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.

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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!

Detroit: 2015

I spent my birthday last year in Detroit, which may seem like a strange place to celebrate one’s birthday, but I really dig Detroit, and it also coincided with the Detroit Auto Show and a Red Wings Game. Didn’t actually make it into Joe Louis Arena for the game because there were too many brewpubs to try! Priorities, you know.

I wanted to put up these year-old pics from Detroit because I am going back this weekend, with a group from Ohio State’s MCRP program. We have a “City Trip” series each semester that is really the highlight of our student programming, and in the past have done Cleveland, Louisville, and Pittsburgh. Since posting these will also help me clear up space on my phone for new pics, those will surely be forthcoming. It’s kind of what I do. 🙂

Bearings

Detroit is really undergoing a nascent renaissance as it moves on from bankruptcy, which by the way may end up being one of the better things to happen to Detroit. While the slate has been wiped clean at City Hall, the actual city itself and the neighborhoods that comprise it are anything but a “clean slate.” That’s actually one relatively common misnomer about Detroit that gets under my skin when bandied about by fellow planners. Detroit’s communities are still extant, and while it’s true that many block groups have been essentially erased from existence, a lot of community fabric and community stakeholders still remain. For instance, southwest Detroit (Mexicantown) is still pretty densely populated.

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As far as gentrification goes, it goes without saying that Downtown and Midtown are relatively stable. And while the city is only 138 square miles, somehow it seems substantially larger. The sheer magnitude of Detroit is lost on many people – it’s 138 square miles of densely packed neighborhoods. The “gentrified” Downtown and Midtown core, now pushing northward into New Center, is such a thin slice of this huge city, but it’s still a more significant urban core than most cities have.

The hardest hit parts of Detroit are east and northeast Detroit, the Grand River Avenue / I-96 corridor, and south Detroit. Historically, south Detroit was the rougher part of town, whereas today it’s probably not quite as challenged as other parts due to stable affordable housing in Mexicantown. Better parts exist along the eastern riverfront (Jefferson Avenue corridor) and in the NW tip of the city, north of Grand River Avenue.

I feel guilty doing this, but this photo tour will focus exclusively on Downtown, Midtown, and the Corktown and Eastern Market areas that branch off of Woodward in opposite directions. That said, within this corridor, there is more than enough to satisfy the pickiest cultural tourist – world-class architecture, museums, food, public spaces, event venues, and all linked by decent transit that will soon become world-class transit (once the M1 Rail opens).

Photo Tour

Corktown is becoming a hotspot of Detroit’s foodie scene, and also features some loft housing. The neighborhood, just west of downtown along Michigan Avenue, is anchored by the incomparable Michigan Central Station, which is getting rehabbed!

 

The Eastern Market is Detroit’s public market. Every self-respecting Rust Belt city must have one of these. The Eastern Market is different in that it’s a larger complex, less oriented toward tourists, and more oriented toward wholesale clients. It’s surrounded by a district that features more touristy “general stores” and some of the coolest graffiti I’ve seen this side of Brooklyn.

 

Downtown Detroit is alive and well. Its sidewalks must go through an emotional rollercoaster – yes, sometimes totally empty – but other times, full of nightlife even on frigid weekend late nights, or full of downtown residents jogging or walking dogs, people going to work, or brunch, and the strangest phenomena observed was a legitimate Sunday mid-day “rush hour” when the grandiose Art Deco skyscrapers open their doors for architectural tours. You will literally see the sidewalks packed with hispters and families alike, taking photos and taking in the vibe of the irreplaceable Art Deco architecture.

 

Midtown Detroit is the new economic engine of Southeast Michigan; the true embodiment of an “eds and meds” district, which you read more about on Midtown Detroit Inc’s website. This economic engine is different from Downtown in that it is fully leased and developers can not keep up with demand. It’s also different than office tower clusters in Troy, or Southfield, in that it is walkable and transit-accessible. This economic engine is different from Royal Oak or Birmingham, awesome as those are, in that it is actually in the City of Detroit where economic development is needed most.

 

Lastly, some of the city’s most beautiful and enduring spaces are along the eastern waterfront, where the Detroit River opens into Lake St. Clair. The Detroit River is the only point where you can cross south into Canada, and in the middle of it, is Belle Isle. East of there, you see cool landmarks along the lake such as the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club.

