Bike Riders Vs. Suits

Here’s the official government process for the re-designation of a Historic District:

1. City staff makes a recommendation.
2. Historic Conservation Board votes on the staff’s recommendation.
3. The Planning Commission makes changes and votes.
4. City Council Neighborhood Council can make changes before they vote.
5. Full City Council votes on the Ordinance sent to them by the Neighborhood Council.

In our case this process took three months to wind its way through the system, only occasionally delayed by strange, unexplained postponements. Planning Commission felt there was going to be a lot of controversy and delayed the previously announced public hearing for an additional two weeks. Which then made it impossible to get the public notice mailed in time for the next meeting of the Neighborhood Committee, which tagged on yet another two weeks, bringing us dangerously close to expiration and/or recess for the summer. And the whole time everybody with an opinion was running around behind the scenes frantically trying to get an appointment with Council members. They tell you to get signatures on anything, send letters, have supporters call, start petitions. It’s important to show that people from other parts of town care.

After the Historic Conservation Board voted in favor of City staff’s recommendations for the new boundaries, I went to show my support at the Planning Commission vote. In fact the entire group of stakeholders that had formed to lobby for continued protection came for exactly that same reason: The Literary Club, the David L. Joseph Company (owners of the American Book Building) and their tenants, Park Place at Lytle Home Owners Association and representatives from the Taft Museum – we all came out to show support.

Sure, at first we’d hated the idea of the New District. We were scared. Nobody had told us what was going on in a slippery, slimy sort of way. For a week or two, we’d all walked around the park in shock, trying to imagine what the sweet, little two-story brick Greek Revival that houses the Literary Club would look like in the shadow of a new, modern corporate headquarters, posting our pictures about the end of life as we knew it on our new Lytle Park Historic District Facebook page. But in the end, of course we’d come to our senses. We were sophisticated business people, after all, savvy in the ways of the world. This was private property. Development is good for the city. We understood.

So when we arrived for the hearing that morning and saw it filled with faces we didn’t recognize, most of them dressed in dark suits, we didn’t suspect a thing, just signed in to testify and filled-in the empty spots around the edges of the room.

Western & Southern was represented by their attorney, of course, Frances Barrett, who testified with the same tired, questionable story he always tells at all the public hearings regarding the District, about how Lytle Park wouldn’t exist today had it not been for the civic minded largess of Western & Southern when they saved it during the construction of the highway. Then Mario San Marco, the president of Eagle Realty reminded everybody about the great job they’ve done restoring the Guilford School and the Phelps (nobody ever seems to mention that this was while under District protection), stating that their “record speaks for itself.” The vast majority of the other Western & Southern employees in the audience worked for Mario and never said a word.

It was the dark-suited members of the University Club who objected to their inclusion in the Historic District. They said they didn’t ever go to the Park, that when they ate their Vichyssoise at the Club at lunch, they walked straight down 4th St, in the front door, and right back to their offices without ever giving us a second glance. Government regulation always leads to increased expenses, they said, though when asked none of them had actually read the guidelines and so could not speak as to the specifics that would incur financial hardship. Already they had had to pay for an expensive lawyer who was charging them to come testify that he had just been hired the week before and had not had sufficient time to read the guidelines either. “We weren’t informed,” they claimed one after the other.

But supporters of the District didn’t take that seriously. Because of course we all knew that the University Club had been informed, just like the rest of us. We’d met with them. Their officers had sent dated letters. They were in the packets distributed to the Commissioners before the meeting. Members of their private club had attended the first two meetings.

And so every single one of us came to the microphone that day and told the Commissioners how lucky we were to have Western & Southern as a steward of these unique civic assets; that we were in full support of the new District and its development by our civic-minded neighbors.

When the last of us had finally returned to our chairs, it was only then that Council Member Amy Murray made her motion. She had asked to reserve her comments until after the public testimony. Since the University Club had not been properly informed, she said, it was not fair to include their building or any of the other three on Broadway. And with a wave of Amy Murray’s hand and her ever-polite, gracious smile, another four buildings were gone. The motion was seconded; a vote taken; the meeting adjourned with no opportunity for public debate or even questions.

John Schneider was the lone dissenting voice on the Commission. A property owner in another nearby district, he explained as he had while questioning the University Club members that he had not found the guidelines to be financially cumbersome for his property and that the current condition of the Club exceeded the expectations of the new guidelines. Except for Mr. Schneider and Ms. Murray, the 5 other members of the commission were disappointingly silent as to their thinking on an issue so controversial it had been delayed for two weeks.

I’d seen those letters from the University Club in the official file I requested under the Ohio Public Records Act. But until the moment when the gavel went down on the Planning Commission meeting, I hadn’t understood what they meant. Western & Southern was willing to have a Historic District if it they could avoid another public relations nightmare. But they wanted a District that was as small as possible. Rather than fight the boundaries themselves, they had solicited support from an organization dependent on them for their financial survival, members of the same club. Since Historic District protection is inherently a voluntary buy-in by property owners, if Western & Southern had decided against a District, there was no way to force it down their corporate throat. We got exactly what they were willing to give.

The meeting over, my husband and I took the elevator downstairs to go home and try to figure out what the heck had just happened while Mario was still talking to Amy. Right in front of the rack where we’d locked our bikes, Mario’s sleek black town car was idling quietly in the No Parking Zone. His pleasant, uniformed driver had his window down and couldn’t help but notice my bright orange cruiser with the perky, red bell attached to the handlebars. When we explained it was easier to park bikes than cars downtown, he just laughed and explained it was never a problem for him.

-Kathy Holwadel

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