In Sports Deals, Pittsburgh is Bizarro Cleveland

Once again, I am completely jaw-to-floor awestruck at how much better managed Pittsburgh is than Cleveland.

The Post Gazette is reporting the city of Pittsburgh spent a year negotiating improvements to Heinz Field. The deal they worked out will add a $1 ticket fee to help pay for a $40 million expansion.

“I am pleased that this project at Heinz Field is being completed without any public dollars, which are increasingly scarce,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

That’s what can happen if city leaders are willing to negotiate with private entities on behalf of the people they represent.

We just witnessed the absolute complete opposite in Cleveland. On the latest $260 million public deal for Cleveland’s pro-sports stadiums, City leaders like Mayor Frank Jackson and City Council President Kevin Kelley busied themselves not with negotiating the terms of the deal. That was approved by County Council just weeks after it was introduced, with no major changes.

Kelley and Jackson joined the sports teams’ side, acting as spokesmen for the teams’ campaign. They argued that if the public didn’t fund 100 percent of the repairs through a sin tax, the teams would be free to just raid the city’s general fund of $260 million under the terms of the lease.

Raid the city’s general fund of $260 million. Can you imagine? The mayor and president of City Council went on television and the radio and suggested that was a real possibility. That they would allow that to happen, rather than go back to the table and try to broker a better deal. Admit they had that power.

Ultimately, a majority of CITY residents voted against the deal. But not a single elected city representative came out against the issue. A near total leadership vacuum. There was no negotiation on the public’s behalf. They rolled out a bad deal quickly, and then got to work convincing voters that they had no other choice.

What Pittsburgh did — that’s how it’s supposed to work. Once again, I am just completely floored. Something is terribly broken in Cleveland.

–Angie Schmitt

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A Leading Expert Shares his Vision for a Transit Friendly Northeast Ohio

This post was written by Jason Segedy, head of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study — Akron’s metropolitan planning organization. It was originally published at his blog Notes from the Underground.

Marc Lefkowitz of GreenCityBlueLake was kind enough to ask me to share my views on the future of public transit in Northeast Ohio with him.

Because I think it such an important topic, I’d like to share some of the same thoughts here at Notes from the Underground.

Q: Do we need a big, transformative vision for transit in Northeast Ohio, or do we manage the best we can within our current realities and chip away at needs as they arise?

I think we need a little bit of both:

I think we do need a big-picture vision for transit, both at the metro-by-metro (Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Youngstown) level, but also at the regional (12 county level).

The key elements of the big-picture vision should involve the following: a) how can we improve cross-county express service between our core cities and our job centers – this should include express bus in the short term and commuter rail in the longer term; b) how can we improve cross-county local service for shorter trips (i.e. going from Bedford to Macedonia); c) how can we make transferring/transitioning from one RTA to the other as seamless, easy, and convenient as possible; and d) how can we improve the sharing of services (and service) between RTAs so that their county sales tax based sources of revenue are not such an impediment to providing service across county lines.

I think we also need a finely-grained, locally-oriented, service-oriented approach to transit fundamentals that is geared toward improving service, attracting “choice” ridership, and improving public transit’s image in the region.

I would argue that most of these things are not very expensive monetarily, but they do involve a lot of time, energy, creativity, and hard work.

The kind of things that I have in mind would involve the RTAs focusing even more on things like improving rider safety (mostly perception of safety); ease-of-use (using smart phone technology to give real-time travel information and for electronic fare payment); improving transit waiting environments; improving walkability and bikability to transit stops; and working more closely with local governments and private developers to improve signage, wayfinding, and to institute transit-friendly urban design.

In Greater Akron, 90% of transit passengers earn less than $20,000 per year, and our level of “choice” (non-transit dependent) riders is extremely low.  A focus on these fundamentals wouldn’t necessarily lead to a sea-change in choice ridership, but it would certainly help a lot, and it would have the equally important benefit of improving service for existing passengers.

Q: What does a bold vision for transit in Northeast Ohio look like?

I covered the “bold vision” a little bit in the first part of my answer to question #1, but I’ll elaborate a little bit more on two issues I didn’t directly address.

