Back home from Cleveland, Cincinnati, Nashville

It’s been a whirlwind of a week, which has kept activity on here to a minimum. I start an exciting new job, and consequently chapter of my life, this week. It is my hope that getting back to the 8-to-5 schedule will give me some time in between or in the evening to finish building out this website in a way that meaningfully contributes to revitalization planning.

Cleveland is always a gem. I’m not sure of the utility of signage to tell you that you’re obviously in the City of Cleveland, but the organic PR value of these signs have paid for themselves several times over.

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With and without photo editing, and signage. Considering the photo editing I used was just a few adjustments on Instagram, that gives us a representative sample of whatever is on the hashtag #Cleveland right now.

Cincinnati is also a gem. Being a Cleveland partisan, I suppose I’m supposed to rag on Cincy. Truth is it’s tough, especially with a streetcar! They were just doing testing when I was walking around OTR. FTA requires each of the 5 rolling stock to undergo 500 km (about 300 mi) of testing spread across different days and pedestrian/traffic/weather conditions.

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And then lastly, I recommend all revitalization-minded planners take a trip to Nashville sometime soon. You don’t have to take in the country music – there is plenty of other music, sights, and sounds – and above all, you really can just feel the energy and effort that goes into a city on the rise.

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The above photo is the Parthenon replica that was built to commemorate the centennial of Tennessee’s statehood, and the latter was my hotel view near downtown. The growing Nashville skyline comes with a westward gradient that often goes unseen in the city’s skyline postcards.

And lastly, the Columbus skyline view from my new loft’s rooftop deck! Always nice to come home to another emerging city, albeit the Most Normal City in America (really puts my travels in perspective once I come home).

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Probably some better angles of this view to come. It’s hard to really get in the groove on a realtor’s leash, who probably wouldn’t want me scaling the gutter for the perfect clearing/proportions/angles etc.

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Not-Smart Grants?

This has been a big week for bike and pedestrian mobility in Northeast Ohio, as the region’s dual urban cores both received small TIGER grants that will cement the place of bikes and pedestrians in the built environment. Cleveland’s winning TIGER proposal is more significant, with a number of new bikeways connecting the Near West Side including the long-awaited Red Line Greenway. Akron also now has the opportunity to complete its pedestrian promenade along the historic canal frontage that gave rise to the Rubber City.

Of course, these grants pale in comparison to the FTA SmartCity Challenge, for which Columbus (the only “growing city” in the state, pulling from the larger Cleveland/Akron area) will see a windfall of $150 million for displaced transit (driverless cars instead of transit). Even with awards of $5 and $8 million, Cleveland and Akron are still implementing “old school” transportation projects – the kind you can actually see and use.

ar-160729793This view of Akron’s Main Street, taken from a “loft” project I once worked on, shows the existing condition of Main Street, which is really fine. I think the back-in angled parking generally works. In Akron, you have a lot of blue collar folks who won’t be “fooled” by such newfangled parking contraptions, so it’s common to see a pick-up truck rebel and park front-facing on either the wrong side of the street, or across several spaces on the right side. The back-in angled parking is designed to reduce accidents from people backing out into traffic, and instead shifting the reversing to when people first park. It is smart, it works, and it improves safety. I hope they retain this feature, especially as people are just now getting used to it. The Akron proposal, which will ultimately cost $14 million including state and local funds, will also add a roundabout at Mill Street, which is needed. The roundabout will keep traffic moving through congested, one-lane downtown streets that legitimately do bottle-up.

11094642_gCleveland is getting a little more for its $8 million TIGER grant, sponsored by the Cleveland Metroparks, which has recently gotten much more involved in urban parks, waterfronts, and recreational connectors. The thrust of the grant is two bikeways, the Red Line Greenway (which has been in planning for almost 5 years) that will run adjacent to the Rapid, and the Whiskey Island Connector that connects downtown to the lake. The overall project totals $16.5 million, including funding from the state and foundations like the Gund Foundation, Cleveland Foundation, and Wendy Park Foundation. This project is a prime example of the type of catalytic community improvements made possible by bringing the non-profit sector into the TIGER effort, which wasn’t possible until recently.

The Red Line Greenway will serve as a legitimate form of transportation. It will nicely augment bikeways that are also underway (the dotted green lines) including completing the Towpath, on-street bikeway that will be added to W. 65th, and the “new” Shoreway. These latter additions will be served by two major connections also funded by this applications, including the Lakefront Bikeway Connector and Canal Basin Connector. The City of Cleveland is also still moving forward, albeit slowly, on the Lorain Avenue cycle track. All of this will turn the relatively-flat west side, which sits in the lakefront coastal plain, into a bikeable oasis (during warm months). This is one $8 million grant that will make a major, lasting difference in how Clevelanders get around and experience their community.

I fail to understand how we can spend $150 million on smart car technology that so few people will ever see, let alone use (due to the incredibly narrow scope). I am at least reassured that some places in Ohio are still doing old-school mobility projects that stretch funding into as much impact as possible. When I typically reviewed grants in the past, I too often prioritized impact over novelty.

Now if we can just get the Lorain Avenue cycle track off the planning boards!

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Bitter on Twitter

IMG_4374Transit authorities rely on adept communication staff to relay vital information to those who rely on their services to get to work every day – this is the baseline upon which most RTAs have established their twitter following. The CTA (Chicago’s “L”) twitter feed is a great example of an RTA using social media primarily for rider alerts.

Transit is also undeniably cool, particularly the rail-based variety. Another common typology of social media activity around transit is hype-based, whether planned or organic. For instance, the Cincy Streetcar twitter is a great example of a hype-based twitter feed, promoting the intangible advantages of their mode of transit.

