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.

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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An Ode to the Blank Slate

The Federal DoT created a program for cities without real transit to further-develop vehicle-based mobility alternatives with which they will then call themselves “smart” for doing so. In other words, DoT created the Columbus, Ohio grant program, and – Surprise! – Columbus, Ohio won it.

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I’ve written about the Smart City Challenge before, including when I came across a CityLab article that discussed this proposal along with possible mobility-oriented interventions in the Linden neighborhood (one of those interventions was my “Bus Box” proposal). I was pleasantly surprised to see Linden, a neighborhood for which I’ve done a lot of work, getting CityLab recognition. Now that the surprise is over, I am sorry to say, I am a little underwhelmed.

Columbus’ Winning Proposal

It’s complicated. To be fair, this application is about getting people moving, and not necessarily providing old-school “transit.” This grant is deliberately intended to pilot future technologies that should rightfully deviate from how transit is usually provided. That said, it’s also an awful lot of hoopla for a proposal that scrapes the bare minimum. This Wired article offers an excellent and unbiased (well, glowing) account of the full application, which will execute the following projects:

  • Autonomous vehicle pilot project to link currently non-accessible (via transit) employment centers
  • Mobility kiosks in the low-income Linden neighborhood, specifically geared toward pregnant women
  • Development of a universal transit pass that syncs with COTA (the bus authority), rideshare apps, taxis, and bikeshare

The real strength of the application was the local partnerships brought forth by Columbus’ determination to win this grant. A classmate of mine with an excellent blog detailed the following “total packages” among the 7 finalist cities, in order of leverage:

  • San Francisco: $150 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Columbus: $90 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Austin: $50 million of in-kind services pledged (which could be worthwhile coming from a tech hotbed)
  • Denver: “Total value of $84 million” (so an additional $34 million of leverage?)
  • Kansas City: $15 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Pittsburgh: Additional $11 million pledged by Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
  • Portland: None

Edge, San Francisco.

However, Columbus’ real advantage may have been the blank slate of transit offerings it currently boasts. We have a bus authority. San Francisco has BART which is underfunded but still excellent. Austin has commuter rail. Denver has one of the top LRT networks in the world. Kansas City just opened their new streetcar. Pittsburgh has the T, augmented by really cool “busways.” Portland has it all. DoT may have been attracted by the fact that a Columbus pilot offers the opportunity to implement “smart” technologies in an isolated environment, without cross-over influence of actual transit. As Gizmodo puts it: “Columbus will be able to demonstrate how a city which doesn’t have the time or capital to build out a massive rail network can use the next wave of transportation tech—autonomous vehicles, smartphones, sensors—to get residents moving in an efficient way that will get more cars off roads and lower emissions.”

Smart Challenges For Wicked Problems

Who’s to say Columbus doesn’t “have the time or capital” to build out a rail network? We won’t make time. It’s been a non-starter my entire time in Columbus.

For those that live, work, and get around in Columbus – what does the “Smart City Challenge” victory actually mean? If you’re not pregnant in Linden, what does this victory actually mean? Is everybody in Linden pregnant? What does an autonomous vehicle pilot project really do for a struggling built environment that needs placed-based, not dis-placed, solutions? Having a cool car that can pick you up for your OB/GYN appointment does little for job access, education access, creating recreational opportunities, and fostering passive walkability.

Having written a study on infant mortality in South Linden, I can tell you that lack of car ownership is not an environmental cause. Lack of mobility options, yes, car ownership – not exactly. The full gamut of factors contributing to this neighborhood’s unacceptably high infant mortality rates are:

  • Poor access to affordable and fresh food
  • High obesity rates vis a vis unwalkable environment
  • High stress resulting from crime, speeding traffic noise, and economic insecurity
  • The neighborhood’s only OB/GYN is across the tracks, on a site that was available on the cheap, for lack of resources to build a true neighborhood health center
  • Housing that is often riddled with environmental contaminants
  • Poor maternal care education (prevention of tragic accidents)
  • Other

Linden even has an underfunded BRT-lite project, in need of additional funding and wraparounds to qualify as true BRT, that this grant ignores.

