Over-the-Rhine and Cincinnati Transit

I was born outside of Chicago but grew up in two very different neighborhoods in the city of Cincinnati. Before me and my mom and brother made the move from the sprawling Chicago suburbs to this humble Ohio metropolis, we drove diagonally across Indiana several times to get a feel for the so-called “Queen City”, nestled cozily among the foothills of the Appalachians. On one of these first tester trips, I recall driving through a darkened downtown Cincinnati, stores and restaurants closed, nearly no one on the sidewalks, and thinking that the city reminded me of a large LaGrange, the small suburb right next to where we were living at the time and where I’d been born, Western Springs. It didn’t seem like a real city to me. Certainly the scale of Chicago, where you can see the tops of Sears Tower, John Hancock and other Loop high rises from forty minutes away on the clearest of days, simply doesn’t compare to the cozy confines of Cincinnati. This was an adjustment, the first of several in our initial years living just north of downtown in the hillside neighborhood of Mt. Auburn.

The downtown basin of Cincinnati is comprised of a street grid that dates back to 1789, with primary North-South thoroughfares originating at the Ohio River and ending at Liberty St., running along the base of Mt. Auburn. Immediately north of the central business district, separated once by the Miami-Erie canal and now by Central Ave., is the neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine (OTR). Initially settled by German immigrants who built great and successful breweries along Liberty St. in the late nineteenth century, OTR is well known for being the largest intact urban district registered with the National Register of Historic Places, with 943 buildings counted.

Despite the neighborhood’s beautiful concentration and variation of late 19th century brick and stone row houses recalling other immigrant districts such as New York’s Greenwich Village or Lower East Side, many area residents are still too stigmatized by neighborhood’s lingering reputation as a ghetto to live in or even consider visiting the area. Their opinions were cemented by a few days of rioting that occurred in the spring of 2001, in response to the killing of a young, unarmed black man named Timothy Thomas at the hands of the Cincinnati Police in a darkened OTR alleyway.

In the wake of this unfortunate civil unrest, what had been a remarkably successful effort to revive and renovate much of the neighborhood’s architectural assets in the 1980s and 90s fell mostly apart. Demand for apartments disappeared, galleries closed, and some businesses had to relocate because customers refused to even drive into the area. We ourselves relocated from the tony but still urban Mt. Auburn to the even tonier first ring suburb of Hyde Park, located about three and a half miles east of downtown. The riots were not the only factors that precipitated this move, but they definitely hastened it and tellingly coincided, for we had relocated by the time I graduated from Middle to Upper School in June of 2001. I was now living very close to my eventual alma mater The Summit Country Day School, whose campus spreads out atop a plush riverside hill with beautiful views to the pocket city in the distance, the canary yellow Big Mac suspension bridge in the foreground.

The spring riots of that tumultuous, defining year for the city and the nation set Over-the-Rhine’s brisk redevelopment back a decade. The aftermath of the looting and arson coincided unfortunately with the expiration of many longtime OTR residents’ federal housing contracts from back in the 1960s, and in the five years immediately after the riots the neighborhood’s population shrank to historic lows, with pervasive squatting, crime, and general malaise. Even worse, the Cincinnati Police, in the wake of the heat they were receiving for their pattern of brazen, racially-tinged actions, reduced their patrols of the area. This only perpetuated the neighborhood’s slum state and reputation, which was canonized in the Oscar-winning film Traffic. Remember when Topher Grace leads Michael Douglas to his drugged out, naked daughter towards the movie’s end? She was in OTR.

Over the past decade, as the wounds of what happened in Over the Rhine in April 2001 gradually started to heal, Greater Cincinnati saw remarkable development along its interstate corridors and riverfront, particularly along the other banks of the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky. Architecturally, Cincinnati has tried to keep up with its cross-river counterpart through a new tallest tower for the city, Gyo Obata‘s recently completed Great American Tower at Queen City Square. This wholly unremarkable office tower, with its glowing tiara top “inspired by Princess Diana” (because it’s in the Queen City – get it?) surpassed the art deco Carew Tower as the city’s tallest building, a distinction the Carew had held for the better part of eighty years.

This new skyscraper overlooks Great American Ball Park, home of the Cincinnati Reds MLB franchise, as well as the highly touted Banks redevelopment – still currently under construction. The shift of cultural and leisure activities across the river to Covington is epitomized by the contrasting designs of Obata’s staid, safe office tower and Liebiskind’s daringly avant-garde Ascent Tower, completed in 2008. In contrast to the humungous auto-oriented developments on the Kentucky banks of the river such as Newport on the Levee and several glassy condo towers, the historically dense and pedestrian scaled parts of old Covington offer an excellent example of what OTR is gradually becoming: a diverse and compact urban district with beautifully restored residential and commercial building stock, lively sidewalk life, and the most crucial ingredient, the young creatives.

