The Urban Environment - Urban Issues and Toledo
History of Urbanism in Toledo
A downtown represents the very essence of a city. The people who live in a city and its associated metropolitan area; the people who come into that town for business or recreation; officials from around the state or country who contribute to the governance of the city; each remembers a skyline and the vitality of its streets.
Toledo has made progress in improving its urban image. Numerous developments in the city and urban neighborhoods have been great achievements in beginning to create a community known for its vibrancy and warmth.
There is an essential element that lags behind the development of others, however. The long- term success of the downtown is dependent upon the successful development of genuine urban neighborhoods around the Central Business District. Urban living is a lifestyle that is healthy and less incumbent on the use of the automobile and it should be available to the people of Toledo.
By "re-inhabiting" the urban neighborhoods, Toledo would work to ensure the future of the city as the center of a healthy socio-economic system in Northwest Ohio. We are at an ideal time in our history to reinvest in urban neighborhoods again. Some of the required pieces needed for a self-sustaining whole are beginning to be put in place. The entire picture, however, needs to be developed to ensure the vitality of the individual parts.
There are some existing businesses within each of our urban districts which would provide a very good base. There are an adequate number of existing unused buildings that could be rehabilitated to revitalize our mixed-use neighborhood for commercial and residential uses. There are also enough undeveloped or under-utilized sites to provide appropriate new in-fill and create the density and intimacy needed for a safe and functional urban neighborhood.
Urban living flourishes in other cities and, given the correct mix of ingredients, it can do so in Toledo. In fact, it is important that it do so to ensure the future success of the city.
What is meant by the term "urban"? It is an elusive word with almost as many meanings or connotations as the number of people who use it. It is often used rather imprecisely and with a great deal of license. This ambiguity contributes to the difficulty in finding solutions to our cities' problems.
In the broadest use, "urban" to refer to the "named city" in a metropolitan area. In the case of Northwest Ohio, Toledo. Thus Toledo is viewed as urban and the smaller surrounding communities, such as Maumee, Sylvania, and Rossford, are then viewed as the suburbs. Some people use "urban" to refer to a specific historic neighborhood, especially those experiencing regeneration and re-gentrification.
Some believe "urban" to be any residential neighborhood near the city core regardless of its configuration. Here in Toledo, neighborhoods, in the shadows of downtown, are being re-populated with houses more typical of far-flung suburbs with 60' by 150' lots, generous set-backs, and driveways off the street. Not the image typically associated with an "urban" neighborhood.
Often, "urban" will be used to refer to the Central Business District, generally a pretty well defined area in most cities. Home to finance and commerce, the CBD is composed of parking garages, modern office towers with plazas, and one-way streets connecting to freeways. Toledo has a typical Central Business District in this regard.
Perhaps the most damaging misuse of the term "urban" occurs in political circles. It is used on both sides of the aisle for political purposes with definitions that convey nearly opposite images. On the one side, it is used to mean dangerous, crowded, dirty, and ethnic. On the other, it is used to express diverse, active, and sustainable. None of these are correct, however.
"Urban" is about a set of physical characteristics resulting from use, density, and design. Uses are mixed in an urban setting and include residential, office, light industrial, and retail. Density is high with an efficient and intensive use of space. The design incorporates frequent pathways for both pedestrians and autos and is scaled to the human figure.
In successful cities, sidewalks provide a kind of safety that even police cannot provide. Citizens provide a density and balance of activity that act as mutual support rather than a threatening intrusion. These eyes on the street ensure that individual behavior conforms with public mores. Law is enforced by every citizen. An important characteristic of sidewalks is that they are inherently public and the presence of people is both a social and safety benefit. Many relationships develop, from casual to intimate, and streets facilitate this.
A clear delineation between public and private property helps assure that there is no ambiguity as to people's proper course of action or their appropriate physical location within the urban landscape.
Diversity of use does much to aid the safety of streets as well. Residents have an opportunity to interact. Business owners and employees establish a regular group of users who keep eyes on the streets while other residents are at work in different parts of the city. The diversity of activity that results from numerous different uses becomes an attraction in and of itself.