Then there’s advocacy, which comes in both positive and negative flavors. When I used to ride Cleveland’s Rapid to work every day, once a year was transit advocacy day, in which organizers canvassed trains and buses to raise awareness of the political and funding challenges that may be unbeknownst to rush hour commuters. That’s advocacy the old fashioned-way. Twitter is the new way to advocate.

When it comes to transit advocacy, CityLab’s preferred means of communicating is ye ole fashioned angry tweet. Nothing gets the anger out better than 140 characters or less, it seems. I myself have tried to refrain from Twitter drama, but they say that is for the weak of tweet!

When SF’s BART was down back on Trainmageddon Day, they stood in awe of BART’s twitter meltdown, which CNN also covered. When Cleveland RTA faced hours-long waits for the Cavs Championship Parade, CityLab once again stood in awe of the angry tweets (directed at the State of Ohio). Who will they egg on next?

Here are some choice tidbits:

You can follow Cleveland RTA @GCRTA for even more saltiness to come. Hopefully Cleveland wins another ‘ship so that person can finally celebrate!

Nuanced Thoughts on RTA’s Fare Hikes + Service Cuts

Nobody ever stops the press when government works. Everyday, government works to get people to work, to ship goods to markets, to power our economy, and protect our national defense. Occasionally, we do stop the press for major stories when government does not work as we expect. When a bridge crumbles, it’s a headline. When a train derails, it’s a headline. When bus drivers strike, it’s a headline. In all of these cases, lives are disrupted. Also, in all of these cases, rarely is the fundamental issue ever addressed: We do not pay, and seemingly will not pay, for the infrastructure and services upon which we rely; we insist on something for nothing.

The problem with infrastructure and transit is that the entire nation, or even the entire State of Ohio, does not collectively rely on the same bridge or the same transit route. However, as we complain about the cost of individual projects and transit services, our own community’s infrastructure is crumbling because we refuse to also pay for that of our neighbors.

In Ohio, here is how we got into this situation:

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Nation-wide, here is how got into an even bigger situation, regardless of mode:

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Among modes, the decline has been particularly steep among federal transit and passenger rail spending, which was basically slashed in half during the 80s and never recovered.

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This all collectively means we find ourselves in a situation in which local government picks up more and more of the tab for transit.

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Lastly, for a most interesting chart, particularly for “equity planners” whom decry spending on anything other than bus routes to poor neighborhoods – there appears to be a correlation between overall transit services and poverty concentration. As transit funding declines along with the varieties of constituencies that it serves, the differential between urban and suburban poverty rises. To advocates for “transit equity” meaning transit as a social service: What are you really trying to do?

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We now find ourselves with the transit service that we deserve, pretty much. The fragmentation is pretty much complete. Where a unified front could possible exist as an effective force to solve these issues collectively, we find drivers succeeding in shifting money for transit to roads, we find transit-dependent constituencies advocating to shut down transit that serves middle and upper income people, and we find developers and transit growing farther and farther apart. It is 2016 and things are getting worse.

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What gives? Flats Forward (and/or Backward)

The big debate in Cleveland right now is whether to continue service on the Waterfront Line. The Waterfront Line, completed in 1996, is a 2.2-mile light rail that bends around downtown, following the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie waterfronts, hence the name. Cleveland’s RTA spent $70 million to build it, and then not longer after opening it, decided to eliminate weekday service on it in 2010. Service levels were then revived in 2013, upon the accumulation of $500 million + in development spurred by the route, adding jobs at Ernst & Young, hundreds of dwelling units (soon to be thousands), and dozens of new entertainment venues.

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It so happens, that the Flats East Bank project was built with an over-supply of parking. So while ridership has risen on the Waterfront Line, the trains aren’t exactly packed. Transit “advocates” (can you call those who advocate against transit, “transit advocates”) have dubiously branded the Waterfront Line as the Ghost Train. Mark Naymik of the Plain Dealer, generally considered that newspaper’s foremost loudmouth, wants this route to “be the first service trimmed to help close budget shortfall” (sic). (Personally, and this is the only personal opinion I am writing in this piece, but I’m still not over Naymik’s nasty fight in favor of the Ohio City McDonald’s by labeling opponents including myself as the “$6 Beer Crowd.” Seriously, who advocates FOR a McDonald’s in a historic district??) Flats Forward, a non-profit development arm aimed at revitalizing the Flats as a beloved community gathering place, has led the charge to retain service.

What’s at stake, besides hopes of continued ridership growth on the Waterfront Line? Well, developers did make a $500 million investment along it. One of the historic advantages of rail over bus service is that tracks can’t be moved like a bus route often is – and that goes out the window in this political climate. By burning the developers who invest in sites along transit, we get further and further from an ultimate solution to this wicked problem. Let’s not lose sight of a potential solution, in that Americans overwhelmingly want TOD – 73% support changes in land use zoning to encourage TOD. 73% of Americans rarely support anything.

Where the Waterfront Line was just one example of the solution, combining forces between transit and development, that is now at-risk. The reality is that the Waterfront Line is a choice rider service. By spurning those choice riders, as is often the goal of supposed “transit equity,” it becomes harder to pass needed local tax increases to support transit for everyone.

Don’t forget that the only reason Cleveland RTA is able to provide Ohio’s only decent transit system isn’t fare revenue, but rather the 1% county-wide sales tax that supports RTA. While other Ohio cities would kill for that (COTA in Columbus for instance must operate on half that), will County voters renew Cleveland’s RTA tax next time it is up the renewal? Keep burning choice riders, and County voters are less likely to see how they could benefit.

