Design Ingenuity: My wknd stay in Canadian public housing

Design Ingenuity is a series highlighting teachable examples of urban design. The first Design Ingenuity post highlighted US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the second highlighted OKC’s citywide park redevelopment plan. The goal of Design Ingenuity is to understand the difference that good design makes in the lives of city residents.

1-year ago, after learning about development processes and policy mechanisms behind American public housing at an accelerated rate, I had a hair-brained whim to go explore the Canadian equivalent.

daniels-spectrumI particularly wanted to see Regent Park – Toronto’s “most notorious” public housing estate (for all the wrong reasons, if you could imagine such a thing in Canada) – which underwent an ambitious revitalization project in 2005. Regent Park’s Daniels Spectrum community centre (an art gallery I believe?) recently won the UK’s prestigious Civic Trust Award, along with a bevy of other awards. This is not your grandfather’s public housing, or even Drake’s – see MTV article likening a co-appearance with the Toronto-native rapper to “a passport out of Regent Park.” The NY Times has hailed Regent Park, once a “neighborhood in despair,” as an international “model for inclusion.”

In case it seems odd (or insensitive) to “vacation” in another nation’s public housing…

  • I am very interested in the culture of public housing, which is quite rich.
  • I am very interested in the design opportunities surrounding public housing, which are limitless.
  • I am very interested in the social and equity implications of redesigning public housing, which are a double-edged sword.

Regent Park was an amazing thing to check out for all those reasons and more. It turns out that, thanks to the mixed-income composition of the replacement housing, you can find AirBnB units within Regent Park itself. It might even be the best AirBnB location in Toronto, for someone on a budget who wants a sleek rental near downtown TO.

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I stayed in the extremely cool Paintbox building, which is a 26-story, 282-unit mixed-income housing tower designed to evoke its namesake. In the elevators you truly rub shoulders with people from all walks of life, and from the balcony, look down on the entirety of Toronto’s vast cityscape. You also look down on Regent Park’s namesake park itself, also redesigned as an excellent space. The view was highly instructive:

The park itself integrates all the amenities you would expect on-site for 1,800 public housing units, including an aquatic center (toward the right), greenspace programmed with active- and passive-recreation spaces, the Daniels Spectrum, and a church that was preserved. The most interesting thing in these photos are the older units, what remains of Regent Park (the next phase to be replaced), across the park.

The redevelopment is replacing roughly the same number of units – 2,083 units existed in 2005, and 1,800 will be rebuilt along with another 266 off-site (“nearby”) – while 5,400 market-rate units will be introduced on-site. Those market-rate units sell for around $400,000-$500,000 for a 2br, and around $200,000 for a studio. I have been told that they are completely indistinguishable from the public housing units, although I am not sure whether the unit I stayed in was public or market; I can attest that there are no separate entrances or “poor doors.”

All in all, Toronto Community Housing’s redevelopment will take 15-20 years to accomplish the following:

Y:2009 Projects916 Regent Park MP Phases 3-6Drawings00 Sit

  • Replaced RGI Rental Units: 2,083 (over 1800 in Regent Park and 266 in new buildings nearby)
  • New Affordable Rental Units: Over 210 in Regent Park and 100 in new buildings nearby by the end of Phase 2. Additional affordable rental units in future phases will be subject to funding availability.
  • Market Units: 5,400
  • Project Start Date: 2005
  • Anticipated Project Length: 15-20 years
  • Total Size: 69 acres
  • Amenities: New amenities include the Daniels Spectrum, the Regent Park Aquatic Centre, the new Regent Park, and the Regent Park Athletic Grounds
  • Retail Space: Freshco by Sobeys, Rogers, Tim Hortons, RBC and Main Drug Mart have moved into newly created retail space
  • Employment: 1,100

All of which looks good on paper, but looks even better in person – as it such amidst Toronto’s beautiful cityscape, replete with open modern design, green rooftops, and “red rockets” (Toronto streetcars).

Perhaps it is not only possible for public housing to raise people up, but to more importantly immerse people in an immersive community that naturally provides better social supports than a community action program ever could.

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.

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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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.

Linking Linden via Design

There are two types of cities that I have worked in, though I’m sure others abound. My experience however has been either economically-driven cities (Dallas, OKC) or equitably-driven cities (Cleveland, Columbus to some extent). For the economically-driven city, the bottom line is the bottom line. They will listen to city planners and urban designers who can offer economic development. For the equitably-driven city, it’s about quality of life for the disenfranchised.

412box7fsnpl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Cleveland after all is the birthplace of “equity planning,” which is a school of thought founded by Norm Krumholz that honed in on planning for the poor to the exclusion of others. Krumholz’s philosophy, which soon caught on in most major cities, was a response to the times, following race riots from which most major cities have yet to recover. Cleveland for certain was rocked by the Hough Riots of 1966 and the Glenville Riots of 1968. The groundbreaking literature on this matter was Krumholz’s 1975 Planning Policy Report, admirably discussed in this article by his fellow FAICP predecessor Bob Brown.

citywidemap20transparentRegardless of in which category a city may fall, no city is practicing planning for fun. Nobody in a major city, strapped for time and resources, has time on their hands to engage in academic exercises. Columbus is also an oddball hybrid community that is probably equally motivated by both the economy and equity. Just when you think economic development matters always win, the city’s disenfranchised communities get a big win. As far as putting our money where our mouth is: Nearly all place-based resources (CDBG, LIHTC, Urban Infrastructure Recovery Fund, grants, discretionary spending) are targeted to low-income neighborhoods, and nearly all TIF resources are targeted outside of the I-270 beltway, representing a strategy schism.

