Why am I willing to look like such a Doofus?

Yesterday I wrote a pretty good post.  City government is not a corporation and the Mayor is not a CEO.  I liked the way it traced the history of my struggle to understand how committees work at City Hall, how it used a currently-proposed luxury apartment complex in Madisonville to illustrate how the process can be manipulated.  The logic was tight until I got to the end and flew-off into a goofy conclusion that strong mayors can do anything they want, including force a positive outcome when the votes aren’t there.  The friend of mine who pointed this out did it so nicely it took me 12 hours before I realized what he was saying.

And when I did, I just sat there, shaking my head like I always do, mumbling, “Why, Kathy, why? Why do you put yourself through this?”

A little over a year ago I found myself surprised by Eagle Realty’s development plans for the Lytle Park Historic District and I decided to find out how we make these big development decisions in Cincinnati.  This was an ambitious undertaking as I had absolutely no background in commercial real estate, public finance or the political process.  Since last Spring, I’ve watched CUF (Clifton Heights, University Heights & Fairview) and now Madisonville face-off against developers, experienced their frustrations second-hand as they trudge down to City Hall (just like I did) for countless meetings, work hard to play by the rules, educate themselves, network, organize, do everything good citizens are supposed to do.  These are smart, smart people who love their city and the communities where they live.  They are not anti-development.  They want the same thing we all want – a prosperous place to live with good jobs for the people who live here.

Unfortunately, experience to date has shown me that by the time development decisions enter the political process, it’s too late.  Those decisions have already been made somewhere off stage as soon as funding is found. Sometimes neighborhoods can slow the process down.  And the best developers will take a community’s concerns into consideration.  (Gilbane reduced the height of their new $34.4 million apartment complex on McMillan.)  But by the time these mega-public-private-partnerships reach the stage where the public can actually participate in the conversation – they are going to happen and they are pretty much going to happen the way they are originally proposed.   It’s more theater than democracy.

But those of us who volunteer for our neighborhoods don’t know that.  We naively believe that the work we do in our Community Councils matters, that the actual public (that’s us!) should have an important say in projects that involve huge public tax dollars.  Nobody ever goes back after these things are built to measure economic impact or ask long-term residents, “How’d that work out for you?”  By that time the political process has long ago moved onto the next big deal.

So why do this to myself, stumble, make my mistakes out in the open where everybody can see, point out those mistakes in follow-up posts just in case somebody missed them the first time?  I do it because somebody has to be honest about what we are expecting of ourselves when neighborhoods try to be part of the decision-making process about development decisions.   When big development comes to your part of town, you’re going to find yourself just like me, just like my friend, Luke Brockmeier, president of the Madisonville Community Council, a brilliant guy killing himself to do the right thing for the place where he lives.  You’re going to find yourself trying to figure out everything overnight – and you’re going to be up against experts who do development for a living and know how the system works.

I’m willing to look like a Doofus because, in this case, the mistakes ARE the story.  Those of us who work from our hearts – beyond money in our own pockets or personal political gain – have to learn from each other.  We have to share information and experiences.  We have to be stubborn and refuse to quit no matter how many times experts tell us we just don’t understand. If we want better long-term development decisions based on intimate knowledge about what makes our neighborhoods unique, the kind that can only come from living in a place for a very long time and caring about it deeply, we have to give ourselves permission to try our best and learn as we go.

6 thoughts on “Why am I willing to look like such a Doofus?

  1. Kelly Lundrigan

    Kathy, you do not come across as a doofus. You come across as someone very intelligent who is trying to make sense of a very complex process where input of community members is diluted in comparison with those with a direct financial interest in the process, and community input is usually attenuated at best. Smart development that is sustainable over the long term only happens when those with the direct financial interests in the project are forced to also take into account long term community interests and quality of life issues. The cities which have created the most impressive developments that really create a better quality of life for their residents are places where individuals like you help force the government to hold developers accountable for keeping that balance. Thank you for your involvement and efforts on our collective behalf!

