The difference made by 13 votes in Hough

This post was originally just going to chronicle some shenanigans of Cleveland’s (now former) Ward 7 Councilman T.J. Dow. For those who do not follow Cleveland politics, Ward 7 is the near east side of Cleveland covering neighborhoods like St. Clair-Superior, Midtown, Asia Town, and Hough. This is a historically significant community that has been through a lot (such as the Hough Riots), and has always provided refuge to Cleveland’s emergent minority communities. I firmly believe that this is an important heartland relative to the City of Cleveland and representing these constituents is important work.

So with that said, I must congratulate Ward 7 on electing a new councilman – Basheer Jones – who is also the city’s first Muslim-American councilman. The latter is of note because while Cleveland does not have a significant Muslim community a la Detroit or Columbus, immigration has been proven as essential to the rust belt revival. Cleveland is putting its best foot forward in the world with the Global Cleveland Alliance which seeks to attract immigrants and refugees and invest in their personal and professional development. Ward 7 includes an important component of Cleveland’s strategy, which is the Asia Town district, where a significant Korean and Southeast Asian community has emerged.

I am not a political actor or organizer, and am not endorsing Mr. Jones nor condemning Mr. Dow, the latter of whom lost re-election to the former by exactly 13 votes. The only political message here – which is an important one – is to remember who you represent and for those being represented, to go vote! Your vote truly matters. Especially in Ohio. Especially in Cleveland. Especially in Hough.

Events precipitating Mr. Dow’s ouster are many and include an arrest warrant issued by Shaker Heights, improperly expensing the cost of his self-published book series “The Success Factor” to the City of Cleveland, not paying his own taxes for five years, opposed retail development at League Park, and blocking a high-profile redevelopment project with apartments, retail, and a dental center to be ran by the Cleveland Clinic. The latter being the real issue – large multi-block, multi-use, multi-tenant projects almost always require zoning variances and public finance, and would almost certainly provide not just jobs but also sorely needed services to the residents of Hough. Mr. Dow changed his objections to the development several times..

  • First claiming that the Cleveland Clinic doesn’t employ Ward 7 residents (they absolutely do)
  • Then claiming that the developer was keeping neighbors in the dark (plans were very public)
  • Then taking issue with a rear-facing parking lot (it was removed)
  • Then claiming the plan would encroach on community gardens (developer then deeded over a plot for a community garden, which was only ever intended as a temporary use following blight clearance)
  • And then finally acknowledging that he sought contributions from the developer for a “community resource center”

Eventually the developer contributed $477,000 to hard construction costs of a community resource center, which in the developers own words, he “hopes the resource center would help train residents interested in working at the new facilities.” But no guarantee, and no further news regarding the construction of this community resource center.

The aforementioned development project (occupying almost entirely vacant parcels, and preserving anything else including Newton Avenue in the middle of the project):

Following the will of the voters, Mr. Dow requested that the balance of his neighborhood development funds (more than $700,000) be earmarked to another Ward, on the other side of town, where the councilman is a friend of Mr. Dow’s. The newly-elected Mr. Jones had already been sworn into office when Mr. Dow filed his request with City Hall, which typically approves spending requests of outgoing councilpersons. The cross-town project that needed Ward 7’s neighborhood development funds – programming at a community recreation center named after that ward’s current sitting councilman, Kenneth L. Johnson of Kenneth L. Johnson Recreation Center fame. The request was denied. Ward 7 is immediately $731,496 richer, to be spent at the discretion of their new councilman.

Again, this is not a political post nor am I a political actor or organizer. I am just a professional planner, and presently a consultant, not remotely as involved or responsible as I would like to be in these kinds of neighborhoods. However, I have observed so much discussion and debate and fighting over the concentration of development in downtown and subsequent neglect of the east side’s distant reaches. I know first-hand the difficulty of building capacity and consensus to right the ship in a declining neighborhood. Neighborhood decline is difficult quicksand to escape.

However, in Hough, people voted – and due to the difference made by 13 votes – the Ward has its $731,496 back. Mr. Dow also did many good things, including crucial support of the Hub55 project, and I seriously hope to see the $477,000 community resource center come to fruition. However, Hough’s funds need to stay in Hough. I don’t expect Ward 7’s councilperson to represent my interests or fight for areas of Cleveland where I hang out. Ward 7 has to fight for Ward 7 and never forget who they represent, whether I agree or disagree with the outcome of that, and I hope every other challenged neighborhood takes note of this valuable lesson in democracy.

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Cleveland puts its money where its mouth is: Active mobility

Cleveland has long produced all the right, actionable but unfunded, masterplans for everything on an urban planner’s wish list: planes and trains, active bike/pedestrian mobility, urban parks and greenways, lakefronts and riverfronts, boardwalks and beaches, skylines and ski chalets, and so on.

Just in my short window into Cleveland’s story the city has planned for the Red Line Greenway (a bike path following the light rail Red Line corridor), the Lorain Avenue Bikeway, the Midway (a system of protected bike highways in the middle of excessively-wide eastside avenues), the Towpath Trail (bike network following Cuyahoga River/Valley from Cleveland to Canton) and Ohio & Erie Trail (a state-wide trail system connecting the Ohio River to Lake Erie), Circle-Heights bike plan (with bike lanes on Edgehill and others to connect University Circle up to the Heights), the Detroit-Superior Bridge bikeway, the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge bikeway, the Shoreway redesign, and more. Lakewood also did a really nice job with Madison Avenue (I however lived near Madison when the street was a poorly marked, road rage-inducing crater field).