Set to open in 2013, the Cincinnati Streetcar is a multi-phased mass transit system with great implications for the city’s economic and social future. Citing the success of surface streetcars in cities like Portland and Memphis, Mayor Mark Mallory, a majority of city council, and many Over-the-Rhine and Downtown residents and business owners are eagerly anticipating the system’s construction.

I am happy to report that in spite of the defeatist intentions of some intractable suburban and state political figures, Cincinnati is in the earliest stages of building the system’s first phase, running through the heart of Over-the-Rhine and Downtown, linking the two neighborhoods with a dedicated public transit corridor for the first time since trolleys roamed the city’s streets and ascended its adjacent hills over seventy years ago.

It will require just under $100 million dollars to construct the streetcar’s first phase, consisting of a loop between the northern confines of OTR and Fountain Square. The project’s initial capital cost of $125 million was recently parsed down to $98 million by removing a planned section that would have connected streetcars to the nascent Banks development and stadiums along the river. This last minute alteration to the Phase I route is due to the short-sightedness of the state’s new Republican governor John Kasich, who has a trendy Tea Party aversion to the price tags that come with mass transit projects. Over $30 million dollars in TRAC funds that were previously set aside for the streetcar project have suddenly become unavailable, even though the project received an 83% approval rating from the state transit board, far surpassing many other state transportation proposals.

Since constructing Paul Brown Stadium for $403 million and Great American Ball Park for $290 million, city planners and regional developers have been touting The Banks riverfront redevelopment but currently the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (by Boora Architects of Portland, OR) stands alone on the site, with nothing but asphalt lots and parking garage pylons to keep it company. This is due mainly to the fact that land rights and air rights for the site are split respectively between the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, creating a huge logistical and bureaucratic headache for redeveloping these prime riverfront parcels into a new urban residential district. The willingness among some area taxpayers to help pay for intermittently used stadiums for barely winning teams but not a modest, pragmatic, job-growing transit line is the worst kind of hypocrisy leveled by the system’s detractors.

My excitement about the Cincinnati Streetcar is tempered by a note of caution, for the city has a history of starting transit projects only to give up on them. Underneath the streets of downtown are about two miles of subway tunnels and four subway stations. The abandoned (or incomplete?) Cincinnati Subway was constructed in the early 1920s with the intent of carrying passengers around downtown and to adjacent suburbs on a rapid transit system modeled after those built in Boston and Philadelphia during the same era.

When the automobile’s swift rise in prevalence coincided with the city’s depletion of its allocated funds for building and running the system, they simply abandoned it, demolishing long suburban portions of tunnels and using their right of ways to make room for the Mill Creek Expressway (I-75) and Norwood Lateral (I-285) highways. Just below the feet of pedestrians and the tires of cars at street level in downtown sits an impressively well preserved series of subway tubes and station platforms that have never seen a single train or rider, used only sporadically since for rations storage and bomb shelters during the second World War.

Stairs leading from street level at the abandoned Race St. station

Would you want to spend a night in an abandoned subway?

Rendering of the proposed streetcar system, with Cincinnati Public Library and Kroger Co. headquarters in background

Due to the same auto dominated development patterns that killed a nearly completed subway system and displaced tens of thousands of poor and lower class from the West End neighborhood, the Banks and the two sports stadiums are frustratingly cut off from the city’s central business district by Fort Washington Way, an entrenched eight-lane highway that is mostly open air, only spanned from above by bridges that carry the city’s main north-south streets (Walnut, Elm, Vine, Race). Large portions of the city’s historic riverfront settlements were cleared by the 1950s to make way for this connection between I-75 and I-71. Since being effectively separated from the city’s largest employment center by the span of an entire block, the riverfront area has long struggled to find an identity outside of its role as occasional sports venue and parking lot.

Nevertheless, the city sees its competitive priorities rising across the river, and thus has focused heavily on making Cincinnati’s riverfront district a worthy competitor to Covington. In the meantime a couple miles north, hundreds of beautiful, existing buildings dating to the city’s faded heyday have sat in vacancy and occasional squalor. The potential for redeveloping existing building stock immediately along the streetcar route has engendered a wide basis of support among city residents and civic leaders, but streetcar naysayers such as Governor John Kasich oppose the project on the basis of its capital and operating costs, claiming the money could be better utilized elsewhere in the state’s budget. The streetcar’s projected operating cost of $2 million annually will be funded by tax revenue from a new casino development on the city’s storied Broadway Commons site, which has long been a vast and underutilized asphalt parking expanse situated in a strategic urban location.

