A preemptive contention

July 19th, 2014

I hear through the grapevine that people are now collecting economic statistics on the recent development of Over-The-Rhine in an effort to demonstrate ‘the economic impact of the streetcar’. My contention with whatever they will is obvious enough that I feel silly making it but yet the folly goes forward rather oblivious to my mind.

The Streetcar doesn’t exist yet, people. Let’s cool down the propaganda machines.

What might be measured by and interesting in their report is the development of a neighborhood in rapid transition for any reason. What cannot be evident is the effect of a project not yet realized, unless we consider it only as a local, government outlay in which case we may as well have set to work digging ditches of a more ordinary sort. The effect they intend to measure, though they won’t put it in these words, is the effect of their own boosterism, a fully psychological impact. They want to show us how big their bubble is.

Please, all of you, do the spirit of rationality a favour: if you hear someone saying the streetcar is already, clearly, making OTR better, point out that the streetcar has never yet been seen to function. Demand serious analysis for claims that any one thing has dramatically effected something so complex as a whole, urban neighborhood.

11 responses to “A preemptive contention”

  1. Neil says:

    Here is a rational argument: seeing the construction in place is generating interest which in turn is spawning investment. I biked the route last weekend, btw and noted that there were more rehabs going on North of Liberty than there was when I previously was up there back in December and that seemed to be concentrated along the route.

    One of the biggest problems with canceling the route when Cranley tried to btw is that people already were investing along the line hoping for payoff due to increased property values.

    I’ll agree with you that much of the streetcar debate has been blown out of proportion and made completely nutty due to the sheer controversy that’s been spun up by the local paper and a certain boondoggley googley organization that I’m sure your aware of. On the flip side there are rational arguments on all sides and irrational ones too. I appreciate your perspective because its a well thought out critique which is very hard to find given the political environment of the issue.

    • Nate Wessel says:

      Any sort of development/construction feeds into other development in a highly non-linear way. This is why cities form, and why stars coalesce from nebulae.

      I won’t disagree that a large amount of development was started at least nominally by the thought of the streetcar, but that development might as well have been started by almost anything, and is now (safely??) self-reinforcing. History provides so many interesting examples here :-)

  2. Neil says:

    You are right, there are a ton of examples of government development spurring private development. One of the most interesting IMO is the Library in the South Loop in Chicago, which everyone thought was insane when it was first built because the area was kind of sketchy, but now its part of one of the most desireable neighborhoods in the city thanks in part to the development that it brought with it.

    Back to OTR, I see benefits to having a circulator in that area which is quite well built up for it, especially if it ever goes up the hill (which would be a huge boon to bicyclists who aren’t well trained in going up hills). I understand your critique about its design, and those are good points, but at the very least there is something there that will generate interest that goes deeper than a traditional bus. Cincinnati has not only a problem with transit infrastructure it also has a problem with culture. The culture is still very car oriented, I remember being in OTR during MPMF and the group I was hanging out with wanted to drive from Main Street to Race across from Washington Park – less than a 5 min walk. Me and another Chicago friend mentioned that there is no need to drive. The fact that we had to do that does illustrate a real issue with Cincy’s transportation culture.

    While your transit maps saught to address that issue, I think something like a rail will further change perceptions of transit. I also feel that the plan in the works to add more Metro*Plus routes will do wonders if the people are actually willing to pay more taxes for it. I get that you feel this is all psychological and not substantial, but sometimes the world does run on irrationality and we need to come up with logical solutions to address that ;)

    • Nate Wessel says:

      A criticism that something is ‘purely psychological’ in no way invalidates the need to address it substantially. I totally agree with you there. Oh, that rationality might one day hold sway! Socrates’ method might have saved us some trouble a while back, but for our silly emotions…

      But my problem with the approach the city(lowercase c) has been taking is that the proposed solutions are unnecessarily expensive. In fact, I’d say the cheap solutions keep being avoided by the urbanist/left-politcal crowd because they’re not grand enough to evoke strong feelings.

      If a transit map did do anything to help change people’s perceptions, the project should be continued, expanded, and hailed as a massively efficient success. But no one has taken it up and the maps are out of print. Let’s be really really generous and say that putting a good transit map in front of 100,000 people each year would cost $30,000/year.

      What will the streetcar cost in a single day?

      Which might have the better return?

