Wednesday, August 31, 2011

SHHH..Dont tell city officials urban neighborhoods are coming back..they will just mess it up!

There was an interesting article a few weeks ago about the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and its 'amazing' turnaround:

The premise was that a once established black neighborhood was suddenly experiencing 'white influx'. Now this should be of no surprise to any historic preservationist. The neighborhood has  (compared to the rest of New York) great architecture at affordable  prices. The fact the neighborhood experienced a 633 percent increase in white migration should be no surprise to anyone.

The move to Urban neighborhoods has been happening for decades now. From the 1970's and 80's when San Francisco saw a great residential rebirth,  the turnaround of Indianapolis urban neighborhoods in the 90's and  even the turnaround of downtown Los Angeles going on right now..

City officials, urban planners, the 'visions' for the future groups ( who typically do not live in the neighborhoods they 'vision' about) are always the last to realize what is going on in the real world of neighborhoods.

This Dayton St mansion was 7 apartments, now a single family, a growing trend.
Case in point: you can go on to the city data website and still see OTR described as a gang infested, war torn , bombed out neighborhood that will never turn around. However you can go to Findlay Market, drive up Vine or Main and see that while OTR still has a  long way to go, it has turned a corner. Dayton Street is another example, people focus on the tenements but fail to notice the 4-5 homes that are being restored back to single family every year. Have you been to Price Hill lately? Millions of dollars of restoration and renovation as that neighborhood makes its comeback.
Fairmount is the latest "disconnect' as MSD, the city and county commissioner's envision bulldozing the business/residential district, put in a glorified drainage ditch of a daylighted creek and 'magically' developers will flock to the area. Now while this make make Mayor Mallory "all tingly' it ignores the reality that there is opposition, both from preservationists, residents and business community. The city will have a major hurdle of section 106 review and the Norwood eminent domain case has changed the dynamic on eminent domain. Residents have access to legal help, federal and state law and process the city never considered when  it thought it would clean up 'poor, uneducated' Fairmount. Thinking, only they, the smartest people in the room, know what is best for Fairmount, may find themselves dumbfounded when they have to deal with the real world of section 106 review, eminent domain lawsuits and several another legal action all by people who are defending their neighborhood from people who don't live there, don't visit there and have no clue what is really going on in that neighborhood.

It is the inability to see what is actually going on rather than what they perceive is going on that drives them. Given the targeting by the vacant building task force to drive down property values to benefit MSD in its eminent domain offers, it is amazing this community has pulled itself up in spite of negative city policies.

Do you wonder if city officials know there are mansions in my neighborhood?
As Knox Hill moves toward its national registry nomination I have to ask, other than Councilman Lippert who actually toured my neighborhood, have ANY ONE of you taken the time to tour my neighborhood even though your policies directly affect it?
Beekman renovations

Have you looked at the renovations now occurring outside Knox Hill for example, like along Beekman?

Restored school
One of the key components to neighborhood turnaround is school options. CPS fought to prevent the new Roosevelt Academy,  from happening on Tremont, will the city ignore the illegal dumping on Waverly and Bloom streets to deny the school a fighting chance? Interesting now CPS is reopening the school on White street they wanted to sell just a few years ago as the Quebec Heights school,

Schools are generally a prime indicator of neighborhood direction.

 I sometimes wonder if it will take an article in New York times, a national piece on NPR or a segment on 60 minutes for city officials to wake up and smell the coffee? And to Mayor Mallory  whose been quoted a being 'all tingly' about the MSD project or  county planner Todd Kinskey who talks about the " light at the end of the tunnel"...come up to Knox Hill some weekend and I will show you a neighborhood that will make you all tingly and cure your bad case of "tunnel vision". You can see a neighborhood being done without Millions of Federal dollars, just people who care about their neighborhood and dont believe in "pipedream projects" not rooted in reality, but rather the real work of neighborhood might learn a few things.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

CDBG Funds: Covington offers facade grants. Cincinnati solution ? Bulldozers

Once again, stark differences are apparent between the way our city of Cincinnati uses federal dollars , namely CDBG  (Community Development Block Grant) funds, verses more progressive cities like Covington.

Covington has initiatead a Homeowner Facade Grant Program which is administered via the city Community Development Department. These grants are to assist homeowners with facde improvements visable from the city right of way.

Designed to assist home owners meeting certain income requirement it is just one more tool to build stronger neighborhorhoods and includes roof and gutter repairs, painting and porch trim repairs vs the Cincinnati approach which is to hit homwowners with VBML's and condemn orders.

