From the very beginning I didn’t think there was much we could do about the Lytle Park Historic District. Western & Southern had such a head start. They’d acquired the properties over a fifty year period and have been through a gazillion zoning issues a gazillion times all over the country with a never-ending supply of highly competent lawyers at their disposal, not to mention an obvious appetite for courtrooms. So I thought we’d go through the public process, squabble back and forth at the hearings with a lot of gusto – and then in the end our political leaders would have to get practical and go on record in favor of Western & Southern.
Which is exactly what happened. (Except for the back and forth with gusto part – that part, we just sort of skipped.)
But the Historic District designation was never what really interested me. What I wanted to know about was the new vision for the area, how those decisions are made, and what sort of financial support Cincinnati puts into the kitty. A former financial consultant, I’m not afraid of numbers, but with absolutely no background in commercial real estate development, it was a far more ambitious objective than I ever imagined.
This stuff hurts your head. Because it’s not one-stop shopping. Big projects involve countless decisions in many city departments, votes by commissions and review boards, not to mention City Council, financing issues, property valuations and tax abatement, contracts plus more contracts, the interests of the public schools, Tax Increment Financing Districts, and political concerns on city, county, and state levels.
On top of the absurd level of complexity, none of the “experts” I knew were eager to talk to me. In my 58 years, I’ve never had such a high percentage of non-returned phone calls and unanswered emails on any other project I’ve tackled. Except for the developers themselves, I have yet to identify anybody who claims competency in the total development picture on all levels (although there are lots of professionals who are brilliant with their piece).
Unless we citizens take the time and trouble to educate ourselves about these decisions, we will forever be at the mercy of those who benefit from the confusion of the current system. We will never know how much we’re giving away or really understand politics in this city. And – this is the important part – we will end up with a bunch of empty commercial office space and cute little retail malls that looked good at the time (Tower Place, the Convention Center – and what the heck are we going to do with the Saks space now?). These are expensive decisions and we need to ask lots and lots of questions before we sign-on the bottom line for one more thirty-year tax abatement.
Step 1: Use Cincinnati’s emotional attachment to Lytle Park to get more people interested in development issues.
Step 2: Continue to build a social media network to share information with concerned citizens, one that can be used to call the public to action when crucial votes are going to take place.
Step 3: Develop long-term relationships with the press, political representatives, city and county administrative staff, and other interested organizations in the same way real-estate developers have established their networks of influence.
Step 4: Partner with investigative journalists and political representatives to better educate our citizens through a series of salons like the one the Enquirer recently conducted for the Streetcar at Memorial Hall. (They did a great job and I could listen to the recording on Sound Cloud while I was 5,000 miles away.)
For instance: I’d love to see P.G. Sittenfeld, Chair of the Education Committee and Mary Ronan, CPS Superintendent, co-sponsor a session on how development impacts our public schools – and hold it in one of our beautiful new school buildings.
Step 5: Every election is about development whether we know it or not and every election is important. We need to look at all our candidates through the prism of private-profit development versus the public good. November 2014 is particularly important as 2 members of the Hamilton County Board of Revision are up for re-election.
Point A may be one little Historic District with a handful of residents. But Point B matters to everybody. It’s a more thoughtful use of public funds and a relevant built-environment that will serve our city for many generations to come. It may not be an easy journey, but taking the first determined step is crucial to getting where Cincinnati wants to go.