The Talisman of Colerain Township

41 thoughts on “The Talisman of Colerain Township”

  1. You suggested townships can improve by adding “higher value private development” Could you please give specific examples?

    1. Take the endless surface parking lots and build useful productive things on that asphalt. More intensive infill development on the same infrastructure chassis could rebalance municipal revenue vs. expenditures. Here’s more on the topic.

      However, if the voters of Colerain Township want to keep the semi rural feel of their suburban community intact while keeping taxes low they could make the conscious decision to reruralize the infrastructure. Let the roads revert to gravel like in the countryside. Have individual homes or subdivisions drill private wells and install septic systems as they disconnect from city services. Convert professional first responders to local volunteer organizations. This may sound naive, but it’s the more rational path compared to repeated budget crises, unscheduled declines in services, multiple rounds of lay offs, and increases in fees, fines, and other “revenue enhancement” techniques that are likely to kick in on the current trajectory.

      At the moment zoning regulations, building codes, and the dominant political culture reject the kind of infill redevelopment that could generate enough value to stop the municipal bleeding. And no one wants to give up the city services they currently enjoy, especially since private equivalents are expensive. So I see decline over the next generation. The good news is that the pendulum of history may swing back in Colerain’s favor – eventually. Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

  2. Two large problems missed: 1) that there’s simply too much retail, 2) that Colerain Twp, with a pop. of 60,000 making it the second largest municipality in the county, should no longer be a township but a city that can capture income taxes while townships can’t.

  3. Love following your blog Johnny. We have some geographic SF Bay Area, San Fernando Valley so I enjoy your take on places familiar and new.

    Regarding municipal financing getting into trouble, these two articles might be of interest.

    On a side note. Have you been to Mississauga, Ontario? It is a suburb of Toronto that developed rapidly in the 70’s. The city has managed to build a diverse tax base that’s kept the place comfortable. They made some smart decisions with storm water management, parks and public infrastructure locations that make the suburban setup less car dependent. As an occasional visitor from LA, I’m astonished to see groups of unsupervised elementary school children walking through parks to school.

    1. Thanks for the links to municipal finance. And yes, I’m intimately familiar with Mississauga up in Canada. (See also Schaumburg, Illinois, Perimeter Center, Georgia, et cetera.) Mississauga is a peculiar twist on my ongoing theme of “density without urbanism.” It’s skyscrapers on cul-de-sacs. It solves the revenue vs. tax base problem, but I don’t love it. The so-called Marilyn Monroe condo towers sit in a parking lot across a very wide high speed road from the Square One Mall. Meh. I much prefer the fine grained incremental pattern of Queen Street in Toronto. Here’s one of my very first blog posts – which explains why I quickly dropped my self made videos…

      1. Mississauga’s plan does call for eventually redeveloping all those parking lots with towers… I mean the zoning allows it (at least for the Square One area), so once the land owners decide they don’t need their parking lots anymore, they can redevelop them. Problem is that it might take a couple decades for the land owners to come to that decision.

        Mississauga does have decent transit. 3 commuter rail lines with 9 stations connecting it to Downtown Toronto, one of which has 30 minute service all day every day and Ontario is taking steps to improve service on all of these commuter rail lines. Bus service is decent with several express and frequent bus routes, and all areas accessible by at least the vanilla style bus service. There is a BRT project well underway along highway 403 which means there won’t be much TOD but at least it’ll get people from A to B without a car. And there’s a proposal for an LRT along Hurontario, that’s the main 8 lane stroad, which will come with high density zoning along the entire 10 mile route (mostly already zoned as such) and a redesign of Hurontario using the typical complete street principles.

        The network of segregated bike paths is ok and improving. There’s many paths in the ravines and parks, which are quite nice public spaces (and escapes from the soul sucking sprawl) compared to what many other suburbs have. There’s also multi-use trails being built along many of the arterials.

        As for your general comments on Mississauga, it was never really a blue collar city like Kitchener or Hamilton. 70 years ago it was predominantly rural with just a few little towns, then with the opening of the QEW in the 1930s you had some upscale suburban communities near the lake. After that it was fairly typical Toronto sprawl. At this point Mississauga has as many low income areas as high income, although it’s held back decline a bit better than some other suburban areas. What raises Mississauga’s profile is mainly that it’s so damn big, and also contains much of Toronto’s suburban job centres. BTW Square One area is not one of those, they mainly consist of the massive industrial park around the airport, and some office parks around highway 401.