The newly branded OTR Gateway Arts District

In addition to the federal level support for Cincinnati’s streetcar, just in the past several years there has been a concerted and corporate-backed effort to jump start OTR’s next chapter as a leading artistic district for the city and region, with the streetcar playing a huge role in Cincinnati’s ambitious goals for future inner-city settlement. The city is hoping to drive excitement and interest back to the OTR neighborhood for impressive urban character. The latest spark of investment and acquisition of once-vacant properties has been carried out primarily through the private stakeholder corporation 3CDC, an entity formed in 2006 by the city’s major businesses, whose offices and interests lie directly south of OTR in Downtown.

Backed by this influential organization and other developers, OTR has been receiving steady reinvestment and repair of its uniquely dense housing stock by a new generation of twenty and thirty year olds who are seeking an urban lifestyle without leaving southern Ohio. Cincinnati is anticipating a wide range of economic and civic benefits from the new streetcar system, hoping to renovate and populate at least 1,100 new housing units in addition to 92 acres of underutilized surface parking, whose adjacency to the transit corridor make them rife for residential and mixed use redevelopments. To help ensure this inner-city revival and re-densification, the city is seeking to establish a transit-oriented zoning classification for both Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, a critical step for reducing parking demands and maximizing the streetcar’s ability to catalyze development within its service area.

View north on Race St., near Findlay Market, a part of the Phase I Streetcar Loop

Cincinnati Music Hall, built 1872

Music Hall, home of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and cherished annual events such as May Festival, has and will continue to be Over-the-Rhine’s primary cultural anchor. Soon to undergo a comprehensive renovation, the building was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1975. Over the course of researching this post, I discovered that Music Hall was actually built upon a plot of land had been historically used as both an orphan asylum and then a mass burial ground for the itinerant and homeless populations of the city. Until 1872, thousands of people were buried in unmarked graves on the formerly detached site, at which point the Music Hall Association acquired the now strategic parcel in the heart of OTR to construct Music Hall, with Washington Park directly across the street. Not surprisingly, Music Hall has many stories of paranormal occurrences, and workers who have dug below certain points in the building’s foundation have repeatedly found extensive amounts of human skeletal remains.

Lois and Richard Rosenthal Contemporary Arts Center, by Zaha Hadid Architects

To supplement the spooky, legendary Music Hall, a number of other influential arts institutions are now headquartered in Over the Rhine as well, including the School for Creative and Performing Arts (their best known alum: Nick Lachey), the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and ArtsWave. The latter two of these three organizations made deliberate, well-publicized moves in their headquartering from adjacent neighborhoods to embed themselves permanently within OTR’s artistically driven transformation and take a true stake in the community’s exciting prospects for reinvention.

While the standard bearing Cincinnati Art Museum remains in nearby Mt. Adams, since 2004 the Contemporary Arts Center has been housed in a Zaha Hadid-designed museum at the corner of 6th and Walnut Streets, her only built work in the United States to date. Hadid’s composition of solid concrete and black clad boxes hover atop one another, projecting into the streetscape and overlapping at a series of shallow, oblique angles. Visitors are drawn into the museum along an “urban carpet” that leads you from the sidewalk and through the lobby, then curves ninety degrees upwards to form the back parti wall for the corner building.

Outside of the University of Cincinnati campus, the CAC is one of the city’s most daring buildings to be realized in recent history, but represents only a sampling of the rich architectural and artistic character that will certainly draw more and more Cincinnatians to live, work, and play downtown in an energy expensive future.

For more on Cincinnati’s Streetcar system and future energy adaptation strategies, follow the jump.


Case Study > Golden Gate Bridge

The case study is a research and review methodology that is commonly used in the social sciences for detailed investigation of a single event, in order to learn from the experience and improve future practice. Always initiated after said event has reached its obvious conclusion, the case study template model is a particularly helpful guide to compiling raw data and assessing the outcomes of certain planning decisions in plain hindsight. The point is to improve the performance of future endeavors, and the format is implemented in fields ranging from medicine to law to architecture.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has an established format for writing architectural case studies. My first class of each school day this semester is Case Studies, taught by AIA registered architect Daniel Hewett. Far from a traditional design studio or seminar course, this is a class unlike any other that I have taken thus far in my education. With an eye towards the impending careers in architecture that our Master’s degrees will hopefully afford us, discussions and exercises are heavily focused on interpersonal skills, group speaking abilities, and teamwork dynamics. While the course began with a series of storyboard presentations about episodes of miscommunication and mistakes in our professional co-op experiences, it has since been focused largely on the case study method and how we can improve it for our own benefit as we prepare to enter the professional field.