We congratulate Covington for taking a "Foward thinking" approach much as countless other communities have across the country for use of CDBG funds and we find our selves asking why Cincinnati would rather subsidize demolition contractors with our federal tax dollars rather than make real efforts to build neighborhoods as Covington and other cities have done?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Preservation issues , and approaches, in other cities

In case you have not seen this article it makes important points about the value of historic preservation as an economic development tool.

I thought this one quote summed things up well:

"Historic preservation and investing in a city’s key cultural resources is often one of the most pragmatic financial moves a municipality can make, especially when facing population decline and right-sizing. "

This concept seems to be lost on Cincinnati city officials and people at the city inspection services, none of whom have preservation or urban planning experience. Can city inspectors who do not live in an an area, not know the daily dynamics of a neighborhood, make critical decision that not only impact one particular house but shape the destiny of an entire neighborhood as well.

For that manner could a community council whose areas are often huge know what is going on in a particular area or even one block their area? Probably not.

That is where preservationist come in. Our role is education and when it is called for legal action and/or political lobbying to see neighborhood interest move forward and in a direction that best represents the goals of that neighborhood.

Another outstanding quote from this article:

"As we know, protection and preservation opportunities do not just spontaneously spring out of the ground. New development does not either. Historic preservation is incentivize with TIFF zones and facade grant programs, and home-owner rehab programs that focus on preservation. Important historic homes and commercial buildings are given away or sold at below market price. You create an easement program to protect key properties; you promote the historic preservation tax credit program and perhaps create your own. "

This is an area where our city is far behind the time TIFF's are largely the province of big developers here, we have no facade grant program which most cities use CDBG funds for ( we use ours for demo). If this city were to 'give away' homes there would be so much red tape and roadblocks attached as to make restoration impossible. Once again this is education  and it must occur at the council and city manager level and trickle down.

If the city wanted to address the problem of "blighted properties" in a way other than a bulldozer, it can be done with a variety of targeted low or no cost measures.

For example the city could look at its list of over 5000 properties with VBML or Condemn status.. We could create a new program  in which the city would offer incentives to homebuyer wishing to owner occupy these homes, many of which are the product of foreclosure.

KHNA is looking for a preservation minded buyer for this property which is in a short sale situation with our "Save not Raze program.

Typically these properties need some lot cleanup and as we know dumpster fees are high in our city. The city could offer a  cleanup coupon worth 250.00 off on dumpster rental. These properties often have suffered theft of furnaces, copper pipe etc and the city could waive or offer 1/2 price permit fees as an incentive to be sure things are done right. We also need an administrative process where VBML 's are converted to specific repair orders ( so homeowners can obtain financing) for homebuyers who will make application to the city that the home will be owner occupied. We also need to understand that many of these homes are in higher crime areas and we must allow those homeowners to occupy those homes while under restoration.

We also need to look at our current tax abatement program and consider increasing the time frame from 10 to 15 years and potentially increasing the abatement amount when a property is restored to Secretary of the Interior standards. This would encourage more restoration and ultimately bring up property values of the entire neighborhood.

We need to get away from reaching for the bulldozer and look at our historic homes as a potential resource that will bring people back to urban neighborhoods and in the process create safer , more valuable neighborhood that will add to our property tax base.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Small targeted Preservation based development vs. Governmental "big ideas"

We all know that the City of Cincinnati is hooked on  Federal Funds, from CDBG to NSP if there is Federal money out there the city will find some way to 'justify' getting a piece of it. It is also true that the city is largely a failure at redevelopment of historic properties. One need only look at 292 McGregor or the townhomes on Lincoln the city restored to realize this. However its the lure of the Federal gravy train that keeps them coming up with grand ideas not based in 'real world' economics. The latest of these "boondoggles" is the MSD/City MSD Lick Run which proposed to wipe out S. Fairmount to build a glorified drainage ditch with Infill around it.

So what does work? or should I say what is working? Well Knox Hill is developing a good track record in a relatively short time. These strategies will work in any area and a block by block based not some "grand plan' the city would come up with and it basically involved not reaching for the bulldozer AND lobbying when the city wants to resort to it.

Some paint and pride go a long way to turnaround and is the first step to setting a standard
In 2008 when we bought in Fairmount in what many might argue, one of the worst parts of town. A crime ridden trash strewn neighborhood. We bought our house, a foreclosure, on a block of vacant homes for 4000.00 the typical value for anything vacant or occupied. Less that 10 years ago it had been a viable working class neighborhood, where the average home sold for around 50k. The neighborhood suffered from 8 years of two assaults. One from speculator/investors making Section 8 rentals who simply walked away when the real estate bubble burst and two, the City of Cincinnati's policies and vacant building task force had targeted the area resulting in the area being essentailly redlined. So with a deck of cards like that how do you turn things around?