I have of course seen the bad, particularly the reverse-buffered painted bike lanes on Lorain Avenue in far-west Cleveland. This was one of the city’s first attempts at large-scale bicycle infrastructure – one that was poorly planned, with the buffer zone placed to protect the curb from bicyclists, and not the bicyclists from traffic. However, since then, the city has been on a tear executing solidly-planned and efficiently-implemented bike lanes – best example being the Detroit Superior Bridge buffered bike lane (pictured below), brought to fruition for only $81,000 (previous plans to do the same would have cost over $4 million).

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As shown above, these don’t have to be perfect. All it takes is paint, pylons or sticks, and one lane of traffic, and these bike lanes function as well as any. The additional cost between functional and perfect is typically not met by more users; more people would bike if the bike lanes reached farther than if they were nicer.

I like active transportation because there are some ways in which it is equitable or not equitable, and if planned and implemented the right way, can be more equitable and really bring communities together. While access to road-ready bicycles can be difficult for low-income communities, personal vehicle ownership really is lower in these neighborhoods than one may realize, and access to exercise and active lifestyle options are limited. I like bike lanes primarily because they really do bring fitness opportunities to communities and put more eyes on the street at the same time. I am a huge believer that Americans would be so much healthier if they just walked or biked a little bit in their daily routine.

Toward that end, and after some key early successes and lessons learned, Cleveland now appears ready to seriously invest in some of these plans. End of last year, NOACA (the Metropolitan Planning Org for Northeast Ohio) unveiled an unprecedented set of active transportation investments that will get virtually all of the aforementioned plans at least rolling if not complete. $33.5 out of $47 million awarded to regional transportation projects in their last funding round went to active mobility projects.

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This includes:

  • $8.3 million for the first leg of Superior Avenue’s Midway (pictured above, from Public Square to East 55)
  • $6.1 million to fund the rest of the Lorain Avenue Cycle Track
  • $13.4 million for 20 new CNG buses for RTA
  • $2.5 million for 14 new buses for Lake Tran
  • $4.8 million for the Thrive 105-93 corridor from Bratenahl to Garfield Heights
  • $3.1 million for a new bulk shipping terminal at the Port of Cleveland
  • $2 million for improvements to Lorain County’s Black River Trail
  • $560,000 for the West Creek Greenway in Parma.

Only $5 million went to roadway projects – $4 million for traffic signal studies across Cuyahoga County, and $1 million for a new roundabout at Landerbrook.

While NOACA is really to be commended for such an unprecedented investment in regional active mobility, this would not be possible if regional planning and transportation entities weren’t putting forward funding-worthy initiatives. This will likely not become the new norm for transportation funding rounds, nor be repeated across Ohio, but for the time being mobility planning wins big in Cleveland.

Cleveland may really be awakening to the amazing potential of its dense albeit patchy cityscape and interesting topography. In particular, the topography with its level coastal plain, wide river valley, lakefront bluffs, and Allegheny Plateau rising on the east side, is a strong hand of cards to be dealt towards the goal of getting people out of their cars and outside in the sunshine. At least half of the year.

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.

Mobility Grants Across Ohio

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 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.

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

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Bitter on Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some choice tidbits:

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

Nuanced Thoughts on RTA’s Fare Hikes + Service Cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What gives? Flats Forward (and/or Backward)

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

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

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

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

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

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

#ClevelandThatILove

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

 

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

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Bus Rapid Promises

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

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

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

However here are some choice bits…

NJ TOD Institute: Pittsburgh “A City of Buses”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok one more…

ITDP quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Post-Gazette article explaining the cost differences:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte LYNX light rail: $48.125 million / mile

OKC Streetcar: $25 million / mile

DC Streetcar: $90 million / mile

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

Portland RiverPlace Extension: $13 million / mile

Portland Gibbs Extension: $13 million / mile

Portland Lowell Extension: $12 million / mile

Portland OMSI Extension: $22.1 million / mile

Tucson Streetcar: $28.2 million / mile

KC Streetcar: $25 million / mile

Cincinnati Streetcar: $36 million / mile

Cleveland Healthline BRT: $27.7 million / mile

LA Orange Line BRT: $21 million / mile

Boston Silver Line BRT: $12.5 million / mile

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

Portland MAX: Source for Portland costs

National BRT Institute: Source for BRT costs

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

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

In the end, there are lies, damned lies, and then transit lies. To the extent that we’re all implicit, I find it more valuable to focus on the context and externalities. None of us need transit for the sake of transit, but rather for the sake of mobility, city-building, and social equity. Achieve those ends, then we’re really going places – I’m open to the journey along the way.

CMSD Needs Cleveland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The community wants this:

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The district’s response:

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

So once again, no redevelopment for you.

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

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

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

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

Housers Must Lead on Lead

Flint happened. We all know about it.

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

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

Similar hot-spots abound in most older cities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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