded cities and see a different pattern. Lawrence, the largest, inherited part of a closed military base. They created a commission to repurpose this into a new town center area. This included a multi-million dollar extension of 56th St, which involved building a bridge over a double-tracked rail line. That project also featured high quality streetscape treatments along its length. Former officers quarters on the base were renovated, and many other townhomes and other residences built. And there has been significant new commercial development as well, such that this area appears as nice and thriving as any edge suburb in the region.

As the name suggests, Speedway is the home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It is also an older industrial suburb, with gridiron streets and its own Main St. The town really never leveraged the track outside of race days. The Main St. had businesses but was struggling, and the town was at best stagnant. However, the town council has taken on a major redevelopment program that will involve a major street reconfiguration and significant commercial oriented development designed to turn Speedway into a year round tourist destination and hub of motorsports themed businesses. It’s a $500 million plan, and while not much has happened yet, the town is getting ready to issue bonds to finance millions of dollars in road improvements.

A third of the four excluded cities, Beech Grove, is also improving its town center, and has already spent millions rebuilding its main gateway street, Emerson Ave.

So three of the four Indianapolis excluded cities have active town center renewal programs, while the two annexed neighborhoods, even though more upscale than the excluded cities in many ways, have seen little tangible city investment. Why is that?

The excluded cities have their own city governments. So they have elected officials whose sole focus is their own community. They’ve also got the legal powers, such a the ability to create their own tax increment financing districts, that let them control their own destiny without regards to a higher authority.

The annexed areas, by contrast, only have neighborhood groups. These groups have no power to do anything except lobby the main Indianapolis city government. This city government has to cover a huge area and is besieged with many groups wanting things. The mayor has an incredibly limited ability to deal with individual neighborhood issues. For example, he does a monthly “Mayor’s Night Out” in which he visits each township in turn, a different one each month, to answer citizen questions along with his senior staff. But there are nine townships, each one of which would rank among Indiana’s largest cities by itself. And that doesn’t even get to the neighborhood level.

It should come as no surprise that progress is slow. For example, there’s a proposal in the Midtown area at 49th and College Ave. called (interestingly) “The Uptown”. This would replace an old gas station, another vacant commercial structure, and a few single family homes with a three story, multi-use building featuring 75 apartments and storefront retail. It is exactly what the neighborhood needs. It’s a rare example of approved upzoning for density in Indianapolis. And from an urban design standpoint it is the best designed structure Indianapolis has seen in the modern era. Here’s the present view of the site:

The project needs tax assistance to ever get built, but it is looking like it won’t as the project has been on hold for well over a year. If the Uptown were in one of the excluded cities or in an actual suburb, it is almost inconceivable that it wouldn’t get built. The local government would find a way to make it happen. But Indianapolis has higher priorities. For example, a major civic focus is a project on the near East Side in conjunction with hosting the Superbowl. That’s the sort of major event that consumes management time and attention in a large city.

This is not to criticize the mayor. In fact, people from both BRAG and HARMONI have told me the city is very willing to engage with them and that the mayor has been supportive. The problem is structural. No mayor could physically deal with the demand. It’s inherent in the very nature of a large, big box government. It seems likely to occur in any consolidated government or very large city without sub-city level authorities with real powers.

It was before my time, but reportedly Bill Hudnut, a previous mayor, saw this problem and wanted to create more neighborhood level structures in a system he called Minigov (versus “Unigov”, as the consolidated government is known). But that never happened.

Midtown vs. Bexley

Another interesting comparison is the Midtown area of Indianapolis with the suburb of Bexley in Columbus, Ohio. Bexley is more or less exactly the same as Midtown with the exception that it is a separate municipality, though one that is completely surrounded by the city of Columbus. American Dirt ran very interesting profile of Bexley you might want to check out.

Bexley remains a thriving city, especially in contrast with the surrounding areas of Columbus. Its streets largely have up to date infrastructure, including full sidewalks, which Columbus often doesn’t. It has maintained thriving commercial districts, and has had more intense urban infill as well, as this picture will attest:


Photo courtesy Jung Won Kim.

Why the difference vs. Midtown Indianapolis? Well, the fact that Bexley gets to have its own city school district while Midtown is part of the stigmatized Indianapolis Public Schools no doubt has something to do with it. This keeps land prices high, which preserves a largely affluent and exclusive resident base. This has pros and cons. Of course it means the city can be kept nicer. But it also denies the experience of that to those who can’t buy in. And the overall regional tax base misses out on one of its most affluent areas. This is the problem of all upscale suburbs. Midtown, Indianapolis, whatever its faults, has many well-off homeowners who pay significant money towards the broader community, including the city schools. And it is a much more mixed income area.