        The big question is how do you apply the incremental pattern to a place that’s 95% auto oriented sprawl. Having mixed use zoning at the various office parks would be a start, rather than just around Square One and other retail nodes.

        BTW the remaining 5% are pretty nice – check out Port Credit and Streetsville.

        1. Thanks for the comments and clarification. I don’t hate Mississauga. It’s better than most similar Edge Cities. But I still don’t want to live there. And I’m not sure the suburban fabric can be retrofitted to become anything other than what it already is.

          Yes, I’m familiar with Port Credit and Streetsville. I have photos of the area I should dig up and blog about. There are pockets of charming small scale Main Street urbanism and lovely little residential spots – and then stroads lined with waffle shops, muffler joints, and 1970’s era high rise towers on huge parking lots. Nice people too. But… Meh. I still hold out for Queen Street.

          1. Queen Street doing need much holding out for though. Even the Parkdale section, despite having a lot of poverty nearby, is still quite vibrant with minimal vacancies. Although to be fair even the most declining suburban areas of Toronto don’t necessarily have much vacancies since Toronto’s real estate market is tighter than Ohio’s.

            I wonder how long Mississauga can keep things running while remaining largely auto-oriented. First of all, it’s not that bad, transit commute mode share is still about 50% higher than Cincinnati’s (city proper). Real estate productivity, while lower than Toronto’s, is also higher than Cincinnati’s whether you measure that in terms of value per acre or per foot of street frontage. Even if you say that Mississauga’s real estate is overvalued due to a housing bubble and Cincinnati’s is undervalued, Mississauga is still about 50% denser thanks to those highrises combined with the tightly packed SFHs. Although Cincinnati can probably improve its stats quite a bit if it can convince enough people to invest in it.

            As bad as traffic might seem in Mississauga, commute times are still reasonable compared to other parts of Greater Toronto.
            It has reasonably good access to suburban job centres, relatively few people commuting long distances to downtown Toronto, and even if you’re going at half the speed as if there was no traffic, it still takes you about as much time to travel 10 miles by car as it takes to travel 10 miles by subway, even faster when you consider there’s also going to be at least a little walking to and from the subway station.

            For Mississauga to transform itself into an urban nirvana, the amount of redevelopment required would probably amount to adding 1-2 million in population – not realistic. But what if it focuses much of the redevelopment on the 20% of its land area that’s best served by transit, so that part of the city becomes highly urban, other parts remain unchanged, and others become a bit more urban? Would the results be “good enough”?

            If Mississauga can mix up the uses a bit better – currently about half of it’s 400k+ jobs are in the NW corner of Mississauga – which has no residential component whatsoever, then even if people are driving, but driving 2-5 miles instead of 5-15 miles, that should help. If most of the new growth takes place in neighbourhoods where transit use and walking will be much higher than the current Mississauga average, and the more typical Mississauga neighbourhoods are able to reduce their auto use even just by 10-20%… then I think Mississauga could accommodate a few hundred thousand new residents over 2-3 decades without creating carmageddon.

            The model Mississauga seems to be taking for much of its redevelopment is that of places like North York
            And Richmond
            Richmond and North York started building up their downtown areas a decade or two before Mississauga, so they’re further along. Although you (and me) might prefer something closer to Queen Street, Richmond and North York’s downtowns are still coming together into something that I think is still a lot better than typical sprawl.

  4. Excuse me , Johnny did not claim to know all the answers. The facts are that those that were building out there should have become familiar with the problems that would occur; these problems were written about extensively in the fifties. It was obvious when Colerain was developing; it was not brain surgery.

    I remember when one of my classmates in grade school moved to Mt.Airy to a brand new house and I was really impressed. The irony is that, today, their house is in the midst of the social problems that they wanted to escape from, while the house they left behind in the city center is worth more than their new house. The cities subsidized the suburbs then but now that state monies are so tight the suburbs are going to have to fend for themselves and you all don’t have the money to do that. It will only get worse; sorry.

  5. It can be even more pronounced in rural areas. We’ve lived in Utah some. Some small cities in Utah get it and are expanding. Cedar City has a university, a 50+ year old Shakespeare Festival, and lots of festivals. Kanab is a gateway to three major national parks. Both try hard to build on what they have and are succeeding.

