29 January 2009

Vacant Cities and Rubber Wheeled Vehicles

I once new a man named Greg. He demolished buildings, and the City often called him for emergency demolitions. I remember once arguing with him about destroying our heritage, removing needed housing and things like that. But Greg was proud of his work, and he earnestly believed what he was doing was good for Cincinnati. He said that he still had much work to do in neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine, because the buildings were too close together and at least every other building needed to be demolished, "so that adjacent buildings could have parking".

Since the 1950's this has been a prevalent attitude about cities like Cincinnati. It is an attempt to remake the city like the suburbs. I would guess that close to 50% of the buildings that existed in OTR in 1950 have been demolished. Liberty Street was widened, parking lots were built. But even with so much destroyed, there is still not enough parking for the 4 story buildings with streetfront retail.

People have been trying to make OTR an easy to drive and park neighborhood. They think that this is necessary for its survival, but they are really destroying it.

The problems with Greg's parking solution is manifold.
it is a waste of existing buildings.
it is a waste of city infrastructure
it creates unpleasant places
it creates unwalkable places

Look at some of the photos in this post. How safe is it for a pedestrian to cross Liberty Street? How pleasant are these parking lots and billboards? These pictures show a once, quintessential, livable, walkable, urban city, trying to become "car-friendly", and it is a shameful destruction of a beautiful city.

I've noticed that most of the new condos being built on Main Street and Vine Street come with private surface parking spaces. The City recently funded new parking lot for an OTR business that already has a large parking lot.

All of these surface lots once contained homes and businesses.

A few months ago, I posted a street scene video from 1901. As was typical before rubber wheeled motor vehicles, the street was shared equally by all types of transport (streetcars, horse carts and pedestrians, lots of pedestrians).

Rubber wheeled vehicles fundamentally changed the city. They are more dangerous to the pedestrian. They encourage dispersal. They encourage isolation. They require separation.

Now, if you consider all the ways to get somewhere, which is the most pleasant, most green, most economical, most urban? ...? Walking! On top of being healthy, and cheap, walking is also the only real way to build an urban commercial district or a neighborhood. Walking is interactive, safe and compact. Walking is green. Walkers dominate successful cities.

Now, how can a city create more walkers? Well, the sidewalks and street crossings should obviously be safe, both from crime and from cars. But more importantly, a city must have places within walking distance. Places that are worth the walk. Many planning books have studied the density required to make walking feasible.

And if a city were to decide that they wanted to support the pedestrian, support development of street level retail, and generally move the city in a non-suburban direction, what should they do toward that end? Some cities, such as Vancouver, are removing highway ramps that over-accommodate cars at the expense of the pedestrian.

Many cities never gave up their pedestrian support system (ie: streetcars, subways and elevated trains.) They have vibrant business districts, lively streets and often a growing urban population. Others that had gotten rid of rail are successfully rebuilding light rail and streetcar systems.

Cities are for people, not cars. If we make the pedestrian the first priority, density and thriving business will follow.

25 comments:

Randy Simes said...

Great post. We need to stop attempting to make our built areas something they're not and instead focus on what they are. OTR needs to be a dense, walkable, neighborhood that thinks about the car in the same way that many suburbanites think about walking.

I think that in time we will see those private parking lots go away. Right now we need to fill what we've got and create the demand for those lots to be built on.

Dan said...

One of my favorite books is "The Geography of Nowhere". In a nutshell the author heaps much blame of the state of our cities on the automobile. It is an arguement hard to deny.

Radarman said...

I think Roxanne Qualls gets this but is too cautious to push for it, knowing how hard it is to educate the administration and the public. But your sentiments are exactly on. If you and your readers aren't staying current with www.streetsblog.org, they need to be. It's a way of keeping up with the movement for complete streets, etc. And it's got great short films

Quim said...

Just wondering - in places like OTR, where did the horses stay ? Or maybe, what was the rate of horse ownership ? By today's standard, everybody would have a couple horses and buggies. (that's how it looks in old tv shows)

Dan said...