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What we have here is ultimate dysfunction and fragmentation in which transit segments have turned against each other to throw each other under the bus. While we are all implicit, it is hard to blame anyone specifically; while each side seems to have missed the big picture, can you blame them considering what an ugly picture it has become?

#ClevelandThatILove

Spent Memorial Day weekend up in Cleveland, and took a few photos of the city’s changing cityscape. This isn’t a comprehensive photo set, but rather just a few snapshots I came across over the course of a weekend. Click on the image for full-size and captions.

 

Lastly, no trip to Cleveland would be complete without watching the sun set over Lake Erie, this time through a thunderstorm (which intensified into a tornado warning).

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Bus Rapid Promises

BRT advocacy, not unlike other aspects of equity planning, has developed this incredibly confrontational policy and advocacy brand. It is near impossible to find any good BRT articles out there that aren’t steeped with attacks on rail transit.

This of course is partly because, not unlike anything else in planning, the BRT names are all the same. Articles often come from the “Institute for Transportation and Development Policy” which is really a BRT-only think tank (all of their research includes cleverly-crafted attacks on rail projects). That said, it’s not fair for me to construe that as an attack on BRT, because that’s the way it is – if you have a concept, you need at least one really good think tank behind it. It’s a similar line of attack as the Boston Globe’s famous editorial that most convention centers have a Populous study behind it, which has never recommended against building a convention center.

This is called inherent or institutional bias, which is everywhere, including whatever side of any debate YOU find yourself. But just to be clear, don’t go looking to the ITDP for unbiased research on all modes of transportation. You won’t find it there, just like you won’t find it in many places. Jarrett Walker, a fore-front transit activist, calls this slippery slope the “technology wars.” So many of us agree on the importance and benefits of transit. The problem is that “transit” means vastly different things not just to people but communities as well.

However here are some choice bits…

NJ TOD Institute: Pittsburgh “A City of Buses”

(For the record, I have only ridden on the “T” light rail in Pittsburgh)

“The ITDP report documents $903 million in total investment along the line since construction, or roughly $3.59 million in development per dollar of transit investment as of 2012. “

one-million-dollars-639omkSo they built the busway for $251 dollars and 53 cents? First of all, this is fuzzy math. Second of all, it kind of undercuts whatever you’re advocating for when you resort to such fuzzy math. Third of all, if you work through this… $903 million in TOD, and they’ve created a proxy coefficient where they divide the TOD by the infrastructure cost.. They either forgot to carry a zero, or they just arbitrarily add the word million after every numerical figure.

The East Busway – which connects the East Liberty neighborhood to the downtown – cuts an hour drive down to a trip of 7 to 15 minutes by bus (see map).

Wow, a transit project cuts AN HOUR DRIVE down to a 7 min trip by bus? That’s a map that I’ve gotta see. See map:

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I’m curious which part of this is the 1 hour drive vs. 7 min bus ride. So I pulled up the schedule on the Port Authority website. I don’t see a 7 min interval, but Downtown to East Liberty is scheduled to take 10 minutes typically, which is close enough. I then used Google Directions to map the trip via car, which it says would take 14 minutes.

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ITDP must not have realized they can just take Baum Blvd to Bigelow Blvd. They probably stopped at a convenience store on the wrong side of the tracks and got some crazy directions or something. Surely they wouldn’t resort to intellectual dishonesty…

Ok one more…

ITDP quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“Facing funding shortages that rule out more expensive rail development, cities are clamoring to build BRT systems, which are up to 20 times less expensive,” Mr. Hook said.

Hook, line, and sinker. You heard it there first, but I’m morbidly curious to see what kind of BRT is being built for 1 / 20th the cost of a light rail corridor. Citylab did a great expose of America’s worst bus stops, perhaps ITDP is advocating for this one:

e569926d9I love this awesome picture of an IndyGO bus stop for so many reasons. For one, it’s their standard design (makes me wanna sign an angry petition whenever communities build special, artsy bus stops) so that’s good apparently.

That said, there is so much under realized technology utilized at this stop…

  1. Way finding (sign mounted to electric pole)
  2. Comfortable seating
  3. Vending (if you’re ok sharing w/ litter bugs)
  4. Landscaping (if you can call fencing that)
  5. Protective barrier from traffic (aka “curb”)

 

 

So let’s dig into this 1 / 20th claim a little more…

Early estimate of the cost of a Downtown-to-Oakland BRT is $200 million, or about one-tenth of what a Light Rail Transit extension to Oakland would cost, said Wendy Stern, Port Authority assistant general manager for planning and development.

So that implies that a light rail extension to Oakland would cost $4 billion.

Post-Gazette article explaining the cost differences:

Light rail would cost five to 10 times as much as the proposed $200 million BRT line, depending on how much tunneling or bridge construction would be needed to connect to the existing line. 

So now it’s 5-to-10 times as much, and mentions bridges and tunnels, which is interesting for connecting two districts that are on the same side of Pittsburgh’s rivers. This almost implies that they’d want to go down Carson and connect the booming Southside along the way, which actually could be a really good idea.

Bear in mind that the North Shore Connector cost nearly $550 million and extended the system just over a mile. The line to Oakland would need to be at least three times as long through a heavily built up and populated area.

And the argument shifts to bringing past projects into focus, which actually, is probably the best harbinger for projecting costs in any given city. I fully endorse this because it cuts through X-factors that separate different cities. For instance, Cleveland’s RTA refuses to allow single-track systems, because they don’t trust their rail operators to obey signals, which effectively doubles the cost of anything. Portland has used a lot of single track on extensions, where their goal is to make streetcar work as effectively as possible.