    Just drove through Fredonia, a little town near Kanab. A Dollar General, a couple of bedraggled motels, too many beat-up trailer homes. How does a place like this ever survive? Ditto, in a lesser way for Parowan, a town of 3,000 near Cedar City.

    1. In my opinion Colerain has a strong population of good people and an excellent location with many local assets. The problem is the land use pattern relative to municipal finance. That’s something Colerain could change if it wanted to. I don’t see that conversation unfolding. Other nearby towns will get it right and be the recipients of economic migrations instead. Fine by me.

  6. That’s a striking series of pics zooming out from the memorial park showing that it’s surrounded by pavement and basically nobody is going to go there. A forgotten memorial…

  7. You jumped to several conclusions in your article without citing any facts or references. Did you forget to cite them or did you just jump to conclusions on an entire community based on a drive down a single street?

  8. Matt’s point about your pictures being from another Township (and the City of Cincinnati) is important. Your article discusses the issues of Colerain not other communities with different leadership and goals. You mention municipal pensions…please fill me in on those. All Township employees are members of a State pension system. Matt also mentions developments. There is also a $12,000,000 development coming, and one of the lowest crime rates of comparable communties. Did you review the benchmarking presentations on the Township’s website or speak to the Director of Exonomoc Development?

    1. Shoot the messenger?

      I pointed out that you have forty seven dog turds on your front lawn and the response is, “Hey! Two of those are on my neighbor’s side of the fence!” So both you and your immediate neighbor have crap filled yards?

      Colerain Avenue is owned and controlled by the state of Ohio as Route 27, not the township. But the township has control over land use policy on either side of the road. The current policy is to subsidize the replacement of dead low value drive thru commercial buildings with new low value drive thru commercial buildings. That’s not a good financial strategy. These buildings have a design life (depreciation schedule for tax purposes) of fifteen years. They’re intentionally disposable. The typical tax abatement lasts for… fifteen years. Rinse. Repeat.

      It’s time to reevaluate this economic model and try something new.

      1. Well I think you need to look a little harder at your sources. That is absolutely not the case. We just had two drive-thru establishments, both 40 years old, replaced without any subsidy at all. Are you citing Tax incremental financing as subsidy? I am not shooting the messenger, I’m challenging the author who put out facts and said they were all about Colerain Township. If some of the “turds” are not ours, you should state that.

        1. My goal isn’t to insult your town. I’m describing a big picture situation where most post war suburbs are aging badly. Here’s the town where I spent a big chunk of my childhood. When I have these conversations there I get the same reaction. “Our town is great and you’re an idiot.” But the view from the street tells a different story.

          A shiny new drive thru anything – with or without subsidies – will never generate enough tax revenue to support the level of public infrastructure and municipal services required to maintain itself. Long term… you face a financial crisis. Once it hits people with money will migrate away to a new better place. That situation can be corrected if you’re paying attention and willing to change course. So far I see no evidence of that conversation.

          Colerain’s municipal pensions may be integrated with the larger Ohio pension system, but that doesn’t solve your problem. State pension funds take that collective money and invest it into the larger economy – like mortgage backed securities, Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), commercial loans, and the stock market. What you’re seeing along Colerain Avenue is the physical manifestation of those investments. The dead Jiffy Lubes are, in a very real sense, your pension fund.

          1. I guess my larger issue with this article is, while you have answer for issues brought to your attention, why did you not know them prior to writing it? You dismiss many issues raised but a little research and interviewing might have saved you the trouble of glossing over the errors in fact.

            1. I see towns exactly like Colerain all over the country. The details are always slightly different, but the big picture is always the same. The particulars really don’t matter.

              The response from locals is remarkably similar as well. Too little willingness to acknowledge the nature of the situation. Too little serious talk about how to move forward. Too much defensive, “You got X and Y all wrong and you don’t understand our town.”

              In my opinion nothing will be done in Colerain. Your town – like most towns – will simply experience a series of difficulties with inadequate stop gap responses that don’t address the underlaying reality. If you’re incredibly lucky a new generation of leaders and residents will finally “get it.” Then the process of reinvention can begin. Some places will be in the right place at the right time with the right people. But many more towns will simply continue to decline and fail. That’s up to you…

    2. I’m on OPERS, and I’m here to tell you that Johnny’s speaking some harsh truths about our land use AND our pensions. He didn’t tease out the connection between the two very well, so you can refer to OPERS’ investment strategy (2016 is here: ) if you don’t believe him. And the fact that there are two townships pictured makes exactly no difference to the trajectory he’s describing. Green and Colerain will have some really tough times ahead, as will the state’s retirement system.