For myself, I deliberately forced myself to use Columbus’ transit for the entire two years that I was in grad school. My thesis was on TOD, and to develop a sense of empathy and deeper understanding, I wanted to experience what it is like to actually rely on transit – too few planners have done this, in my opinion. I can tell you that being reliant on transit in Columbus is not fun. It means waiting for buses that are irregular (my outer backpack pouch has schedules for the #7, #18, #2, #8, and #21 – which I’m pretty sure are just suggestions), unpleasant and stressful, occasionally unsafe (frequent reports of LGBT discrimination and abuse), frequently broken down (I have had three COTA buses break down on me), and so on. For half of the year, add the bitter cold. During the warm months, the buses are often re-routed or indefinitely delayed due to frequent marathons, festivals, or parades on High Street. So while I don’t mean to be a fly in the ointment, I am very passionate about Columbus developing the first-rate transit it so badly needs, and this is not that.

This reminds me of the time I asked the otherwise-excellent outgoing mayor, Michael Coleman (a true role model of civic leadership, I must say) if Columbus was interested in pursuing transit to capture more development demand in the form of sustainable TOD, and his response was “Columbus is so TOD, we now have Car2Go!”

The Case for Real Transit in Columbus

The background context is that Columbus is a community that harbors deeply anti-transit sentiments. It’s a car culture. As Columbus has re-urbanized and more or less “gentrified-in-place” (raising density while developing true mixed-income), it has found auto workarounds. The city routinely grants TIF deals to cover the costs of parking garages to facilitate neighborhood redevelopment. The frustrating thing, as a planner, is that Columbus is a really great city that has what it takes to be “the next Great American City” (sound trumpets) a la Austin or Portland. Transit is the one disconnect – the stubborn pitfall that Columbus can’t get out of.

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The essence of Columbus is neighborhoods, which is ironic for a city best-known for its iconic commercial spine. Above is the most important photo you will ever see (to-date) of Columbus. Of course I am biased, because it is my own, but this photo illustrates better than I could describe the relationship between downtown, the “neighborhoods,” Ohio State, and the High Street corridor. Despite being such a linear city (not to be fooled by the radiating hub-and-spoke of sprawl, density levels and economic activity literally follow High Street) many voting citizens in Columbus pretend to be pro-transit, but just unsure of where it could go or who would use it. This oft-repeated refrain requires the above aerial study. If any city were ripe for a transit corridor, it is Columbus. You don’t need a Nelson Nygaard study (though we have that, too) to tell you where a rail corridor should go, just go up high and say “Eureka, I have found it!”

cbus.JPG What gives Columbus so much potential is that it is a vastly underrated historic city. Overshadowed by the former fourth-largest (Cincinnati in the 1800s) and fifth-largest (Cleveland in the 30s, 40s, and 50s) cities – Columbus falls for the notion that it too is not historic. On the contrary, Columbus is one of the most historic state capital cities, and features some of the most impressive Victorian-era neighborhood fabric anywhere in the United States. These historic neighborhoods are also dense, walkable neighborhoods. However, it is also best summarized as a collection of independent fiefdoms (unique neighborhoods or “villages”) that have spurned planning and transit to stave off the threat of connectivity to their surroundings. A great example of this is Clintonville, a truly wonderful neighborhood whose infamously NIMBY residents are either known as Clintonvillains or the Independent Republic of Clintonville. I truly empathize for any developer feebly attempting to build very high-end apartments for “those people” (you know, renters, like myself).

These fiefdoms are wonderful places. They’re walkable, charming, and valuable. They could be very transit-supportive. Columbus has an almost-endless list of them, from German Village, to Beechwold, from Franklinton (an emerging fiefdom), to Olde Towne East (shout-out to those OTENA gentrifiers, Flag Wars!) and the rest of the “Villages,” be they Victorian, Italian, Merion, and so on. Their calling card is that they all occupy inner-city locations without inner-city connectivity. While I adore cobblestone and brick-paved streets for aesthetic and sense-of-place arguments, I suspect they have been preserved so well to inhibit drive-through traffic.

The divisions of Columbus bring us to realities about inequeality and the geography of opportunity. The Kirwan Institute, based at Ohio State, is an excellent think tank dedicated to the study of poverty and urban inequality, and best-known for “opportunity mapping.” Their Columbus Opportunity Map, essentially a blended metric of quality of life and economic opportunity across Columbus census tracts, is viewable on Arc online. You have to open the filter control and turn off the neighborhood layer, which is just meaningless color-blocking, and turn on the neighborhood opportunity index. You will then see the following map for all of Franklin County:

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While economic opportunity follows High Street, those who enjoy that economic opportunity do not cross High Street. To the east lies a sea of neighborhoods cut off from the city’s spine, by railroads, freeways, etc. These neighborhoods’ problems are largely due to issues with access, whether it be to jobs, education, healthcare, etc. We need a transit network that connects these neighborhoods to the economic spine of Columbus. On top of that, truly linking the diverse and multifaceted (and almost entirely densely-populated) communities that line both sides of High Street would catalyze additional economic potential by bridging the gaps wherever they exist.