Here’s the obvious problem with using the North Shore Connector as a harbinger for what should be a land corridor:

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In learning about this, I also learned that there are two primary methods of tunneling: 1, “cut and cover,” which is not cheap but pales in comparison to “bored tunnels.” Bored tunnels are far from boring, but instead refers to the process of tunnel-boring which is not unlike digging your way out of Alcatraz.

Given the assets on the North Shore and the invaluable tunnel infrastructure Pittsburgh got out of the deal, $550 million isn’t bad. This should NOT be construed in any way as “$550 million just to go 1 mile.” They actually appear to be using $550 million per mile as a rail-transit cost figure. In this instance, transit activists (particularly those engaging in technology wars) should walk a mile through another transit technology’s route before rushing to judgment…or something like that. Here are some more appropriate cost proxies:

Charlotte LYNX light rail: $48.125 million / mile

OKC Streetcar: $25 million / mile

DC Streetcar: $90 million / mile

Portland Streetcar Phase 1 & 2: $12 million / mile

Portland RiverPlace Extension: $13 million / mile

Portland Gibbs Extension: $13 million / mile

Portland Lowell Extension: $12 million / mile

Portland OMSI Extension: $22.1 million / mile

Tucson Streetcar: $28.2 million / mile

KC Streetcar: $25 million / mile

Cincinnati Streetcar: $36 million / mile

Cleveland Healthline BRT: $27.7 million / mile

LA Orange Line BRT: $21 million / mile

Boston Silver Line BRT: $12.5 million / mile

KC Star article: Source for Cincy, KC, Tucson costs

Portland MAX: Source for Portland costs

National BRT Institute: Source for BRT costs

* PS, the NBRTI report also included several factual issues, including the claim that the Cleveland Healthline operates 5 minute frequencies, which is insulting to everyone who has waited 30 minutes in the middle of the day for a bus that’s stuck at red lights.

Some cities have this mentality of striving to make their rail investments as efficient as possible, and others have this mentality of striving to make their rail investments as inefficient as possible. Cincinnati’s RTA (SORTA) has even threatened to not operate their new streetcar. Most cities purposely operate abysmal transit frequencies as an effort to sabotage their own success. Time after time, when people outside the system force the city to build and operate rail transit infrastructure, you’re lucky to get them to grudgingly oblige. The two biggest X-factors I have come across is that some people lie, and others actually don’t want to succeed.

In the end, there are lies, damned lies, and then transit lies.

CMSD Needs Cleveland

Cleveland has invested in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, time after time. When I lived there, I happily pulled the lever for a $256 million tax levy, intended to rebuild 20 failing schools and support innovative reform programs. Cleveland has a strong history of supporting tax increases for the challenged school district.

It is time for the school district to show some reciprocal interest in improving Cleveland. Not atypical of embattled school districts, CMSD exudes a distinctly callous vibe toward anything in the community besides its own financial bottom line. Unfortunately even for themselves, this myopic set of priorities will cement the district’s vicious cycle.

The district routinely engages in a practice of demolishing its historic school buildings at any opportunity it gets, for any reason. The most common reason is when a school is no longer necessitated by the district’s  shrinking enrollment, and rather than sell surplus buildings with architectural potential to developers (a potentially lucrative source of additional revenue), the school district prefers to demolish to preempt the outside chance that a charter school could come in and compete in the neighborhood. Another equally common scenario is that the school is not located in an obvious hot real estate market, so the district will demolish, citing limited redevelopment potential.

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Neither of those common scenarios are claiming the historic Jesse Owens School at Larchmere and MLK. This tudor-style landmark anchors the western edge of the up-and-coming Larchmere neighborhood, where a historically mixed-race community is revitalizing without displacement, and potentially connecting prosperous Shaker to lower-income neighborhoods to the west. These are the types of connections that must be made in order to break down the barriers of segregated prosperity.

Tim Perotti wants to rehab the building, adding high-income apartments to the neighborhood, furthering the happy mix that coexists in Larchmere (and bringing that mix further west). The school district wants it to be open space and parking for a new 1-story school, a $26 million CMSD project, that Perotti argues could still exist on the site. The district’s response:

District officials said they wanted to keep the existing roads on the site to avoid the expense of relocating and rebuilding them and the utilities underground.

Furthermore, they said, the district would not have been at able to sell the Jesse Owens building to a developer without first offering it to a charter school, a course the district did not want to pursue.

In summary, they didn’t want to be bothered to redesign vehicular circulation around the site, and they are terrified of having to first offer the school to any interested charter schools. Shocker. The reality is that CMSD has wanted to demolish this property for over a decade, according to a paper copy of the district’s building survey that I have had since I worked at Cleveland Restoration. For this particular property, they initially cited poor redevelopment potential as the reason to demolish. The most frustrating aspect for preservationists (who want CMSD to succeed) is that once a capable developer steps forward, the district can just easily shift to a different rationale to demolish without missing a beat.

Renovating the school, adding apartments, benefits the school district on two fronts: 1, increased tax revenues; and 2, a rare redevelopment project deep in the residential neighborhoods, further from a revitalized corridor. The school district’s fate will be indelibly linked, whether it likes it or not, to the fate of the city’s residential neighborhoods. Young professionals moving into thousands of renovated dwelling units right on a major corridor are not sending children to the neighborhood schools.

CMSD does this several times a year, all across town. They have torn down a huge chunk of Ohio City’s best buildings, which could easily have made attractive market-rate and affordable housing. They are doing it right now with the John Marshall School, where developers are interested in redeveloping the LAKEFRONT-PROPERTY on Detroit Avenue. CMSD is ensuring the site remain vacant and abandoned.

