04 November 2009

Cincinnati Get's Progressive (Almost)

Yesterday saw some big wins for a city close to Urban Mechanic's heart, Cincinnati. (Boston is my beloved home, but Cincinnati is where I fell in love with cities.) Re-elected is the astitute, experienced, and practical mayor, Mark Mallory. Plus, Cincinnatians, known for bone-headed ballot initiatives (i.e. billion dollar stadiums) rejected a ballot initiative designed to kill rail transit (beyond buses) in the city. Ballot initiatives are well-known for their lamentable after-effects; just look at the state of California. The failure of this initiative may just help the city progress towards building a streetcar, commuter rail, or even regional high-speed rail (between Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland). Who says that saying no is just negative.



Any (or all) of these opportunities could become reality in the near future; and not-too-soon. Cincinnati, once among the nation's largest cities, has repeatedly lost-out due to its indecisiveness. It decided against establishing a stock exchange, when New York's was in its infancy and the Midwest (of which it was the center) was booming. Rail was shunned over the city's once dominant river-canal industry. Decades later the city abandoned a subway project after spending $13 million (roughly 1.3 billion in 2008 dollars)  on the most expensive part; the tunnels. It instead favored highways (and still does) that motored residents and business straight out of the city along with billions upon billions of private incomes and tax dollars.*

BUT, there is great room for hope (as the title of this post suggests). The city, under the leadership of Mayor Mark Mallory (also re-elected on Tuesday), has an ambitious, but credibly realistic agenda. Finally there is a streetcar and transit plan in the works that is realistically scaled that's not too big to scare people, but is big enough to bring together players that will go to bat for it (universities, downtown employers, developers, and such). AND, after years of hard-work 3CDC, a sort of mega community development corporation for downtown and near-in neighborhoods, has a critical mass of success and has much more in the works. Just this morning, the group announced plans to preserve and renovate a historic SRO into a world-class museum-hotel. These developments join efforts underway to redevelop the city's riverfront. And after spending a billion on replacing stadiums in the late nineties, the city has been hard at work spending a billion or so on replacing public schools!



Add all of this to the city's amazing historic, architectural, culinary, cultural, and even multi-national corporate assets. What do you get? Well, you may just get a world-class city ready to claim its place on the world stage. Of course, we don't want to overstate things here. The city, which under a previous mayor eliminated its planning department, still lacks a good neighborhood community development strategy. Further, the city still lacks awareness of its amazing assets and confidence of what a few, small, but significant investments can do for it.

Take neighborhood development. Boston's Main Street Program has done wonders to bring real community development throughout the city and not just downtown; and has done so for a fraction of big-ticket pork barrel projects. The program has brought grocery stores, dry-cleaners, restaurants, shops, and services along with jobs, historic building restoration and new construction all within a walking distance to nearly all Bostonians. Cincinnati, home to the largest grocer in the Country, Kroger, still lacks an urban grocery store. The head of Kroger needs to come to Boston and see our dozens of extremely profitable and very urban (i.e. no or little parking) grocery stores.

For now, Urban Mechanic won't insist on labeling Cincinnati as progressive. After all, Mark Twain's suggestion that the city would be an ideal home during the apocalypse (because everything happens a decade later) is still considered a complement by locals. Unfortunately, its been over eight decades since the city abandoned its subway mid-construction and much more has been lost since. So no matter how realistic the current plans and developments are progress is all-too precious for this city with otherwise such amazing potential.



* According to analysis conducted by Sean P. Bender (Urban Mechanic) and utilized by Robert Manley in an open letter to then Mayor Charles Luken and head of City Planning, Elizabeth Blume, the City of Cincinnati lost at least $10 billion in tax revenues (from 1970 to 2000) related to urban renewal, excessive use of eminent domain in downtown areas, and poor zoning choices that suburbanized the city. That's enough to pay for the current streetcar proposal, at about $100 million, 100 times. Seen another way, that's enough to have paid for the original subway to actually be completed and opened (estimated in 1924 to require an additional $6 million by 500 times over what had been spent).


Photos Courtesy of 3CDC

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