To warm us up for the highly methodological and speculative work that we are currently doing (writing grant proposals) we initially had the opportunity to team up and create our own case studies for a selection of iconic examples from the architectural canon, among them the Empire State Building, Hagia Sophia, Sydney Opera House, and my choice, the Golden Gate Bridge.

Me and my partner‘s research and analysis of the Golden Gate Bridge wasn’t concerned with design or engineering features, but rather on the key events and circumstances that coalesced to produce the end result: a beautiful and iconic structure that has come to symbolize not only a city, but an entire state and region of the country. Though widely admired and romanticized today, there was considerable opposition at the time to the bridge project, for a variety of reasons.

There had been talk of a spanning the golden gate inlet to connect the burgeoning port city of San Francisco to neighboring Marin County as far back as the late 19th century. However, the first concrete step to realization of the ambitious project did not occur until the formation of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District in 1928.  This organization represented a coalition of community leaders from five of the counties north of San Francisco and the city itself, with the main task of securing the necessary public support and funding. This was no easy task considering that the project transitioned from conception to construction during the devastating outset of the Great Depression. Despite the Department of War’s interest in linking the important Pacific Ocean access point, the lack of federal funding meant that the projected $35 million it would take to build the suspension bridge needed to be covered by public bonds.

Financial insecurity was not the only obstacle the Golden Gate initially faced. A ferry service operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. had found great success for years by shuttling people across the water, and led a considerable lobbying effort against the bridge, in addition to the logging industry who did not want Marin Co. wilderness opened to exploration and preservation, and local Unions that were wary of outside bridge experts taking away all the potential jobs.

Despite their opposition, the bridge had the benefit of an enigmatic chief engineer named Joseph Strauss. The Cincinnati born and educated Strauss served more of a role as the bridge’s public face and biggest proponent, having much less to do with the actual design of the structure itself. Whereas the more technical and aesthetic tasks fell largely onto the plates of assistant engineers Charles Ellis and head architect Iriving Morrow, it was Strauss’ bureaucratic and public relation efforts that resulted in resounding public and political support. In addition to popular consensus that the bridge was a worthy project, the fledgling Bank of America completed the planning puzzle by purchasing all of the offered bonds and allowing construction to commence on what would become the world’s longest suspension span. Remarkably, construction remained on schedule and lasted just four years, 1933 to 1937. Even more remarkable was the fact that the bridge paid entirely for itself through tolls, including accrued interest, by 1971.

Finally, I have included some of the best historical photos of the bridge’s construction, all of which are featured in Stephen Cassady’s 1979 book Spanning the Gate:

A gigantic wood and steel fender was placed into the water and drained in order to lay the footings for both towers

After lowering and draining a massive fender in the bay, three gallant men inspect the bedrock for stability.

With the concrete base poured, one of the bridge's Art Deco towers begins to rise with every steel cell

Approaching top out

Two workers give scale to the suspension cable saddles atop each tower

Jutting out from the cellular steel tower are a web of safety nets for catching falling tools, and men

Between installation of the suspension cables and space frame road deck


American Graffiti

One of the more divisive debates among both artists and bureaucrats is whether graffiti, from simple marker tags to vibrant spray painted murals, should be considered artistic expression or vandalism. Though I suspect that many of my generation would automatically be of the former opinion, I believe that people’s perception of graffiti as art or crime is greatly dependent upon the aesthetic impact and specific location. Personally I think if it looks good and is located on an otherwise blank and boring wall, what’s the harm?

Stealing hearts in Venice, Italy

Where it might be considered offensive to tag a historically significant or iconic piece of architecture like the Boston Public Library, the plethora of anonymous building stock that exists within our cities and suburbs provides a huge amount of communal canvasses for graffiti artists to utilize. Although the defacement of private or public property without consent is unlawful, I think that the more talented graffiti artists truly enhance the visual appeal of an otherwise anonymous part of the urban landscape with their aerosol sprayed creations. In NYC, The Long Island City Graffiti Building (aka Five Pointz) is a great example of how parts of the degraded industrial landscape can be beautifully repurposed as a safe haven for established and aspiring graffiti artists.