Quim: I know generally only the weathly had horses. Larger homes may have had a carriage house (Like homes on Broadway where carriage houses fronted Spring Street) but there were also livery stables scattered about, including OTR, the West End, and downtown. If for instance you are ever at City Hall look across the street and the second building from 8th was a livery stable and you can kind of tell. Unrelated interesting fact, one event that lead to the Courthouse Riots of 1884 was when livery stable owner William Kirk, who owned stables throught the West End, was murdered by two employees who were as I understand it, stable hands.

Sorry this was totally not about cars . . .

CityKin said...

Quim, I think 90% of the people walked, took streetcars, or hired rides.

Another old livery stable is at the SW corner of Liberty and Elm. They are scattered about here and there, and so are some of the old streetcar parking "barns".

Radarman; I need to read Streetsblog more. thanks for reminding me.

CityKin said...

"I think that in time we will see those private parking lots go away"
Randy, you are an eternal optimist. My experience has been that it is much more likely that a vacant lot will stay a vacant lot or parking for many many years. They do not just fill up because we don't like them. There is much demand for parking, and it will only increase if we keep the same car culture mentality that we still have in Cincinnati.

Randy Simes said...

I just believe in the demand for the neighborhood long-term. As land becomes more valuable, and the neighborhood becomes more desirable to live for more people, then we'll see the value for living space surpass the value for parking space. It will take some time to get there, but I do believe we'll get there. We've seen a surface lot along Central Parkway get built over by the new SCPA, we're seeing two new infill projects at 14th & Vine, we seeing infill along Pleasant Street in the form of townhouses, and we're about to see the largest collection of infill projects at the Mercer Commons site. With the continued redevelopment of OTR and the acceleration of that process by the proposed streetcar I think things will only continue to get better.

Tiger James Suburbanite said...

And here lies the problem...

Randy Writes: "I just believe in the demand for the neighborhood long-term. As land becomes more valuable, and the neighborhood becomes more desirable to live for more people, then we'll see the value for living space surpass the value for parking space."

Randy, You may be right (I sure hope you are), but for the value to increase there has to be demand from those people who not only want to live in the urban city, but also have the means to drive up prices.

As someone who wishes to live in a single family home in OTR, I have the income, but can't make the rehab financing work... it costs too much to rehab, for the banks to sign off on a large mortgage... Also, I don't want to invest close to $200K relatively upfront into a property that might not start to appreciate over the next 12 years, and I can't sell for what I've got in it.

Combine the limited public transportation, the perception of crime, and the reality of poverty with the absolute ambivalence (if not distain)towards improvements from the vast suburban and Exurban population, and you get a 'chicken and egg' problem that is hard to overcome.

I realize that 'gentrification' is considered a bad word by some, but I don't see the tide of urban improvement changing towards a 'dense walkable neighboorhood' until some more of the "g" word occurs...

I applaud those who have found a comfortable way to raise families in the city. It will take many more like you to expand the cultural change needed.

Jason said...

Great post. I agree with much of what's been said. I hope that what Randy is saying actually does happen. I think it will, but bringing rail transit to the neighborhood is absolutely essential if we want to see that sort of success.

CityKin said...

Tiger;

First, close-in neighborhoods are holding their value better in the current mortgage induced financial crisis.

Secondly, yes, a neighborhood must be reasonably safe, and the perception will eventually catch up to the reality. However, urban life means living close to other people, and those people may be poorer and different looking than you. The negative meanings of gentrification (poor people must move) are NOT necessary for OTR to revive. I just don't buy that. As long as the crime is under control it should be able to house people of varied incomes etc...

We have to get away from the attitude that the value/resale value of our house is totally dependent on the neighbors. That is suburban pigeonholing, that doesn't prove true in urban mixed-use neighborhoods.

Also, single family homes, while available, are more easily found in the surrounding hillsides than in the basin.

Anonymous said...

