29 September 2009

Metropole Should Stay

An article in the Business Courier and Streetvibes both report that a deal is in the works to close the Metropole Apartment building and convert it to an expensive boutique hotel. I think this is a big mistake, and I will explain why.

In my short memory, downtown once had many of these kind of places. Now there just two, the Metropole and the Dennison. Sometimes called Single Room Occupancy (SROs) or coldwater flats, these are small apartments, often with shared toilet facilities and minimal if any kitchen facilities, often charging rent by the week. They are just about the cheapest housing to be found. Charging by the week allows the landlord to classify the rooms as hotels and thus avoid leases and lenghty eviction procedures. If the tenant doesn't pay that week, the lock can simply be changed.

The people who rent at places like this are often single and just one step above homelessness:

Often, they are people without family help. They may be collecting social security or they may be dishwashers at a downtown restaurant. They may be a panhandler or an alcoholic. But they live among us day to day and 99% of them cause no harm to other residents or visitors to downtown other than to pass us on the sidewalk and look unkempt or ask for a cigarette.

Like I said, at one time there were many SRO apartments downtown. There was the Milner Hotel, which was on Garfield with 115 units. It was demolished and replaced by Towne Properties' Greenwich on the Park in the 1990s.

There was also the Fort Washington, on Main Street. The Lafayette on 8th, and of course there was the YMCA, which closed it's SRO just a few years ago.

I encourage you to read this Enquirer article from 1999 about the possible closing of the Fort Washington. It paints an honest picture of the people involved.

Fort Washington overall:

Thirty years ago there were over 1700 SRO type units in the CBD. That number is now 325. If the Metropole is closed it leaves only the Dennison with it's 105 rooms and 60 baths:

The back of The Dennison:

There is some cheap housing in the CBD like these units on Court Street. Not really an SRO, but if you can manage a lease, monthly payments and utility bills, this is an option:

But the problem is that many of the people who live in SROs cannot make it in standard rental housing. They cannot sign yearly leases. They cannot collect a month's deposit. They cannot get utilities on in their name, and they especially cannot pay higher rents. And you could blame them as another blogger has and say they are lazy or shiftless, (maybe some of them are) but the fact is they are human beings and this kind housing serves their needs. Without this, many of them will be on the street:

In fact I believe that the continual removal of this type of housing is one of the major reasons for an increase in people staying at shelters like the Drop Inn Center.

Commentors on the Enquirer website don't know it yet, but downtown Cincinnati is changing and growing a lot. Between the Banks, Queen City Square, the new offices, dozens of new restaurants, a constantly packed Fountain Square and the hundreds of new condos, things are moving fast. It is a great place to live and getting better.

Look at this graph of Downtown Residential Growth made by DCI:

In two years they project that the CBD will have over 7,000 residents, and the trend is upward from there. My question is can't we commit to at least 5% (350) of them being very low income people? I don't think that is unreasonable.

After all SROs make the most sense downtown. It is downtown where single men can walk to their jobs at the stadium or as janitor in an office building. It is downtown where a guy can walk to half a dozen places and get a free dinner. Even if someone were to build a new SRO, which I don't think anyone is, why would you build it in Price Hill or Avondale? Yes the land is cheaper, but does it make sense?

In progressive cities, SROs are being newly built as part of an overall housing strategy. See L.A., Chicago, and Portland among many others.

One of the things that attracts people to an urban environment is the diversity and jumble of people. I personally love rubbing shoulders with everyone from the beggar to the councilmember. The older man in the photo way uptop, we met at Skyline, and as we were leaving, we literally bumped into ex-mayor Charlie Luken. I love that. Happenstantial meetings are what a vibrant city is all about.

And many people say they want this diversity, but when the places that house the poor are being removed (and not being replaced) people say "well that is the market". I'm not so sure that this hotel will not receive city funding, but either way, do we want the market to continually drive up prices and drive out people until we have the same segregated type neighborhoods that typify the suburbs? I say no.

Here, we have a place where over 200 poor people live mostly peacefully, next to some of the most upscale places in our downtown.

Kids playing next to the Metropole:

The Metropole should be rehabbed, but not as a hotel, rather it should be rehabbed as a better SRO for the poor.

I think a Boutique Hotel is also a fine idea. There are several vacant buildings nearby that would work well:

Or this block:

Living with all kinds of people is part of the reality of living in the city and I really want people to think about this issue. It goes to the heart of what kind of city we want Cincinnati to be.