Toward the Right Solution

m-1_20map-0Columbus just won $150 million of funding through an incredible public-private partnership. Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City are all building their modern streetcars (trams) for less than that. However, Columbus needs much more than a downtown circulator streetcar. Columbus needs something like the M-1 Rail, which I’ve covered extensively, which serves a true need by filling the gap and forging strategic connectivity. The 3.3-mile corridor, envisioned as the first phase, connects two currently-disconnected rail systems and makes the broader Detroit Transit Authority bus grid more efficient. Ran by the suburban RTA (SMART), the M-1 Rail will also link the two disparate transit authorities serving Southeast Michigan, and it will do so through a corridor that links all of the city’s major economic, cultural, and institutional assets.

The M-1 Rail is a slam dunk because it is the perfect place-based transit project. It was also made possible by significant private- and philanthropic-sector contributions, which covered most of the cost, in addition to about $45 million in FTA grants.

Sound familiar?

Columbus needs an M-1 Rail, whether that is “smart” or not – something that provides real, meaningful transit. Columbus does not need a ride here and there for expecting mothers – it needs a transit pipeline for everyone.

#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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Challenging and Serving Detroit

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While there is nothing unique about having a challenge, according to City of Detroit Chief Talent Officer Bryan Barnhill, the challenge of holistically revitalizing Detroit is unique and noble. Challenge Detroit is an exciting and innovative leadership and professional development program that brought me up to Detroit in Mid-May. Not only was it a great time to be in Detroit, with the best weather I have experienced there to date, but it was a truly inspiring program and mission.

cd1We were treated to a first-class, two-day program with one-on-one interviews with Detroit-area planning and design firms, networking events, guided bus tours of the city, field sessions with community stakeholders, and then a wrap-up “Mini-Challenge” to design a park around a vulnerable population. While the “Mini-Challenge” is designed to simulate service projects that Challenge Detroit Fellows undertake regularly, this “Mini-Challenge” was distinctly fun, giving us the opportunity to address a serious challenge with mediums such as play-doh, pipe cleaners, buttons, and popsicle sticks. My table, tasked with designing a park that is inclusive of homeless populations, produced a vision for a “Food Farm” park that addresses food insecurity through community gardens, a farmstand, and programming spaces.

cd2While I may still yet become involved in Challenge Detroit myself, there are some transferable values that could yield similar results for other cities. As the non-profit sector has been uniquely involved and empowered to work on Detroit’s systemic issues, a major point of emphasis is that it won’t be “fixed” or “solved” or even “helped.” The “solution” is something else. Toward this end, the program teaches a project planning philosophy called “Design Thinking,” adopted from Stanford University’s design school.

Backed by these non-profit stakeholders, Challenge Detroit is unique for bringing in top-notch talent and embedding them into the community that they will serve. Rather than “fix, solve, and help,” the idea behind Challenge Detroit is “live, work, play, give, and lead.” I think this bold idea emphasizes that while Detroit needs givers and leaders, it also needs every-day people who just want to live, work, and play. For 30 lucky fellows, the program also offers the opportunity to develop one’s career while serving this amazing mission in an amazing city.

1 Month: DC, PHI, NYC, PIT, CHI

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My apologies to readers of this blog who may have noticed that I’ve slowed down; I intend to remedy this by uploading components of my thesis and also with a few planned articles to highlight lessons I’ve learned from this recent swarm of trips.

What I’ve been up to lately: Finishing and defending my thesis, graduating with my Master’s in City and Regional Planning, still working for a tax credit syndicator, following-up on Congressional lobbying efforts for Preservation Action, the inaugural convening of RBCoYP, and applying for jobs! Whew.

Here is a brief travel tease…

DC in Mid-March:

 

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Philly in Mid-March:

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NYC in Mid-March:

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Pittsburgh in early April:

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Chicago in mid-April:

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No favorites! Besides the last city I’ve visited at the moment, whichever that is.

Design Ingenuity: Parks for the people

Design Ingenuity is a series highlighting teachable examples of urban design. The first Design Ingenuity post highlighted US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, a transit-oriented stadium project. This is the second post in the series, detailing OKC’s major push to renovate as many inner city parks as possible. The goal of Design Ingenuity is to understand the difference that good design makes in the lives of city residents.

