Saturday, August 22, 2009

Why go through Over-The-Rhine?

In our most recent post, "Addressing Common Streetcar Questions and Concerns," reader "Dungy" brought up a very good question/concern that seemed to be left out. His question regarded the routing of Cincinnati's proposed 7.9 mile streetcar line (The initially planned route would cost an estimated $124 Million, $185 Million if the initial line was extended towards the Cincinnati Zoo)
"The most common concerns about the streetcar are not "how does it work" or "who makes it". The most common concern, the one I've heard over and over is "why is it going through Over-The-Rhine"? "
While the proposed line (as it stands by it's most recent plan) would not travel solely through Over-The-Rhine, it's routing through a neighborhood that has been known in it's past for poverty and crime, has many understandably skeptical. The answer of "why" will be addressed in an upcoming post to be done in conjunction with another blog/site. Here's a sneak peek:
A composite image showing what a Modern Streetcar might look like traveling North on Elm St. through Over-The-Rhine.

Meanwhile, for an opinion on what some believe the benefits of a route through a revitalized OTR are, check out the Cincy Streetcar website:
"The benefits for the rest of the city will be considerable. A cleaner, safer Over-the-Rhine means more public resources can be used elsewhere. New residents, business, and rehabilitated buildings will result in new tax revenues that can be spent in all 52 neighborhoods. And revitalized, historic neighborhood will drive tourism and create jobs in Cincinnati. "
Full article: Over-The-Rhine and the Streetcar. Stay tuned for more!

Feel free to share your thoughts and opinions in the comment section.

Photo Credits: Jake Mecklenborg and Queen City Discovery. Composite image by Tairy Greene


  1. The figure is $128 million for the first phase to the top of the Vine St. hill, not $185 million, which is the estimated cost for a line extension to the hospitals and zoo.

    Despite being largely abandoned, OTR cannot attract 10,000 new residents with 10,000 cars without tearing down buildings for parking garages. Public transportation is the answer, and people just plain don't ride buses that will ride higher-level transit like the modern streetcar. Modern streetcar is much less expensive than light rail or subway, and those more expensive modes will not attract any more ridership for the proposed route.

    A resident in Over-the-Rhine who does not own a car will spend less money outside city limits as opposed to a car-driving Westwoodian or Oakleyite or anyone living near the city limits. Therefore such a city resident is more valuable to Cincinnati's bottom line, therefore Cincinnati should invest in its central neighborhoods more than the fringe.

  2. My apologies on that misconception Provost. The correction has been noted.

  3. "people just plain don't ride buses [but] will ride higher-level transit like the modern streetcar"

    There's a very contentious debate bottled up in this sentence which you strategically glossed over. I'd like to explore this in greater detail.

    Imagine that I am a potential resident of the sort that you are targeting. I would like to live close to downtown, with access to cultural outlets, restaraunts, etc. I also don't own a car. I would like to use public transportation, but "just plain don't like" the buses.

    Why don't I like them? They're cheap, they're relatively green, they're convenient. Shouldn't I want to ride? Apparently not. Why? Probably because buses (especially those that travel to/through dangerous neighborhoods like OTR) are full of crazy and/or dangerous people. I know that's why I hate riding the bus. When you ride the bus through dangerous neighborhoods, you sometimes have to deal with scary stuff. People get harrassed, people get in fights, people get hurt.

    Now, explain to me how after 1 year of having a fully functioning streetcar, that streetcar would be LESS scary than a bus traveling the same route. I believe (unless you did something drastic like emptying OTR of residents prior to construction) that after 1 year, we'd essentially have a bus route on a track. The incentive would NOT exist for new residents to occupy OTR.

  4. >There's a very contentious debate bottled up in this sentence which you strategically glossed over. I'd like to explore this in greater detail.

    There is no debate. Rail always gets significantly higher ridership than buses traveling the same route. Why? Because rail is perceived as being reliable and buses aren't. Rail is perceived as professional and buses aren't. Even in poor cities like Buffalo and Cleveland rail gets *much* higher ridership than *any* Cincinnati bus line. Buffalo's line gets triple the ridership of any Cincinnati bus line in a city that's half the size and its immediate surroundings are the only sign of life and investment in an otherwise bombed-out inner city.

    There are all kinds of unsavory characters on the New York Subway and the city's commuter lines, yet hundreds of thousands of people making over $100K ride it daily.

    Thing is, most streetcar supporters are already bus riders, bikers, and walkers. Most streetcar supporters patronize businesses in Over-the-Rhine regularly, and so know that the area is safe if you're not involved in drugs.