I think a bold vision entails two things:

First, the recognition, realization, and internalization of the fact that the county lines don’t matter to potential transit passengers.  Therefore, each RTA should be operated and administered with this fact in mind, and conduct its business accordingly.

There are lots of trips between Bedford and Macedonia and between Twinsburg and Solon, for example.  Who is serving these?  Conversely, express connections between core cities and job centers are not very good.  There are good reasons for this (fiscal, administrative, etc.) but we have to do better.

I think that the state needs to get involved in funding inter-city transit service (Canton-Akron; Akron-Cleveland, etc.) and that a transit counterpart to the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC) should be created that would provide general revenue funding for this.

Second, the vision entails the recognition that land use, economic development, and transportation policy at the state, regional, and local level is generally geared toward undermining the efficacy of transit in nearly every way.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if we were just talking about free-market competition between one mode of travel versus another, but it is a lot more than that.  Our current way of doing business in Northeast Ohio has negative ramifications on the natural environment and the built environment; it wastes energy, wastes money, leads to greater inequality, leads to more disinvestment and abandonment in our core cities, and it costs taxpayers far too much.

I blog about this issue in much greater detail here, but suffice it to say that if we continue with the land use, economic development, transportation status quo, we will never ever have a viable public transportation system.  Period.

From a public policy standpoint, we have to quit encouraging people and businesses to spread out from our core cities and inner suburbs.  It’s impossible to have a cost-effective, robust, competitive, and useful public transportation system serve a region that is built at a semi-rural population density, and that is essentially what we have in Northeast Ohio – a semi-rural region, from a built-environment standpoint.

Brooklyn, New York, for example, is roughly the same land area as the City of Akron, and it has 11 times more people.  And we’re talking two “central cities” here.  I’m not advocating that we build at New York style population densities, but we must recognize that when we get below the population density of an Akron, or Cleveland, or Cleveland Heights, or Cuyahoga Falls, it becomes virtually impossible to make transit work, especially when you don’t have significant traffic congestion or parking costs – and we don’t.

So we need to learn to reinvest in our core cities and inner suburbs – by building new higher-density housing, and encouraging business development and job creation in these places.

Ohio’s statewide transportation policy and investment decisions are a huge impediment to public transit, in this respect.  I think we are fooling ourselves if we think that we can do things like spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to widen I-271, widen I-77, and build the Opportunity Corridor, and simultaneously make transit more attractive and viable.  It can’t be done.  State transportation decisions seriously undermine efforts to reinvest in transit and in transit-friendly places.  We have to stop doing it.

Q: If Northeast Ohio had a new, large infusion of capital funds, what investment(s) in transit would you like to see?

I’d like to see most of these funds go to the “transit fundamentals” that I identified above.  I think doing 1000 small things really well, is so much more important than doing one or two large, high-visibility projects.

As much as I am a supporter of (eventually) establishing a passenger rail system, I think it would be foolish to build a commuter rail system without getting the transit fundamentals right (not just the transit “service” fundamentals, but – even more importantly – the land use, economic development, and statewide transportation investment fundamentals).

From the neighborhood, to the local government, to the region, to the state, leaders (elected and otherwise) need to understand the holistic nature of how highway expansion and also non-transportation related decisions can negatively impact the viability of public transit.

The challenge for sustainability advocates is to advance and articulate a vision for land use and economic development in the region that everyday people can understand and support, which will create the conditions where big capital transit projects can actually succeed and thrive.

If we try to avoid this political reality simply for the symbolic sake of saying that we built a large capital transit project (like commuter rail) without doing the due diligence to set it up for success, we will set transit back even further, when it fails to attract sufficient ridership, and the taxpaying public justifiably responds with “I told you sos”.


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The Faithful Press on Cleveland's Giant, Outdoor Chandelier

Here‘s Cleveland’s “architecture critic” Steven Litt defending the construction of a giant, outdoor chandelier in downtown Cleveland.

The crux of Litt’s argument seems to be if a woman from Vermont was standing under it and taking a picture of it, criticisms of this project can’t be legitimate. Litt reported on this project many times and each time he alluded to unnamed “critics” who think the project is tacky and/or a waste of money (The city of Cleveland, which has a 54 percent child poverty rate, contributed $1 million to the construction project).