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Tulsa’s $350 million new Gathering Place project is forcing OKC to up its ante with parks

Oklahoma City’s parks are a major opportunity for improvement. I have a tendency to belabor the point in trying to frame matters optimistically, but the reality is that parks are a core area in which OKC falls short. Not only do they not fully meet the needs of human-scale communities, but they also fail to attract residents who often drive to Tulsa or a state park for recreation. Driving over an hour for a park seems odd – but people do legitimately go up to Tulsa for the River Parks, Swan Lake, Woodward Park and the Tulsa Rose Garden, etc. Tulsa will be especially competitive for outdoor recreation enthusiasts once its new $350 million “Gathering Place” park (pictured above) is complete.

People like nice things. Parks and transit, really the two core areas where OKC lags behind, are both two of the most noticeable components of cities. OKC’s parks, besides the incomparable Myriad Gardens, have a ways to go. That said, OKC is aggressively addressing both transit and parks, and in some instances killing two birds with the same stone (trails and bike lanes accomplish both parks and transit).

On parks alone, OKC has 11 distinct initiatives currently underway. These 11 projects will collectively transform OKC’s public realm and get its residents outdoors. Great parks are finally well within reach for OKC. Of course, the plan behind all of this is the 2013 OKC Parks Masterplan. At the conclusion of this effort, OKC will go from trailing to leading other cities.

Myriad Botanical Gardens and Project 180

Project 180, begun in 2010 and scheduled to commence in 2014, but still underway and running behind schedule – is an aspirational $141 million facelift of downtown OKC’s public spaces, including the Myriad Gardens. The Myriad Gardens were designed by I.M. Pei and hadn’t been updated since, while surrounding streetscapes were similarly outdated. Funding was generated through a TIF district just on the $750 million Devon Tower, which didn’t need the TIF, but instead wanted updates to surroundings. P180 included bike lanes, street furniture, lighting, landscaping, and public art throughout the 180 acres of downtown.

The figurative result of Project 180 is a complete “180” turn in activating downtown’s outdoor spaces with people. The specific legacy though is increased attendance at the Myriad Gardens and a well-designed template that OKC is now applying to other streets, including in Film Row and Core2Shore.

“Central Park”

Just to recap: Most casual observers to planning and design are aware of OKC’s new MAPS 3-funded “Central Park” (it’s yet-to-be-named, and I’m pushing for Ellison Park or Ellison Green after the hometown literary great). $132 million total. The 40-acre north park (north of the new I-40 Crosstown Expwy) is scheduled to open in 2018, while the 30-acre south park is scheduled to open in 2021. The north park is a highly-programmed, emphatically-designed urban park, whereas the south park is a more-passive, heavily-landscaped link to the Oklahoma River. OKC Talk has detailed plans here. South Park is pictured below:

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Park architects, Hargreaves Associates, have also designed Chicago’s Millennium Park, Houston’s Discovery Green, Seattle’s South Union Lake Park, and Birmingham’s Railroad Park. Hargreaves has also given OKC a park template, based on this Central Park design, that OKC is applying to outdated parks across the city.

Military Park

This park was originally scheduled to be renovated along with Classen Boulevard’s Asian District streetscape, more than ten years ago. That didn’t happen at the time. At last, the 1.8 acre underutilized site at NW 25th and Classen Blvd is set for an ambitious makeover that will hopefully revitalize this stretch of Classen and the greater OCU area. The space has been named “Military Park” for nearly 100 years, and incidentally has become one of the nation’s most concentrated Vietnamese communities. As such, the park will feature a Vietnam War memorial along with several tributes to what Vietnam means as a homeland.

Woodson Park

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This large park, originally one of the corners of Grand Boulevard, was sliced in half by a freeway and then disinvested for decades. This project refreshes the western half of the park, which had been really disinvested and cut off from the surrounding neighborhood. $5.2 million from the 2007 General Obligation Bond.

McKinley Park

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Not a total park renovation, but a flashy new coat of paint no less for the rec center at McKinley Park, in the Classen-Ten-Penn neighborhood. As CTP has become a community development focus neighborhood, the goal here would be to generate creative synergies before the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative moves on to another neighborhood. This image is just from the call for artist submissions.