The community wants this:

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The district’s response:

Zohn and Gordon have long said that they did not see any other properties on the West Side that would work for a new high school. Earlier this month, both said that they have rejected all seven of Councilman Zone’s suggestions as not adequate, or as good a site as the Max Hayes property.

So once again, no redevelopment for you.

According to Fresh Water Cleveland, since 2005 the district has closed 35 schools and demolished 14. The only future use that CMSD has in mind for any of these landmark buildings, representing some of Cleveland’s finest building stock, is as swing space while a nearby school is closed for renovations. Our neighborhoods are littered with mothballed schools (if we should be so lucky), so that the district can move kids around while playing musical schools. They don’t know what chairs they have or when their own music stops.

Cleveland has a lot of problems, and fixing the school district is one of its biggest. Everybody in town wants CMSD to improve, and loves to see the district succeed. The schools and the city are part and parcel. The city recognizes this.

The school district does not. CMSD seems to operate under the impression that its fate is hermetically sealed off from that of its community, which is in desperate need of community development. CMSD needs to start showing some interest in its surroundings.

I know that the embattled district has become so insularly-focused that it won’t hear this perspective, but CMSD really should consider doing itself a favor.

Housers Must Lead on Lead

Flint happened. We all know about it.

Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Philly also happened. Nobody realizes it. For lack of political convenience, awareness of the rest of this lead paint iceberg remains sub-surface.

7% of Flint’s children are lead-poisoned. In Cleveland, the number is 14%. In Cleveland’s historic Glenville neighborhood, formerly the suburban “Gold Coast” of the Rockefellers, the number is 26.5%. If resources were made available for better testing, public health practitioners believe the number could be as high as 40%. Nearly half of children in Glenville could be lead-poisoned.

Similar hot-spots abound in most older cities.

lead_crime_325Lead-poisoning doesn’t just lower IQ. Studies show that moderate lead poisoning can lower IQ by 5 points. Worse yet, lead paint has been proven to make afflicted individuals more violent. That is the exact part of the brain that lead affects, and it turns out lower IQ isn’t the only way this manifests itself.

The trend is nearly indisputable. Yes, there are outside factors to control for, but…

  1. Lead paint contact soars. Violent crime soars.
  2. Neighborhoods are afflicted by lead paint. Neighborhoods are afflicted by violent crime.

The NYT is doing their best to raise awareness with a “smoking gun” article, which I put in air quotes because it is nobody’s fault.

It is hard to raise awareness for a problem that is nobody’s fault. However, more than awareness, we need to raise funds. Whether broad awareness comes or not is besides the point because this lead contamination crisis shouldn’t be about politics. In fact, the lack of broad awareness and political interest could actually be an opportunity to fly under the radar and cut through the political gridlock.

There are funds, just not for lead paint abatement. The lead contamination problem is a historic preservation problem. Outlawed in 1978, the U.S. has made incredible strides toward putting a lid on the lead paint problem. Outlawing leaded gasoline made a big difference.

However, the CDC funds to test for lead paint have been cut by 40%, in part because public officials are under the misimpression that we solved this problem.

In 2003 the Ohio Legislature created a lead paint abatement fund, as federal resources became rolled back. After the press gala they just forgot to actually fund it. Oops.

There is a bill in Congress to provide over $200 million to replace lead pipes across the nation. If only it weren’t for Utah Senator Mike Lee’s legislative hold, citing that Michigan has a budget surplus and doesn’t need help (despite that the bill in mention is for any community impacted by lead pipes).

lead-paint-removalThe federal government actually withdrew the City of Cleveland’s 2012 lead paint funding application because they didn’t like the city’s track record in fixing this problem. Not sure how that computes; I’m reminded of when Judge Judy once said “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” It seems like the Feds defunded the city’s efforts, then refused to fund additional efforts because they didn’t like the city’s effort. Alrighty then.

The NYT article that I praised earlier goes after the city for spending $30 million on the Browns Stadium. You can’t unequivocally praise or vilify anyone/anything. They are wrong here. My biggest pet peeve: Arguments that imply that rust belt cities shouldn’t do projects (like every other city) until they solve every basic problem (that exists in every other city). Yes, we have lead paint. However, what does that have to do with the NFL? Take the sports and other amenities away and then not only do Cleveland’s problems get bigger but Cleveland becomes less relevant and less familiar.

You gotta be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

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However, there is a program that could help: The Hardest Hit Fund. I need to become better-informed about this program, but the Treasury just added an additional $2 billion to what was a $7.6 billion program to address housing problems in the “hardest-hit” communities.

The money overwhelmingly goes toward demolishing these communities. That is the predominant federal thinking toward rust belt cities: take their money, tear them down, make their residents move elsewhere, and pipe their water to the south.

Ohio in particular just got a big fire hose of $100 million that can only be used for demolition a la “blight removal.” It does nothing to help historic communities. It is in fact a huge detriment to historic preservation, which is the solution to removing contaminants in historic homes. I don’t know why this isn’t obvious.

This means you can get funds to erase the abandoned home that nobody lives in, but not a dime for the lead-plastered home next door inside which children are growing up.

We have an obsession with tearing down vacant and abandoned properties. The common argument against the HHF is that you’re tearing down these community’s future opportunities. You never know what neighborhood will come back to life next. That said, the better argument is that you’re solving for a cosmetic problem when a much bigger actual problem exists next door.