Litt never found the time to talk to a single critic. In every instance he deferred to Art Falco, the director of Playhouse Square, who — by the way — does not think the project is a waste of money and/or tacky.

So far, the only national press I’ve seen weigh in on this was renown tastemaker USA Today — “hey look, Cleveland built a giant outdoor chandelier” — and Gizmodo — “here’s how a giant outdoor chandelier is even constructed.” The other publications that might be interested in a large-scale new public space installation in a U.S. city have mostly been silent. (Being polite?)

If all we need to determine the architectural quality of something is to interview a passerby, what do we need an “architecture critic” for at all? What large-scale decorative object installed in downtown Cleveland would warrant criticism from Steven Litt?

Where was the design community on this? Not speaking with the press, that’s for sure. Why is that?

–Angie Schmitt


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Wealthy Suburbs Help Keep Pro Sports on Cleveland's Payroll

The battle over Issue 7, whether or not to renew the sin tax on alcohol and cigarettes, revenues from which finances upgrades to our professional sports facilities, ended up being the main event in Tuesday’s primary here in Cuyahoga County. Ultimately, Cuyahoga County residents voted 56%-44% to continue the tax for another two decades.

The arguments for and against the sin tax, at least as it is currently defined, have been laid out quite effectively and ad nauseum; I’m not here to rehash them. It was nearly impossible for anyone watching, listening to, or attending a Cavs or Indians game to avoid being hit over the head with pro-Issue 7 ads.

The Browns, Cavs, Indians, and their allies – particularly the Greater Cleveland Partnership and The Plain Dealer (which basically acted as the official media mouthpiece of the campaign) – outspent the ragtag anti-Issue 7 crowd 170-to-1; the groups spent roughly $1.2 million and $7,000, respectively. While the anti-Issue 7 campaign mounted an effective charge on social media and built a solid, if motley, coalition around the issue, the group never really stood a chance against those odds.

In a post yesterday, Cleveland Magazine reporter Erick Trickey argued that this debate perfectly encapsulated how politics works in Northeast Ohio. Lines don’t really break down according to party affiliation – this is one of the most Democratic counties in the country. Rather,

The best way to understand most Cleveland political debates isn’t party politics. It’s, do you believe in spending tax money on “public-private partnerships” that draw people and business downtown? Or do you thinks that’s corporate welfare, giveaway of money better spent on other needs? That debate has run through our politics for decades, from tax abatement in the ’80s through Gateway in 1990 through the convention center debate in 2007, to the sin tax rematch yesterday.

This got me thinking about the political economy of this issue. We already know that all sin taxes are inherently regressive; they are consumption taxes assessed equally, regardless of income, ensuring that the poor pay more than the wealthy as a share of their income. Accordingly, it’s perhaps not surprising that, while the sin tax had already passed twice in Cuyahoga County, it failed each time in Cleveland.

Given these facts, I wanted to explore the relationships between per capita income and Issue 7 results. Below, you will see the correlation between median household income from 2006-2010 (5-year average) and the percentage of voters voting yes on Issue 7 (PDF). Income data are drawn from the American Community Survey (via NEO-CANDO), and elections results are from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.

median income & issue 7 all citiesCorrelation between median household income and Issue 7 results for all 57 municipalities in Cuyahoga County. 

As you can see, the relationship is quite strong (the correlation coefficient is .607). As income increases, so too does the percentage of voters supporting the sin tax. But, as you can see, there are a few municipalities on the right side of the chart that may be skewing the data due to their extremely high income levels. These include Bentleyville and Hunting Valley, where the median household income is $191,250 and $250,001, respectively. For comparison, the median household income for Cuyahoga County was $59,583 for this period.

In order to account for this potential skew, I removed the five municipalities who had incomes more than 2 standard deviations greater than the mean. These were Moreland Hills, Gates Mills, Pepper Pike, Bentleyville, and Hunting Valley – your extremely tony eastern suburbs. (On a related note, Gates Mills also has the highest household carbon footprint of any municipality in the region). As you see below, when I remove these five outliers, the correlation becomes even stronger (correlation coefficient of .621).

median income & issue 7 no outliersCorrelation between median household income & sin tax results with the 5 outliers removed. 