Boathouse Row

Boathouse Row now includes the original Chesapeake Boathouse, along with the OCU Devon Boathouse, the UCO Boathouse, the OU Boathouse, SandRidge Adventure Tower, and CHK Finish Line Tower. In addition to these philanthropic-supported projects, MAPS 3 has added $57 million in projects, the largest phase yet. The MAPS 3 improvements include racetrack improvements, grandstands, and the RIVERSPORT Rapids park.

Memorial Park

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Memorial Park, at NW 36th and Classen Blvd, is another park that used to be more historically significant and then faded. While it’s not ideal to tear down homes on 36th for parking for the park, the configuration allows more preservation of the original park, particularly the historic fountain fronting Classen. Very nice project for just $1.9 million, financed by the 2007 General Obligation Bond, completed in 2015.

Red Andrews Park

This park, historically an after-thought in between downtown and no-man’s land, has always been a problem. The Oklahoman couldn’t refrain from mentioning the park’s sordid park along with announcing its redesign. The new design takes parking out of the park, through a shared parking agreement with the new $10 million Valir Clinic across the street. It also lends it a definition of space that it previously never had.

Bicentennial Park

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Civic Center Park or Bicentennial Park, same thing. Not sure which name it’s using right now, but this park encircles OKC’s Art-Deco civic center which includes City Hall, the Civic Center Music Hall (home to the OKC Philharmonic and Broadway shows), and backs to the OCPD HQ. As downtown withered in the 70s and 80s, the park became a dumping grounds for statues and plaques. I think there was a statue of every mayor, which is almost interesting. Rand Elliott, perhaps Oklahoma’s most acclaimed architect, completely overhauled the space in his recent renovation – funded by $3.5 million in Project 180 funds, similar to the Myriad Botanical Garden renovations. It’s a small space, but designed well-enough to feel significant.

In my opinion, as someone who actually opposed this redesign initially, I’m now convinced that Rand’s vision is what this space should have been back in 1930. The walking paths that elegantly fan out toward the edges remind me of the Chrysler Tower crown. I believe that’s called organic (organicist?) Art-Deco. Enhanced sight-lines in between the two similar WPA-style Art-Deco landmarks, as well as enhanced skyline views, also make a big difference. This is an Art-Deco park where such a thing should have always been.

Wheeler District + Park

Wheeler Park is OKC’s most historic park. It was an urban central park, a highly-programmed promenade, and amusement park rolled into one. One particularly damaging flood changed all of that. Then the Army Corps of Engineers came and dammed the Canadian River, and turned the former parkland into an urban prairie. The “river” literally had to be mowed twice a year. Developer and acclaimed designer Blair Humphreys has acquired the Downtown Airpark, across the river from Wheeler, and is planning to revive this neighborhood’s place in OKC. The first step was successful implementation of concert grounds to activate the site, and the second step (currently underway) is reconstruction of the Santa Monica Ferris Wheel on this site (purchased on eBay). It’s worth noting this entire project is privately-funded, though almost surely will involve a public partnership.

American Indian Cultural Center and Gardens (Smithsonian affiliate)

Definitely don’t want to get into this project’s history, but it is moving forward once again! This project, though dogged by delays, cost overruns, and political embroglio, will give OKC a world-class anchor for the south riverfront. It also solidifies the importance of American Indian culture, by placing this new landmark on the most visible, centrally-located site possible. Through an operating agreement with the Chickasaw Nation, the surrounding lands will be commercially developed while retaining the park-like setting. Also noteworthy – Hargreaves Associates once again, on the design (hence why the mounds bear resemblance to the Clinton Presidential Library grounds).

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OKC needs parks. The city that I grew up in during the 90s had the level of park investment you would expect in Dodge City; Tumbleweeds blowing through was the only reliable programming. This was before the parks renaissance that nearly every city is experiencing, before the “back to the city” movement, and before OKC itself had discovered an innovative civic investment mechanism (the MAPS penny sales tax).

The design ingenuity of this endeavor though is its breadth. Rather than just complete a few really good parks, OKC has sought to use those projects to both inform and build capacity for doing more, as well as to build a toolset of templates that the city can plug and play with. This not only reduces design costs, but also administrative costs and process time. This is why almost all cities use a template approach for streets and open spaces – sometimes the templates are bad, but in this case the template OKC has built up to is pretty good in my opinion.

OKC can do this with a continued commitment to parks across the city, and not just concentrated downtown. These projects will rely on long-term commitments, for which the city will rely on partnerships with the surrounding community. Toward that end, it is important that these parks put people first.