This vacant and abandoned obsession is a new thing, since the 2008 housing crash. As the new kid on the policy block, it has gotten all of the attention. Lead paint is the old kid that can’t seem to ever graduate high school. Nobody wants to deal with it anymore.

In Cleveland, this effort (the “blight removal” one, not the lead paint one) is led by the Thriving Communities Institute at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, of which the very capable CEO is Jim Rokakis. Rokakis is an impassioned crusader for Cleveland’s inner city communities and an expert on urban housing. I would encourage historic preservationists to extend the olive branch and work together with him on finding how these resources could be put to better use.

There has to be a better way. Revenue neutral, less homes torn down, more lead paint removed, better housing, and stronger families. What’s not to love?

Next week I will be in DC, meeting with Sherrod Brown, Jim Jordan, and Steve Stivers. The agenda is mostly about streamlining the historic tax credit. My agenda will be focused on these Hardest Hit Funds and killing two birds with one stone: Saving the diamonds in the rough amongst our housing stock, and getting lead paint out of homes where children are growing up.

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Join me. Reach out to Congress, reach out to the Feds (Treasury, Federal Reserve, HUD, etc). Reach out to local leaders like Rokakis and especially your local land bank. Reach out to public health officials – they stand ready, willing to work together with housing and urban development practitioners. In fact, that’s the way forward – partnering with land banks, housing groups, and public health. The goal is a healthy housing program.

Don’t attack them. Don’t scapegoat. Sometimes these things happen where we’ve got a problem and it isn’t the fault of anybody in particular. That doesn’t mean we can’t work together when we aren’t working against “another side.”

There is hope. NYC is a model for lead paint abatement. They have effectively reduced lead paint contamination to 2% in what is obviously an older city. They didn’t do it by tearing homes and apartments down. They did it by abating nearly every dwelling unit, with strict inspection standards matched with abatement funds, and repurposing historic housing into healthy housing.

 

Hardest Hit Fund Should Help the Hardest Hit

As the world’s focus is locked on Flint, where the a catastrophic chain of cause and effect has poisoned the city’s youth. Governor Snyder’s directive to obtain water from a lower-quality source led to corrosive water leaching lead out of the city’s outdated lead pipes. Without any of those elements – the water source or the outdated lead pipes – this doesn’t happen.

However, many larger cities are facing a similar outcome with a much larger impact. Lead paint in housing has a similar effect on children. Just as Flint’s older lead pipes primarily affected African American neighborhoods, the preponderance of lead paint (banned since 1978) is also in older, inner city, African American neighborhoods. Lead paint consumption, just like lead-contaminated water consumption, can be disastrous for younger children whose bodies are still developing.

The City of Cleveland and Senator Sherrod Brown are asking for the federal government’s help on abating this issue through an existing program that has been wrongly applied in some instances. The Treasury created the $7.6 billion Hardest Hit Fund in 2010 to provide assistance, mostly through homeowner counseling, housing mortgage modifications, and housing demolition, directly to the states most affected by the housing crash. This would be mostly big states such as Ohio, Michigan, Florida, California, etc. Each state’s HFA set the policy for spending all of the money in that state.

In Michigan this program is used almost exclusively for demolishing Detroit’s historic neighborhoods en masse. To expedite this mission, Snyder undercut his SHPO’s otherwise-sanctioned duty to conduct Section 106 review of HHF-funded projects. That could be a problem if your project is just demolishing what remains of Detroit. In Ohio – at least in Cleveland – the funds are similarly put to use.

The city’s spokesperson, Natoya Walker Brown, is calling for feds to allow the funding to go toward home rehabilitation instead. This would allow the funding to be directed specifically toward abating lead paint in older neighborhoods that are still occupied, but lack the financial resources to renovate their homes every 20 years like in some areas of the city. Historic preservation groups, including the Cleveland Restoration Society and the Legacy Cities conference we co-hosted with CSU, have long been calling for the Hardest Hit Fund to take a look at housing rehabilitation not just as well, but perhaps instead.

I understand the multi-faceted argument behind demolishing unused housing stock. It reduces overall vacancy, “right-sizes” cities for their new and likely long-term populations, makes remaining property in the city more valuable, and mitigates the “broken window” effect more locally. All of those are legitimate. However, an even bigger consideration that has been completely ignored is the impact of a newly rehabilitated home on its surrounding block. Especially of that home’s exterior has been professionally restored to its original luster. Donovan Rypkema’s economic impact report on historic preservation concluded that a rehabilitated home has greater impact on its surroundings than removing blight.

While winning the economic argument will always be important for historic preservation, the real argument to win is the impact on people’s lives. Rather than destroying history and removing future opportunities from a community, the Hardest Hit Fund could be used to rehabilitate homes in low-income communities, keeping them standing, and safer for the children that grow up in them. That’s what could be done if Treasury, HFA’s, historic preservationists, and public health officials partnered toward solving this issue.

Cleveland: RTA “Rapid” Photo Tour

Cleveland, once the fifth largest city in the United States before its suburbs took over, is one of those cities that inherited an old-school transit system. In a way, it’s Rapid Transit system is manifesting new-school trends as well, diversifying its modal split in recent years. The old school still prevails though. While best-known for its award-winning Healthline BRT (which was supposed to be light rail, but switched to BRT in order to get FTA funding), the older rail network still carries the bulk of ridership.