Issue 7 only failed in six municipalities; these had an average income of $47,744, more than $11,000 less than the median for the County as a whole. Five of these cities are middle class, inner-ring suburbs located just south of Cleveland; the other two are the city of Cleveland and Valley View. Shockingly, East Cleveland, easily the poorest city in the County, actually voted forthe sin tax 53%-47%.

Clearly, there is a major income divide over this issue, with lower-income voters, who will bear the burden of the tax, far less likely to support it than higher-income voters. Maybe that would have made a difference if voter turnout in Cleveland wasn’t 13.85%. But it is what it is, at this point.

By Tim Kovach


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Do Sports Facilities Make Downtown Cleveland "Strong?"

By Roldo Bartimole

The claim is that we need more public investment to keep Cleveland strong. Does the evidence prove this? You know the answer.

On Sunday April 6 the Plain Dealer ran an article based on a study done for the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was meant to measure the value of sports facilities to our community.

Hiring a firm whose business essentially serves the industry it is asked to assess suggests you don’t really want a straight answer. You seek a rigged game.

The truth is the study done by a Texas based firm Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, and promoted on the Plain Dealer’s front page represents the assessment of a business that advises about the building and renovating of arenas, stadiums, convention centers and more. It speaks to and for its client base.

The Cavalier management hired a firm supported by sports facilities to ask whether such ventures were economically productive. It got the answer it wanted.

The study estimated that more than $2.7 billion was added to the downtown economy and another $1.4 billion to the region.

In other word, the public financing was a big success. So the public should vote more subsidies.

The Plain Dealer decided the “study” was worthy of a striking front page using scarce space of 12 inches deep by four columns width in its Sunday edition. A large graphic of 210 small basketballs dramatized the points the report sought to make. It was an impressive display of the paper’s editorial position in favor of the tax. The basketballs represented jobs, taxes paid and economic activity claimed by the teams.

It is the firm’s business to serve the builders of sports facilities. Why would it ever tell clients, “It’s not worth it?”

Its study ignored vast public investments as engines of progress. It disregarded evidence of decay and failures downtown.

The study gives the client, in this case, sports owners wanting a 20-year, $290 million tax to be voted May 6, an A-plus in delivering progress. The truth is less convincing.

The PD story did quote from some economists who looked askance at the contention of success by the study financed by the Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.

Heywood Sanders, professor of public affairs at the University of Texas, San Antonio and an expert on convention centers and their economic impact upon cities, in an e-mail questioned the lack of backup material on the points made. “… the ‘economic impact’ arguments of the consultants simply act to shift the real question away from other public priorities and the benefits from sports facilities. It’s a great deal for the consultants, and the teams look like they are actually a community plus.” How convenient.

Huge public costs endured by Cleveland and Cuyahoga County for these sports facilities are ignored. It also ignores significant other public subsidies to other downtown projects.

What the PD hasn’t done and should have been doing for years is totaling what the community has spent already for these three sports franchises, all private businesses. Then let the public vote with awareness.

First, the costs for the facilities themselves. The prime financing was a 15-year sin tax. You might have thought it would end there.

Actually, it was not sufficient since the construction costs were significantly higher than originally estimated. The baseball stadium was estimated to cost $75 million. It ended costing $180 million. The arena was given a $75 million price tag but ultimately cost $157 million. Cuyahoga County had to add funds with unvoted bond issues beyond the sin tax, as noted below.

The first 15 years of the sin tax on cigarettes, wine, beer and alcohol, which the promoters of an extension of the tax say correctly, amounts to only pennies or nickels on each purchase. However, it raised an astounding $240.5 million. The true cost. On some of these purchases restaurants and retailers tag on the 8 percent sales tax. This really adds millions more in taxes.

A 10-year extended sin tax an added $113 million has collected by December, 2013. We expect another $12 to $13 million this year. It will continue through August, 2015 at about $1-million more a month, or another $9-million next year. That suggests an addition of $20 million bringing the total to about $133-million in the second 10-year period.

