Tag Archives: Western & Southern

wtf? 9/23/2015: Today We Ask the Board of Revision to Go on Record

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I started the wtf? series to highlight Hamilton County property valuations that didn’t make any sense to me..  Readers found my examples interesting, but eventually people wanted a more thorough statistical analysis for purposes of comparison.  “Have you looked at properties in Price Hill?” a journalist asked.  “Can you provide a complete list of parcels so we can judge for ourselves?” someone else suggested.

But I’m not a professional anything.  I’m just an amateur working alone – and easily overwhelmed by the amount of data included in the Auditor’s records.  I have no idea how to put together a valid study to accurately reflect the trends in property valuations across the city.  While there seem to be systemic under-valuations on many of Cincinnati’s most expensive buildings, I don’t have the expertise to manipulate the Auditor’s files even though they gave me complete access to their database.

So I decided to ask Hamilton County’s recognized experts to at least go on record and explain their valuation on a single building: the building that sparked my curiosity about the logic behind their numbers.  Last winter I filed a citizen’s complaint on Western & Southern’s 25 unit luxury apartments at 516 E. Fourth St. where the BOR lowered the value from $4,489,000 to $2,800,000 in 2003. In spite of the short supply of apartments in the City Center, the most successful condo project ever completed in the CBD directly across the street (2006-2007) and the highly successful Residence Inn at the Phelps (2011) on the other side of the property, the value of 516 E. Fourth is now less than the Board of Revision assessment in 2003: $2,527,080 – and the land value has been almost cut in half.

Here’s the per square foot value of my building, Park Place at Lytle across the street at 400 Pike St. compared to the per square foot value at 516 E. Fourth:

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My hearing is this morning at 9:15 am.  I can’t wait to hear what the experts have to say.

Wish me luck.

The Lytle Park Mystery Hole

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.”

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This picture was taken on August 16, but all the dirt is out of the hole now. This is what a 2-year project to replace ventilation fans and upgrade the lighting system looks like. Come see for yourself. It’s a damn, big hole.

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.”

washingtonparkgarage

This is what the underground garage looked like during construction in Washington Park. You can see why a neighbor might get confused.

“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.

Lytle Park’s New Design: An Exercise in Gentrification

If you were to design a park in order to be absolutely sure that nobody – no families, no lonely people, no artists, no Frisbee throwers and especially no poor people – would ever linger or use it as anything other than an attractive sidewalk between office buildings and the Taft Museum, what would it look like?  Would it look like this?

lytleparktrail-750xx772-434-0-0

This is the new design created by the Cincinnati Park Department after one-on-one discussions with executives from Western & Southern Financial regarding their plan to convert the Anna Louise Inn into a luxury hotel and adjoining restaurant.

Neighbors in my condominium started to attend Park Department public meetings about the Lytle Park renovation almost ten years ago.  They expressed their concerns on the importance of a central green space to increase the physical and social flexibility of the park.

This is how the new design measures up in terms of the non-landscaped lawn:

Existing Lytle Park:  Hardscape 36,548 SF Planting 18,654 SF Lawn 73,105 SF  – 91,759 SF  of landscape
Original 2008 MP:   Hardscape 42,646 SF Planting 36,515 SF Lawn 48,157 SF  – 84,672 SF of landscape
2015 MP Update:   Hardscape 47,154  SF Planting  61,082 SF Lawn 19,568 SF  – 80,650 SF of landscape

After taking public concerns into consideration the Park Department has reduced the open lawn space by 73.23%. There’s a big increase in hardscape (that’s what we call pavers, I guess).  And plantings have more than tripled. 

Where will moms spread a blanket on a pretty spring day while they watch their kids play?
Where will dads go to teach their boys how to toss a ball?
Where will they put the tables for a Dinner in White?
Where’s the lightweight, movable furniture for friends to gather and talk – or that can be moved into place for a story-telling event under the stars – or to listen to a little jazz trio do their thing?
Where’s the bocce court?  Or the chess boards?
Where will the dogs play?
Where’s the jungle gym and slides, the kinds of fun, imaginative stuff they’ve been putting into the new parks down by the river?
Where’s the outdoor reading room and the public art?
And where the heck is our herb garden????  The one the neighborhood has been planting and taking care of for years? (note: my neighbor showed me there is room for the herb garden in the new design! – see below)
What would ever attract anybody who doesn’t live or work here to spend any time in this park?

