Soapdish: Completing the streets of Cincinnati

Mention "Complete Streets" to the average citizen slurping on Graeter's in downtown's Fountain Square and you're likely to receive at best a glazed shrug. Throw out the topic to a gaggle of urbanistas and ersatz urban planners and you're likely to receive breathless praise and rhapsodic evocations of an equal access/multi-modal urban playland in the pulsating heart of downtown.  Coincidentally or not, as will be explained below, the very fact that the nonplussed ice cream eater is, in fact, eating ice cream on Fountain Square (as opposed to driving by in a car and pointing at the fountain on their way to the freeway and their suburban-based UDF), is a direct corollary to the Complete Streets mode of thinking.

But let me back up for a moment.

For the curious and/or uninitiated, the Complete Streets ethos, as it were, evokes the concept that the streets of our cities and towns are an important part of the livability of our communities. The goal is to open up the streets for everyone, whether young or old, motorist or bicyclist, brisk, arms-akimbo walker or rolling wheelchair user, dedicated bus rider, streetcar jumper or humble shopkeeper. 

Unfortunately, however, many of our streets are designed for a single purpose, a dedicated throughway for the glorious and almighty automobile….and, more specifically, the wholesale evacuation of downtown in the most expeditious manner possible, quickly funneling you to your desired interstate of choice with nary a second to spare.

In order to provide a bit of balance to the auto-heavy equation, communities across the country have joined a burgeoning movement to "complete" the streets.  States, cities and towns are asking their planners and engineers to build road networks that are safer, more livable, and welcoming to everyone.  Twenty-two jurisdictions nationwide adopted policies in 2008, and 17 have done so in 2009. In total, there are 96 jurisdictions committed to Complete Streets. More locally, Lexington, Kentucky recently won accolades for its 2008 Streetscape Master Plan, which established guidelines and strategies for the transformation of downtown Lexington in a manner consistent with the Complete Streets ethos, including the conversion of almost all of the downtown streets from one way to two way traffic.  By instituting a complete streets policy, transportation planners and engineers seek to design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind - including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities, as well as the venerated horseless carriage.  

Compared to other cities, Cincinnati's downtown core has an admirable big city streetscape.  Downtown has pretty much the only straightforward urban grid that you will find in the region, consuming the boundaries of the basin with both a numerical street grid running from South to North, as well as the East to West streets that can be readily recalled with that handy dandy mnemonic device known as "Big Strong Men Will Very Rarely Eat Pork Chops," (i.e. Broadway, Sycamore, Main…etc.).  Moreover, Cincinnati's narrow streets, compressed dimensions, tall buildings and compact setbacks elicit comparisons to much larger and more renowned urban streetscapes.  In describing Cincinnati to outsiders, I have often likened the urban vibe in the core to that of a "big, little city" (or is it "little, big city"….?)  Regardless, the downtown grid has a suitably intimate vibe and compares favorably to the six to eight lane arterial wastelands and concrete canyons that can be found cleaving their way through the hearts of other neighboring cities such as Cleveland, Indianapolis and Detroit, not to mention some of our suburban neighbors (Beechmont or Colerain Avenues, anyone?).  

That said, however, Cincinnati would clearly benefit from a hearty injection of Complete Streets philosophy into its urban planning models.  To that end, the Mercantile Library, no doubt the oldest membership library West of the Alleghenies (circa 1835), recently hosted a productive presentation on Complete Streets featuring devotee and City Council fixture Roxanne Qualls, along with urban planner/architect Clete Benken, of the Kinzelman, Kline Gossman firm, which designed and labored over the award winning 2008 Lexington Plan.  Qualls kicked things off by noting, somewhat simplistically, but correctly, that "great streets equal great cities," and pointing to New York as a city which is continually reclaiming the streets to encourage walkability and multiple modes of transportation.  As Qualls effused, the city's streets can serve to showcase its local assets.  Unfortunately, however, the flipside is that they can also serve to obfuscate and discourage people from even caring about those assets.  

An apt anecdote can be found in the old complaints about the makeover of Fountain Square.  As noted in a prior Soapdish column, many of the crusty complaints about the $42 million Fountain Square makeover could readily be distilled down to "we used to be able to see the fountain while zooming by on 5th Street in our car at 35 mph….now we have to actually get out of our car, and we're not happy about it."   From a Complete Streets perspective, getting you out of your car and onto the Square fosters a community, an attachment to the great public spaces and their focal points, in this case, the fountain known as the "Genius of Water."  This in turn provides local businesses with customers to feed their hungry cash registers, and livens the streets with pedestrian traffic.    

Similarly, echoes of the Complete Streets theory can be found in the rationale behind removing some of the sporadic "Skywalks" around town.  While certain people enjoyed the protection from the elements offered by the Skywalks, the human habitrail tubes also served to siphon people and businesses away from the ground level, thereby diminishing the liveliness and urban feel of downtown sidewalks and replacing them with something of an elevated mall corridor.

Case in point--I work in a building several blocks from Fountain Square.  If I so desired, I could take the Skywalk through a series of uninspiring and often dimly lit corridors on my way to the Square.  In actuality, I can't imagine choosing to take the human habitrail route other than in sub-zero blizzard or deluge conditions.  There's simply something far more invigorating to be found in walking the relatively bustling streets of the city, an urban camaraderie that falls curiously flat within the interior corridors of the Skywalks.  Fortunately, Cincinnati recognized this as yet another one of those failed experiments from urban planners past, and dismantled several key links in the system, particularly those in and around Fountain Square.  In so doing, the human element which previously shuttled hither and yon on a second story bypass, is re-introduced to the great public space, in this case Fountain Square.    

Tune into next week's Soapdish for "concrete" examples as to how Complete Streets can make a difference in Cincinnati.

Photography by Scott Beseler

Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.
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