  5. "There is no debate"

    I'm not sure how to respond to this sentence. Since you follow it with statements about the superiority of rail, I have to assume that really do want to debate and you're not actually that arrogant.

    Here's the problem: you're justifying our rail line by comparing it to the complete, comprehensive, city-wide rails systems of the east coast. I consider this disingenuous. If the city were proposing a comprehensive rail system, you and I would be having a very different conversation.

    So back on topic, then? We're discussing the merits and viability of a rail line that runs from the downtown business district, through OTR and up to Clifton heights.

    For this line to be considered a success, there are three criteria (as I see it, but feel free to dispute these):
    1. People must ride it, obviously.
    2. The line must create enough new revenue to cover it's costs (in ridership, and from folks spending more money downtown than they otherwise would).
    3. The line should have a transformational effect on OTR.

    My chief concern is that all of these requirements lean together. If any of these objectives fail to materialize, it will have devastating effect on the remaining two. For example:

    If it failed to fully transform OTR, and crime had a negative impact on business, it would disrupt ridership. If it disrupts ridership, confidence would be shaken, revenue would decrease and the project would be percieved as another failed urban revival project.


    The streetcar opens and people begin to ride. Ridership is modest but steady. However, expected revival in OTR fails to catch on. Businesses don't develop OTR in the great numbers anticipated. Thus less money changes hands within city limits, thus the line loses money, thus the city loses money, etc, etc.

    Achieving some objectives but not all isn't good enough. All three must occur, and at the right time to work. I see this as highly risky. There are always unforeseen consequences, it's impossible to judge all factors with perfect accuracy.

    I agree that rail is generally preferred to bus. But still, the psychological power of rail isn't unlimited. The rail line has to service an easily identified and understood community, without relying on "good will" or a the fact that it's a noble cause.

    Drawing on examples from the past is a good way to gain insight, but the comparison must be drawn honestly. You can't wag the dog by forcing the square peg of rail into the round hole of OTR.

  6. >Here's the problem: you're justifying our rail line by comparing it to the complete, comprehensive, city-wide rails systems of the east coast

    The problem is you didn't read what I posted about Buffalo and Cleveland, neither of which have comprehensive rail systems.

    The second part of your post revealed an ignorance of the performance of rail in other cities which have connected their #1 and #2 employment centers with rail. Again, even in Buffalo, a metro with half our population and one that has been on a steady decline for decades, its rail line between downtown and the U of Buffalo has triple the overall ridership of any Cincinnati bus line on a route that is only 1/3 the length of Cincinnati's top 3 bus lines (#4, #43, #17 are all 15+ miles long). The stretch their line travels on is the one glimmer of hope in a city otherwise devastated by the collapse of its core industrial employers.

    Again, your worries about the safety of Over-the-Rhine are one of someone who hasn't been there in several years, or perhaps one who's afraid of being spotted by someone he owes money to.

  7. Cleveland:
    Cleveland's metro has, what? 3-4 lines? Perhaps not comprehensive, but certainly expansive. Most of Cleveland's system runs as a rapid-transit railway, too.

    You said: "The stretch their line travels on is the one glimmer of hope in a city otherwise devastated by the collapse of its core industrial employers". Sans poetry, what are you really saying here? That the property along the line is in better than property not near the line? Well, duh. Obviously the adjacent properties will have a higher value. This is generally true for bus lines as well.

    The key thing about Buffalo is that it's system was built BEFORE the economic collapse, not after. It's been around for decades, and I have no doubt it gets great ridership. It's also more costly ( to maintain in all metrics (per rider, per mile, per hour). But the way you're framing this argument is: "Without that rail line, the city would have sunk much deeper into depression". Well, you don't actually know that, but it's impossible for me to prove otherwise. It's very difficult to prove a negative anyway, and since I don't have a crystal ball to look into alternate timelines, I have no defense. But consider: Buffalo spent money to build it's railway, and it spends money to subsidize the daily operation. Is it profitable for the people of Buffalo, in the long view? If Buffalo could go back, take that money and reinvest it directly into the local economy (rather than the rail line), would the situation be worse/better/about the same? Food for thought...

    At first, I ignored this. Now you press the matter... You're trying to infer that people involved with drugs/crime in OTR will ONLY victimize other drug people? Really? REALLY? C'mon. If I were a junkie, squatting in OTR, and I had a $1000 a week habit that I supported through crime, why would I only prey on other drug people? What's to stop me from going after folks who I KNOW have cash. I know this because they're walking through my neighborhood heading to a posh new restaurant. What stops me from doing this?