Lastly, never bet against a city doing something it has already done before. OKC has had great parks before, and can do it again. It really is all about making a long-term commitment. Behold, Wheeler Park, of yesteryear:

 

Of course, it will help having a vision such as this for making critical connections into the future:

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Real Unclear Policy

Adam Millsap, a research fellow at George Mason University in Virginia, has seen the efforts to revitalize rust belt cities and thinks Americans deserve to be told the truth. That “truth” is the basis for this screed on the Real Clear Policy website.

“Finally, we need to stop encouraging people to stay in declining areas based on stories of false hope. For certain individuals, it may make sense to remain in a depressed area, for either economic or personal reasons, but they should do so without being told that we can save their city. Moving toward opportunity is a better solution for most Americans than waiting for opportunity to come to them.

Never mind the transformation taking place in Detroit. Forget about the strong results that are starting to emerge out of Cleveland, where the city has surged into a leading position among cities competing for college-educated Millennials. Who cares that Pittsburgh and Boston have already proven that turnarounds are possible?

He and other George Mason researchers also aren’t impressed by the rust belt’s cost advantage, because they contend that SF and NY have “laws” that “artificially inflate” the cost of real estate. You know, zoning, building standards, and crazy things like that. That’s why those cities are so expensive, not because of demand.

You can’t make this up. And apologies to any George Mason people reading this, as I have friends myself from GMU, and would never blaspheme an entire school (let alone a good one). I am not trying to undermine the entire research arm of George Mason, let alone the public policy school, but just pointing out the trail of how they got to this point. Policy formulation precedes policy implementation.

“Yet residents are told that their cities, from Buffalo, N.Y., to Birmingham, Ala., can regain their former glory if they can just attract the right company or win that next government grant.”

I guess it’s that simple. Just waiting on that government grant to come through!

I’m not an abrasive, argumentative, or cantankerous guy; but I have to call out dangerous research such as this. He is right that individually, it is better to put yourself in proximity to opportunity. You can do that by moving across the street in every single one of these cities. My personal experience is that this region is bursting with opportunity, and that the secret is out – not unlike SF and NY, pursuing opportunity has gotten increasingly competitive here.

By all means, scare people away from the Rust Belt – makes life easier for me. However, when you attempt to inform federal investment priorities, and lead with an attack on our grant-winning efforts to compete against the federal investment flowing into the Sun Belt, that’s when Real Clear Policy crosses a line. You aren’t just looking out for the individuals mired in rust belt poverty, who you want to move down to become mired instead in Sun Belt poverty. This is a regional attack on another region.

I have always thought better to produce research on good unfunded grant proposals than bad grant winners; the emphasize needs to be on growing the pot for community development projects nation-wide, rather than shrinking the pot for all of us.

Meet the coolest transit project in America: M-1 Rail

Detroit, the city that refuses to die, and the city that got America moving, has gotten a little well-deserved help with their new streetcar. Detroit is long-known as one of those cities where transit projects go to die, with countless different iterations of this same project reappearing every few years. To this point, it’s worth mentioning that the People Mover system (photographed extensively in my 2016 trip) was always envisioned as a “last mile” circulator once people get downtown on a larger transit network that hasn’t materialized until now.

I don’t really know if this project is the coolest transit project in America. I’ll say it’s pretty unlikely. M-1 Rail is a mere $125-180 million endeavor, which puts it firmly in the New Starts realm, while more established transit cities like Seattle are doing crazy things like capping an entire urban freeway, LA is doing subway extensions, Atlanta is developing a copy + paste model for air rights construction over MARTA stations, Minneapolis wants 75,000 downtown residents, and Dallas fully intends to protect its claim to the most light rail of any city. These cities don’t blink at spending billions – yet Detroit’s little $125 million project has been such a topic of controversy. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called it “The worst transit project in America.” It’s hard not to wonder if this is a cogent anti-streetcar argument or just thinly veiled annoyance that this city refuses to conform to the negative outside press. (I feel guilty even offering this up as click bait, but I still feel compelled to offer totally contrasting viewpoints.) If he can make such an unfounded claim, then surely I can counter that by calling it the coolest transit project in America. M-1 Rail brings out the best in transit projects and has a tremendous array of benefits to offer Detroit. In many ways, this small transit project is the little engine that could.

dettransit_mapBoiling M-1 Rail down to its lowest common denominator, this project is a very small but vitally important link that ties together a regional rail network that is finally coming together. M-1 Rail, spanning the Cass Corridor between downtown (served by the very cool and very retro People Mover) and New Center (where Amtrak’s Wolverine and SEMCOG’s commuter system cut through Detroit City), is a 3.3-mile link (red) between these two existing (blue) transit systems that don’t currently intersect.