Step one is "rebranding".": In doing research on the neighborhood we of course learned that the neighborhood had one been home to some of the most wealthy who built the homes as 'weekend or summer homes as they vistied the Schuezenbuckle. The area was refferred to historically as Knox's Hill. Rebranding became a no brainer and as a result Knox Hill was Born or should we say reborn. By distancing ourselves from the Fairmount "Brand" we also distanced ourselves from their failed brand and policies/views which had held the  neighborhood back Setting up a neighborhood website, facebook page and sending out regular press releases to the media and other neighborhood groups are key to establish your "brand'.

Step two is determining Assets and Liabilities: In our case neighborhood assets included, Proximity to downtown, Hillside views, no through traffic, quality affordable architecture, historic background. Liabilities were low owner occupancy rates, Vacant housing and bad city policies and perception the neighborhood was not worth saving.

Step three is establishing Goals and Strategy: We decided to identify existing owner occupants who were vested in the neighborhood. We also identifies some 'first steps' to build credibility. Those included media, and agressive public relations campaign to promote the Knox Hill Brand. We publically took on problems like the VBML and when a  Motorcycle gang, planed on moving into the area in a condemned building we took them on publically and (with cooperation from cthe city) were able to run them out of the neighborhood. We gave neighbors security cameras for their front porches. We cut the vacant lots the city left behind and were not maintaining, We stood in front of known drug dealers with cameras and every car coming and going had its picture taken. The drug dealers left. Crime has declined. We then went after absentee property owners, threatening receivership but giving them an olive branch we had people looking to buy. Most took that offer. Look at the target area block map to see the difference.

This house did not need a bulldozer, just an ownership change. CPA and Knox Hill fought to save this house. Now under restoration  rather than in a landfill. Next spring KHNA will help the new owner with a landscape plan and flowers

 We decided the demolitions had to stop and we filed a complaint with HUD over the failure of the city to conduct section 106 reviews.. We fought to see that properties on the list came off because they were viable and challenged inspection reports.

The neighborhood was a sea of RED in 2008 thanks to Foreclosures and city inspections.

The Red is disappearing as homes turn to owner occupied or are in preservation hands

If you look at the map the change has been significant. Still a long way to go but we have achieved more in a neighborhood the city largely wrote off than the city has with any of its projects and it was all done with NO federal monies.

The focus in our target area has had a ripple effect as blocks nearby are improving. New restorations are coming on line and the vacancy issue is slowly being reversed. Yes it will take time, But I would argue that small targeted approach achieve significant results rather than the big project approach of Cincinnati city Government. Now if the council would ask us how to turn around a neighborhood we can show them and if they will work with the neighborhood instead of against us we can do far more.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Preservationists needed at MSD Lick Run Design Workshop Aug 11th

The Preservation Community needs to make its voice heard at the first of three 'design workshops' that are being held by MSD concerning the Lick Run Alternative project that will be held Thursday 8/11. 6-9 PM, Robert Paideia Academy, 1702 Grand Ave. It will cover the whole watershed. A total of three workshops will be held culminating in a master plan. This is your chance to be heard on this project and voice Preservation concerns and at least go on record as trying to shape the future of this project ( although we know this is set in stone already and is just 'theatre' for MSD to show they 'engaged the public').
This row of historic Buildings would be demoed and lost forever

Issues we need to point out should include:

The high "carbon footprint', and cost of demolition of historic buildings taht could be part of the project.

Negative impact to our landfill and the possibility of this project increasing  local landfill fees as result.

Lack of public input concerning section 106 review and lack of any special public meetings on that.

Why the plan was changed from one that would have preserved the historic district and only daylighted East of Grand.


Why isn't the city pursuing a less invasive approach like Portland,Oregon , Toronto and other cities have of enacting a program to disconnect downspots from the sewer system. The Portland project which was recently completed keeps more that 1.2 Billion gallons of water out of the sewer system annually.

You can see how the program worked here:

We need to present this as a more cost effective solution. This combined with rain barrels and water gardens can accomplish much of the EPA requirement and save the utility hundreds of millions of dollars in cost. If the REAL goal is satisfying EPA and not another Urban Renewal scheme (which we know this is ) then MSD should pursue this approach and save histroic Fairmount. They can still do their "daylighting" East of Grand, but if your real goal is reducing stormwater in the CSO, then this is how you do it. We can preserve our history and comply with EPA at the same time.
The V&S Annex building is a one of a kind art deco masterpiece