The single-use philosophy of the 1950s drove residential and retail out while leaving behind much abandoned space. The suddenly under-valued property was more than the single use designation could fill so deterioration set in. With that came many of the ills associated with stagnation such as indigent people, decay of infrastructure, crime, and animal infestation. It is precisely our current misunderstanding of the urban environment that make older neighborhoods and structures appear to be social ills. Its major result was to make a true urban environment impossible by code.
New mixed use neighborhoods are the ideal incubators for small businesses providing amenities and conveniences otherwise unavailable to them. While large companies are able to provide benefits, amenities, and conveniences to employees and, therefore, are not reliant upon an urban setting, small and new companies must rely on the city to provide these "benefits." Indeed the city is lively by virtue of its collection of small elements.
In areas with large blocks, businesses are forces to cluster at intersections or on the short end of blocks in order to be accessible to a decent number of consumers. This causes these areas to become too concentrated in single use and the long portion of streets to become too residential and restrictive in nature.
Socially, long blocks require traffic of all sorts to use the same path every time. Paths for walking to the store or walking a pet become limited. Certain areas stagnate and other become too congested. On the other hand, streets multiply in successful areas as residents and businesses look for more frontage. Even alleys become streets.
It is no accident that those portions of urban areas that have either continued to function well or at least impart a sense of beauty, comfort, and balance are those that possess those attributes that made this area a thriving urban environment one hundred years ago. Typically, these buildings are two to four stories tall, brick, set back 15 to 25 feet from the street with a standard width of about 20 or 25 feet. Their use was typically mixed with commercial, office, or production occurring on the ground floor and residential on upper floors.
These are the exact same building types that have made such important contributions to the success of urban districts in other cities throughout the country. Anywhere urban succeeds, which is almost everywhere lately, it is in these very types of buildings; no other form. They hold the edge of the street and provide a glimpse of the mass and scale that existed throughout the entire district back when it was home to a healthy urban environment.
Notable in Toledo is the portion of Monroe Street Street near Huron and the stretch of St. Clair Street between Lafayette and Monroe Streets. Although largely abandoned, these buildings are the very hallmark of the district and possess a widely recognized value. The two to four story Italianate facades that cradle the road create a canyon which encloses the pedestrian without overwhelming. These buildings are typical of the old 25' wide lots with 20' setbacks from the street.
It is a tribute to the strength of the architecture and urban design that these buildings still exhibit such a strong presence despite the abuse and the heavy traffic on Monroe. These buildings are among the oldest remaining in Toledo. They are the remnants of what was the true mixed-use urban neighborhood in their day. These were home to cobblers, wrights, sawyers, and mercantile entrepreneurs. The family business was tended to by all members of the household and all lived and worked in the same building. Horses may have been stabled in the rear lot or even the basement, hence many of these older buildings did not extend to the rear property line as their later counterparts could.
Perhaps the main story that the plan reveals is the gap-toothed nature of the vast majority of the Warehouse District. In the twelve block area bounded by Monroe, Erie, Market, and Summit Streets, existing buildings front on only 40% of that and there are numerous examples of blocks that have frontage in the 25% range.
The most successful urban neighborhoods share a common sense of comfort and safety. These places share a sense of enclosure. They project a security in walking along a building line. Their spacing and proximity of elements provides a sense of humanity.
The way man relates in size to buildings, sidewalks, and streets would seem to be a universal constant derived from thousands of years of practical, aesthetic, and structural considerations. People want to live and work in surroundings that project a human scale. They need stable buildings that respect privacy but recognize the social aspect of man and are economically viable.
The best examples of urban architecture typically represent three or four story buildings with about 25 total feet of sidewalks and 50 feet of road bed. This is precisely what is found and defines the character of many Toledo's best urban neighborhoods such as the Warehouse District.
That so much of our urban areashas been demolished is not surprising. It is almost more surprising how much remains. While many other cities simply bull-dozed over entire neighborhoods similar to this, much of Toledo's remains because it was virtually abandoned for a considerable period of time.
