Saturday, October 13, 2012

America's first Interstate to be abandoned--when and where?

   Sometime in the next 5-15 years, a remarkable event could occur. The first section of Interstate or interstate-quality highway will be abandoned somewhere in this country due to a lack of funds.

   It will probably be a short, lightly used section of road with a decaying, expensive bridge in the middle of it. The highway department responsible for closing that section of road will try to minimize the significance of the event by calling it a temporary closure. They themselves may not even realize at that moment the closure is permanent. But it won’t be the last abandonment. My home state of Ohio’s stagnant population growth makes it a likely place for this momentous event to happen here first.

   What’s even more remarkable is that it may be inevitable. There are many reasons why this will occur: rising construction costs, stagnant gas tax revenue from more fuel-efficient vehicles, high gas prices, a declining middle class, retiring Baby Boomers (75 million Americans) and car-apathetic young people (80 million Americans) that drove 23 percent fewer miles 2001-09 than did the prior generation.

   Why could it be inevitable? Legislators and voters refuse to increase road taxes, institute vehicle-mile fees or convert “freeways” into toll roads. Even if they did, the higher user costs might cause people to drive even less. The effects of this unprecedented situation are profound.

   Foremost, highway departments are trying to hoard all the taxpayer dollars they can, including $51.5 billion in federal subsidies since 2008 to bail out the Highway Trust Fund and $29 billion in federal stimulus dollars to expand roads they can’t afford to maintain. But it kept road builders busy during the recession.

   Hoarding taxpayers’ dollars is one reason why rail and transit projects are being killed by governors like those in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin – so the politically active highwaymen can continue feeding at the public trough. A spokesman for Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray (a former asphalt industry association executive) confirmed this remains an issue for ODOT when he was asked recently if his department would support plans for Columbus-Chicago passenger rail service.

   “As I am sure you are aware, Ohio, like many other states, has limited transportation funds that do not cover the existing commitments for infrastructure investment,” Wray’s spokesman said. “This financial reality makes the needed capital investment as well as the on-going operating subsidy that would be required for a passenger rail route very difficult.”

   This is all the more ironic as ridership has risen nationwide on trains and buses by 30 percent in the 21st century while miles driven have fallen to their lowest levels since before 2004. So funding is being denied to trains and transit which people are using more often in an attempt to keep people driving, which they are doing less.

    The primary goal of government agencies like ODOT is survival. Under current laws, the only way ODOT can survive is to keep people driving and the gas taxes flowing. Meanwhile, ODOT has no way to capture the value from people riding trains and transit to support those new activities and transition into a multi-modal transportation agency.

   Alas, ODOT spends only 1 percent of its budget on public transportation, even though 9 percent of Ohio households have no cars – that’s 1 million people. Even more households have multiple wage earners sharing one car per home. These numbers are growing as Ohio gets poorer – median family income has fallen to its lowest levels in 27 years. Yet Ohio spends less on basic public transportation than it does to cut the grass along its interstates. Ohio legislators need to find a way to capture value from Ohioans traveling by trains and transit.

   Furthermore, well-funded and organized civil rights activists, environmentalists and fair housing advocates see transportation agencies taking money from public transit to save an aging, overbuilt highway system from insolvency. They recently won a federal action against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for failing to include transit improvements as part of a $1.7 billion highway interchange in Milwaukee.

   One could argue that ODOT’s policies do that every day by spending so little on transit compared to the number of Ohioans who have no access to cars. Physical access to basic services is a human right in a civilized society. Whether Ohio chooses to remain one will depend on its actions in the coming years as we continue to get older and poorer.

   So that first section of abandoned interstate will be symptomatic of the sweeping changes occurring in America’s transportation system. It’s why the highwaymen are trying to postpone it for as long as they can. It’s a tough pill for them to swallow. But it’s inevitable. The only question is where and when.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

The 2011 Cleveland Browns, a 1985 redux?

To me, NFL training camp is one of the most enjoyable occasions in pro sports. It is a time when otherwise inaccessible football players are accessible. It is when you can sit (or stand) with die-hard football fans in the scorching summer sun in Berea, dissect the repetitions of players and pretend to be a coach for a day.