      This is a false choice, but my point is that the expensive option is chosen while the cheap one is neglected. If the little cheap, easy things could be fixed at the same time, if we could pick the low hanging fruit at the same time that someone goes for the ladder, that would be totally cool with me. But I only see us collectively reaching for the ladder while fruit on the lower branches starts to rot in the sun.

      This is what I see SORTA and the political body of Cincinnati doing as it concerns transit. Bicycle infrastructure on the other hand seems to be happening in a much healthier, more reasonable, incremental fashion.

      One other example before I commit my comment: The real-time transit data. Who is seriously advocating for that? That could be a huge, if marginal improvement in the ease of using transit for many people. Who is seriously demanding it? What would it cost SORTA to provide? Just a little goddamn staff time, once. Set it and forget it! But do they do it? Nope. The priority set by their political bosses is on big flashy changes, not marginal improvement.

      This IS a way to change minds, but I think, not the best or even fastest.

  3. Neil says:

    “But my problem with the approach the city(lowercase c) has been taking is that the proposed solutions are unnecessarily expensive. In fact, I’d say the cheap solutions keep being avoided by the urbanist/left-politcal crowd because they’re not grand enough to evoke strong feelings.”

    Normally I’d completely agree with this, but what’s at stake here should provoke strong feelings – Over the Rhine is a neighborhood of the caliber that should be celebrated by the city and should have been restored 40 years ago like all other neighborhoods in the country that are comparable. Anything can and should be done to overcome the extreme inertia that is endemic to Cincinnati in order to get the right thing done, and frakly Over-the-Rhine is on the verge of completely falling down making Cincinnati into yet another in a long line of mediocre Midwestren cities. That’s what’s so frustrating, Cincinnati has some tremendous assets but it never takes advantage of it due to a strongly ingrained culture of inertia combined with misdirected pride towards being mediocre.

    That dovetails into my argument towards your statements on your maps:

    “If a transit map did do anything to help change people’s perceptions, the project should be continued, expanded, and hailed as a massively efficient success. But no one has taken it up and the maps are out of print. Let’s be really really generous and say that putting a good transit map in front of 100,000 people each year would cost $30,000/year.”

    If Cincinnati didn’t have its bizarre brand of prideful self-loathing / insular in-group/out-group politics that map would have been embraced by the wider community. Cincinnati NEEDS something dramatic to put its people on a trajectory that moves it in a direction that isn’t a continuation of its downward spiral of mediocrity. Look at the “Gateway Development” in OTR, that brought in a lot of stuff to the city that I would have never dreamed would have come down there – people coming from cities all over the country to bring in hip new concepts and revive grand but mostly lost history just because of the investment that 3CDC put into that area. The streetcar isn’t about creating just investment, its about catalyzing what’s already there.

    Cincinnati is a weird city with a bizzare culture, real world logic doesn’t apply to how it works, sometimes something bold is needed to shake a way too entrenched and inbred culture of self-destruction. Most people outside of Cincinnati think of it as another Dayton or another Youngtown or what ever depressed rust belt city of very little character, when in fact its architectural character has more in common with Boston and Philadelphia. Sadly this is not matched by a culture that takes pride in such things. This is why something bold has to be done, there needs to be a jolt to get the city to wake up, open its eyes and realize what potential it has.

    • Nate Wessel says:

      Perhaps I am calling for a healthier diet when a defibrillator is needed?
      I think can totally appreciate that perspective.
      –By the way, thanks for taking the time to offer it in such detail :-)–
      To extend the metaphor: at a certain very specific point, the shocks must stop, and the diet advice becomes important again, though after a whole lot of intensive ER and outpatient care.

      Perhaps I’m a dietician hanging out in the ER, shocked at the use of knives and needles?

      Let me venture a guess as to why our perspectives have differed:
      I’m not from here. I came here in 2007, and thought OTR and downtown were just the coolest things ever. Certainly under-appreciated. Since I’ve lived here, I’ve seen them(or OTR at least) boom through the recession and become popular destinations again. Really of course, they already were and have always been popular destinations for someone or other, but I’ve seen them become popular among my peer group. While I’ve been here, OTR and downtown have done nothing but grow in most respects.

      I’ll interrupt myself here: My metaphor is broken, for there is limited room around the gurney, but not in the city. Our struggle for resuscitation involves thousands of people over many years, none of whom must work in unison. Complementarity is the name of the game in cities.

      Back: I take for granted that OTR will now be appreciated as it should be. That the patient is recovering.

      Those who have lived through the riots, etc, will see a precipice where I see firmity.