Although it has traditionally been associated with criminal activity and gang culture, there is a growing recognition of graffiti as a legitimate form of artistic expression that, due to its often public contexts, is more accessible to the masses than in a stodgy art gallery. No longer just the province of degenerates and art school outcasts, graffiti has moved gradually into the mainstream as controversial figures like Banksy and Shepard Fairey have emerged as celebrated artists in their own right.  Both of these contemporaries owe some of their success to the iconic Jean-Michel Basquiat, who since his swift rise and tragic demise in the 1980s has unfortunately become a commodified poster boy for cool downtown street art. Nevertheless, he occupies a special place in art history for bringing street culture into the fine art world, and for incorporating words and messages into his figurative expressionism.

I was inspired to write this post by a series of murals I discovered on the backside of a seemingly non-descript building here in Atlanta, located on Boulevard NE in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood:

And just for good measure, here is a mural that I always see from the train on the Newburyport/Rockport line, heading North from Boston:

Clearly, graffiti art is more striking as a collective endeavor. When it’s allowed to spread to the point of taking over an entire wall surface, the artistic impact of this collaborative vandalism is unmistakable.

Update: if you want to learn about Atlanta’s burgeoning street art scene and the upcoming Living Walls, the City Speaks conference, read this great article by my good friend Jessica Blankenship.


Atlanta Transit > MARTA Midtown

The city of Atlanta and its surrounding environs constitute one of the fastest growing metropolitan centers in the country, befitting its unofficial designation as the capital of the southeastern U.S. As of 2009 the city proper had a population of 541,000, but counting the combined statistical area that includes communities within and around the I-285 perimeter, that number swells up to over 5.5 million. As with many landlocked American cities, the initial growth of manufacturing and commercial operations was dependent upon the construction of a sprawling national railroad system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Later during the post-WWII baby boom, Atlanta and its many suburbs experienced robust expansion in the extent of their residential, commercial, and industrial districts that was facilitated by the paving of thousands of miles of roads and highways.

The history and character of Atlanta’s rapid transit system, MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) is reflective of the fact that this Sun Belt city experienced its greatest rise in population and importance after the automobile had become an indispensable commodity for most Americans. Preceded by the bus-only Atlanta Transit Company, planning for the rapid transit rail lines did not begin in earnest until 1971 when De Kalb and Fulton counties successfully passed a 1% sales tax increase to fund the system’s construction and operation. These public transit plans encountered significant opposition from residents of two metro Atlanta counties (Clayton and Gwinnett, both of which rejected the tax increase) who feared a rise in crime and the introduction of “undesirable elements” into their communities, an unsurprising fact considering that the Civil Rights Act had only been passed seven years prior.

Light blue lines denote the city's major interstate corridors

It took until 1975 for construction to begin on two lines running roughly North/South and East/West, with train service officially commencing in the summer of 1979, a full fourteen years after planning had begun. Since then MARTA has built nearly all of the rail lines and stations outlined in their original proposal, with no major expansions occurring over 30+ years of operation. The relatively limited extent of the MARTA rail system is a testament to the automobile’s enduring popularity in Atlanta, and highlights the fact that daily ridership (482,500 on weekdays) represents only about 8% of the total metro population. Comparatively, Boston’s MBTA carries 1.3 million people (29% of metro population) every weekday, while New York City’s MTA carries about 11.5 million people (64% of the metro population) daily during the work week. These figures highlight the stark differences of population density and patterns of circulation between old and new growth American cities.

History lesson aside, my impetus for writing about Atlanta’s rail and subway system stemmed from my admiration of the brutalist (or heroic) design of the nearby Midtown station, as seen in the aerial shot to the left. The photo below shows the low slung concrete structure as seen from 10th street, and gives a sense of how the waffle gridded roof extends outward from the structural walls to form an overhead canopy that appears extremely heavy yet lightweight all at once. This lightening effect is greatly enhanced by sunlight pouring through voids between the downwardly canted concrete beams.

Brutalism is an unfortunately connotative name for a style of building that had its heyday in the 60s and 70s, and I do realize that architects and their students are disproportionately partial to this type of construction. There are plenty of examples to support claims that brutalist buildings are overly imposing and unforgiving (or just plain ugly), including Marcel Breuer’s Atlanta-Fulton Public Library and Paul Rudolph’s Government Service Center in Boston, both of which are large institutional buildings with a variety of programs contained within. But thanks to the temperate Atlanta climate and small scale of the Midtown MARTA station, its designer was free to take some risks with concrete and thus challenge popular notions of what this infinitely malleable yet durable material can do.