That the great industrial machine that spawned the rapid development of the district would contribute to its down-fall is not surprising. The spiraling economic activity and industrial activity brought ever growing crowds into the city. Crowding immigrants, animal dung, belching smoke stacks, and disease from the swamp made city life difficult in Toledo.
The resulting reaction to this great industrial movement, in Toledo and throughout the country, was the desire to get away and seek respite away from the teaming cities in the newly accessible suburbs.
Former urban areas in Toledo have experienced all of the typical symptoms associated with blight of a former urban area. Buildings have been abandoned and left to rot. Lack of reinvestment has lead to decaying infrastructure.
At the end of the last century and through the beginning of the current, people were led to believe that city life was bad, dangerous, and unhealthy. People were anxious to flee the urban environment here 140 years ago because of illnesses borne of the swamp; 120 years ago because of new immigrant groups crowding into the city; 100 years ago because of the stench of horses hauling people and commerce; and 80 years ago because of industrialization. Almost everywhere throughout the United States, including Toledo, the public has lost a collective consciousness and awareness of the urban lifestyle.
For the past century, our culture has been predicated primarily upon the suburban lifestyle. But today we are in a different era. We can accommodate our needs more effectively and live in clean, healthy urban areas with less effort, for less money, and with less impact upon the environment, if we choose to make that option available.
"New Urbanist" towns, such Seaside, the Duany/Plater-Zybek project in Florida, are not equivalent to "urban" and it is difficult to accept these developments as a model of urban planning. Unlike real urban centers such as mid-town Manhattan, Georgetown in the District of Columbia, or the endless urban fabric of London, England, Seaside is a highly regulated and segregated community with low density and little democracy.
Seaside actually has more in common with the old cities of Europe. The entire design is controlled by a single person or a small group of well financed, identically focused individuals. This is a circumstance that would seem at odds with the very ideas of democracy and virtually never occur in the United States. As such, Seaside should be regarded as a complete bit of artifice resembling the community in the book Walden II, an ideal theoretical environment but impractical in built form. Is it so highly subsidized and regulated as to mock the reality of an urban neighborhood or a town.
A major problem facing urban areas is that many buildings in the district are considered occupied but are, in fact, under-occupied. The most common manifestation of this problem is the rampant use of only the ground floor of buildings. There are countless square feet of space not being used resulting in an under-utilization of resources and an under-valuation of property. This also contributes to keeping overall density down and limits the district's population to business hours only.
These buildings have a negative effect because of their blighted condition and the vacuum they create. They create barriers to safety and lessen the pedestrian use of the district. They constitute a negative use of our city's economic resources.
Many of the enterprises currently existing in urban districts would prefer that no additional activity occurred. They enjoy a district where their businesses are largely unimpeded by code enforcement and not being asked or required to improve their buildings. In a sense, they are able to operate freely and to abuse the neighborhood if they please. Above all else, space is cheap. Current business owners know that additional development will result in city inspectors looking more closely at their operations, more complaints being lodged about violations in parking and cleanliness, and increased property tax costs as land values increase.
In a way, the conservative nature of the people of Toledo is the biggest challenge to be overcome to make successful urban neighborhoods. Toledo's population, despite being largely Democratic, is very conservative in its behavior. The large numbers of blue collar workers, ethnic eastern-Europeans, and Catholics all help contribute to this pattern of behavior.
This is also the reason that so much of the leading edge development in Toledo is done by people or companies located out of town. Toledoans are not willing to be out front with their vision or their money.
The slow progress in the these areas feeds upon itself, making investment in the area seem marginal at best, and then, only with large government assistance. Clearly, other investments still appear to be more profitable and more secure. In conjunction with this is, however, a lack of understanding among people of the quality of life gains to be made for individuals and communities through an urban lifestyle.
It is essential to the district's success to develop a healthy urban residential population. With it will come the additional businesses and amenities to make for a truly urban lifestyle, full of diversity and vibrancy. Amenities follow people, not the other way. In the long run, these are easy problems to be overcome. The city of Toledo and its officials have worked backward in this regard. Often, they have funded projects to incubate retail, office, or amenities while neglecting to establish owner occupied residential. The residents are the customers that are needed to ensure the success of businesses and it is residents who ensure the success of a neighborhood.