Cleveland Avenue in Columbus is the context for my most significant personal foray into equity planning – specifically the South Linden community located along Cleveland Avenue, between Hudson and 11th Avenue. This community was the focus of Ohio State’s Fall 2015 Community Design Studio with Dr. Jesus Lara, for which our client was the City of Columbus’ Celebrate One Initiative. Celebrate One is an initiative responding to Columbus’ worst-in-the-nation infant mortality statistics. After studying this matter in great detail, the city, county, Columbus Foundation, and other non-profit partners have concluded that infant mortality is spatially concentrated in areas that suffer from pollution, low walkability, high crime, economic distress, and substandard (unhealthy) housing stock.

There is a must-read study on this matter from Wash U in St. Louis. The takeaway: “Your ZIP code is a better determinant of your health than your genetic code.” When it comes to neighborhoods such as this, not only is equity planning a good approach, but it pays dividends to start making partnerships and inroads with public health officials. In equity-driven cities, the public health officials are going to hold a lot of sway, have more resources, and probably be sympathetic to planning goals. 

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In addition to astonishingly high infant mortality, the neighborhood also suffers from substandard and often lead-paint-covered housing, low walkability, high traffic noise, proximity to brownfields, poor air quality, and high crime. The high crime is in part due to broken street lights and un-maintained rear alleys that make the perfect spot for a shady drug deal gone bad. The rest are primarily due to poor transit access, adjacency to high-traffic I-71, and the speedway that is Cleveland Avenue (especially heavy commuter traffic that barrels through the neighborhood to bypass congested freeways).

By the way, Walk Score deduces that South Linden is the 42nd “most walkable” neighborhood in Columbus. This was determined not by visiting and documenting existing conditions, but rather through a computer algorithm that relies on “amenities” it picks up on Google Maps. Many of these “amenities” look nicer on Google Maps than they are in reality – many are no longer open at all – so the reality is actually much worse than Walk Score’s imputed result of “Somewhat Walkable,” but it is a good empirical starting point nonetheless.

Should one actually visit to document the existing conditions, I recommend just taking the #8 or #1 bus and just hopping on and off, talking to lots of neighborhood residents in between. Here are some photos from such an excursion:

The above photo with a bus is actually just the “typical bus stop,” which not unlike elsewhere in Columbus, is basically a pole with a sign. Despite its relatively low walkability, the community has some of the highest rates of transit ridership in the area (4,800 daily riders on the #1 Bus), due in part to the transit-dependent population (no car). Transit in this case is seen as a last resort, and due to its undesirability, is not only relegated out of the way of the area’s motorists, but it’s also ditched by transit riders themselves as soon as they can afford a car.

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To ameliorate this problem the city is giving the Cleveland Avenue corridor our first BRT system, albeit a BRT-lite. The Cleveland Avenue C-MAX is a $47.7-million project BRT with enhanced stations and rolling stock, but without a lane or signal priority. The C-MAX is one of the most significant recent investments in the northeast side of Columbus.

The C-MAX project is my base line for improving the South Linden community, to the extent that our Community Design Studio was tasked with creating design interventions that enhanced quality of life for this neighborhood’s residents. It’s an urban neighborhood, and it’s a transit-propensity neighborhood, so it should also be a walking neighborhood. Reaching people while they’re waiting for the bus is the most-targeted way to touch lives. It’s also a way for these design interventions to really help the people who live here, and not the people who don’t.

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As the member of our studio that focused on transit placemaking, I proposed two design interventions: Bus Box and the “Heart of Linden.”

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Bus Box is a bus shelter made by cutting, combing, and painting shipping containers. Not only is it cheap and trendy, bringing an avante garde style to the neighborhood, but additional “boxes” can be used for community info kiosks, a farmer’s stand at the bus stop, or a “bodega box” that just sells essentials.

It’s tailor-fit to this neighborhood’s needs, which is a food desert for its lack of retail and specifically fresh food options; despite efforts to build suitable retail space, area residents still can’t afford the rent. A lot of the neighborhoods carry-outs get themselves in trouble by selling mostly booze, cigarettes, and junk food in order to pay their rent. Rent won’t be a problem at a Bus Box, and successfully incubated retailers will then be in better position to afford rent in the bricks and mortar behind it.

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Heart of Linden is basically just taking the worst block in this neighborhood (albeit beautifully fenced-off), also located at the heart of it, and re-activating it. “Heart of Linden” has two main components, a scaled-up Bus Box that can basically become an edgy low-cost retail incubator, and a “Food Hub” not unlike the one proposed previously for Weinland Park. There is currently an effort underway for a similar Food Hub in South Linden, and it makes sense that this needed project (and a potential neighborhood improvement catalyst) locate on a prime site. All of the other uses are just programming expansions and connections to surrounding assets, like potential bike trails or the new library.