It is also a time when all optimism is justified. And, yes, that even applies in Berea.

One only needs to look at last year to know that anything can and does happen in the NFL. Philadelphia fans were ready to book hotel rooms in August for the Super Bowl, only to see their star-studded Eagles finish 8-8. Meanwhile, some Cincinnati fans were discussing last August, before another expected losing season, whether they should select Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III in the 2012 draft. Instead, their young team made the playoffs.

So each summer I remember what it was like to be a naive young guy in high school and college in the 1980s, with a reverence for pro football players for their athletic abilities. I also revered the NFL in bringing us their refined performances. After 30 years of labor disputes, franchise free agency and just growing more cynical with age, I've lost much of that unbridled optimism.

Except during training camp.

And this year, I feel something I haven't felt in nearly 30 years. The summer of 1985 was a remarkable time for the Browns -- and me. I was leaving home for the first time to live off-campus at Kent State University so I could start my own life. That excitement was heightened by off-field moves made by the Browns that summer and by the anticipation of coming seasons.

The Browns aggressively traded college draft picks the year before to acquire more high-round choices in a special supplemental draft of players in the United States Football League. They also aggressively picked up the contracts of several other USFL players. In all, the Browns acquired defensive lineman Sam Clancy (10-year NFL career), offensive lineman Dan Fike (11-year NFL career), punter Jeff Gossett (1 pro bowl), cornerback Mark Harper (7-year NFL career), linebacker Mike Johnson (2-time pro bowler), running back Kevin Mack (2-time pro bowler), wide receiver and returner Gerald "The Ice Cube" McNeil (1 pro bowl), and cornerback Frank Minnifield (4-time pro bowler). Their only USFL pickup who didn't work out was linebacker Doug West. He never played in the NFL.

Then another supplemental draft was held, this time in the summer of 1985. The reasons for that draft are too complicated to describe here, but the Browns traded future draft choices (including two first-rounders) to select quarterback Bernie Kosar. Also a former baseball pitching prospect, the Boardman, OH native wanted to play for his hometown Browns, making him an immediate fan favorite. Indeed, like other Cleveland fans, I couldn't wait for the 1985 season to start. The national publications weren't so optimistic, however.

"They were No. 2 in the NFL in defense last year and still finished at 5-11," wrote Paul Zimmerman in his 1985 NFL season preview in Sports Illustrated. "The offense was nowhere. Once you got by Ozzie Newsome, the AFC's top pass catcher, the next-highest Brown receiver ranked 78th in the league. ...The Browns' schedule is too vicious, the offense too unsettled for there to be much improvement, but at least the team is showing some smarts."

That team went 8-8 in a then-weak AFC Central Division, which the Browns won. It started a five-year streak of playoff seasons. The city went Browns crazy, with Browns songs on the radio, downtown statues decorated in Browns clothing, the "Dawgs" became a household name here and otherwise sane people ate dog biscuits to cheers of family and friends. My family often held Browns game-day parties and every Sunday morning in the fall felt like Christmas morning to me.

And then it all ended.

Bad drafts and trades, the franchise leaving for Baltimore only to win a Super Bowl there, and only three winning seasons since 1989 have eroded enthusiasm for the Browns' by me, my family and apparently the entire city.

Except during training camp.

Each summer takes my memories back to 1985. But this year's training camp has some meaningful similarities with that watershed year. The Sports Illustrated article quoted above contains several examples... The 2011 Browns finished 4-12 despite having the NFL's 10th-ranked defense, similar to the 1984 team. The Browns' offense, especially its receiving corps, was anemic in 2011 as it was in 1984. Also the Browns' 1985 schedule was predicted to be difficult, as is 2012's.

Also similar is the fact that nearly everyone around the league is overlooking the Browns this year, including in our own division. A search of media websites in any of our three rival cities -- Baltimore, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh -- shows little if any reporting on the Browns' off-season aggressiveness in procuring talented players. Only former Browns hall-of-fame tight end Newsome, now Baltimore Ravens general manager, seemed to pay much attention.