Twin Cities TOD photo tour

As I’ve been putting humpty dumpty (aka my phone situation) back together, I was able to recover a number of photos from my Twin Cities train tour. Here is a link to the original post, which I will edit to add these photos.

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Green Line route between Minneapolis and St. Paul

The Green Line primarily runs straight down University Avenue, except for a few turns around UMN and downtown SP. I made it to Saint Paul Union Depot, where the Green Line terminates, though my phone died at Dale Street (in Frogtown, west of the State Capitol). Downtown SP is less flashy than downtown Mpls, and mostly comprised of government and office buildings linked by a skyway system.

Immediately east of downtown, the Green Line crosses I-94 on a decorative bridge, and then goes through the State Capitol area – big historic quad, big open space, lots of surface parking. While both downtown and the Capitol area are attractive, historic areas – neither are very walkable or vibrant, except for a few bright spots. However, between the State Capitol and UMN campus, the entire corridor has been quickly transformed by TOD. The entire corridor is marked with new businesses and new mixed-income housing developments, alongside preexisting historic buildings (like the green Spruce Tree building at Snelling Ave) and retail strips. I have pictures at downtown Mpls’ Nicollet Mall, Downtown East, UMN’s East Bank and Stadium Village, grain mills at Westgate, revitalization at Fairview, Snelling, Hamline Midway, and Victoria and Dale (Frogtown in SP). These were taken after first taking photos of TOD along the Blue Line, along Hiawatha Avenue – with photos of stations between the MSP International Airport and Midtown Lake Street station, which have also seen substantial TOD though not as much as the Green Line.

Blue Line (Hiawatha Line) through Minneapolis:

Downtown Minneapolis (Downtown East and Nicollet Mall):

The UMN campus area:

The Frogtown area of SP, which encompasses Victoria, Dale, and Western avenues – is known as the Little Mekong District, and at Western Avenue is a public art installation called “River Dragon” comparing the Mekong River to the Mississippi River. While this area is known for its Vietnamese community, I also saw visible signs of Somali and Hispanic immigrant settlement. Since the completion of light rail through this area, the corridor has solidified with light rail, pedestrian amenities, and ethnic restaurants. It’s kinda cool.

The western side of St Paul, including the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, and eclectic Frogtown, has been perhaps the main focus of TOD throughout the Central Corridor.

And with that, this completely the photo tour of the Twin Cities light rail TOD, up to this point. I imagine that the Blue Line will continue to develop steadily, while the Green Line continues its frenetic pace of development.

DC-Philly-NYC is booked

ULI Hines competition: Check (Dammit I shoulda won that). Thesis lit review: Check. Work busy season: Check. I need a vacation. I think I’ll just take one. Well, somewhat. I will be in DC for National Historic Preservation Advocacy Week, as a part of being a Preservation Action Foundation Advocacy Scholar, and thought I’d hit up Philly and NYC while I was in the area.

Student traveler tip: The cheapest way to pack as much into a vacation as possible – pack light, use surface transportation, and fly in and out of different destinations. For instance, I’m flying into DC, and out of NYC, and taking Amtrak between the two. I end up back in Columbus just the same, but get to see that much more. Oh and another tip: NEVER fly into Dulles.

Somehow I did very good with AirBNB just a month out from landing in DC. Lots of options, and lots of ways to go wrong. I decided to break it up into 2 separate bookings, for a few reasons. Foremost, 5-day availability is tough in the nation’s capitol. Also, I wanted to see more of DC, and I get bored of surroundings after about 3 days. So might as well pack it up and go see another sweet DC pad. I’m staying in Mt. Pleasant / Columbia Hts. for the first 3 days, and then in Downtown DC on U Street for the next two (closer to nightlife and all that).

airbnbphillyIn Philly, I apparently booked a place that’s farther north than I thought it was. For privacy reasons, AirBNB is a little cagey about the exact location that you’re booking, which you don’t see until you’ve paid up. I saw this one and let’s just say luckily the host’s cancelation policy was flexible. It was a brand-new townhouse with a cool deck, in a hipster area, so it seemed right up my alley – until I discovered it was more of a back alley, a little closer to a rough patch than I’d realized. North Philly is NOT all bad. It’s got a lot of soul and a lot going for it, and Temple is up there. That said, I’m only in Philly for a day and a half, in which case you really oughtta just stick to Center City.