    1. executivedreamer Post author

      Thank-you Kelly, Barbara, and Tim. There’s a method to my madness. I want to remove the stigma of making mistakes. I want us to believe that we are allowed to question complicated policies and outcomes even though we aren’t perfect in our knowledge. And I will beat this horse to death until we have it through our thick skulls – myself included – that imperfect knowledge is no excuse for not getting involved. We can improve outcomes – but not if we are always afraid of looking dumb. When you tackle hard stuff, it’s inevitable.

  2. Barbara Nieman Didrichsen

    You don’t look like a doofus — I think you’re incredibly brave to take on a topic that you have little experience with, and are willing to take the blows when you get something wrong (or someone tries to dissuade you from continuing your education). *All* of us who live in Cincinnati benefit from your determination to teach us what you learn.

  3. Tim

    I value your efforts on our behalf. You caused people to have candid and informed conversations about the management of our community. Thanks!

  4. Bill Collins

    Kathy: No, you’re not a doofus. Far from it.
    Many times the dogged collective community determination that you mentioned in your posting ARE successful in achieving community goals. In fact, I’ve seen those good outcomes happen in these situations many more time during during my life than I’ve seen community efforts fail.

    A most recent example: I think we succeeded here in Madisonville with a long drawn-out political process that started around 2009 and seems to be wrapping up now in our favor. I’ll call this: “the State of Ohio (ODOT) vs. the people of Newtown, Mariemont and Madisonville (and the Sierra Club)”

    I won’t bore you with too many details. However, suffice it to say that we united here around the idea that we would not let ODOT turn Red Bank Road into a wide high-speed highway, as part of the larger community struggle against the Eastern Corridor transportation project. For us, thoses outrageous proposals that the State of Ohio was advancing 5-10 years ago would have split our community in half with essentially a new freeway, while preparing this ground for Interstate 74 to be rammed through the Red Bank corridor.

    When dealing with the State of Ohio, sometimes these processes are never completely finalized. [With the State and the Federal Highway Administration, everything moves slower.] However, long story short, we found a way to work in parallel with our suburban neighbors (again, Newtown and Mariemont) and the Sierra Club to fight this threat off and hopefully permanently protect the pristine beauty of Little Miami River valley between Eastgate and Mariemont.

    So, who were our adversaries? Who did we push back? These guys are not the usual suspect suspects (although there is some overlap) that we bump up against in development disputes here in the City of Cincinnati. In this case, our adversaries were developers, bankers and local-government officials in Clermont County, as well as their mostly suburban supporters across three states in the Tri-State region organized via the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana (OKI) Council of Governments.

    Essentially, their story is that the developers active in Clermont County want to turn Red Bank Road as well as their proposed additional road to parallel the east/west portion of the Little Miami River into essentially one freeway from I-71 in Madisonville to I-275 at Eastgate. The goal is to drain people and jobs out of the East Side of the Cincinnati City school district in places like Madisonville, Mount Washington, Linwood, Oakley, Kennedy Heights and Silverton.

    Here, please understand that from the 1960s through the 1990s many thousands of white people in these East Side communities and large numbers of jobs DID leave the City for Clermont County. But since the turn of the Century, that flow of people and jobs has largely stopped, and I think we have helped to beat back the threat of reviving that flight of whites and white capital.

    Plus, during the last 20 years the Red Bank Corridor in and around Madisonville, Oakley and Fairfax has become one of the largest job generators in the City and County, despite the best efforts of the Clermont elite to lure people and jobs out of this City.

    So, who says the people cannot win against the powerful?

    1. Brian

      You end by saying “who says the people cannot win against the powerful?” Why is it us versus them? Why do “we” need to “beat the powerful?” Objectively, and in my personal opinion, the city is far better off when businesses that actually are in the business of generating economic success take the lead rather than those who would have us keep crime magnets in blossoming districts. Anna Louise Inn did not attract an element that was appropriate for a family park. City Gospel Mission will stall any potential progress on that side of OTR. Market rate and subsidized housing have never worked out together.

      Let the people who know how to make business work develop the city.


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