“You start with Cleveland, anytime you can get a running back, it shortens the game," said Newsome in a post-draft news conference. "And them getting a guy like Trent [Richardson] and then getting a quarterback -- but not only a quarterback -- a quarterback that has some maturity, I think that learning curve may be a lot shorter with him. So, they did a good job."

The quarterback, former baseball pitching prospect Brandon Weeden, joins the incredibly talented Richardson, fast/big wideout Josh Gordon, speedy receiver/returner Travis Benjamin, "plug-and-play" offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, rangy linebacker James-Michael Johnson (no relation to 1980s Mike Johnson!) and more. All were aggressively sought by the Browns to fill voids on offense by making trades, drafting players ahead of projections, and even taking part in a supplemental draft -- the first time for the Browns in a long time since when? You guessed it, 1985.

I don't make predictions because I don't pretend to see into the future. But I can tell you what's in the past. And if the example of 1985 is any indication, then this year will be a season of hope for long-suffering Browns fans like me. If the parallels hold true, that also means that the following year of 2013, like 1986, could be a breakout year (as long as it doesn't end the same way, with a broken heart on the doorsteps of the Super Bowl).

Our promising rookies this year will get NFL experience to apply in 2013, hopefully enough to realize that size and speed aren't enough to excel in the pros. Next year, I hope we will add more firepower in the draft and hopefully through free agency, what with all the salary cap space the Browns offer.

Admittedly, that's a lot of hoping. But that's what training camp does for me. My fellow Browns fans, it's OK to join me in hoping. This year, maybe for the first time since 1985, we are seeing the start of something that can be special for years to come.

I hope.


Friday, March 2, 2012

County offices may move to East 9th & Euclid after all

Although Cuyahoga County leaders officially remain mum on the subject, it looks like county administration offices may be moving to the corner of East 9th Street and Euclid Avenue after all. But it's not the same destination desired by the previous county commission government.

A real estate study conducted in late-2011 for the county by Allegro Realty Advisors Ltd. recommended selling off 22 of its 66 properties to save $91 million. Most of the savings for the county would come from selling properties or terminating leases at these five sites:  current administration building on Ontario Street, the ex-Ameritrust Center (aka Breuer Tower) at East 9th and Euclid, the Sterling Building on Euclid in Playhouse Square, the old Juvenile Court building on East 22nd Street and Reserve Square on East 12th Street.

Two top county officials -- a councilperson and a department head -- spoke off the record in pointing to the Huntington Building, 925 Euclid Ave., as the site where as much as 300,000 square feet of county office space and about 1,000 county employees could be consolidated. The address is across Euclid from the Breuer Tower and Cleveland Trust rotunda -- where the county previously sought to relocate. That property's 2005 purchase was approved by the former county commissioners four years before they were swept out of office by voters installing a reformist charter government.

The 1.3-million-square-foot, 1924-built Huntington Building can meet county site-selection goals that might otherwise seem contradictory -- an affordable space that provides a magnificent architectural experience for visitors having to do business with the county. The Huntington Building was purchased in 2010 by Optima Ventures LLC for a bargain $18.5 million, or just $14 per square foot. The building has a majestic but now vacant lobby, which when it opened 88 years ago was the largest bank lobby in the world. It features marble Corinthian columns, barrel-vaulted ceilings and colorful murals by Jules Guerin (see photo below).

Also the new location for consolidated county offices will need to offer large floor plates and the possibility for natural lighting to reduce energy costs. The 22-story Huntington Building offers floor plates measuring 65,000 square feet (compared to less than 9,000 square feet of usable space per floor in the Breuer Tower) in addition to numerous light wells. After financial services firm Ernst & Young and law firm Tucker Ellis & West move out of the Huntington in spring 2013 to Flats East Bank, about half of the building will be vacant. Huntington Bank already moved out in 2011, relocating its regional headquarters with 100,000 square feet of offices to 200 Public Square. The Huntington has the most vacant office space available downtown.