Nonetheless I’m super excited for Philly. It seems like my kinda place. Historic. Human-scale. Diverse. Did I mention historic? And beautiful:

Of course, I hope it’s not blizzarding in Mid-March (like the last two winters up until this one, fingers crossed). That would kinda suck at that point.

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.

Cleveland: RTA “Rapid” Photo Tour

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

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Overview of TOD across the entire city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It doesn’t get more real than this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rendering looking NW to SE through proposed Van Aken District

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Site plan diagram

That, from these ashes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denton A-Train is just that: A train

Finally getting around to posting my photos from the Denton County Transit Authority’s “A-Train” system, from which I came away with some surprising impressions. For the sake of brevity and organization, they are numbered below:

  1. Very low ridership. Only 1900 daily riders. Yep, you read that right.
  2. The 21-mile corridor, finished in 2011, hasn’t had enough time to generate much TOD.
  3. Good TOD is happening in Denton, Hebron, and Carrollton. Give it time maybe?
  4. Bad service frequencies. And schedule. Had to wait 40 minutes when I parked in Downtown Denton.
  5. Also expensive. A day pass was $10 (!!). That said, it was also valid on DART. DART alone is nation’s largest and most-comprehensive LRT network, and the 21-mile A-Train trip could save I-35 commuters a lot of time and gas.
  6. Bad information. Upon return, actually missed the last train because I was going off of an old schedule. There are three differing schedules online and they don’t have an effective date printed at the bottom like you’d expect. Let’s just say that was an expensive Uber ride, but it was a good exercise in understanding the unreliability of the Denton rail system.
  7. Beautiful trains and stations. Absolutely immaculate system. Very clean. Brand-new Stadler diesel multiple-unit coaches. When the more heavily-ridden DART trains are parked side-by-side, you would never guess which system nobody uses, comparatively.
  8. Follows existing railroad corridor that even awkwardly cuts through some new subdivisions and apartment complexes.

The photo tour starts in Downtown Denton, which has a really nice historic square. Denton itself is well-known as a liberal college town that, as the seat of Denton County, has exploded with growth. Denton is centrally-located in the huge county, which in 1990 had a population of 273,000 – up to 753,000 in 2014. In that time, Denton itself has gone from 66,000 to 128,000. While most of the growth is actually in between Denton city and the Dallas County line (Carrollton), Denton has in-fact captured a lot of that growth, which has fueled mostly subdivisions and a few denser complexes in-town (mostly around the University of North Texas). The A-Train then follows what is essentially the I-35 E Stemmons Freeway corridor through the wasteland that was formerly the blackland prairie of North Texas.

On the road again…

More pan-Midwestern content coming soon because I am on the road, seeing friends, family, and conducting thesis research on more awesome cities!

In this instance…

Flew to Omaha. Just wrapped up a week in Omaha and Sioux City, Iowa. Got snowed in and had to cancel other plans, but I love the snow!

Drove to Kansas City. Spent a day there. KCMO is just about the coolest town around.

Drove to OKC. Spending a week here over the New Year’s holiday. Good to be back at the Homa.

Dallas? Maybe Dallas. Debating going down there for actual Midnight NYE 2016. Or before I fly out. We’ll see if I get to it.

I am trying to get interviews with policy makers and economic developers here in OKC, for my thesis; if that doesn’t pan out, I’ll just go down to Dallas and conduct more on-the-ground research.

6-hour layover in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Just long enough to ride all the rails, I hope. And get back down to MSP for my flight back to Columbus.

What is on-the-ground research, and what does one do on-the-ground in a city I already know, you ask? I am specifically taking photos that just don’t exist online. Since my thesis is on leveraging the value capture with TOD, photos augment that by illustrating exactly what that value looks like. On-the-ground.

Here’s the trail I’m blazing this time:

Winter 2016 Trip

Stay tuned for the photo analysis!