So for the 25 years of the sin tax, citizens will have paid $240.5 million and $133 million or some $373.5 million in pennies and nickels. How they roll in. The taxes, of course, are regressive, meaning they weigh more heavily on ordinary citizens.

No one in the news media compiles these numbers so that the public can get a feel for just how much this is taking out of the economy of Northeastern Ohio, mostly Cuyahoga County. You can’t spend the money twice.

Surely, that money could be spent elsewhere to benefit other businesses and city priorities, such as police, fire, health, recreation and neighborhood improvements.

But the costs hardly end there for taxpayer support of these sports teams. And their enormously wealthy owners.

We are still paying for Gateway overruns. This never seems to be acknowledged. In addition to sin tax. Each January 15 the County pays for two bond issues voted by Tim Hagan, Mary Boyle and Jim Petro. The bonds were for $75-million and $45-million. The $75 million bond was enacted in a 30 second meeting. The three commissioners walked into the public meeting, read a summary of the legislation and they each immediately voted “Yes,” and swiftly adjourned the meeting. In another public meeting, Hagan choose to invite construction workers there to support the sin tax into his office “for coffee” just when it was the public’s turn to comment. He and the workers left the room.

Such contempt for the public and voters.

Since 1995 bondholders have been paid each January 15 some $8 to $10 million. As part of these payments, Cuyahoga County has paid from its general revenue fund a total of $128,364,407 since 1995. In addition revenue from the city’s admission tax and the county bed tax have diverted another $45,463,717 more to bondholders from public coffers. The payments will continue through 2023.

In addition, the County and city each have repaid Gateway loans from the Cleveland Foundation of $2-million plus and each paid $3,750,000 to the State of Ohio for Gateway loans made to meet overruns on the arena construction.

Cuyahoga County also paid contractors $11.5 million for overruns on the arena construction.

Then there is the Browns Stadium. No official figure has ever been issued of the actual cost of the lakefront stadium. Most believe it cost more than $300 million to construct. It is now called First Energy Stadium. Some $102-million naming rights to be paid by First Energy go solely to the Browns. The city shares no naming rights revenue from the source though it owns the stadium and the land it sits upon.

In 2009 when I checked the city had paid $102,823,947 to bondholders. In 2010 the city refinanced bonds to the tune of another $183 million. The prospectus said the city in addition to paying bondholders had to pay $850,000 to the capital fund in 2010 through 2020. By 2021 the contribution jumps to $5.9 million and slightly higher in succeeding years until 2025 when it hits $7.5 million.

However, last year the Browns and city agreed to further capital expenditures for stadium improvements. The city pledged $2 million a year for the next 15 years. Another $30 million.

Browns stadium costs are paid via taxes voted by City Council, without a vote of residents. These taxes were levied for 29 years as follows:

– A city parking tax of 8 percent estimated to raise $213,000,000.

– A 2 percent increase in admission taxes estimated to bring in $36,000,000.

– A $2 car rental fee expected to produce $18,000,000.

– Tax revenues from the second sin tax dedicated some $110 million to the football stadium.

More came from other sources.

The State of Ohio provided $37,050,000; RTA contributed $3,000,000; the Northeast Sewer district, $2,246,760; and free use of city lakefront land valued at the time as $19,007,400. There were always suspicions that other city work was done gratis.

The Browns pay rent of only $250,000 a year without even a clause to reflect inflation increases over 30 years. In the final year renting the old stadium, Art Modell paid the city $637,144, almost three times the present rent some 20 years later. Further the city now pays more in property taxes on the land than Jimmy Haslam pays in rent. The city also pays the insurance on the stadium, which rose to $180,000 annually after 9/ll.

The other factor never really discussed is the lost tax revenue due to the sports facilities tax exemption. After promising voters in 1990 no tax abatements, Cleveland Mayor Michael White and County Commissioner Tim Hagan successfully lobbied the state legislature to totally exempt all sports facilities from paying property taxes forever. County property taxes go mostly to Cleveland schools. The sin tax promoters originally promised an additional $15 million a year to the Cleveland schools. This promise was never met. Property tax revenue is also lost in smaller amounts by the county, city and city libraries each year.

To give a feel for the loss of tax revenue due to sports facilities these figures suggest the impact.

