Last week I was running to an appointment when I bumped into Mario San Marco coming out of the University Club. He’s the President of Eagle Realty, a subsidiary of Western & Southern, the developer of Queen City Square/Great American Tower, the hotel-conversion of the Anna Louise Inn, and the new hotel proposed for the Banks, to name but a handful of their current mega-deals. (He’s big. Really big.)
“I was just talking to one of the guys on the crew on the Lytle Park construction site,” I told him, “and he said the only reason for that hole IS to replace the utilities.”
The “hole” I was referring to is the giant mystery hole that looks suspiciously like the same type of construction used for the underground garage in Washington Park and I knew Mario would be interested since he’d sent me an email on July 27th regarding my post, “Calling all Engineers and Construction Professionals.”
“Your posting of rumors that you have not taken the time to validate does nothing to further the efforts of attempting to restore 311 Pike Street and the former Anna Louise Inn Building for adaptive reuse, with positive impact for our neighborhood and City. Had you called me or emailed me and waited for a response to your inquiry of the State of Ohio, you could have used your forum to make a positive statement that would have reassured stakeholders that the work being done by the State was federally/state mandated and will serve to maintain the park for many years to come. You can be assured that none of the work on the tunnel is to accommodate any plans we have for the Lytle Park neighborhood.”
While Mario’s offer to answer my questions regarding the Ohio Department of Transportation project in a public park is generous, I’m stymied. Why would I contact an executive of a private corporation about a public project on publicly owned land? I thought the logical source for information would be officials who have a fiduciary responsibility for taxpayer interests. And yet this is the second time that Mario has called me to task for not coming to him on such a matter. After 6 months of calls to the Cincinnati Public Schools, the Port Authority, the Hamilton County Auditor, city administrators and elected representatives, finally Western & Southern summoned me to their office and told me where to look for the semi-annual property tax payments they’ve been making to our public schools for Queen City Square. (Indeed, it was a lot faster when the pros gave me the clues – but, come on, somebody in the public sector should have known where to look for the tax payments on one of our biggest public-private partnerships ever-completed.)
“Were you telling them how to do the job?” Mario chided when he heard I was talking to the construction guys.
Which is pretty much the same attitude I always get from the professionals who have made all the decisions about our “public-private” partnerships behind closed-doors for decades.
This is none of my business. I don’t know enough. About public financing. About real estate development. About journalism. I should go back to school before I write about these complicated matters. I should trust the professionals.
Except I don’t.
Because all the professional-experts earn their livings from building these big projects, even the ones who work for public agencies – and the professional journalists clearly can’t afford to alienate the business community if they don’t want advertising pulled. Our experts are not capable of being objective. Objective sources I can identify – long-term trends in property tax income, infant mortality rates, the poverty rate, and population figures – all of these sources are flashing the exact same great big giant red neon warning signs: Whatever we’ve been doing based on the advice of our experts hasn’t been working. If the point is not just to build buildings but to improve the standard of living for all the residents of Cincinnati, the results have been a disaster.
This country was founded on democratic principles of citizen participation in the decision-making process. We not only have the right to ask questions about public projects. It is our responsibility to ask them. The reason for Ohio Sunshine Laws, for open records and meetings is so that we can verify the integrity of the democratic process as well as fair and even application of our laws. Access to information is not enough in and of itself. We have to use that information to demand accountability so that we can make better decisions about our collective future.
Whether or not the Lytle Park Mystery Hole turns out to be a garage or just a hole is irrelevant to my responsibility to raise awareness about decisions from which the public has always been intentionally excluded. The public needs to ask more questions. Lots of them And hard ones. If developers and public administrators find the questions annoying, these projects should be undertaken with private money, not the public’s.
BTW, I did call Mario in response to his email and even offered to let him write his own post for cincyopolis. He never returned my call or acknowledged my emails.