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Overview of TOD across the entire city

Its 19-mile, heavy rail (think MARTA or WMATA) Red Line dates back to the 1950s, and carries 19,500 daily riders in retro “silver bullet” trains, which is higher ridership than the Blue and Green lines combined. Utilizing a historic railroad trench, most stations are grade-separated – TOD designs are just now emerging that facilitate a seamless integration with that grade separation. Every single Red Line station has recently been rebuilt. Red Line station redevelopment has been a decades-long initiative, primarily moving from west to east. The Red Line connects the Airport to Tower City through westside neighborhoods such as Westpark, Lakewood, West Blvd, Detroit-Shoreway, and Ohio City. After Tower City, the eastbound Red Line connects to University Circle and East Cleveland through some of the east side’s hardest-hit communities, such as North Broadway, Fairfax, and Kinsman.

For the photo tour, I will start with the westside Red Line – but it is worth noting that all of these photos are from 2013-2014. Where possible I will contrast these outdated photos with renderings and newer photos from myself or the media. I need to take newer pics one of these days, but I’ve just gotten out of the habit of doing this in my adopted hometown:

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Large TOD planned for a current strip mall site that separates the Red Line from the iconic West Side Market

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The half-completed Eco Village surrounding the W. 65th Red Line Station

Tower City offers connections to the Blue and Green lines to Shaker Heights, the Waterfront Line to the Flats and lakefront, as well as the Euclid Avenue Healthline BRT. Tower City is one of the nation’s largest and oldest TOD’s, originally built by railroad moguls O.P. and M.J. Van Sweringen. The Van Swearingen brothers actually founded the Cleveland Interurban Railway to connect their master planned suburban development, Shaker Heights, to Downtown Cleveland. Tower City, then the Union Terminal Complex, was the western terminus for that transit network, which anchored downtown’s Public Square.

Public Square is a large, 4-block commons area in the dead center of the city, typical of communities founded in the Connecticut Western Reserve. Just as Cleveland’s open space legacy harkens back to its New England roots, so do its liberal politics and extensive transit legacy. Before Tower City was finished, there was Shaker Square – the entrance to Shaker Heights, and where Van Aken Blvd (Blue Line) and Shaker Blvd (Green Line) split. To this day Shaker Square is one of the city’s hottest and most-integrated neighborhoods, a testament to the enduring value of transit-oriented real estate. On the other end of the line, transit is being totally revolutionized in Downtown Cleveland – particularly with the new Public Square. Below are some photos inside the Terminal Tower complex and the adjacent Public Square. Renderings of the new Public Square follow.

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$32 million makeover of Public Square, designed by James Corner Field Operations (designer of NY’s High Line)

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It doesn’t get more real than this

Fare thee well old Public Square, hello new Public Square.

The new Public Square and corresponding improvements to Tower City, including the $400 million Horseshoe Casino, aren’t the only transit-oriented development change in downtown. In fact, it is downtown’s western periphery – the Flats East Bank, Warehouse District, and the lakefront – that show the most promise for TOD. While much has recently been finished, more is underway currently – the largest impact will be plans that the city will get to after the RNC Convention. The Waterfront Line is the $70 million extension of the Blue/Green lines past Tower City, to wrap around downtown. While it was “finished” in 1996, it has always been considered incomplete – original plans included a complete loop back into the Rapid system, around Cleveland State University.

Ridership was so low when the Browns left town until a new stadium was built that service was discontinued shortly after its completion. Service was resumed in 2013, but ridership remained low until the Flats East Bank development opened. This line will be further rejuvenated by a Cumberland Development and Trammel Crow project at North Coast Harbor, in between the Browns stadium and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This area will also be bridged to Voinovich Park by a $25 million modern drawbridge, that may also connect to a new intermodal transit hub that will replace an embarrassing Amtrak station.

I find it incredible that this bridge costs almost as much as the entire Public Square redesign, which underscores two things: in the public works realm, $32 million for a high-quality project like Public Square is an incredible bargain; and secondly, the city is all in on this pedestrian bridge to the lakefront. I hope there is a good way to match its design up with the intermodal rail hub, but it may be too late. The drawbridge is already funded, but has been delayed by a promised “downtown construction freeze” for the RNC Convention. After that date, the city will also start discussing (ie., look for funding, hire designers, start planning, etc) the lakefront rail station. As a final note, redevelopment in this area will be complicated by a 70-foot grade separation (downtown sits on top of a bluff, above the lakefront), as well as parking lots that are known as Browns tailgating ground-zero (this is a big deal).

As I mentioned above, this line is heavily in flux with several projects currently in various stages. The Flats East Bank project is nearly finished, the new drawbridge is funded and about to break ground, the North Coast Harbor is similarly financed but still on the boards, and then the new Amtrak/intermodal hub is still in discussions.

Of course, this blog article would not be complete without mention of the Healthline. Not unlike other transit authorities that volunteer themselves to FTA to be BRT guinea pigs, the transit authority’s own focus has shifted to the surprising success of the Healthline project. It helps that Euclid Avenue is the historic “Millionaire’s Row,” built-out all the way to Wickliffe (suburban Lake County) by the Rockefellers and their ilk.

The Healthline has been described by proponents as light rail with tired, and by detractors as a “federally-funded streetscape,” yet from my point of view those are both good things. I have covered the Healthline TOD phenomena ad nauseum, including a lengthy expose at CEOs for Cities that showed both sides of the coin. Given that the Healthline’s center-lane alignment and platform stations were designed to allow for easy future conversion to light rail, I’m a fan.

The project also branded the Euclid Corridor, the city’s iconic main street, and got the east side of Cleveland moving. The distinctive corridor project has been an undeniable magnet for TOD, nearly $6 billion according to this heavily BRT-slanted ITDP study. While most of it has been market-rate development with minimal affordable development to date, making it feel perhaps more like Dallas than Minneapolis. Despite that, this is all the more incredible given the weak market conditions along the corridor, and the fact that most all development has just been infill with no displacement potential. As crazy as it sounds, this bus project really was the impetus for Downtown Cleveland’s remarkable resurgence.