In 2012, I asked for County figures on the value of the sports facilities and the totals for exempted taxes. Here they are:

– Progressive Field – value $172-million with exempted taxes of $904,050,000 for the year. (Gateway did pay tax on land at $134,309 in 2012).

– Quicken Arena – valued at $134-million with exempted taxes of $706,650,000. (Gateway did pay tax on land at $47,887 in 2012).

– Browns Stadium – $285-million value with exempted taxes of $1,496,205. (The city, which owns the land beneath the stadium, the only portion taxable, paid $83,822.55 in 2012).

Multiply these figures by decades of exemption and you realize what a bonanza of tax relief has been given for sports here.

Significant losses of public revenues should be considered when assessing the success of such projects. None of this is mentioned in the report to Dan Gilbert. The Plain Dealer also ignored this crucial public issue.

The other major problem with Issue 7 for the sin tax is the lack of transparency. The teams have not told us how they expect to use the money. The hint is that the millions of dollars are needed to insure the integrity of the buildings. But major items on the list seem to be larger, fancier scoreboards, which produce advertising revenue for the team owners. Nothing for the city or county.

And if the past is any hint of what’s to come there’s likely to be much misspent money.

For example, Gateway built into then Jacobs field a two-level, 900-seat restaurant and bar at a cost of $5.1 million. It became the largest restaurant in downtown Cleveland. It was fully furnished by Gateway from the cooking equipment to the spoons, forks & knives for diners. Another $2 million upscale restaurant was built into the arena, also fully furnished. Neither pays property taxes giving them another advantage over other restaurants, which not only pay taxes but have to pay for their furnishings.

Further, the Cleveland Indians enjoyed a $7-million office structure with $900,000 of furniture and equipment. The structure was not specified in the lease agreement but I was told at the time that it hid an unsightly ramp as the reason for its construction. My suggestion of shrubbery to hide the ramp fell on deaf ears. The offices included by request of the team owner an 18 foot by five foot boat-shaped conference table with an inserted metal emblems of Chief Wahoo and special wooden inserts resembling the stitching of a baseball.

Although warned by the supplier it wasn’t suitable, the Indians insisted on a certain Italian marble for its loge coffee tables. At a cost of $330,000, Gateway brought marble from Lucca, Italy. The supplier told me, “They asked for the marble, we provided it,” despite warning it was improper to use as table tops. The dark green marble tops soon began to crack. The team complained.

The Gund brothers, who owned the Cavs when the arena was built, had loges (team owners got two free loges each in their respected facilities) spent $600,000 to have them converted to living quarters. Gateway officials learned of the expenditure and the Gunds eventually paid for the alterations.

But there is more to examine to determine whether these and other projects pay off for taxpayers. The consultants failed to examine other public subsidies within downtown in their positive claims attributed to sports.

To insure adequate parking for the sports facilities the city built two parking garages financed at some $42 million in bonds. Since the teams were allowed free access to hundreds of garage parking spaces, the garages were significant money-losers. The garage built on Gateway land also enjoys exemption of property taxes. The city pays for the deficits.

The public also finance a walkway for fans at a cost of $13 million; a waterfront RTA rapid at a cost of $69 million, totally locally financed because RTA was urged to do it quickly, spurning federal funding that could have paid the major share of the cost. The line operates at a significant loss. RTA had to abort its operation for a time because of the red ink.

Although the report for the Cavalier organization credits the arena with spreading “economic growth throughout downtown Cleveland,” it ignores significant decline and ignores other massive public subsidies for downtown.

The area of E. 4th Street, just north of the Gateway complex, continually is highlighted as proof of Gateway’s success.

However, rarely do these glowing reports balance with the public costs. For example, the House of Blues on Euclid but part of the E. 4th development received financing, backed by the city to the tune of $12.8 million and a reduction in property tax value to other Euclid Avenue to help further subsidize East 4th Street.

Chris Warren, former Cleveland economic development chief now a consultant to the city, claimed that the city put more than $10 million in infrastructure, beautification, loans and tax credits into E. 4th.

However, massive subsidies often seem more to simply shift business from one part of downtown to another. The claims of major gains often really are simply location shifts in economic activity.