Bus Box is certainly more practical. It is built off of ideas I have seen in other cities, such as LAND Studio’s Bike Box project in Cleveland (where they built 8-10 of these). Heart of Linden, certainly a tougher project to take on, seeks to solve a number of challenges through forging the right connections. A lot of Linden’s problems stem from disconnectedness. It just isn’t a pleasant neighborhood in which to walk, so nobody is going to belabor themselves worrying about the pedestrians of South Linden.

But they should.

Beyond offering needed amenities in a well-connected site and layout, Heart of Linden is an intriguing idea as a “BRT-OD.” I’ve obviously written a lot about transit-oriented-development or TOD, and it goes without saying that I’m a believer in the power of rails toward the goal of generating this coveted prize. That said, I concede that BRT can move the needle a little bit. It won’t be the sole driver behind billions of dollars in TOD, but it can contribute, and it doesn’t hurt. So just as BRT is a practical innovation, what if the TOD model could similarly be innovated to fit that practicality? As such, a “BRT-OD” could be more of a temporary re-activation of a site, not unlike a pop-up city, and could rely on technological innovations to give it a lighter footprint and lower up-front building cost.

What if “BRT-OD” is a way forward in terms of integrating these BRT systems with surrounding low-income neighborhoods? I leave you with that thought.

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!

Design Ingenuity: Vikings’ new MetroDome

maxresdefault1When stuff turns 50 years old, a switch is flipped. Nobody wants that junk anymore. And if it wasn’t junk, it is now. This happened in the 70s-80s with Art Deco mid-rise buildings in Oklahoma. Once the grandiose old urban core became 50 years old, it was time to bring in I.M. Pei and tear down 2,000 great old buildings. But this post isn’t about OKC and its troubles and rubbles. This is about what’s rising out of the rubble of the MetroDome in Minneapolis. (Or maybe not rubble as much as tattered pieces of inflatable roof.) It’s about an NFL stadium, which is an odd thing to celebrate in a new feature I’d like to call Design Ingenuity. I’ll do these posts for anything I see that really inspires me as an urban designer. Just perusing through Minneapolis projects, an all-around inspirational city honestly, I was really blown away by the new US Bank Stadium.

Important Note: This inspiration is also in part underscored by the fact that NFL stadiums are among the worst thing our society is building right now. It’s a beacon of corporate excess and waste, public finance and corporate welfare, and all of these evils. Yes, I get it – we have people starving, even a small proportion living in poverty in Minneapolis I’m sure, and yet the Twin Cities are subsidizing a $1 billion stadium. IT is what it is. For some perspective however, they’re getting a lot more for it. “JerryWorld” AKA AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX was $1.3 billion in 2009, $1.45 billion in 2016 dollars. They got nothing. A super huge dysfunctional venue that can only host sporting events, surrounded by not a sea but an ocean of parking, across the street from a Wal-mart and an interstate freeway. North Texas for ya.

By comparison, the Vikings stadium is $1.06 billion which is a lot, but nearly 50% less, for a more impressive football stadium. Beyond that, they got the Vikings organization to financially contribute significantly. $551 million from the Vikings, $348 million from the state, and just $150 million from the city. Also compare to Cleveland, where the Browns organization LEFT TOWN in order to force Clevelanders to pony up most of $300 million for their new stadium, and just last year broke the bank again for $120 million in renovations, with $30 million coming from the City of Cleveland just to pay for a new scoreboard. Since $30 million is nothing, most of it actually comes from Cuyahoga County’s sin tax. Ugh. Did I mention that Minneapolis is getting a true architectural gem and a real catalyst for economic and community development? It isn’t a difficult argument to make that neither Arlington nor Cleveland will see similar outcomes from their stadium boondoggles.

I saw this stadium (nearly complete even) when I was in town. You ride right past it on the Hiawatha Line LRT, and switch over to the Green Line LRT at the transit mall right in front of it. Still yet, I didn’t realize how cool it was. My impression from seeing it still under construction was that it was cool, but not necessarily inspirational. Actually, when I came around the bend approaching it, I didn’t realize it was an NFL stadium. It doesn’t look like a stadium. It looks like.. I don’t know, you tell me:

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US Bank Stadium construction aerial from mgoblog.com

From the other side and inside:

It’s a Viking ship!… “setting sail toward downtown Mpls.” How cool is that? The entire stadium’s design has been inspired by a Viking ship, and not just its exterior. The internal structural supports, holding the roof up, are designed to look like sails. Outside, on a corner where you can see the tapered “ship-shape” angles of the stadium, is a public art statue called the “Legacy Ship,” where local die-hards can buy “legacy bricks,” which they will do because you can coherently envision a great legacy coming from this design. My family are primarily Vikings fans, especially my aunt and uncle who have season tickets in Minneapolis, and even though I never got into it I am thrilled that they can be a part of something that is very cool.