"We have to keep costs down so (that means) we're not going to build new," said the department head who did not wish to be named. "We're going to move into an existing building. The Huntington Building has the vacant space and it has very striking public areas which is what (county Executive) Ed FitzGerald wants."

A county councilperson agreed that the county offices will move into an existing building downtown to save money, but declined to identify the Huntington. The councilperson said the owner of a large downtown building has already made "a very good offer to the county."

Other than the Breuer Tower, which the county intends to sell, the only downtown building with enough contiguous vacant space, large floor plates and a lobby offering numerous customer-service counters for conducting county business is the former East Ohio Gas building, 1717 East 9th at Superior. But media reports indicate that K&D Group may acquire that office building and convert it into apartments.

The Huntington offers direct transit access, a major site-selection goal for the county, as the building's Euclid entrance is a few feet from a station on the HealthLine bus rapid transit. Parking is another key site selection goal. The building has a parking garage on the north side of Chester Avenue that is connected via an underground tunnel into the Huntington's basement retail arcade.

Among the county departments and services that may move to the consolidated administrative offices are the Advisory Committee on Persons with Disabilities, Automated Data Processing Board, Board of Revision, Council/Clerk of Council, Cuyahoga Tapestry System of Care, Executive, Fiscal Officer, HR/Payroll, Personnel, Employment Relations, Information Services Center, Planning Commission, Procurement & Diversity, Public Works, Treasurer and Veterans Service Commission. FitzGerald said he wants the county office consolidations to happen in two years.

In the future, when county leases expire at Courthouse Square, 310 W. Lakeside Ave., and at the Marion Building, 1276 W. 3rd St., additional relocations could occur. Among them could be offices for the Fatherhood Initiative, Homeless Services, Invest in Children, Public Safety, Justice Services, Mediation, Emergency Management, Office of Reentry and the Witness/Victim Service Center.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Huge Cleveland Transit-Oriented Development To Move Forward

According to sources close to the proposed development, a major Transit Oriented Development in Cleveland's University Circle district is due to be announced publicly in a matter of days. And it features components that are more grand than were suggested in prior massings and proposals.

The site in question is Lot 45, a large surface parking lot owned by University Circle Inc. on Mayfield Road, west of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's Red Line and two sets of freight railroad tracks that border Little Italy. In June 2011, UCI issued a request for proposals from private firms to develop the 1.7-acre site with high-density mixed uses. Sources says Coral Company beat out NRP Group and Snavely Group as the winning firm.

Reportedly, the competition since last fall narrowed to just Coral and Snavely. Snavely is already building the eight-story, 153-room Courtyard by Marriott hotel in a wedge of land just off Euclid Avenue, bounded by Mayfield and Cornell roads. 

But what apparently gave Coral President Peter Rubin's proposal the edge are letters of intent he received from Google, Intel, Oracle and possibly others on locating research and development offices in a 27,000-square-foot "tech ribbon" on the lower floors of the proposed buildings. Also included in the proposal are luxury apartments, shops and a trackside parking garage. The scale of the proposed development, estimated at $100 million, is larger than what was originally envisioned in the massing graphic shown below, with one building up to 12 stories tall. Furthermore, development is proposed to be expanded to a University Hospitals-owned parking lot on the south side of Mayfield.

Rounding out Coral's proposal are those on its development team -- Panzica Construction and Bialosky & Partners Architects. Panzica offers a national portfolio of projects and recently joined with Gilbane Co. on the $250 million renovation and expansion of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Bialosky designed for Coral the mixed-use Domain on Lee in Cleveland Heights (subsequently dropped by Coral, revived as The Terraces by Al. Neyer, Inc. of Cincinnati and dropped again) and the Westhampton at Crocker Park townhouses in Westlake.

The Lot 45 development will include improved pedestrian access along Mayfield under the railroad bridges to the planned Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority Red Line rail station and to Little Italy. The station, to be relocated from Euclid-East 120th Street, is fully funded thanks to $18 million in GCRTA and federal transit funds. Construction on the University Circle-Mayfield station could start by the end of 2012 or early 2013.