  8. It's amazing how shortsighted some people seem to be...

    @ Dungy: Nothing is stopping anyone from going after anybody in ANY neighborhood - that's why Hyde Park (the "richest" neighborhood within the city limits, also where COAST heads reside) is a prime target. No one is pretending that OTR is a perfect community, but no neighborhood is perfect.

    Additionally, if you're worried that there will be people lurking in OTR waiting to pounce on helpless streetcar riders, why isn't this happening everyday to people passing through OTR in bumper-to-bumper traffic in their own cars, or in busses for that matter? Why would you think streetcars would attract more crime? Oh... I see... because you're conceding that ridership will probably be high. But in this, you realize that high ridership = more demand = more investment along the line = eventually a broader, more "comprehensive" rail system.

    That, and streetcars will most likely have safety features, no? Perhaps features that your own car doesn't have, like: cameras, recording devices, and fellow citizens sitting right next to you.

  9. I was thinking more of consumers walking around in OTR after they disembark from the streetcar. Look, I'm honestly not trying to blow up OTR into a boogieman (or boogie-neighborhood). But crime does occur there (and in other neighborhoods in cinci), and long held perceptions about that neighborhood (even if sometimes unfair) will be very hard to shake in the collective mind.

    The situation has improved in the last few years. Modest gains have been made in the form of lower crime and new businesses on the outskirts of OTR. However, light rail (if it succeeds in enticing consumers into OTR) would channel a lot of money down there that would otherwise be spent elsewhere. If the transition weren't handled properly the whole thing could backfire and end up sabotaging future efforts for mass transit.

    The general public will be skeptical about going down there to begin with. If the media gets a whiff of ballooning crime in new OTR developments, it'll make it that much harder to convince people to give it a chance.

    Is that such an unreasonable fear?

  10. Dungy,

    Yes, I realized you were talking about pedestrians rather than riders after I submitted my response, and yet, this clarification seems to make my argument even stronger...

    If people are getting off of the streetcar in the middle of OTR (not sure where exactly you're insinuating) and walking to a "posh new restaurant", what makes you think that this restaurant sits alone?

    For your sake, let's say this restaurant does sit alone in some "unsafe" area of OTR. Why would the restaurant be so far from the nearest streetcar stop? If people really would be worried about getting attacked in that particular area, I don't think that establishment would survive, or even exist in the first place.

    OK, that's a ridiculous scenario. In reality, this restaurant would sit in the middle of new investments on the line - between a mix of shops, other restaurants, entertainment venues, and residences, expanding upon the incredible new growth that's already happening in OTR. Does this hypothetical area sound familiar to you? Try Ludlow in Clifton, Hyde Park Square, Mt. Lookout Square, or even just downtown Cincinnati. Note: Crime occasionally occurs in these areas of town too. Scary, huh.

    As everyone knows, crime can and will happen anywhere, but it doesn't have to happen everywhere, and I'd have to guess that safety will be priority on Cincinnati's new streetcar and the surrounding stops.

    Take an antiquated trolley line in a town facing an uphill battle as an example...
    ...then compare that with what you'd assume a modern streetcar would have for the safety of its passengers.

    Overall, it really sounds like you're saying that our city - or which could be said of society in general - should not progress for fear that something bad could happen. If that's true - if that's seriously how you feel about life - then I feel really, really bad for you man.

    Remember, perceptions can be dangerous. That's why COAST plays on so many of them.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. I hope I haven't given the impression that I'm opposed to progress. I made a deliberate effort to avoid that impression, because that's not the way I feel. What I am trying to say is that I'm very skeptical about the viability of THIS plan. And I don't think it's a matter of choosing this or choosing to do nothing.

    I'm opposed to this plan because I think it's an overly simplistic way of approaching a complex problem. Problems are rarely "pure and simple", and the human element raises the level of unpredictability exponentially.

    For the purpose of clarity, I'm going to temporarily drop the argument regarding safety concerns in the public mind. For now, let's work off of the assumption that safety will be of no concern, and ridership will be what we want it to be, and more people with money to burn will be around OTR. I can see development of OTR proceed in a couple of different ways.

    1. Incremental: In this scenario, development would continue in areas where gentrification has already begun, and will proceed in a block-by-block fashion. The worry I have is the incremental style would create a greater and greater incentive for robbery, especially about half-way into the transition. You'd have a high growth neighborhood with a lot of money pouring in, very near to diminished, but still existing center for drug activity. That's worrysome to me.

    2. All-at-once: Property values soar so fast, and property is bought up and developed to fast, that the whole area is transformed almost over-night. Low income residents and squatters have to find a new place to live because they can't afford the high rent (property owners could probably sell for a handsome profit, though). This would leave the whole area free to develop, and perhaps resolve the crime issue to boot. But drug dealers and the addicts they service would go somewhere. The problem isn't exactly resolved, so much as it is shifted. Good for the city, and good for folks who would like to live and play in OTR, but not exactly a resolution per se.