      But if we are to have firmity, a totally psychological state, like recession, my mindset must be the mindset of the future, while the one that sees the chasm is the one that must go.

      And there may not be any solution to that but to outnumber the cautious with the unconcerned. I’ll admit that the recession has scarred me, and it will be years if ever before I ‘ll stop spending like a miser. I hear that people who lived through the depression carried their habits to the grave.

      One can’t unsee the abyss.

  4. Neil says:

    “Back: I take for granted that OTR will now be appreciated as it should be. That the patient is recovering.
    Those who have lived through the riots, etc, will see a precipice where I see firmity.”

    Both of these are spot on observations btw. I still see all of Cincinnati as a precipice, though I agree, its outlook is more hopeful than it has been in decades the patient is recovering I think though, you might feel the patent is ready to start walking around, where as I think they need a bit more rest and maybe some medicine to help heal a bit more for fear of relapse back into the horrific state they were in earlier.

    To give you a bit of my background, I’m not from Cincinnati, but grew up just south of Dayton, so in the area people call Dayton Suburbs but still part of the Cincinnati MSA. I had interactions with both cities, and was always much more excited by Cincinnati than I was Dayton. Dayton was kind of boring, kind of ugly and kind of dead. Cincinnati by comparison felt alive and vibrant, its buildings were cooler and there are pockets like around the University that really feel like a much larger city with people walking around. This represented city in my mind (not Dayton), and it really helped that Cincy’s architecture is comparable to the Northeast, because popular consciousness views a traditional city as looking like something from there and not much of the midwest.

    I moved to Cincy right after the riots, I always wanted to live in the city. Big mistake – I literally saw things crumble before my eyes, cool places close down, the most gorgeous buildings en masse get torn down the city loosing more population around that time than it had in previous decades. By the time I left in 2007 I was completely and utterly jaded by this place – why do people in Cincy let their gorgegous unique architecture get torn down without any kind of fight? Why does the owner of the Esquire cinema claim that a film has to be censored because Cincinnatians won’t get it? Why do people in Cincinnati have such a low opinion of their city when in a lot of ways its extraordinary? These are questions that bugged me a (the Esquire one btw being representative of a culture of self-loathing) lot and even after leaving them being the obsessive analytic thinker that I am, I continued to ponder them, as I replaced my environment with one that loves trying bold experiments and has a deeply ingrained sense of pride (Chicago btw which has its own set of problems I know, but they are a whole ‘nother can of worms and the outlook for the city IMO is optimistic). A funny side thing, as I left a friend of mine gave me a Cincinnati history book, because deep down I knew Cincy was unique but was so frustrated / worn down by the mentality that believed otherwise – I wanted to know what made it the unique place that it is and perhaps better understand what went so wrong.

    I traveled a lot, and got to see all these other amazing places that made good use of what they had, and because those questions were still nagging on my mind I came up with the conclusions that I reached above about Cincinnati’s serious cultural problems – even somewhere like Savannah Georgia with no real economy made better use of its assets / had more pride in them than Cincinnati did and is well known for what it has to offer tourists at least. My impression of Cincinnati was that of an underachiever (which was reinforced by people I knew down there who complained a lot but never left in spite of them wanting to).

    I still have family in the area and checked in on Cincy at one point being completely and utterly blown away by what I saw around 2010ish. This was the result of a massive change in leadership – leadership I helped elect back in 2006 because wearily I had an instinct that that leader (Mallory) would do something way better for the city than what Luken had continued to left fester (though I’ll give Luken one thing – 3CDC, though I think the convergence of 3CDC with Mallory’s leadership is what brought the city to where it is today). I was proven right by that visit, I learned about the beer tunnels and a lot of architectural history of Over the Rhine, a neighborhood I loved but was kind of scared by frankly (Seeing the Northeast and to a lesser extent my life in Chicago gave me a strong idea of what the character of that neighborhood should be like if healthy and a deeper love/appreciation of what mass transit is capable of accomplishing when implemented – Cincy’s backwards views on transit robs it of a lot of vitality). Now I could actually visit OTR, I could be comfortable hanging out there without worrying too much about safety it was a weird thing. I’ve been going back every few months or so since then getting family time in and always setting aside time to marvel at how the place has changed faster than I could have possibly imagined :). My interest led me to the blogging community and your blog btw, which is a fun read.