Your opinion?


Radarman said...

Where to start? This battle was lost when the Aronoff Theatre and the Contemporary Arts Center were constructed. Their constituencies are suburban and timid. The closings of the Phoenix and the Bay Horse mean that the Metropole and the Denison are the last traces of a small Skid Row. It probably makes most sense to set up a new Skid Row, invite in some cheap bars, and group new SRO housing in the area.

Anonymous said...

What is happening with the Terrace Hotel, the Bartlett Building?

CityKin said...

^Nothing is happening at the Terrace. It is just sitting there vacant and waiting for a new hotel to move-in.

Radarman; yes all the cheap bars are gone, but some of this type of housing should remain I think. My granny may be timid, but she can walk past the Metropole on the way to the Aronoff without a second thought.

5chw4r7z said...

I wouldn't go as far as say i "like" encounters with "beggars", but I'm willing to "risk" them for new experiences.
I was thinking of this over the weekend, I think people who live downtown are less experience risk adverse than suburbanites.

CaseyC said...

Thanks. You are scooping next week's column. Not so much about Metropole and SRO, but certain other aspects....I knew I should've insisted it come out today.

Paul Wilham said...

The one thing we learned from Urban Planning. Projects and low income gettoization buildings do not set people up for sucess.

The "ghettoization" of the poor ,be it a housing project or a building like the Metropole does not help them achieve or thrive.

What is does is expose those struggling to people who are engaged in prositution and drug dealing. Something this building is well known for.

What we really don't want to deal with is that the Metropole puts all these people in one "big box". where much of the downtown doesn't see them or deal with them.

Rather than argue for the contined use of the Metropole as slum housing, we should embrace this as a good thing and be spending energies on bringing city officials, community leaders and social services groups together ti develope a transition strategy for these people over the next two years so they dont fall through the cracks, RATHER, than have a "knee jerk political correctness moment" where we lament the passing of this kind of housing, that we know sets up those people to fail not achieve.

Are we worried about the plight of the people or the fact they will be dispersed maybe into our neighborhoods?

Randy Simes said...

One of my favorite reads recently. I completely agree with you on the importance of SROs and their central location to jobs and/or high-quality transit options.

With this particular location the fight seems to be lost already. The Aronoff Center for the Arts sent that area of Downtown on a new trajectory. You can like or dislike what has happened, but it's happened and there is probably no preserving affordable housing units next to some of the swankiest bars, restaurants, museums and clubs in town.

I think there are probably other reasonable options to introduce new SROs in Downtown while allowing this particular location to go the way of the boutique hotel it seems to be screaming for. Great write up and I'm with you all the way.

Anonymous said...

I think the argument that these residents should be able to find housing in two years is completely flawed. As this post points out the bottom tier of the housing market has largely been eliminated in this area.

This void at the bottom will effectively displace those who have every right to housing in the urban core. Chances are they will become homeless or be forced to pay beyond their means in areas already suffering from a low quality housing stock.

This specific battle maybe lost, but if you are removing x quantity of housing at a level there should be an effort to replace x quantity in some form.

The problem is the free market has failures and providing housing to this population is one of them.

We will likely see more of this, and I won't be surprised when it moves up the housing chain.

Market intervention is reasonable when it comes to situations like this where we value the diversity of an urban population and want to ensure people have a right to live in close proximity to transportation, services and employment opportunities.

Just for View

dew said...

Awesome post Mike.

I couldn't agree much more with your views here - I've always been amazed about how quiet this building is - and I hang out in this area with great frequency and have never noticed a problem with the residents of this building.

My friend's brother lived here for over 15 years - he is bi-polar and has a host of other disabilities and this was one place he could afford, was central to transportation, and he - like most in this building - kept to himself.

I do agree this building is in a prime location, but honestly, this type of housing is never going to get re-established anywhere else downtown.

I love the idea of a 21C property here in Cincinnati, I just don't want to see it at the expense of losing these SRO units.

Anonymous said...

"I couldn't agree much more with your views here - I've always been amazed about how quiet this building is - and I hang out in this area with great frequency and have never noticed a problem with the residents of this building."

Then you probably don't live anywhere near it. There are almost daily service calls to the Metropole, and don't forget about the huge raid on the building only last year.