But it gets better. The stadium is located right downtown, on the site of the old MetroDome, and totally surrounded by rapid redevelopment. Minneapolis is booming. They have 40,000 downtown residents and are trending toward 75,000 by 2025, which they will probably reach. Minneapolis, indeed, is booming. One of the main reasons for this would be the extent to which they invested in transit, and this project is no different. While most of the $1 billion is for a football stadium, just as the public art was not cheap either, they have also integrated a not-cheap light rail transit mall into the project. Local Tea Party folks are balking at the “ballooning expense” of the $8.7 million pedestrian bridge that carries fans over the tracks and onto the platform, where a train takes people to and from the game. Right now you can just walk on top of the tracks because they aren’t grade separated. There are numerous at-grade crossings that work just fine. So why the bridge?

The explanation lies in this Finance & Commerce article. Once the still-incomplete Twin Cities light rail network is complete, at least as envisioned up to this point, this stretch of tracks will serve as the central hub and transfer point for the entire system. Trains will come through on average every 2 minutes. Let me say that again: Every two minutes, a light rail train rolls through this transit mall. Since trains take a minute (especially at an important transfer point with other LRT lines) to allow for on- and off-boarding, there won’t be many opportunities to cross these tracks on foot. Especially when 65,000 fans get out of a game, along with countless thousands more that fill downtown bars and restaurants during game days. So in this instance, the light rail bridge is a core piece of this stadium project, which has led the city and Vikings organization (which contractually captured ad revenues from the station to pay off its roughly $2 million contribution) partnering on this.

So there you have it. Rather than just building a stadium, Minneapolis is building a legacy. Not just a Legacy Ship, but a project that has been inspired by this legacy in every way, including when it comes to structural supports, the roof of the stadium, its shape, it’s orientation on the site, and so on. Most importantly, they are building a legacy of equitable access not just to and from games, but the surrounding area as well. They didn’t just think of transit, too; they made the light rail access point a core piece of this project, recognizing that by doing so they can legitimately expect Vikings fans to take the train to the game.

Go Vikings. – Sincerely, city planners.

DART Light Rail Review

While I was in the area over the Winter Break, it made sense that I should take a day trip to Dallas to see how the nation’s largest light rail network has fared in attracting development. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, with 90 miles of track and 238,000 daily riders, has its own TOD implementation office. For anyone interested, their website has a pdf download for each of its stations, showing all of the TOD at each of its 62 light rail stations.

Coming from OKC, I parked my car in Denton, and purchased a $10 (!!) day trip card that was good for both Denton County RTA and DART. It was the only day trip option available in Denton, where the A-Train has been one of the least-successful passenger rail projects. Upon returning from Dallas at 8 p.m. on a weekday, I had to uber my way through Denton County just to get back to my car, because the DCTA’s last train had already passed. More to come on the Denton A-Train, but for now here some photos of its larger, more successful neighbor to the south.

 

And then my iPhone died with 30% battery life remaining. Nonetheless, I was convinced that Dallas is worth a look if studying TOD. I came to this conclusion after spending a day riding mostly lesser-developed lines, the A-Train and Green Line. Even these lesser-developed lines have been successful in moving the needle on investment and density, just as their more successful counterparts (TRE, McKinney streetcar, Oak Cliff streetcar, north red, orange, and blue lines, and east green line) have been in more established parts of Dallas (Central Corridor, Irving/DFW, Deep Ellum, Fair Park, etc). For a tour of neighborhoods along the north red/orange line, see my 2009 post on “Dallas: Shopping and riding the rails.”

Some of the better pics (keep in mind, 2009):

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Red/Orange Line North Park Mall – Park Lane Station

North Park Mall / Park Lane R

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Historic retail node at Mockingbird Lane and Preston Road

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Historic retail node at Mockingbird Lane and Preston Roa

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Historic retail node at Mockingbird Lane and Preston Road

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

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Mockingbird Station, near SMU

 

(Notice the same trains. Looking just as outdated in 2009.)

 

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Transit-Oriented Development: More about Orientation than Transit or Development

Cities and Solutions Under Assault

Transit Oriented Development, a term coined by Peter Calthorpe in the 1980s, has become a quintessential rallying cry for planners seeking to move American cities forward. Despite near-unanimous consensus on the need to maximize TOD in order to make cities successful, the buzz-wordiness of the notion now has critics claiming everything is TOD. Worse yet, this now has many cities rationalizing whatever it is that they have as “TOD.”

An example of rationalizing: At the OSU Knowlton School of Architecture, we recently had a “Planner’s Panel” on TOD in Columbus. It was a fabulous panel with city planners from Dublin, a remarkably progressive city, our fairly progressive MPO, our downtown SID, etc. For those of you that have been to Columbus and think you’re missing something, you’re not. We don’t have any TOD. But give us 5 minutes, and we will tell you all about how close we are.

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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: The reality is that TOD has been elusive and “true TOD” still evades even the most progressive communities. (An example of this might be Cleveland’s proposed TOD at the West 25th Red Line station, complete with 555-575 parking spaces. So is it really “true TOD?”) As the concept becomes more shrouded in smoke, many of the more independent thinkers now avoid it altogether for fear of being cliche. Sidebar: I know we’re all looking for the “IT Factor” in how we plan with limited community resources. Usually in business, a good bet is the one everyone is sleeping on or can’t figure out (as long as you can figure it out).

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The iconic St. Charles Streetcar in Uptown NOLA.