Right across the street from the E. 4th successes, the city’s grand architectural gem The Arcade, also heavily subsidized, has failed badly despite huge public investment: a $1 million low interest loan from the city; $2 million from Cuyahoga County; $7 million in property tax relief; a $7.1 million federal historic tax credit; a $9.6 million conservation easement donation; $1.5 million low interest loans from the Cleveland and Gund Foundations and $500,000 in other foundation loans. (Despite these subsidies a walk through The Arcade April 10 revealed it embarrassingly devoid of retail business with numerous vacancies)

(Similarly, the Halle’s building on Euclid, which received millions of dollars in subsidies and next to the Wyndham Hotel, recipient of more millions in government subsidies, was nearly devoid of retail, the space on its first floor given over to sections of cushioned chairs with a sign, “free spot” to sit. Retail had disappeared).

Maybe the best example of this misapplied credit goes to the late Dick Jacobs, owner of the Cleveland Indians when Gateway was constructed. Jacobs interests bought the old Cleveland Trust complex of buildings at E. 9th Street and Euclid Avenue, a couple of blocks from Gateway’s baseball stadium.

Surely, he expected new development there because of Gateway. However, we know that in 2005 he sold the empty complex of buildings to Cuyahoga County for $22 million. The County has held the land and endured heavy costs for a decade. The County now will build its offices there in what was once the financial center of Cleveland. (My jaunt downtown revealed that Euclid Ave., north of this area, not only is store after store mostly empty with doors chained locked and dirty windows to reveal debris inside from E. 12th to E. 9th. It has the look of abandonment. The south side has renovations proceeding. This, years after the heavy investment in public transportation on Euclid Ave.

Jacobs’s interests might also prove the economic activity can’t always be predicted. In the late 1980s Jacobs received heavy subsidies for the Public Square Marriott Hotel and Key Center – 100 percent tax abatement for 20 years worth more than $100 million and the city added $17 million in government loans at zero interest and the principal not payable for 20 years out.

Shortly after that Jacobs received from City Council the exact same sweet deal for another bank tower and Hyatt hotel on the west side of Public Square. A number of occupied buildings filled that space. They were emptied of tenants and demolished but neither bank building nor hotel has been built in the nearly 25 years since. The land remains a surface parking lot on city’s Public Square.

Downtown has become popularized by the movement of young people to the city’s center. This cannot be a bad thing.

However, too much emphasis has been given to large subsidies – as most new or converted housing is tax abated – as an equitable method of encouraging this movement. But the forgiven taxes must be made up by others city taxpayers who pay property taxes. Further, some of the conversions have been from office buildings where people formerly were employed.

No one seems to ask the major question: Who pays and who benefits?

We don’t know yet how much money the team owners and business community are putting into TV ads and other methods of pushing this new tax. The teams and corporates have met to petition black churches via Pastor and Mission. I’m told the ministers noticed that these people come when they need something. Another way they are reaching out in poverty areas is clearly shown by Angie Schmitt’s Rustwire blog piece with a dramatic photo of the cheap approach. She slams the hypocrisy hard.

With the sports teams the subsidies are clear in city after city. The owners and players benefit and the taxpayers mostly pay.

It’s time for a change and I would like to see Cleveland be strong and send the message out to other cities that there are more important things – say educating our children – than spending scarce public resources on wealthy sports owners and players.

My solution now would be to sell these sports facilities built with heavy public subsidies to the teams for $1 each. Then they could operate as most businesses do – by paying their own bills. They should now be on their own.


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Walkable Lakewood, Ohio — a Model for Healthy Transportation

Just a reminder that we still have a lot of really great, really urban places in the rust belt. Here’s a nice feature about eminently walkable Lakewood, Ohio — an inner ring suburb of Cleveland where people prefer to get around on foot and bike.

These kinds of places are rare, in part because of the lousy zoning rules that mandate suburban sprawl we’ve adopted across the U.S. Even Lakewood is guilty of these kinds of sins. Someone told me recently that the city requires houses to have garages.