It’s worth mentioning that a lot of the $5.6 billion in TOD was mostly institutional expansion that may have been negligibly spurred by the Healthline. While these institutional actors (such as Cleveland State University, the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals, etc) may have still needed a green light from the public sector before reinvesting in their physical presence along Euclid Avenue, you can’t seriously attribute the expansion of the Cleveland Clinic to a BRT system. There are Saudi sheikhs who maintain private wards at the Clinic just for when their family needs check-ups. The magnitude of the Clinic is not even in the same ether as Euclid Avenue and its bus rapid transit, and for better or mostly worse, the planning of the Clinic (and its cornucopia of parking garages going up every year) reflects this. In my opinion, TOD should have to be underparked in order to qualify.

The Healthline is also not perfect. Signal prioritization absolutely does not seem to be working. I say that because I was a frequent Healthline rider who sat at many a traffic light in my day, which is the whole point of signal prioritization, especially when the BRT has its own lane. In fact I’m pretty sure the only purpose of the traffic signals along Euclid is to first infuriate everyone, then put cars second, and transit last. The route is also longer than BRT can be expected to remain on schedule. Also, due to congestion in University Circle, the ideal center-lane alignment gives way to curbside-alignment and mixed traffic operation.

It is that eastern end of the Healthline corridor that is perhaps the strongest. That is also where the Healthline is least Healthline-like (just described above), which also casts aspersions onto the catalytic extent of the BRT itself.

While the long-term civic vision of Downtown, Midtown, and University Circle being continuously bridged is slowly coming to fruition, the pace of infill is rampant in the last two miles of that 5-mile trek. University Circle is the hottest square mile of real estate in Ohio, and to get there, you have to first traverse the mile-long Cleveland Clinic campus. You don’t necessarily have to go through Midtown, though. Motorists often prefer the scenic route on MLK Blvd and Rockefeller Park’s cultural gardens, while transit riders may prefer the tried-and-true Red Line which has 1/4th the number of stops along the way. The eastern Red Line is just now getting its new stations, except for some that may realistically just be closed. Below are two year-old photos, with photos of the new stations at Cedar and Mayfield roads. Major TOD is transpiring at these gateways.

And now for the transformative new stations, and resultant TOD:

Lastly, the oldest transit asset in all of Cleveland – the Shaker Heights Blue and Green Lines. These two combine for around 15,000-17,000 daily riders, not bad – but certainly brought down by lower density in affluent Shaker Heights. This is another case where what is old is being made new again. The Shaker area, beginning at the St. Luke’s redevelopment area at MLK, connecting into historic Shaker Square, and then splitting up through Shaker Heights – is seeing renewed development interest along the Rapid. Some of this is legacy real estate, including Shaker Square and Van Aken Blvd’s linear mid-rises. Some of this is recently completed, particularly at Lee Road, between Van Aken and Chagrin.

As with many things in Cleveland, the best is yet to come, with the Van Aken District now under development. Van Aken is the redevelopment of a huge strip mall that used to sit on a complicated 6-way interchange. Roads are being reconfigured, the Blue Line is being extended across the interchange (where it used to terminate), and new urbanist infill is taking over on all corners.

First, the Cleveland-proper parts of the Shaker area (St. Luke’s Hospital area and Shaker Square):

Lastly, the Shaker Heights-proper part of the Shaker area, where higher-end TOD is beginning to transpire.

All of the above (for the Shaker part of this post) is about to soon by overshadowed by Northeast Ohio’s largest TOD in nearly a century: The Van Aken District.

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Rendering looking NW to SE through proposed Van Aken District

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Site plan diagram

That, from these ashes:

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Existing conditions at Warrensville Center Road / Van Aken Blvd / Chagrin Blvd intersection

While all of these rails may have lost some of their luster, they still work well. They are traversed by around 40,000 passengers daily. They are the formative first experience of many newcomers, when they first land at the airport. They may not always comprise the scenic route, but there is a good chance they can get you where you need to go. They are Cleveland’s most underutilized practical development asset, which it is just now beginning to realize.

The future of transit in Cleveland is in flux. The city is currently debating a contentious fare hike that will undoubtedly hit the poor the hardest. Transit in Cleveland, and the breadth of access it provides compared to other Tier 2 metros, is still a bargain. Even the Healthline’s naysayers will admit that the Cleveland RTA is very well-ran, which goes a long ways. RTA has identified 10 “transit-propensity” corridors, which is a way of saying that they have a priority list of Cleveland’s primary corridors.

The agency just completed a $20 million BRT-lite project on Clifton Avenue, which serves high-density pockets like West Blvd, Edgewater, and all of Lakewood. The agency is currently beginning a project to extend either the Red Line or Healthline eastward, all the way to Euclid (population 55,000). It will hopefully be Red Line extension that is chosen in the end, but that will be dictated by the planning process that is currently underway. Lorain Avenue and West 25th are likely next-up, and activists are already duking it out in the media. Me thinks West 25th would be a phenomenal streetcar corridor, and so do many others, including Ohio City Inc. RTA may go path of least resistance with just another BRT-lite.

P.S. For some extra reading, here is the text of the CEOs for Cities article. While they cleared their website, it made it up onto some blog or forum. The article is one of my better pieces, offering a fair and balanced look at the Rail v. BRT debate in Cleveland.

P.P.S. Please ask for permission before reusing pics. Almost all are mine, but some are from Cleveland.com. Renderings are obviously the intellectual property of the architect and/or developer.