A major problem that faces Toledo in urban neighborhoods is the accumulation of large quantities of property in the district by a few individuals. Generally, these individuals have no intention of developing the land or buildings in any meaningful way. By and large, the extent of development is most often limited to the demolition of buildings and the paving of the parcel for parking. There is no effort or intention to create a healthy district that respects the history of the place or values the architecture.
The best situation is to have as many owner-occupied buildings as possible to strengthen individuals' commitment to the neighborhood and keep prices and land values at truly market rates. Another problem is that speculators tend not to keep buildings in good structural condition. They don't care about the buildings; they expect to make money from strictly the land.
There is, of course, nothing illegal about speculation and from their perspective it may be richly rewarding. But at some point, the community must intervene to save the remaining buildings of quality. When does the public interest outweigh the right of individuals? The low property values that continue to exist in urban districts resulting from the lack of effort to improve much less maintain these public treasures leads to their continued destruction. The large property owners, both speculators and landlords, keep additional start up businesses from investing in the district.
Sins of omission and commission happen every day. Every week that passes for a building without a roof or windows allows the weather to speed the decay process and shorten the life of these buildings. With the continued absence of development, the value of adding fire protection equipment continues to deprive these buildings of needed security.
A common problem that has affected many urban areas is the placement of surface parking lots. Surface lots typically crop up where buildings have been demolished or even in front of newer in-fill buildings. These parking lots become quasi-public zones intended for customers of businesses or for commuters. But the transient quality of these lots becomes an opportunity for those whose intentions are not good or are unknown.
The amount of surface parking that has been wrought upon the urban areas around downtown over the years has been staggering. There are many blocks that are over 50% paved for parking. The average paved area is in the range of 35% - 40%. Despite the numerous parking garages and surface lots that exist in the central business district, the land at the periphery has fallen victim to the unending needs of the automobile. The Warehouse District, for example, has essentially become the parking lot for the Central Business District.
Toledo's population is sufficiently small and parking in the downtown area plentiful enough to allow commuting by automobile exclusively to continue for some time. Traffic jams that do occur within the metropolitan area do not represent trips to and from the downtown, merely trips between new developments in suburbia. Therefore the use of the district as a parking amenity to the downtown will likely continue unless policy and development change.
A major problem that these parking lots foster is the continued stagnation of these areas due to the unavailability of these properties for development. It is in the financial interest of the parking lot owners to keep reaping parking fees. Further, their land values remain low and, thus, their taxes remain low. With little overhead and almost no initial up-front costs, parking lots are easy steady income streams for these landlords. The low land values and lack of development results in the perception that a parking lot is the best possible use. This puts the historic buildings further at risk.
Good citizenry and civic mindedness is not a requirement the government imposes on its people. Requiring land be put to the best possible use is obviously not something that can be required of anyone. These business persons are addressing a demand with a supply at a cost that both agree to. In order to redevelop the Warehouse District, parking problems will need to be addressed. Land needs to be freed up to allow additional buildings, jobs, and residents.
There are very few streets that are conducive to pedestrian traffic. The few stretches that might encourage walking are short and cut off by barriers of one sort or another before much momentum can be generated.
The causes for the lack of pedestrian comfort and use are numerous. They represent layers of bad planning and bad results that need to be addressed before serious foot traffic can be generated.
One impediment to foot traffic is the large number of one-way streets. One-way automobile traffic allows drivers the psychological sense that it is possible to speed up. This, in turn, makes those walking less comfortable. The perception of speed and even the palpable air currents cause pedestrians discomfort.
Locations where there are few or no buildings also leaves people exposed and uncomfortable. The exposure can be to nature such as wind, sun, or rain, but also to a fish-bowl effect. Instead of feeling enclosed and protected by buildings, people are left in wide open and undefined spaces and then feel a sense of exposure to unknown risk. This could be mediated to a large extent if those open spaces were defined by well maintained green spaces. Green spaces that are well planned can be a great benefit by denoting a special place, implying a continuation of the street enclosure, and imparting a connection with nature.
