Cincinnati streetcar opens prospects for new, expanded economic development

cincinnati-streetcar-photo-2

by Declan Harty

Jean-Francois Flechet waited for the Cincinnati streetcar for a while. Six years, to be exact.

In 2010, Flechet was looking for the next property that could house his expanding Americanized-Belgian eateries, Taste of Belgium. In anticipation of the much-talked-about Cincinnati Streetcar, Flechet leased a property along the proposed route.

Now, nearly seven years later, Flechet is finally seeing the wait pay off.

The $148-million streetcar – now dubbed the Cincinnati Bell Connector – runs a 3.6-mile loop connecting three of the city’s core districts: The Banks, Central Business District and Over-the-Rhine. The streetcar fleet is made up of five electric streetcars, which at 77.5-feet long and 8.7-feet wide, are nearly double the length of an average-sized bus.

The Bell Connector was an effort by the city to provide electric transportation in mass to the community, but more notably to drive business to the three developing areas.

Hotels, shops and restaurants have flocked to the now-prime real estate along the streetcar’s line, according to Tricia Suit, director of marketing for Downtown Cincinnati, who said, Cincinnati “has great bones.”

“Once there was a commitment to build the streetcar, there was a commitment to the neighborhood,” Flechet said.

At the end of November, ridership was 53 percent above the city’s initial expectations. Weekend traffic on the streetcar far surpassed officials’ expectations, Suit said. It seemed that the years of waiting had finally paid off for business owners.

But some Cincinnatians are raising concern after giving the data a finer look. In November, the streetcar’s ridership, 49,920 riders, was barely half that of the projections. The figure is a mere 37.4 percent of the total ridership the streetcar saw in its opening month, a number that stood at a far healthier 133,322.

The project wasn’t supported by everyone, either. Originally proposed in 2007, the streetcar faced harsh criticism from a variety of Ohio lawmakers, the city’s mayor and some city council members. The project would go on to take nine years to complete – finally opening in September.

The statistics have been jarring for many, with some arguing the $148-million price tag was too high for low ridership and manufacturing defects, which reportedly hit four out of the five streetcars in mid-December, were indicators of continued issues to come.

But for many, since its opening in early September, the streetcar has transformed Cincinnati’s businesses.

Joe Hansbauer, chief executive officer of Findlay Market, said the fresh food, open-air market has already seen a 20 percent bump in weekday lunchtime traffic (measured Tuesdays through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.). Hansbauer said the streetcar is the “largest thing that has caused that increase.”

The long-term impact of the streetcar’s introduction is what has people excited, particularly the continued economic development, Hansbauer said.

The three targeted areas – The Banks, the Central Business District and Over-the-Rhine – were already seeing signs of development when the streetcar was first introduced. But its introduction is expected to feed the area’s growth, as developers look to cash in on the influx of traffic.

“It’s going to make the neighborhood vibrant,” Hansbauer said. “The presence of the streetcar provided additional confidence for investors to say, ‘This is worth it.’”

Hansbauer said the Findlay Market area, located on the Northern-end of the streetcar’s route, has already seen properties being snatched up and redeveloped into storefronts or other properties in recent months.

In 2003, four years before the streetcar’s introduction, the Market itself was at 50 percent vacancy. By 2011, Findlay Market was at full occupancy.

Trepidations haven’t hit business owners though. Hansbauer said the Market expects to increase weekday traffic by 30 percent overall, to about 1.45 million annual visitors from its current 1.3 million by 2020. When the streetcar was initially proposed, Hansbauer said the Market was seeing about 250,000 annual visitors.

“The redevelopment of the Findlay market neighborhood is going to have a huge impact on our ability to do that,” he said. “It is undoubtedly true that we have already seen an impact from the streetcar, and we’ll benefit from some of the development in the neighborhood.”

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