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Baltimore's Waterfront to Get Yet More Parking

Fancy office towers, hotels, museums, and tourist attractions line the contours of Baltimore’s Chesapeake Bay harborfront. So too, do massive parking garages and interstate-sized roadways that feed them. What does the future hold? According to a new plan, still more parking.

waterfront parking garage

One of several waterfront parking garages at Baltimore's harbor. All photos by author

Like much of America, Baltimore waterfront development since the age of cars has been designed for the age of cars. That looks likely to continue as the waterfront grows.

The Greater Baltimore Committee and Waterfront Partnership hired architecture firm Ayers Saint Gross to prepare Inner Harbor 2.0, an overarching new plan for reinvigorating Baltimore’s Inner Harbor waterfront.

The Director of Landscape Architecture for Ayers Saint Gross, Jonathon Ceci, said about a parcel of harborfront currently covered by beach volleyball courts, “The site is basically an island cut off from the rest of the Inner Harbor. Besides Key Highway [on one side], you’ve got the water [on the other side] and a lack of parking garages. The question was, how do you make it a magnet for urban activity?”

How does Ceci plan to create “a magnet for urban activity”? Apparently, with parking garages. The Inner Harbor 2.0 plan recommends a $20 million garage on this waterfront site at a public cost of $12-14 million.

Baltimoreans should question the line of thinking that big garages are the best magnets for urban activity. Big garages and wide roads go hand in hand. They create the “island effect” that Mr. Ceci wants to eliminate.

Baltimore’s near waterfront has more high-rise parking spaces than high-rise residential units with waterfront views. There are at least 6 waterfront parking garages, and at least 14 large parking garages within one block of the waterfront. At least 9 parking garages rise to between 7 and 12 stories tall. The waterfront has around 4,500 parking spaces already planned or under construction: 4,000 at the Horseshoe casino and about 500 at Rash field.

Meanwhile, the one-way street pairs adjacent to the harbor have 10 lanes of through traffic, while at many times, cars cannot make it through a light in one cycle. Baltimore has used these streets for 180-mile per hour races.

What Baltimore’s waterfront has gained by attracting tens of thousands of cars it might have lost by being unfriendly to pedestrians, bicyclists, urban livability, and more local populations. Walkers can enjoy a promenade ringing the water, but to venture inland, they have to cross many lanes of unfriendly traffic. These physical road barriers separate the water from Baltimore’s traditional downtown and may limit economic development from more easily sweeping inland.

A family racing to safety at Baltimore's Harbor

Ironically, all the car infrastructure may not make car driving easy. Supersized roads and garages contribute to congestion that can offset cars’ theoretical time-saving advantages. Driving across town and up and down garages sometimes is slower than walking and bicycling. The business case for more parking erodes if corresponding congestion leads to traffic jams and stress.

Lombard Street

Rush hour traffic near Baltimore's Inner Harbor

By adding four high frequency Charm City Circulator bus routes, Baltimore has made progress. It can do much more to shift the balance.

Here are some additional ideas to consider near the waterfront:

  • Create an app that directs cars to affordable satellite parking spaces.
  • Create a tax on new parking garages and dedicate the revenue to non-automotive transportation.
  • Let developers choose to pay into an alternative transportation fund instead of building parking as required by zoning.
  • Encourage parking at outlying transit stations that serve downtown.
  • Re-introduce and enforce bus-only lanes downtown.
  • Create peripheral park & ride lots with frequently departing shuttles servicing downtown, similar to the way airport shuttles work.
  • Create iconic Inner Harbor bus shelters.
  • Operate Camden Line trains on weekends for special events and Orioles games.
  • Ask the Orioles to reward fans for not bringing a car.
  • Create a discounted MTA family pass.
  • Ask downtown employers to create financial incentives for employees to not bring a car.
  • Build Pratt Street and Key Highway cycletracks to support bicyclists and bikeshare.
  • Add Charm City Circulator routes to South Baltimore, Canton, the Casino parking garage, and new park & ride locations.
  • Make sure the east-west Red Line moves forward.

Baltimore’s waterfront must be accessible to people who own cars. However, with more affordable, safe, and convenient alternatives, some drivers would be happy to visit the city’s downtown waterfront, while leaving the car outside of the city center.

Jeff La Noue

Similar version of article cross-posted on Comeback City


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