    Good discussion btw, I love these massive exchanges of ideas particularly when its about a hard problem to solve, in this case being what Aaron Renn called on his blog the “conundrum” of Cincinnati. I think we’ve pretty much reached where we stand on these issues but I thought I’d give you a quick reminder that I am all for Metro*Plus and see it as a first step towards getting parts of town outside of OTR/Downtown in on better mass transit. The streetcar will be good as a complimentary calculator that’s easy to use for hitting hopefully two key parts of the city along with being the last big step before I can declare the sickly city of Cincy as being ready to exit the hospital (though physical therapy sessions and a good diet will still be assigned going forward) ;)

    The end goal will be full light rail well planned, but that’s a pipe dream right now, eh ;)

  5. Nate Wessel says:

    It is all relevant isn’t it? I grew up in the suburbs of Canton/Akron and ended up coming here as my big city escape. Cleveland never really held anything for me, certainly not Columbus.

    The people I’ve met who spent much of their childhood in Cincinnati, those with ambition, had to get out to Chicago, NYC, the next step up. Can you imagine the angst of someone who grew up in Manhattan?? ;-)
    Perhaps their only way up/out is temporal, which might explain some things…

    To be honest, I think I may have to make another escape.

  6. Neil says:

    Do what you gotta do. I’m very happy you’ve helped contribute to a bit of a cultural revolution that’s brewing in Cincinnati at least, you may think the reach of your maps was limited, but what I saw was a symptom of the city finally being on an upward trajectory and finally doing some things that were healthy and not setting itself up for terminal decline. The Internet has provided a MUCH NEEDED source of conversation of unconventional views and has finally provided a nice counterbalance to the prevailing winds of cultural dysfunction.

    Cranley’s election IMO proves that there is still much work to be done and if you stick around I’ll be cheering for you, but if you decide to leave I totally understand.

    And lol, someone who grew up in Manhattan, maybe they’d be pining to move to Shanghai, because while Manhattan is the center of the universe Shanghai right now seems to be the land of opportunity for highly ambitious people ;)

  7. You are right that the streetcar has not begun operating yet, but that doesn’t matter. That’s not how investments are made. For example, if Google announces, or word gets out that Google will come out with the next big innovation, its stock value will go up. By the time the product hits the market, the increase in value has already been realized. Now, with that said, the stock price of Google going forward, after the product has hit the market, will be a reflection, in part, for how that product performs.

    The same is true for real estate. When a developer buys up a bunch of land and announces a big investment, surrounding properties increase in value. The same also happens when an undeveloped area unserved by infrastructure is announced by local governments that it will soon be served by roads, sewers and water mains.

    In the case of Over-the-Rhine, business owners and residents have specifically cited the promise of the streetcar as the cause of their investment. This is a natural way in which investment works. People base their investments on things that have not happened yet…that’s the risk involved. Since the product, in this case the streetcar, has not yet been realized yet, that makes their investment speculative.

    The speculative investments in OTR are a bit protected due to a number of other things going on, but to say that because the streetcar hasn’t begun operating yet means it can’t influence economic investments is silly, and would be ignoring first-hand evidence to the contrary.

    • Nate Wessel says:

      Allow me to clarify my point by yours. (I don’t disagree with anything you say by the way.)

      Let’s say that Google announces a new product and the stock goes up based on their past successes, but when it actually comes out all the batteries explode and burn people. Stock will presumably go down to some place below where it was when the product was announced because the product ended up being a liability (or negative value) and nothing else changed.

      The difference between the price-on-expectation and the price-after-disappointment is the degree to which people were collectively wrong about the actual value of the product. The difference between the price-on-expectation and the original price is the size of the speculative bubble. Bubbles don’t always pop though.

      The only things we could try to measure at this point are:
      1. The current size of the bubble which may or may not pop and could yet inflate or contract.
      2. The impact of the direct spending on construction which could as well have been for anything, including the construction of a jail or a dildo factory.

      My use of the word ‘bubble’ is intentionally somewhat provocative. In my sense, the whole economy is a bubble, perhaps a foam, held together by collective expectations of a stable future(civilization).

      The difference between us I think is that I suspect people have collectively misjudged the value which the streetcar will actualize. I’m not saying the batteries will explode–that’s another needless provocation–but that they are wrong to some significant degree. If they aren’t then we could indeed measure the value of the streetcar now. But that assessment remains for the future.

      The complicating part is that their investments based on potentially-wrong expectations are self-reinforcing. Thus it may not be possible to properly measure the actual value of the thing itself at some point in the future.