Now, given that there are some interesting corridors in the rift left by these two systems, doesn’t it make a lot of sense to connect the closest points of these two disparate transit networks? Even without knowing much about Detroit and specifically the neighborhoods that lie between the two transit systems, it would seem to make sense within the regional context: By making that connection, rather than having three disparate transit systems, you now have a single whole network that serves the Detroit region.

b99329484z-1_20151130190435_000_gvcmn04b-1-0It so happens that besides the obvious slam dunk within the regional context, that the localized context further propels the case for M-1 Rail. Woodward Avenue, Michigan Highway #1, is America’s only urban national scenic byway. There are only 30 national scenic byways. Step aside Euclid Avenue (CLE), High Street (Cbus), Wash Ave (STL), Fifth and Forbes (Pitt), Vine Street (Cincy). Woodward Avenue is the granddaddy of all of the great urban main streets.

I have a lot of “crazy theories” one might say, and one of them is that you can usually go up to a tall vantage point and look out over a major city and either point out specific transit corridors, or what should be specific transit corridors. Go to the CN Tower and you can literally see the veins of high-rises that fan out across the city, most notably along Yonge Street, where towers rise up for a dozen or so miles from the low-rise scale of Toronto’s surrounding neighborhoods. In a city without rail, the same experiment is basically a quick-and-dirty method of studying prospective corridors. In Columbus, go to the Rhodes Tower observation floor, and even if you know nothing about Columbus you still can’t help but notice how the entire city literally rises up at High Street. Similarly with Detroit, go up to a tall building on Wayne State’s campus and then look out over the city. You will see the above view. If you were struggling with where to do transit three years ago, the above view would be somewhat illuminating.

The financing of M-1 Rail is the most interesting urban experiment I have ever seen. Detroit City is in fact kind of an outsider to this entire project. This project has been planned, approved, and implemented by a complex partnership between Detroit’s non-profit sector and the federal government, which literally “required an Act of Congress” to allow public-private partnerships to count as the local match required by FTA. It also leverages New Markets Tax Credits, which is the first time NMTC’s have ever invested in public transit, thanks to LISC, Great Lakes Capital, and others. Four foundations, including the Ford and Kresge foundations, also contributed millions. Detroit’s corporate community stepped up to the plate to buy naming rights at each station, contributing far more than a name is really worth.

The financial pieces (totaling $180 million) of this project are as follows, mostly in little $3 million chunks here and there:

  • Kresge Foundation – $49.6 million
  • FTA TIGER I grant – $25 million
  • FTA TIGER VI grant – $12.2 million
  • Quicken Loans – $10 million
  • State of Michigan – $10 million
  • Detroit Downtown Development Authority – $9 million
  • NMTC (LISC, Great Lakes Capital, etc) – $8 million
  • Penske Corp. – $7 million
  • MEDC – $7 million
  • Illitch Holdings (Little Caesar’s Pizza) – $6 million
  • Ford Foundation – $4 million
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan – $3 million
  • Chrysler Foundation – $3 million
  • Detroit Medical Center – $3 million
  • General Motors Co. – $3 million
  • Henry Ford Health System – $3 million
  • Wayne State University – $3 million
  • Wayne County – $3 million
  • Ford Motor Co. – $3 million
  • DTE Energy – $2.9 million in-kind
  • Compuware Corp. – $1.5 million
  • J.P. Morgan Chase – $1.5 million
  • Hudson-Webber Foundation $1 million
  • Bank of America Foundation – $300,000
  • Ford Motor Co. Fund – $100,000

Notice you won’t see “City of Detroit” anywhere on said list. Nor will you see “taxpayers of Detroit” on the list, in any way (through some taxing district, etc). I just think that this is amazing. At a minimum, it’s a testament that the Rust Belt community ethos is alive and well in Michigan, even after a community has broken down and weathered such a storm. 

At this point I must confess that I started out intending to just whip up another quick photo tour and press “publish.” While that is still forthcoming, I just can’t stress enough that with this transit project the devil is in the details. If you bother to look at these details, it really is the coolest transit project in America.

And it is becoming reality.