  9. The aerial photos of Memorial Park surrounded by pavement captures perfectly a once great society that succumbed to easy money while clinging to symbols of its past glory.

  10. As a Colerain native this article makes me sad. If you have such ideas as to how to fix these places & bring them back to their glory then stop photographing & do something about it. Go to a township meeting, or whatever. But yet you sit there & photograph. This line bothered me the most: “I don’t think they’d even know how to build that sort of thing if they tried. They’re too obsessed with parking ratios and flower beds that look like the prosperous suburbs they no longer are. ” Are you calling the people of Colerain ignorant to what they need to do or just stupid? It is hard to tell. But what I don’t see is respect & that is what makes me the saddest because to me, even though I don’t live there anymore, this is “home”.

    1. Maybe his calling is not to go to a town hall meeting and get into the politics, he is raising awareness which will reach many more people than if he sat down at a town hall meeting. I’d say he is doing his job.

  11. I wonder if the people moving out to shiny new suburbs like Mason or Florence realize that they’re just at the beginning of this cycle, and one day their suburb will look like this. None of these suburbs are built to last, so they decline when the next suburb is built. Or if current trends continue, those suburbs will die off in favor of both the young and the old returning to walkable neighborhoods.

    1. Travis – Good point and one I could have made more explicit in this post. The newest iteration of suburban development is “better” because the buildings are even farther apart from each other with more greenery and private personal space. That translates to even more very expensive public infrastructure that needs to be maintained with an even thinner tax base. As time goes by all the accumulated public employees will expect salaries, pensions, and health care, but the money simply won’t be there. Mason and the other townships will have their turn at insolvency in the coming generation. In the meantime people don’t recognize the decline or its root causes.

      Read the comments left by Matt Tietsort. Even in the late stage of municipal failure and visible physical deterioration many people simply can’t acknowledge the nature of their situation. To paraphrase: “The abandoned drive thru burger joint will be demolished and replaced by a new discount tire shop. That will fund the three new schools.” The numbers don’t add up.

      1. What about the 3 new elementary schools that are going to break ground next month? The vacant properties that are scheduled to be developed. One pictured is going to be a new Kroger Marketplace. Another is going to be a Discount Tire. Colerain Avenue is major busline for those that don’t drive.

  12. Christ this is depressing. I grew up in neighboring Finneytown. My family’s business, Hochscheid Tailoring, had one of our stores right across Colerain from Northgate Mall where Half Price Books is today. Growing up in the 1960’s & 70’s we all thought that the future would be bright for our suburban neighborhoods. Nobody foresaw the decline and decay that would come with the passing decades.

    1. In the short term Colerain and many similar post war suburbs will continue to experience decline since tax revenue will never be able to keep up with municipal obligations. In the long term some of these towns will successfully reorganize themselves in one of two ways. They will either re-ruralize and become pleasant farm towns with radically less public infrastructure and fewer city employees. Or they will add significant new private development and taxable value on the existing infrastructure chassis to cover costs. I don’t see Colerain going the thicker town route…

  13. Fantastic post. I recently photographed some of the same area (as well as many other abandoned and rotting suburban Cincinnati locations ( Your post sums up the problem in this area so well. The other issue is that it all keeps getting replaced or has new things built out in front of it. KFC too old? Build another one further up the street closer to the main road. Pizza Hut close? Replace it with another gas station.

  14. Aside from the economic, social and health detriments of the American car-based way of life, your photos remind me of the devastation its vast ugliness does to one’s soul.

    1. Karen: My hometown has a main drag called “Coliseum Blvd.” Take the hideous strip development Johnny chronicles, throw in the surviving blank-walled fortress regional mall, more traffic lanes, high tension power lines, and more semi-truck traffic leading to a now almost defunct heavy industrial zone, and it is indeed devastating. I look at photographs from the 1950s, and not to sugarcoat the past, but Fort Wayne WAS a more urbane and civilized city that lost its way, like 95% of America.

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