Sunday, December 28, 2003

Is it possible to fix a traffic mess?

Planners take on test of congested Colerain Avenue

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Traffic snarls on Colerain Avenue are commonplace, but planners hope road work will change that.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
COLERAIN TWP. - Colerain Avenue makes even brave drivers flinch: Bumper-to-bumper traffic in a four-mile crawl. Hundreds of cars vying to turn in and out of hundreds of businesses. More advertising and shop signs than anyone cares to count.

As Greater Cincinnati's best symbol for the worst of urban sprawl, Colerain Avenue has for decades been the punch line of bad jokes.

But now, it may be changing.

Fifteen years after they started, planners say they're beginning to see the first hints of transformation on this concrete slab of commerce. Traffic is slowly smoothing out. Green space is growing. New restaurants are moving in. Some of the clutter is moving out.

In one of the region's biggest attempts to undo a mammoth traffic mess, planners here are even talking about a Colerain Avenue that people want to visit. If improvements can work here, they say, gridlock can be loosened anywhere.

"Usually you drive up Colerain Avenue with your foot on the brake, just waiting for the next idiot to blast out onto the suicide lane," says Todd Kinskey, senior planner with the Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission. "But now, it's a lot more controlled. It's not like West Chester, but it's a vast improvement over what was there."

No one knows if all the hard work will do the turnaround trick. Planners say traffic will run smoothly in just a few years. Many drivers and residents say Colerain needs a miracle, and they haven't seen it yet. But signs of improvement are evident:

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• Nearly $22 million in traffic and safety improvements will be finished in 2005 after more than a decade of work. New roadway medians, turn lanes and a traffic light system are designed to help cars flow more smoothly from Blue Rock to Struble roads. Fewer driveways to businesses will cut the number of sudden turns on Colerain, which should result in fewer accidents.

• Just this year, businesses invested $25 million to build new retail and office buildings on the Colerain strip. New entertainment venues near Northgate Mall include restaurants and a soon-to-be-reopened movie theater.

• New sidewalks and a walking bridge over Colerain Avenue near the mall encourage people to walk, browse and interact. Businesses are now required to landscape and beautify their properties.

Much of the work is aimed at attracting the increasingly wealthy residents of Colerain Township.

Seven subdivisions, with houses in the $250,000 to $450,000 range, are being built. They're in addition to 10 other, new subdivisions in the past four years. In the western, more affluent side of the township, the average sale price for a single-family house increased more than $25,000 in two years, to $185,600 in 2002.

"All this will take Colerain Avenue from the pits to the pinnacle," says Tom Hart, an accountant on Colerain Avenue and a member of the Colerain Corridor Task Force, formed to find solutions to the traffic and business morass. "This isn't just a road project. It's a mammoth undertaking."

Skepticism remains

Some, of course, are skeptical about efforts to solve problems that have built up over decades of unplanned, uncontrolled growth.

"It's starting to remind me of California," says Rob Stallings, a Green Township resident shopping recently at Northgate Mall. "There's a lack of traffic flow, and there's so much congestion, bumper to bumper. Until this construction is done, it's going to keep being a pain."

"It takes so much time to get from one place to the next, and the construction has been going on forever," adds shopper Mary Kaiser of White Oak. "It gets frustrating, so I take the back roads mostly. But they say they're improving it, and I hope they're right."

Glen Brand, an anti-sprawl activist and Midwest regional representative with the Sierra Club environmental group, says the challenge is daunting. "The decision-makers out there are waking up with sprawl hangovers," he says. "Now you have a four- or five-mile long endless parade of buildings. They realize it's been a terrible mistake for developers to plan the community on the fly."

Colerain Avenue's roots are in the early 1800s as a dirt road for farmers who hauled their hogs to Cincinnati slaughterhouses. It evolved into a commuting highway as housing began sprouting west of the city after World War II.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Colerain Avenue was transformed again, into a major business corridor: Interstate 275 was completed, Northgate Mall was built and other businesses followed. The corridor filled with car dealerships, eateries and commerce that lured traffic.

But the township did not have zoning control to force businesses to build uniformly. That's why businesses along Colerain today often have little space out front, no landscaping, disproportionate signs and curb cuts that haphazardly spill onto the road.

John Stehlin, whose grandfather built Stehlin's Meat Market in 1913 near its current site close to Wal-Mart, remembers the construction workers in the 1960s turning Colerain Avenue from two lanes to four.

"That's where the problems started," says Stehlin, now the market's co-owner. "Someone should have stepped in in the 1950s or '60s and said, 'You can't build so close to the road.' "

Colerain Township never developed in a systematic way, says Dan Hurley, a Cincinnati historian and an adjunct professor of planning at the University of Cincinnati. "Once you've got what you got now," he says, "I don't know how you can turn that around."

Turning it around

That's exactly what Colerain Township planners set as their charge 15 years ago: to reverse decades of poor or nonexistent planning from Blue Rock to Struble roads.

"Colerain Avenue is undergoing a renaissance of sorts," says Frank Birkenhauer, Colerain Township development director. "Colerain Township is, too. You get better quality of life out here. All these new homes, that's really changing the demographic out here, and retail is responding to that need."

Consider this: Colerain Township had more new houses - nearly 3,500 - built in the 1990s than any other Hamilton County municipality except Cincinnati.

The residential development has attracted business investment, too. In 2003, new businesses including a Target store, Chipotle and Panera Bread restaurants, Half-Price Books and Gold's Gym invested $25 million to build along Colerain. Some are even calling it "Colerain Boulevard."

"You're keeping some of the customers from that part of town staying on Colerain Avenue instead of going to Kenwood or Rookwood to shop. Now it's in their backyard," says Kinskey, the Hamilton County planner.

Long-time retailers here are thankful for the new businesses moving in.

"What helps retail is when other good retailers are coming to the area," says Jerry Weller, general manager of Northgate Mall. "As Colerain Township and the Colerain Avenue corridor grows around us, it makes it easier and easier for us to attract these big national names. It makes people want to stay in Colerain Township and do their shopping here."

For years, Weller says, the mall tried to attract upscale names. But only recently have stores including Charlotte Russe, Body Central, Gap, Aeropostale, Express and Express Men moved in. In the past three years, Northgate Mall has brought 14 new retailers to the market.

"We're finally able to bring in better stores that our customers have been asking for for years," Weller says.

'Lipstick on a pig?'

None of these businesses would have moved in, planners and business leaders say, without improvements to Colerain's infamous traffic congestion and close-your-eyes-and-pray left turns.

"There's nothing wrong with traffic," says Don Wittekiend, manager of Northgate Mall in the 1980s and a member of the Colerain Corridor Task Force. "It's just controlling it and making it possible for customers to be able to stop and make a purchase."

During the past decade, the Ohio Department of Transportation has spent nearly $22 million to widen parts of the road, build roadway medians with left-turn lanes and add right-turn lanes to keep through-traffic moving.

Still, plenty of residents and business owners complain that the improvements have taken too long.

Crews have "been working on the streets now for five years," says John Frazer, who just turned an old restaurant near Northgate Mall into The Colerain Brewing Company. "It's like the mother-in-law who comes for Christmas and won't leave."

Others preach patience, and even critics say planners can do only so much.

"In many ways, what they're doing there is putting lipstick on a pig," says the Sierra Club's Brand. "It's an attempt to beautify something that can't be beautified."

Still, he says, "Don't get me wrong - anything they can do to make the streets safer and make it less ugly is to be applauded."


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