One of the more cringeworthy revelations toward this end is Jarrett Walker’s recent assertion that “most urban redevelopment is bus TOD.” Uh yeah, a respected urbanist actually said that. Generally, equity-focused planners (a niche that is historically prone to self-defeatism, in this case perfecting the “deer in the headlights look” with the spread of gentrification along transit routes) have always used their advocacy outlets to dog streetcar projects on any basis that they can (see: CityLab, any articles tagged “streetcar”). They attack and smear struggling cities such as New Orleans that want to harness rail-based transit to turn their situation around (although it seems like unfairly attacking anything New Orleans does is all the rage these days). The worst, perhaps the most dangerous of the mavericktivistsMatthew Yglesias’ VOX screed proclaiming streetcar projects to be categorically “evil.” I am reminded of that time that Hugo Chavez insisted he smelled sulfur after taking the podium following George W. Bush. Pot. Kettle. Black.

264100_2056634249073_2486104_nAnd then, sometimes equity planning’s defense of bus-only transit is downright hilarious. Meet the “Coolest Bus Around.” Why would anyone want a clean, modern, efficient, well-designed LIGHT RAIL when you can have a bus with a hot driver? No? Well you must not get all hormonal when you step onto the typically squalid city bus. You’re just not getting the right contact high when you ride the buses in your town.

Battleground Backyard

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Simply put, modern transit and TOD has become a battleground. Just about everything in urban planning tends to become a battleground, as it’s sometimes hardest to marshal a consensus on projects in our own backyard. We all need to take a deep breath and find ways to move forward on transit. Collectively, holistically, and comprehensively. As a rail advocate, I’m willing to extend the olive branch in agreeing that we must leverage rail corridors to make bus networks more effective. There has to be a place for both. That said, I would rather err on the side of modernity than that of antiquity. ‘Nuff said.

It shouldn’t be bus or rail, zero sum, winner takes all. I understand that’s easy to say when my end goal is just moving the needle a little on rail, however, this isn’t an incremental ploy I’m proposing. I genuinely think with a few small additions of rail, the whole picture for transit can come into focus. With the addition of rail that serves as a “high-frequency spine” that bus routes feed into, with multi-hub corridors that syncs the two transit modes together, American cities can very easily offer premier transit service. It will be those cities – with the ability to make sense of the bigger picture and the combined roles of rail, bus, and cars (maybe even “driverless cars”) – that have the biggest upside in the 21st Century.

If we all take a deep breath on this issue, I’d like to make a new point (I promise not to go all mavericktivist): Transit Oriented Development requires Development Oriented Transit. It goes both ways. Re: “everything is bus TOD.” No, not everything is bus TOD. In fact, bus TOD is almost negligible. It just doesn’t pass the scrutiny of essential nexus. How much development is deliberately oriented toward and not away from a bus stop? There has to be a mutual relationship between the TOD and the transit. When you run public transit as a social service, you limit your TOD to facilities that provide social services. That’s the unfortunate reality, and that’s coming from someone who rides the bus every single day.

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High Street in downtown Columbus is clogged with slow-moving, view-blocking, often-stalled, and smog-billowing buses.

Here in Columbus, efforts to stymie rail planning and transit have been remarkably successful over the last 20 years. Despite countless plans and proposals, Columbus can now lay its claim as the largest city in the nation without passenger rail. Many transit activists attribute some of the city’s development boom to the city’s hyper-concentrated bus service along High Street (served by 6-7 bus lines, with almost all bus routes funneled down High Street through downtown), where development has also been concentrated. Correlation is not causation. The reality is that the occupants of new spaces built along High Street exist in spite of the buses that plague the corridor. Developers are finding creative ways to detach their projects from the surrounding streetscape due to this, and unfortunately, there are no shortage of ways to do this: No street retail, parking podiums, tinted first floor windows, landscape band-aids, plaza/moats, and more.

Here’s a quote from a Columbus Dispatch article three days ago:

Local retail consultant Chris Boring said it is difficult to make retail work on High Street because of bus traffic and the lack of parking.

“The focus needs to shift away from High Street,” he said, even as new multi-use projects on High Street include first-floor storefronts, such as the Day Cos. plans to refurbish three buildings along N. High north of Long Street.

What pains me is the obvious disconnect that I am seeing. We don’t need more transit-resistant development. We don’t need more anti-transit, anti-development, and anti-equity. We need all three of these things to work together and move each other forward. There’s an assumption that retail needs people with fat wallets, whom we all know only show up in cars (I hope not). There’s also an assumption that rail transit is a ploy to create transit just for the rich (because they don’t need transit). Underpinning all of this is an assumption that the two sides can not work together.

That’s the problem we face today. We need to come together, not come apart. That’s where we need to seriously reevaluate how our development AND our transit is oriented.

The Land is Thinking Big

I love cities with a propensity for big, bold thinking. Some label it an “edifice complex,” I call it city-building. This is a lost art, often misunderstood by even the best-intended planners.

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Cleveland became known as “The Mistake on the Lake” after a series of high-profile environmental disasters in the 1970s

Cleveland, Ohio – the “mistake on the lake” – is a city with such a propensity. The Fifth City, once an equal anchoring the Eastern Great Lakes half-way between Chicago and Toronto, nowadays the city has dropped off the world stage and settled into more of a regional role. There is nothing wrong with this.