I will not try and argue for or against rubber wheeled vehicles, because there is no argument, there is only a reality. On Mulberry in 1980 there were 110 houses and now there are less than 50. Am I sad they are gone, sure, but they are. Should new homes go back in there place though? I say not necessarily. To me, density for the sake of density is not smart design at all. Well maintained greenspace can do more to add value to a neighborhood than just another building for the sake of having another building ever could (and could serve to devalue RE without adequate demand). I have spent the past couple of years purchasing demolished housing lots that are adjacent to my home in the hopes of creating, not new homes, but showcasing what is left by creating greenspace. OTR would be better served in most cases if we looked at more lots this way because some/most are just empty abandoned lots, not parking at all.

Michael Redmond

Anonymous said...

"In a nutshell the author heaps much blame of the state of our cities on the automobile. It is an arguement hard to deny."

Well then let me deny it. The blame for the state of our cities is neglect. Too many absentee landlords, too many slum lords, too many with the attitude that urban areas are meant to isolate both poverty and crime and segregate it from the rest of the city.

All the car did was give people an easier means of escape when these programs were introduced. Today things are different--we are still feeling the lingering effects but now it is getting better and better, and all of that with cars. Cars are an easy excuse when trying to make an argument for other transit means, but it sure wasn't what caused crime rates and poverty rates to be what they were.

CityKin said...

Mike;
I'm not saying every lot on a street like Mulberry should be developed, but really, the more neighbors you have, the more likely you are (for example) able to support a corner store within walking distance. If you want to own a lawn mower and want to drive everywhere, why live in OTR?

Anon;
Look at cities that did not cave to the automobile. There some in this country and many around the world. Yes they had all the ills of crime etc. that were endemic to cities in the past several decades, but they still have thriving urban centers, and they are growing now far ahead of places like Cincinnati. We are at a crossroads and must decide if we want to continue to disperse and decline or whether we want to increase and build-up

Automobiles are a fact of life, but we do not have to be slaves to them and build our cities according to traffic engineer's wishes. Cities with strong public transit and pedestrian amenities are not relics, they are the future. Pedestrians are green, and they are the opposite of the isolation and neglect that you mention.

Tiger James Suburbanite said...

I love this blog! I read it everyday. This type of intelligent and respectful discourse gives me hope that Cincy can turn the corner on the plight of our downtown, and make it more of the sustainable urban region that many more people will want to support.

I'm very encouraged by all the rehab, development, and renewal I see going on in OTR!

Anonymous said...

"If you want to own a lawn mower and want to drive everywhere, why live in OTR?"

And herein lies the difference. You have a different line of reasoning for living in a particular place than some others. And that is great. But I see what you are advocating, or at least I think you are advocating, of raising density as high as possible and that does nothing but create a greater need for off street parking. One lends itself to the other. I argue that if we take many of these lots (and I only used Mulberry as the closest example to me) and encouraged green space vs green development to a greater degree then that does not create a greater need for surface lots but at the same time adds value to the community as a whole while keeping inventory in check.
I know not everyone wants a yard, but some do. Not everyone wants a car, but some do. My thinking is that we should give everyone a reason to move here and have as few objections as possible and parking is certainly one that we still get today.

Tiger James,
try a 203K loan and there are plenty of rehab opportunities in safe, relatively well established streets both in and around OTR that would probably fit your needs.

Michael Redmond

VisuaLingual said...

"...raising density as high as possible and that does nothing but create a greater need for off street parking."

But, I think CityKin was arguing that greater density would encourage more neighborhood-centered, pedestrian-oriented development, like the corner store example he mentioned. So, greatest density would potentially accomplish things aside from increasing the need for parking.

In fact, it might even encourage less of a dependency on cars, as people find viable ways to get their day-to-day needs taken care of right in their communities.

I really wish that more people were willing to acknowledge those of us who already make the choice to spend their dollars right in their neighborhoods. We may not be the majority, or even a sizable chunk of the population in a city like Cincinnati, but we do exist, and we do represent the future.

