» With municipal and state funds aligned for transit project, a more livable downtown on its way.
Cincinnati is thinking seriously about how to make its proposed streetcar system a vital element of a growing downtown, not simply a trophy piece to parade around in demonstration of its progress. The city’s Planning Commission has taken a major step in that direction by signaling its support last week to significantly reducing parking requirements in areas within two blocks of future streetcar stops. The city council will have to approve the decision for the zoning code to be altered.
If it goes through with the change, Cincinnati will be demonstrating its support for a new type of urban living and promoting a model for other cities looking into funding inner-city transit systems like streetcars.
With $86.5 million currently reserved for the project and $25 million more likely to be awarded to it by the federal government later this month, Ohio’s southern metropolis is virtually assured to have a streetcar system up and running in the next three years. Cincinnati hopes that the streetcar will help spur regeneration of the communities along the line, including the riverfront area, downtown, and Over the Rhine, three areas that have significant potential thanks to beautiful existing building stock intermixed with vacant plots.
Yet a streetcar in itself will provide no guarantee that those neighborhoods will see redevelopment. Transit may encourage some people to build new housing and retail, but it certainly compels no one to do so. Just as problematic, even if the new construction comes, there is no promise from future residents or office users that they will actually use the streetcars to get around; the vehicles could be underused if implemented poorly.
That’s why the city’s decision to reduce parking minimums would be a reassuring sign that local planners understand the necessity of designing neighborhoods to encourage transit use. Today, the city requires one to two parking spaces per housing unit, even for apartment buildings constructed right downtown. The new law, if approved as likely later this year, will halve those requirements in all new construction within 600 feet of streetcar stations, even reducing them to nil in some cases for buildings with six or fewer units.
As the Cincinnati Streetcar Blog points out, this change may have the positive effect of reducing the cost of new development in Cincinnati by allowing builders to avoid building underground garages or acquiring adjacent sites for surface parking. This will reduce not only the initial investment necessary to construct in neighborhoods near the streetcar but also the cost of individual purchasing or renting, making it more likely that there will be a market for new housing in the area.
In turn, by reducing the number of parking spaces per unit, the city is encouraging people who live in downtown areas to use transit to get around — and they’ll be getting a high-quality service through the center city with the new streetcar, so that shouldn’t be much of a problem. Though some may argue that Cincinnati could have gone a step further and eliminated all parking minimums to areas near the streetcar, the initial line is short and won’t even reach the University of Cincinnati north of downtown; if and when the system is expanded, the city council may want to reevaluate the use of parking minimums at all along this corridor.
What seems likely is that by making it more difficult for people to park their cars when they decide to live in apartments along the line, they will also be more likely to take advantage of the streetcar system, take advantage of nearby retail, and generally lead a walking life. Such communities are more likely to be self-sufficient in the long-term because of support for local shops and restaurants, and they will contribute to Cincinnati’s clear interest in developing for itself the image of being an “urban” city. This is a net positive for a place that is investing a large amount of local funds in this project.
Other cities planning new modern streetcar systems — Detroit, Dallas, Tucson, and Washington, for instance, have lines mostly funded — should examine Cincinnati’s proposed zoning changes and evaluate whether they could enact similar alterations in their municipal parking requirements to encourage around the new transit lines the creation of inner-city neighborhoods in which automobile use comes second to walking and alternative transportation.
Image above: Downtown Cincinnati, from Flickr user Sonnett