    What I propose is finding composite solution, made up of several elements acting in concert. This solution should be phased in it's implementation, so it can be adjusted as necessary to compensate for unforeseen developments.

    I'll finish this thought tonight. I've run out of time now.

  13. OK, so you're not against progress. Good. But you are proclaiming that because you're worried that something negative MIGHT happen, that what... no streetcar? A smaller line initially? What?

    The line that's proposed gives the greatest benefit for it's initial size at the lowest cost. The line connects the two largest employement centers in the city. Additionally, this is just the start of a much larger rail initiative for the region.

    If OTR is developed incrementally as a result of the streetcar (which is more probable, and which is happening right now anyway without the rail line), why do you think their new "neighbors" would be targeted? Is that what happens in Hyde Park, Clifton Gaslight, Indian Hill, Walnut Hills, Mariemont, etc. They all have areas of "lower income" sidling them - as most "richer" neighborhoods do throughout the country.

    Also, if you're concerned with the displacement of people due to gentrification, I admire your concern - I really do. There are obvious debates on these issues nationally, but is the status quo in OTR - this large conglomeration of high poverty, high crime, high drug use that you speak of - the solution to you?

    Lastly, there have been several articles throughout the years which have stated that a lot of the "problem people" that you speak of are not the residents of OTR (low income or not), but rather transients and outsiders from other areas. Additionally, drug use is not confined to OTR, as I'm sure you well know.

    I look forward to hearing your proposed solutions.

  14. No, I agree that the status quo is unacceptable. OTR has been ignored for far too long.

    Before I begin I should say that I'm working from ignorance here. I don't have relevant statistics regarding crime in OTR (who lives where, and where crime occurs relative to home, etc). I'm essentially thinking out loud, and speaking in hypotheticals.

    I'd like to see a plan that focuses strictly on OTR (I really mean West End too, that whole area between Clifton/Fairview and downtown, between the highways). I'd like to see a plan that tries to keep as many of OTR's residents in place as possible, by offering jobs in the very near area. I'd like to see an even greater concentration of law enforcement resources in the area, for the purpose of suppressing violent crime (I'm not going to delude myself into believing that arrests have a great effect on the drug trade, but it could reduce violence in the area and help with public opinion by keep it out of the papers) and I'd like to see an effort made to reduce the demand for heavy narcotics.

    Again, a hypothetical: If the City of Cincinnati were to buy up as much vacant property in OTR as is available, how much would that cost? I'd have to assume at least in the tens of millions, but I really don't know for sure. The cost of buying it all at once would probably be prohibitive. But maybe in chunks. Renovate property, act as landlord and incentivize to encourage new residents.

    What I'm really thinking about here is small industry. That's a good location (two interstate highways nearby, plus access to the railyards) for industry, and if you could convince medium-sized industrial-oriented companies to build there, it would be an immense service to local residents. Folks in the area would have easy access to steady work at a good salary, without the necessity of higher education or advanced training.

    While that's going on, some space nearby could be set aside for a drug rehab effort. A rehab center, maybe. Housing and care for the homeless, conditional on commitment (ongoing) to a rehab program.

    I can see the process of gentrification going on without any additional incentive necessary. Cheap property and the promise of security should be incentive enough. The city could maintain property in chunks or islands for low income housing and temporarily protect it from rising prices. I should note that it would be unwise for the city to maintain ownership of property indefinately, but hopefully eventually an equilibrium can be reached where the property could be sold to residents down the road.

    Of course, for any of this to work there would have to be an even greater commitment of law enforcement in the area (not that there isn't a lot of focus there already), otherwise monetary incentives will be less persuasive. This increase should not be done all at once. It should not be perceived as a "crackdown". Anything overly visible and dramatic would encourage the drug trade to simply pickup and move somewhere else. Rather, a slow squeeze is what's called for. Increase police resources in OTR incrementally to shadow the progression of growth in OTR. I could see police patrols in the OTR area peaking at about the halfway point in this effort, and then slowly rolling back and normalizing.

    Hopefully these three efforts (partial subsidizing of small industry growth, ongoing gentrification, and crime suppression/drug rehabilitation) will come at the problem from more than one angle, so that toward the end of the cycle the drug cycle will be unable to function in a great capacity and money will flow into OTR at a steady rate, without forcing a great exodus of residents.

    I admit there are gaps in this, and some areas aren't fully fleshed out, detail-wise. But I'll hold my own criticisms until I hear back from you.