Context – What is a Legacy City?

Ranks 10-40 are filled with cities that once claimed “Top 5” destination status (populations rounded to the nearest million).

  1. New York City-Newark, 23 million
  2. Los Angeles-Long Beach, 18 million
  3. Chicago-Naperville, 10 million
  4. Washington-Baltimore, 9 million
  5. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, 8 million
  6. Boston-Worcester-Providence, 8 million
  7. Dallas-Fort Worth, 7 million
  8. Philadelphia-Reading-Camden, 7 million
  9. Houston-The Woodlands, 7 million
  10. Miami-Fort Lauderdale, 6 million
  11. Atlanta-Athens-Sandy Springs, 6 million
  12. Detroit-Warren-Ann Arbor, 5 million
  13. Seattle-Tacoma, 4 million
  14. Minneapolis-St. Paul, 4 million
  15. Cleveland-Akron-Canton, 4 million
  16. Denver-Aurora, 3 million
  17. Portland-Vancouver-Salem, 3 million
  18. Orlando-Daytona Beach, 3 million
  19. St. Louis-St. Charles, 3 million
  20. Pittsburgh-New Castle, 3 million
  21. Charlotte-Concord, 2 million
  22. Sacramento-Roseville, 2 million
  23. Kansas City-Overland Park, 2 million
  24. Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem, 2 million
  25. Columbus-Marion-Zanesville, 2 million
  26. Indianapolis-Carmel-Muncie, 2 million
  27. Las Vegas-Henderson, 2 million
  28. Cincinnati-Wilmington-Maysville, 2 million
  29. Milwaukee-Racine-Waukesha, 2 million
  30. Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, 2 million
  31. Nashville-Murfreesboro, 2 million
  32. Virginia Beach-Norfolk, 2 million
  33. Greensboro-Winston-Salem, 2 million
  34. Jacksonville-St. Mary’s, 1 million
  35. Louisville-Elizabethtown, 1 million
  36. Hartford-West Hartford, 1 million
  37. New Orleans-Metairie-Hammond, 1 million
  38. Grand Rapids-Wyoming-Muskegon, 1 million
  39. Greenville-Spartanburg, 1 million
  40. Oklahoma City-Shawnee, 1 million

(Rounded to the nearest million, cut-off at OKC #40 with 1.4 million)

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Not to belabor the point, but scale is so important for “big thinking.” What may be thinking big in Jacksonville, with about 1.5 million in its metro, simply does not pass muster as the same in a city twice the size. As you see from the above list, despite being America’s 48th largest city proper (and falling, with 389,000 residents in its 77-square mile territory) – Cleveland is still pretty big. It is in fact America’s #15 metro. Even still. So while it has lost some of its luster, its important to not hyperbolize the fall of Cleveland. It has fallen from #5 to #15; it’s just less dense, more gentrified, and more suburban, hence the rise of Westlake, Mentor, Hudson, Medina, and around 500 other burbs…

New Orleans was once a Top 5 city as well, with its iconic Jackson Square named for the former president who first became a war hero in its vicinity fighting the French & Indian War. New Orleans has fallen a long way, from “Top 5” to #37. That is a city that just needs to maintain as something as world class as Vioux Carre, Uptown, Magazine Street, Tulane, and more are simply not possible in today’s metros of 1 million. New Orleans is blessed with a legacy that realistically its modern planning can never aspire to replicate. Heck, no city can ever replicate that. So toward that end, New Orleans is the classic “legacy city,” as defined by the famous Brachman-Mallach report on Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities.

Three Underrated Secrets About Cleveland

So the sky in Cleveland is not falling; it’s just a shade of gray 350 days out of the year. Cleveland has not dropped from #5 to #48. The function of Cleveland has changed. It’s no longer a nuclear entity. It is a hub for a larger region. For Ohio, it’s our state’s hub for bad sports (priorities, people), entertainment, banking, manufacturing, high tech, logistics, travel, research, and really practical stuff like that. It basically just lacks what Columbus has, that being government and education, and perhaps has also ceded shopping to Columbus (which is a retail HQ hub).

The first underrated fact: All of these functions (listed above) that Cleveland still dominates represent development opportunities past, present, and future.

The second underrated fact: Despite a legitimate decades-long “free fall” following the turbulent 1960s, Cleveland NEVER stopped building skyscraper cities. It’s a city that always thought big even when the hole was getting bigger. That is unique. Perhaps that’s an “edifice complex,” I don’t know.

The third underrated fact: While it’s never any one thing, if it has to be, the cause of Cleveland’s troubles was (and sadly continues to be) the racial inequality. The race riots were so incredibly damaging, with a legacy of despair that endures decades later in the hearts and minds of people. Cleveland was the #3 “receiving station” of the Great Migration, behind only Chicago and Detroit, and a topic I have researched extensively in a former gig at the Cleveland Restoration Society.

Putting all these facts together: Cleveland will always keep building, “under construction since 1798” as they say,” but it needs a foundation of community, and should that ever happen then Cleveland can really blossom. Working towards equality is work towards city-building.