A lack of a sufficient number of people also makes the streets of the district uncomfortable to walk. To overcome this, active streets, both day and night, are required. This means there must be a variety of businesses and residential present to allow the needed activity at all hours of the day. There must be places to come from and places to go.
Since the 1950s, developers have built "suburb-like" buildings that catered to the automobile. The new buildings were designed as stand alone structures on the cleared lots. No attempt was made to be urban in nature. Built during the era when the suburbs were seen as the salvation from the unhealthy city, they are low and spread out. They feature private drive-up parking wherever it is most conveniently located.
All of these design characteristics speak of low intensity use and cheap land values. While typical of new city growth at the rural periphery, this unfortunately was also the case at the city center in Toledo. As a result of the minimal amount of construction and the great amount of demolition that has occurred, there are numerous opportunities for in-fill throughout the district.
The buildings of the 1940s and later also reflect an intent for single use. The local residential population had moved to suburbs in the proceeding decades and there was no foreseen intention of moving back. New construction was intended for single purpose, usually light industrial. This different intent is evident in the number and size of windows, the location and number of doors, the location of parking in and around the site, the styles and use of materials. Each of these attributes were reflected in a manner that showed less of a pride in place and more of a concern for thrift in economics.
There are important issues concerning the existing Convention Center and its future that could greatly affect the Warehouse District.
The Convention Center manages to impose itself on its environment in an insensitive manner. It is poorly proportioned in relation to the towers of downtown and the urban environment of the Warehouse District. It is a mish-mash of materials that don't ever congeal into a coherent statement.
The Monroe Street facade is a vast expanse of monotonous unarticulated brick work with one set of uninviting unmarked doors. Across Monroe Street are several acres of surface parking lots that serve many of the Convention Center's users. It provides a sterile atmosphere for pedestrians and encourages a speedway atmosphere for automobiles headed out of downtown on Monroe Street. The Convention Center has effectively turned its back on the Warehouse District.
Downtown Toledo currently has little to offer groups looking to hold a convention as far as entertainment, shopping, and relaxation is concerned. Currently, there is effectively no shopping in the downtown, and there are but a few attractions and restaurants nearby. The weather is cool, there is little sun, and the Maumee River, though a great natural resource, is silty brown and not a recreation attraction. Efforts to market Toledo as a vacation get-away and convention location are difficult. Spending additional resources, especially if those resources are the properties within the Warehouse District, is not worth the price.
Toledo is a good place to live and should strive to become a great place to live. There is an excellent museum and symphony complex just a mile from the Warehouse District and the Convention Center. The failed Rouse "Festival Marketplace" development has been transformed into a Science Museum and no longer relies on the river or sunshine to attract crowds. These are the types of facilities Toledo needs.
The Convention Center has intentions of expanding its facilities some time in the coming years, despite a mediocre record. Unfortunately, the administrators and county officials responsible for the Convention Center are likely to look across Monroe Street into the Warehouse District for additional needed space. The surface lots and buildings between Summit and Superior Streets, Washington and Monroe Street are under serious consideration. The county currently owns the parking lots and many of the historic yet vacant buildings in the vicinity.
If the Convention Center were to spill across Monroe street into the Warehouse District, it would violate the character and nature of the district. It would kill the very attributes that makes the district desirable and unique.
There is no subtle, pleasing way for the Convention Center to cross Monroe Street. It will either close the street off, hover over it, or be connected by a series of sky-walks. Any new building, by its very size and use, would be out of scale with the Warehouse District. Its use as convention space would be unsympathetic with the development of a mixed-use urban neighborhood. Its limited access and entry points and unarticulated facade would decrease pedestrian traffic and detract from the character of the historic district. The Convention Center has options to grow within its own space and into other adjacent spaces that would be more urbanistically amenable to the nature of the Convention Center.