Bexley also has its own municipal authority, while Midtown does not, with the implications discussed above.

But another thing occurs to me. Because Midtown is part of a much larger city, it suffers from the problem of a diffusion of responsibility. That is, it can assume the rest of the city will carry the load in some respects. This manifests itself in a strong anti-development NIMBY contingent that is opposed to urbanization. Any proposed development of any kind is greeted by wailing and teeth-gnashing by opponents, who’ve been known to do things like pull their kids out of school to serve as props at mid-day zoning hearings where commissioners are told neighborhood kids will literally die if new apartments are approved.

I don’t know what the sentiment is in Bexley, but they’ve certainly implemented more actual urbanization than Midtown. I suspect one reason is that Bexley knows it has only its own tax base to rely on. If its residents want to keep quality schools, they can either approve more commercial and intense development, or watch their residential property taxes go up significantly over time. That focuses the mind wonderfully.

So I also hypothesize that in addition to making redevelopment more difficult for reasons of the structure of government, big box government also inculcates an anti-development mindset to a greater degree than small box government.

The Chicago Ward System

So how do you deal with this? Chicago is a big box government that has solved the governance problem with a ward system. There are 50 city council members, who more or less are the gods of their ward as a result of a system called aldermanic privilege. This is where the alderman basically agree they will let each other do whatever they want as long as it is in their own ward. Various city agencies also more or less defer to the alderman on almost any decision to do anything. This results in a system where the mayor deals with the big issues of the city and major developments, while the aldermen deal with neighborhood issues.

The Chicago system has maintained many strong neighborhoods in the city, but it has its downsides. Aldermen have virtually unlimited authority in their wards, making it a sort of elected dictatorship. So it should come as no surprise that corruption has been rampant. In excess of 40 alderman have gone to jail for corruption in the last three decades, an astonishing rate. This also makes things like planning difficult, and creates a climate of great political uncertainty around development that contributes to a terrible business climate for small businesses.

The Chicago system is a de facto one, not based on a city charter or anything like that. It would be interesting to see how it developed. But it does show that you don’t necessarily need constitutional change to effect small box government inside of a big one.

Jane Jacobs and District Governance

Jane Jacobs saw this problem of big box government very clearly and dedicated an entire chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities to it. (Chapter 21, Governing and Planning Districts). This is not one of the chapters that generally gets a lot of attention these days, and that’s a shame. She says:

The historical changes relevant in this case are not only an immense increase in the size of great cities, but also the immensely increased responsibilities….which have been taken on by the governments of great municipalities. New York is not unique in failing to match such profound changes in circumstances with appropriate functional changes in administrative and planning structure.

I can’t do this chapter justice here, but it is a must read. Her basic solution is that all city agencies – police, fire, planning, parks, etc) would be organized around districts (neighborhood groupings), with contiguous borders, with service delivery coordinated between them and with the input of the neighborhood. Chicago’s ward system is similar to this, with the notable exception of having a district dictator. That might be a cautionary tale about what this sort of thing can turn into.

Implication for Small Box Cities

To me this implies that cities which retain a relatively small and governable core along with a plethora of unconsolidated suburbs might be in an advantageous position from a redevelopment perspective. Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh come to mind. Their many separate towns in the core county have the independent power they need to take matters into their own hands if they so desire. And the core city itself should be small enough to enable more fine grained governance from city hall.

On the downside, it seems almost inevitable that many of these unconsolidated suburbs will turn into complete failed cities, often left ignored and forgotten. There are plenty of beyond dysfunctional suburbs in Chicago just like this. I presume it is similar in places like Pittsburgh. I think it is notable that consolidated cities like Indianapolis and Nashville don’t have any truly failed suburbs. Another benefit of the big box city.

Summing it Up

I think the lesson here is that there are always, always trade offs to be made in governance. The trick is to understand the trade-offs you are making and take steps to try to mitigate the inherent problems with the model your city and region operate in.

Based on this and the previous post, we might say at high level that for big box government, the pros are stronger civic consensus and cohesion, generally stronger regional and downtown growth, a fairer tax base, and a general lack of totally failed central cities and suburbs. The cons are a weaker city neighborhoods, redevelopment challenges outside of downtown, weaker urban identity, and lower quality development.

For small box government is is basically the inverse of this. The pros are a strong central city & urban identity, higher quality development, more redevelopment opportunities. The downsides are civic fragmentation and lack of consensus, the potential for a failed central city, some failed suburbs, and possibly weaker downtown growth.