Anonymous said...

I understand the point and still say that one lends to the other. Many developments can not receive funding without adequate parking ratios dictated by the funding source.

Would more people walk? Probably. Will more stores pop up? Probably.
Would the streets be lined up with cars parked in offstreet lots? Probably.

One does not prevent the other, but it may actually promote it.

"I really wish that more people were willing to acknowledge those of us who already make the choice to spend their dollars right in their neighborhoods."

You are preaching to the choir. I live, I work, I spend dollars in my neighborhood to. I also happen to have a lawnmower and 2 cars right along with many others.

"We may not be the majority, or even a sizable chunk of the population in a city like Cincinnati, but we do exist, and we do represent the future."

And so do I and so am I and so do many others that may disagree. Are you more right than me? I am simply laying out a different viewpoint for vacant lots that I actually think is "greener" than most. And I may not be in the majority, but I do exist, and who is to say will not be the future instead...You?

Michael Redmond

Jim Uber said...

I guess that the argument about vacant lots will solve itself over time. I doubt that the city can afford a 20 year comprehensive vision of a much more dense OTR with fewer cars, but it can start to promote some of the practices that are discussed here, and give us the insight necessary to choose our own alternative future.

Today I met a New Yorker moving to Cincinnati and one of the only reasons he was interested in a car is because, well, in Cincinnati you seem to need one right now. He doesn't necessarily want one, it's just the hand he's dealt by moving here.

A year ago I wouldn't have thought I could live comfortably in OTR with my legs, a bike, a metro bus pass, and a 49cc 4-cycle Honda scooter (very cute, by the way). But you know, turns out I can. When it got cold, I bought an electric vest and a balaclava and ski pants and monster mittens. An electric vest! Who'd have thought. Not me. Not a year ago. I go to work in Clifton and Salsa lessons in Mt. Lookout via Eastern avenue, and to a friends house in pleasant ridge via Victory Parkway and a complete mishmash of secondary roads. Wow it's a load of fun! I have a parking space cause they made me, but I don't really need it. My scooter sits in the middle of it and it looks silly.

Jim Uber said...

Oh by the way, I do agree very much that parking is a waste of resources, regardless of whether we think it should be provided, more or less.

Even if we think we need parking, why do we think we need to provide one dedicated space per unit?

At any time, most of those spaces are unused. They could be used for retail parking during the day and residents during the night, more or less.

It seems to me that OTR might benefit from a well planned residents parking permit program, with the minimum number and locations of city owned lots, where only resident stickers could park overnight and anyone could park during the day.

Maybe that doesn't work, but isn't there some way to provide spaces now to people who need them, but optimize our overall use of the spaces we provide?

Anonymous said...

"why do we think we need to provide one dedicated space per unit?"

I would say ask Holly next time you drop into the office what the number of lost contracts would be if that was not the case. People, when purchasing do not just think of their own needs, but future resale as well. Would your condo at Trideca be as marketable without that space?

Michael Redmond

Anonymous said...

Jim,

It is my understanding that you can do with that space as you please, including leasing it to another resident. If you are not using it, put it up for lease. Holly I know often deals with clients who need more than a single space.

MR

Anonymous said...

My wife and I live in OTR but currently both work outside of the city and must commute. As a result we both own cars that a parked in a dreaded surface lot--but are always looking for ways to avoid using them and are eventually phasing out at least one of them... I do the bus thing whenever I can but sometimes it's just not practical. What we need (and what any auto-oriented city needs) is a true mass transit system that can get you anywhere in the Greater Cincinnati area (like Metro Moves 2002). Then I think we see the demand for parking drastically go down--I know it would in my case. I feel like once it is feasible for someone in the inner or outer ring suburbs to come down to the city and shop without driving (read: the people unwilling to ride a bus) we'll see a dense walkable city more akin to what you're looking for.
-Will

Quim said...

"It seems to me that OTR might benefit from a well planned residents parking permit program"
Jim, you have to keep night shifters in mind, too.

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