The Convention Center has the ability grow up, especially over the loading dock and open area near Superior Street. Architecturally, this would allow the convention center to scale and articulate the existing and additional building in a manner more appropriate to its location on the edge of the Central Business District. The current building is inappropriate in height for both its own breadth and for the scale of the Central Business District.
In building over the existing dock space, the Convention Center would be kept more compact, increasing the density of the block, and cutting down on land acquisition costs. The more concentrated and compact use of space would equate to a more cost effective use.
A second better opportunity for expansion would be across Superior Street to what is now a surface parking lot and parking garage. A new parking garage and additional meeting rooms and offices would fit into this adjoining site easily while being appropriate to the downtown site. An additional benefit would be a possible connection with the Commodore Perry building. Its additional meeting rooms could provide extra capacity and options for the convention center. And again, by increasing the density on these blocks of the Central Business District, all neighbors would benefit from an increased number of people and higher land values.
Any hope of making the Warehouse District into something more than an 8 to 5 parking facility for the CBD would be seriously damaged by the expansion of the Center across Monroe Street. The havoc that the Convention Center wreaked upon the area when originally built was terrible. It erased a major portion of the Warehouse District history and aesthetic. In its place it left an impersonal desolate place, barely appropriate to even the parking lots it spurred. It is important for the future of the Warehouse District that the decision-makers not exert an imperialistic attitude about the Convention Center's future growth. The Convention Center should not be allowed to expand across Monroe Street.
Old larger buildings in the downtown and near downtown have been purchased by developers specializing in rehabilitating blighted buildings to convert into rental properties. These apartments are typically in competition with condominiums and luxury apartments in the suburbs.
The renovation and redevelopment of large buildings into apartments in the downtown and near downtown is a welcome addition to the progress that has been made in the overall effort to revitalize the downtown. These developments, however, should not be viewed as projects that will save the downtown and activate its streets on their own nor as a method of creating an urban neighborhood.
One major problem is that these projects are physically separated from each other. They don't make a single dense population that can easily interact with each other and create a neighborhood and, in turn, support businesses, institutions, and facilities that are needed by defined neighborhoods.
The LaSalle Apartments and the Commodore Perry are the closest together of these projects. The two blocks separating these two projects house several businesses that could potentially service these residents. Restaurants, bookstores, photo-processing, and carry-outs all stand to benefit from these new islands of residential population. However, the 200 plus units in these apartment buildings have yet to draw additional businesses to the downtown or cause existing ones to stay open later to serve these populations.
For residents in apartment buildings, becoming accustomed to exploring one's new neighborhood and perhaps more importantly, taking ownership of one's neighborhood is of vital importance. Apartments dwellers who have moved from a suburban apartment to these new apartments must become accustomed to leaving their car in the garage and venturing out into their neighborhood to look for a quick bite, milk and cigarettes, or a video rental. Will these people, out of habit or fear, pop into their cars and drive to suburbs to pick-up their needed items? Several malls are, after all, within ten minutes of downtown.
Taking ownership of the neighborhood is especially difficult for apartment dwellers as opposed to owner-occupied units. The apartment is not their own so the incentive to treat it and the shared accommodations well is diminished. If the management is not on top of constantly needed repairs, especially in shared and public areas, a run-down look can develop quickly.
The distance from the street to the apartment unit itself is a large barrier to taking possession of the neighborhood for an apartment dweller. If there is an incident at street level, is someone on the tenth floor going to hear it, much less investigate it, in order to help preserve the safety of an individual or of the neighborhood? In the best of suburban neighborhoods, the crash of glass will bring throngs of house-dwellers out, whether from sheer curiosity or a desire to assist somebody in trouble.
The real contribution that these high-rise residents make comes from their addition
to street based urban neighborhoods nearby. As residential units, offices, retail, and
other amenities develop in the low-rise Warehouse District, the populations in these
high-rise apartments will mingle in the nearby confines of the neighborhood and patronize
businesses. The Warehouse District will be the beneficiary and become the provider of
amenities to the Commodore Perry and the LaSalle Apartments. As this interaction
increases, a mutual symbiosis will occur and additional amenities will become available.