This post originally ran on February 28, 2009.

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Pushing the Racial Dialogue in Cincinnati by Tifanei Moyer

When I think about my experiences in Cincinnati in the context of the dark hue of my skin and kinkiness of my hair, a reel of uneasy experiences plays through my mind:

“You should have a better sense of humor,” my boss told me once after making a joke about people that are black.

“I’m glad I’m not black, because I like my good hair.” My roommate once informs me while she watches me struggle in the mirror with my locks.

“My brother has never dated a black girl, but he has dated trailer trash.” A coworker laughs. She only gets uncomfortable and confused when I ask her about equating the two.

“You’re a shoe-in. They need more black people to represent them on the other side of town.”

“The University of Cincinnati doesn’t graduate one out of three of their incoming freshman of African descent.” A counselor urged black freshman to use tutors to even the alleged graduation gap.

“She calls black people nigger all the time, Tifanei. Like it’s nothing! I don’t know what to do.” A friend (not from Cincinnati) told me about a native Cincinnatian that she roomed with.

“Tifanei, the GM is racist, everyone knows it. There is no way he’s going to let them hire you unless you want to be a ‘busboy’ or a bouncer.” A friend whispers to me at the door at a popular establishment downtown. “He wouldn’t even serve the UC football players until I promised him they were athletes.”

“During the riots my friend was just walking downtown and black people beat him up; he was just minding his own business!” A friend tried to explain the stemming of racial tensions to me.

“Why would you date a white man? Are you tired of black men? Did someone do something to you?” A black colleague confronts me after I introduce him to a boyfriend of the time.

I can’t say I’m a native to Cincinnati. I lived there for four years (18-22) and it’s honestly the longest I have lived in any one city. But while I lived there I never met anyone who denied Cincinnati’s pride and just the same, not a single person denied the segregationist structure that many prideful(!) Cincinnati communities embody.

Even with the substantial African-American Cincinnati history, it’s in my humblest opinion that the segregated communities noticeably affect the consciousness of race related issues and identity.

People will tell me that the “racism” I experienced was just ignorance and not in any way a representation of Cincinnati. But that’s just not true. When you grow up in a community where integrating with people who don’t look like you is not valued, then it affects how you identify and interact with others as an adult.

For a long time I felt that Cincinnati didn’t want to be “burdened” by any anecdote of race. But I started to realize, as I engaged more conversation, many people in Cincinnati don’t feel like they have a safe place to discuss race among a diverse group of people.

As I started to learn more about black history in America, it became my nature to probe people around me for their opinions. I had probing conversations with a lot of Cincinnatians who identified as being white. They would tell me they never discuss race to address social problems or economic-barriers because it wasn’t an obvious reality to them. It was a trend for people to tell me that they felt manipulated by the ‘race card’.

I met a lot of people who identified as black, that only wanted to cross racial community lines when they needed a job or wanted to start a career. I witnessed many of same people, myself including, silently struggling with their identity, because they were trying to understand the difference between “success and failure” versus “suburbs and urban areas” versus “white and ‘other’”. These are not easy conclusions to come to when homogeneous communities with clear socio-economic distinctions are what’s accepted. Cincinnati is where I began to understand how the notion of beauty is affected by having so much pride in a homogenous community, especially when one community is considered more successful and educated than the other.

I know I’m mostly a nomad at heart, but I fell in love with Cincinnati for many reasons – those reasons had nothing to do with race. The heartbreaking lack of racial-consciousness in Cincinnati will change, it has to, but it will take more than just hope. In my opinion it’s going to need a shift in values towards heterogeneous community building and a collective effort to address an individual responsibility that defies race. All hues of human color have to accept responsibility for the reality that we maintain by just “going about our business”.

It’s very, very hard to sum up a large and somewhat ambiguous topic, like being black. But, if I have to, I want to end by saying two things: 1)These are my very personal experiences, I am not Cincinnati, but my experiences are real. I don’t blame people I met for anyone’s struggle with beauty or success. I don’t think that one neighborhood is right or wrong about their interpretation of race and what it really means for someone’s livelihood. 2) I have lived in a lot of different cities around world. Cincinnati’s segregation is unique in a lot of ways, but it’s not unexpected in the framework of the U.S. There are many cities that claim to be successful, but are disturbingly segregated at the expense of their youth and social growth. I know all of the powerful minds behind UrbanCincy are influencing the changes of that.

This article originally appeared in UrbanCincy. Reprinted with permission.

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