Downtown Cincinnati: Get a Life

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Faced with mounting levels of air pollution and gridlock, local government seems finally to be getting serious about improving mass transit. In Cincinnati terms, this means mass transit is being penciled in on the many amorphous plans for an improved downtown.

Local politicians have long been fond of boasting about Cincinnati's apparent immunity to such big-city curses as smog and heavy traffic. That boast is getting difficult to make these days. And if the improved downtown increases the number of people going to and fro, smog and traffic will only get worse.

A sweeping new mass transit system would not only reduce gridlock, it could also increase the number of visitors downtown. Whereas it's debatable whether new stadiums will attract more sports fans, there are many people who will not come downtown at all because the driving confuses them and finding and paying for parking infuriates them.

Buses might solve these problems, but many Cincinnatians are hesitant to ride because they don't know where to get on or which route to take.

Trains, on the other hand, are like planes: They go from hub to hub. At each station, schedules are posted on the walls for nervous passengers to consult.

But for downtown Cincinnati to succeed, the city needs more than just big, flashy projects.

I used to work for a downtown luxury hotel. The guests ­ most of whom visit dozens of cities each year ­ frequently complained that there was nothing to do in Cincinnati. They passed this reputation on to friends and colleagues.

Downtown Cincinnati offers mostly locked doors and dark windows in the evenings and on weekends. There are things to do, certainly, but they're scattered. Some of the best entertainment options are located in Over-the-Rhine, an area that scares away many would-be patrons.

What makes downtown restaurants and clubs interesting is that they're independently owned. But independent ownership also often means they don't have the resources to stay open during slow periods. They have a transient, unpredictable clientele. What they need is the stability of a significant residential population.

I moved downtown two years ago, and the change in my life was profound. Walking to work relieved me of the stress of driving through rush hour traffic or the inconvenience of taking the bus. I had to walk just a block and a half to work, and I used the time saved to sleep later. Eating lunch at home saved money and was more relaxing than being in a noisy restaurant.

But there are also disadvantages to living downtown. There's no supermarket or 24-hour convenience store. Small grocers and markets offer better food than supermarkets but, unless you plan carefully, it's possible to end up with no food and no place close to get any.

It is similarly difficult to go out for a spur-of-the-moment six-pack and snacks. The people most likely to accept these sorts of inconveniences are the young adventuresome types, but most of the housing in the heart of the city is well beyond their budget.

The city could do a few things to break this vicious cycle of low downtown residency and lack of amenities. A supermarket could be given a Lazarus-esque deal in a prime location. Zoning committees could redirect development projects away from the suburbs and toward the city's center.

The money required to encourage growth of downtown residency is nominal compared to what's being spent on stadiums, arts centers, shopping and other attractions. The benefits of a larger downtown residential population would compliment these larger projects.

And, regardless of which mass transit system Cincinnati ultimately chooses, the best way to reduce commuter traffic is to reduce the number of commuters.

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