Cleveland as a city, as envisioned by the founder of equity planning Norm Krumholz, is a beacon of refuge for the disenfranchised. Basically for all of NE Ohio’s disenfranchised. For better or worse, that is the City of Cleveland’s primary customer – those who have nowhere else to shop (so to speak).

Before Big Dreams, Big Nightmares

As a city that for better or worse has always “done it up big,” several factors have wreaked havoc on the city that exists today. Many of these factors have impacted other communities as well, but I can think of no other city adversely impacted by all of these issues, and sadly what makes Cleveland unique is the magnanimity of the adverse impact.

A few trends:

  1. De-industrialization
    1. Cleveland falls in the category of cities that have lost 43-56% of industrial jobs since 1950
  2. Foreclosure crisis
    1. Slavic Village, Cleveland’s inner-southeast neighborhood, was the #1 ZIP code (44105) for active foreclosures in 2007. This has led to the “Foreclosure Ground Zero” moniker. This one neighborhood had 787 active foreclosure filings at once. (!!!)
  3. Airline hub consolidation
    1. Cleveland has actually fared better without the United Hub, so take that
  4. Sports relocations
    1. Browns to Baltimore, then expansion team awarded (Browns return). These episodes really tear at the intangible bonds within a community, whether you’re pro-sports or not.
  5. Suburban sprawl
    1. NEOSCC / Vibrant NEO has assembled an incredible resource on Cleveland sprawl
  6. Urban renewal
    1. I.M. Pei. “Erieview.” East 9th Street. Need I say more?
  7. Race tensions
    1. In any city, the health of its people is going to manifest itself in the built environment. In Cleveland, 60% of its permanent residents are disenfranchised minorities. While its an extremely liberal and pro-diversity city, regressive policy at the state and federal level aims to push most Clevelanders around.

A visual representation of these trends:

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I must credit Angie Schmitt for both this gif and the “America’s worst parking crater” moniker

Comeback City

Rising out of the literal wreckage of all of the aforementioned conditions and trends, and out of the psychological shadow that lingers long after the dust has cleared, is a city that never stopped building. The 950-foot Key Tower, the tallest between NYC and CHI, was built in 1991 at a time when you could have taken a nap in the middle of Euclid Avenue. The 660-foot 200 Public Square tower was built in 1985. The 450-foot One Cleveland Center was built in 1983. The 450-foot Fifth Third Center was built in 1992. The 430-foot Stokes Courthouse tower was built in 2002. All in all, from 1983-2002, these 19 years resemble some dark years – so that it comes as a surprise that the city built so much during this period. To be fair, this period also had several “false starts” of premature revitalization that failed to stick not unlike November snow.

We have now transitioned into a period where revitalization is in full force, heralded by the national media any time Cleveland is mentioned. These projects and this revitalization are now more like a January blizzard, with ground cover that (like it or not) is going to stick for a while. Perhaps until June.

Recently Completed (last 2-3 years)

I really want to get to the projects I see in the pipeline right now, but I couldn’t do that without mentioning just some of the major projects that still have that new project smell. It is these projects that inspire confidence in A, the staying power of this revitalization; and B, that proposed projects will come to fruition.

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The 9 is a $170 million complex featuring an upscale Heinen’s grocery store in the historic AmeriTrust Rotunda. In the Marcel Breuer-designed brutalist AmeriTrust tower behind, there are high-end apartments, and The Metropolitan (A Marriott Autograph Collection hotel). Photo credit: The Plain Dealer

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The Cleveland Clinic continues to build, but the Sydell-Miller Pavilion gave it a centerpiece. Also, the $500 million pricetag distinguishes it from most Clinic projects here and there. Photo credit: The Plain Dealer.

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The Horseshoe Casino was a $350 million investment that revitalized the Higbee Building, which the Van Sweringen’s built to house the department store they felt their Union Terminal Complex needed.

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MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, was comparatively cheap at just $27 million, but leverages the impact of its really cool design to make a splash

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The $250 million University Hospitals (CWRU) Seidman Cancer Center

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The $525 million Louis Stokes VA Hospital campus. Finished 2014.

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PlayHouse Square exterior improvements. Again, at “just” $16 million, doesn’t really meet the threshold for this list, if only it weren’t all spent on design that really makes an already-incredible district pop. Pictured: The world’s largest chandelier (hanging over Euclid Avenue)

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Battery Park, the $100 million redevelopment of the former Eveready Battery factory complex in Detroit-Shoreway, will feature mostly lakefront condos (330 units). The old power plant has been restored into a wine bar.

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In Tremont, the Gospel Press factory has been rehabbed into 102 lofts. Before functioning as a printing press for bibles this complex was the short-lived “University of Cleveland,” that was replaced by Fenn College, which eventually became Cleveland State University. (I may have over-simplified that sequence a little)

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The Tudor Arms, rehabbed into a Doubletree in 2011, is even more incredible inside. As a historic tax credit projects, this $20 million investment went a long ways. Typically historic rehabs realize huge cost savings, at least if something large-scale and high-quality is your end goal.

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I used to park on this site when I first moved to Cleveland in 2012. And into 2013. Finished 2014. This $65 million project features roughly 200 high-end apartments, dorm spaces for Cleveland Institute of Art, as well as street-level retail including Barnes & Noble, a bowling alley, Panera, Constentino’s grocery store, restaurants, and bars. This was a New Markets Tax Credit project (Constantino’s is a QALICB).

