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.