Progress as of January 2015:

Progress as of February 2016:

Which eventually will resemble these renderings:

So, if you like what you see, mark your calendars for sometime in 2017 when M-1 Rail leaves the station, revolutionizing how visitors (tourists and suburbanites alike) will experience Detroit City. It will be an experience that keeps people coming back and hopefully creates enough concentrated activity to rub off on the less-revitalized remainder of the city.

Rather than insist that every project solve every problem (zero-sum), M-1 Rail is worthy of our support and admiration as a singular solution in a city that collectively needs a lot of singular solutions. M-1 Rail doesn’t fix everything overnight; however, it does fill in the missing link, build on Detroit’s existing assets, connect the city to the broader region where most jobs have moved, and give the city something captivating to build on for the future.

Detroit: 2016

Now a year removed from bankruptcy, Detroit is moving on and building the strongest momentum that the city has had since its precipitous decline began, more promising than any other flash of hope that came and went in the past. You can’t come to Detroit today and not see that this is the Comeback City; It’s happening.

Click here for the photo tour from my 2015 trip.

m-1-rail-route-mapSomehow, I seem to be making a personal tradition of making an annual Detroit trip during the winter. I also somehow always luck out and get a weekend that is “relatively” warm, so I’ve really lucked out (2015’s trip was in the 30s, but wedged between two Polar Vortex weeks; 2016’s trip had temps in the 50s). All of this said, and even in the “Comeback City,” there really isn’t all THAT much change in 1 year. A few new scaffolds covering some buildings, such as the Griswold Bldg on Michigan Ave that’s now pretty far along. The booming M1 Corridor isn’t all that unchanged – it’s mostly the same building projects still underway, and the light rail is still under construction, although the street is a little bit more passable.

The one area where there has been a lot of change is the new Redwings Arena. One of the grandiose old hotels are gone, yet the other (two twin hotel towers) still stands, and the arena totally dwarfs everything in the southern end of Midtown. Across Woodward, the western-most block of Brush Park is seeing a lot of new development. Huge projects going up between Woodward and John R.

As always, you gotta start at the Market, especially if it’s a Saturday and the weather is sublime. This area was previously artfully gang-tagged all over, which is now giving way to an actual public art initiative called Murals in the Market. There is a map of murals on their website, but several are new in just the last year, such as the really awesome googly eyes. There are more pics inside the market in my 2015 pics, as this time I mostly explored the surrounding market district, where several distilleries and breweries have given way to cold storage and meat market businesses. The Eastern Market is as old school as it gets.

Murals in the Market

The Eastern Market is just east, across I-75, from Brush Park and Midtown Detroit. The two areas, arguably Detroit’s most active on a nice weekend day, are still pretty disconnected. Of course, Brush Park still has a ways to go toward regaining its lost luster. The M1 Rail project is chugging along, making Woodward Avenue a little more passable than before, and it all looks great. The new Red Wings Arena is also topped out.

Midtown & M1 Rail

 

Confession time: I LOVE the Detroit People Mover. I wanted to hate it so badly. It’s everyone’s favorite kind of rail project to pick on. It’s a monorail, it doesn’t connect to the street level, you need quarters to ride it, and it only does a 3-mile loop around downtown. I always tried using it as an example of a bad rail project. But it isn’t. The Detroit People Mover somehow works. Every single time I’ve seen it, it’s packed full of people. You have to literally squeeze onto it. It could be sped up – it doesn’t need to stop at every station for a full minute or two – but the best thing about it is the headways. With 5 trains simultaneously making the 3-mile clockwise loop around downtown, a train comes every 3-4 minutes. It’s really awesome.

Downtown Detroit is also really awesome. Similarly, I really wanted to hate the Renaissance Center. It’s the most typical fortress city urban renewal project you’ve ever seen. Did I mention that it’s massing is ugly and intimidating? But it’s also really cool, and I finally made it to the Coach Insignia bar up on the 73rd Floor, which makes the Renaissance Center alright with me. Next time you’re in town, you’ve got to go. Go get a drink (not badly priced at all) and watch the sunset. If you hate fortress corporate towers like me, it will still make you fall in love with the Ren Cen.

People Mover & A View From the Top

Corktown is probably my favorite little pocket of Detroit. The main reason for this is probably Slow’s BarBQ. Easily the best BBQ joint I’ve ever been to outside of KC, and I would know bc I’m kind of a foodie tourist.

West is (was) Best

And lastly, I finally made it to the Heidelberg Project, which is truly the weirdest thing I have ever seen. In fact, that is all I have to say about it. Enjoy.

Departure From Reality

Until next time, Motor City!