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The $92 million, 330-foot, 23-story Ernst & Young office tower has brought activity back to the Waterfront Line (light rail, pictured). Photo rights reserved by me.

Coming UP

Now we get to the exciting part – as Cleveland continues to reach higher, plan bigger, and execute better – these are the projects either under construction or moving through the proposal process. This is the next wave of progress that is set to come crashing down, in a good way.

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Overall, the Flats East Bank project is a $500 million vision. Phase 1 was the $100 million EY tower + Aloft. Phase 2 mostly completes the project, and brings the residential, retail, restaurant, and entertainment component. This pic from @Clevelandgram on Instagram, progress as of two weeks ago.

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UC3, or University Circle City Center, will add 700 mixed-income apartments including a high-rise component. The project anchors the southern terminus of Rockefeller Park, opposite the Wade Lagoon in front of the CMA.

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nuCLEus: $300 million, 54-story, 650-foot tall tower. The “jenga” connector, which is a 4/5-story “bridge” cantilevered between the two smaller towers and the base of the main tower. 500 apartments, 400,000 SF of office (leases already signed, lead-tenant will be Benesch Law Firm), and 140,000 SF retail arcade. This WILL happen. Not just because they’ve already secured financing, but also because of developer Bob Stark’s track record, which includes Crocker Park in Westlake.

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Bob Stark is also proposing to add apartments, pictured below, atop the garage at E. 6th and Euclid. This is a bit more tentative, and probably gets built after nuCLEus.

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Weston and Citymark, two of the biggest names in the suburban Cleveland real estate market, just last week proposed this $100 million behemoth on the above-pictured “World’s greatest parking crater.” Yes, those parking lots that separate the Warehouse District from Public Square/Tower City. When finished this will encompass 1,200 apartments and 3 million SF, broken into two phases.

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Intesa, a $100-110 million proposal by Coral and Panzica, is proposed to flank the new Mayfield Road Red Line (light rail) station between Little Italy and University Circle. With 700 parking spaces, 300 micro-apartments, and tech incubator office space – this project will complement the adjacent light rail. If it ever gets off the ground.

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One University Circle is a $112-million, 20-story, 240-foot luxury condo tower. This project, downsized from 28-stories at first, is taking the site of the Cleveland Children’s Museum, which has to relocate first.

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As great as all of these projects are, what Cleveland really needed was a $270 million RNC Convention Hotel. Actually it’ll be great because this 380-foot, 32-story, 600-room hotel will enable to Cleveland to continuously bring in top conventions.

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Lakefront development proposed for the North Coast Harbor site, surrounding the Rock & Roll HOF and Browns Stadium, could total $280 million, 1,000 apartments, in addition to office and restaurants.

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The $32-million redesign of Public Square, consolidating the four blocks into two that function better as one (only buses allowed through). This is one of the public investments making all of this private investment possible.

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Tyler Village, the mixed-use revitalization of a factory complex in St. Clair-Superior, will yield 450 new apartments. Underway currently.

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Upper Chester, by the Finch Group working in tandem with other developers, will fill in the gap between University Circle, Midtown, the Clinic, and Hough. This projects responds differently to the context on all four sides. The $42 million first phase is complete, and the next phase of build-out (three altogether) should start soon. The coolest phase will be the restoration Newton Avenue, a tiny little cobblestone road with cute little wooden homes. Many other developments would demo this street, rather than blending it into a new development.

Whew.

That was exhaustive, and in the event anyone actually read all of that, congrats for making it this far. Isn’t it incredible how this “dying city” is thriving?

What is even more impressive – all of the smaller projects that connect the neighborhoods to these business districts and corridors.

There is still a disconnect between population growth (or lack thereof) and all of these projects. I am not sure what is happening as there are many different theories. One, “gentrification” is reducing densities in some neighborhoods that really were too dense (for instance, imagine a Tremont house subdivided into an 8-plex during the dark years, now rehabbed into a single home or double).

Undoubtedly, the “good news” is still mostly confined to a growing list of neighborhoods where investment is concentrated. The truth is that the NE Ohio market is always hungry for new product, and rather than more stuff in Beachwood/Westlake stuff is finally happening in Cleveland – but that doesn’t translate into a market for Cleveland’s roughest neighborhoods. There is still a “tale of two cities,” and while downtown Cleveland’s population is set to surge north of 20,000 in the next 5 years (just counting everything under development for certain), the east side is still hemorrhaging population. The truth is many minority families are now moving out into the southeastern suburbs like Warrensville, Bedford, etc – much in the same way that Poles/Ukrainians/Russians in Tremont moved straight south into Parma/Independence/Seven Hills. Black flight won’t be all that different than white flight, sadly.

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Urban revitalization isn’t much different than yoga. You gotta be able to enjoy the view, move into seated downward fold, and breath out – all at the same time.

However, for a city with challenges and opportunities just like any other – you have to be able to stretch your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. You have to fight for growth where the market works and fight to save neighborhoods where the market doesn’t work. You have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

 

Note: Post taken from my first WordPress, the Eurokie blog.