For the first couple of years after my husband and I moved into our condo at Park Place at Lytle, I would occasionally see people who weren’t rich sitting in the park.  There was one man in particular I used to talk to on a regular basis as he listened to baseball games on a small transistor radio.  Then one night a couple of cops on bicycles flashed across my path in the dark as I was out for a stroll. My friend was taking a leak over in the bushes and it was almost like somebody had been waiting for it to happen.  The next afternoon he waved to me as he walked across the Purple People Bridge on his way to Kentucky and that was the last time I ever saw him.  I haven’t seen the ladies from the Anna Louise Inn for a long time either, not since an agreement was reached to sell their building.

The new and improved Lytle Park is not for everybody. In fact, it’s more of a stage set than a real park.  It will look nice from the window of a hotel room or an office tower.  It will be safe.  It will be clean.  But this park as it is currently designed doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of bringing real people together in meaningful ways to share experiences and create community, because this park is not really designed to be used.
 

Lytle Park's New Design: An Exercise in Gentrification

If you were to design a park in order to be absolutely sure that nobody – no families, no lonely people, no artists, no Frisbee throwers and especially no poor people – would ever linger or use it as anything other than an attractive sidewalk between office buildings and the Taft Museum, what would it look like?  Would it look like this?

lytleparktrail-750xx772-434-0-0

This is the new design created by the Cincinnati Park Department after one-on-one discussions with executives from Western & Southern Financial regarding their plan to convert the Anna Louise Inn into a luxury hotel and adjoining restaurant.

Neighbors in my condominium started to attend Park Department public meetings about the Lytle Park renovation almost ten years ago.  They expressed their concerns on the importance of a central green space to increase the physical and social flexibility of the park.

This is how the new design measures up in terms of the non-landscaped lawn:

Existing Lytle Park:  Hardscape 36,548 SF Planting 18,654 SF Lawn 73,105 SF  – 91,759 SF  of landscape
Original 2008 MP:   Hardscape 42,646 SF Planting 36,515 SF Lawn 48,157 SF  – 84,672 SF of landscape
2015 MP Update:   Hardscape 47,154  SF Planting  61,082 SF Lawn 19,568 SF  – 80,650 SF of landscape

After taking public concerns into consideration the Park Department has reduced the open lawn space by 73.23%. There’s a big increase in hardscape (that’s what we call pavers, I guess).  And plantings have more than tripled. 

Where will moms spread a blanket on a pretty spring day while they watch their kids play?
Where will dads go to teach their boys how to toss a ball?
Where will they put the tables for a Dinner in White?
Where’s the lightweight, movable furniture for friends to gather and talk – or that can be moved into place for a story-telling event under the stars – or to listen to a little jazz trio do their thing?
Where’s the bocce court?  Or the chess boards?
Where will the dogs play?
Where’s the jungle gym and slides, the kinds of fun, imaginative stuff they’ve been putting into the new parks down by the river?
Where’s the outdoor reading room and the public art?
And where the heck is our herb garden????  The one the neighborhood has been planting and taking care of for years? (note: my neighbor showed me there is room for the herb garden in the new design! – see below)
What would ever attract anybody who doesn’t live or work here to spend any time in this park?

For the first couple of years after my husband and I moved into our condo at Park Place at Lytle, I would occasionally see people who weren’t rich sitting in the park.  There was one man in particular I used to talk to on a regular basis as he listened to baseball games on a small transistor radio.  Then one night a couple of cops on bicycles flashed across my path in the dark as I was out for a stroll. My friend was taking a leak over in the bushes and it was almost like somebody had been waiting for it to happen.  The next afternoon he waved to me as he walked across the Purple People Bridge on his way to Kentucky and that was the last time I ever saw him.  I haven’t seen the ladies from the Anna Louise Inn for a long time either, not since an agreement was reached to sell their building.

The new and improved Lytle Park is not for everybody. In fact, it’s more of a stage set than a real park.  It will look nice from the window of a hotel room or an office tower.  It will be safe.  It will be clean.  But this park as it is currently designed doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of bringing real people together in meaningful ways to share experiences and create community, because this park is not really designed to be used.
 

What’s Western & Southern Putting into the Lytle Park Public-Private Partnership?

Excuse me.  I’m a little confused.

At the end of June Mayor Cranley announced his plan to put an initiative on the ballot to increase property taxes for dedicated parks’ funding.  The list of projects he picked raised lots of questions, but one entry was especially troubling.

The reason I am confused is because I just recently submitted a public records request for the estimated costs of the renovation of the park in front of my home.  My friend, Steve Schuckman of the Park Department, was very helpful and got them for me right away.

2015-02-11-HN-MP Update_Cost Estimate (2)-page-001 2015-02-11-HN-MP Update_Cost Estimate (2)-page-002As you can see, total estimated costs for renovation are slightly under $6,000,000.

The Ohio Department of Transportation is paying $1,000,000 to reconstruct the portion of the park being torn up to install new ventilation fans in the I-71 tunnel.  Mayor Cranley’s property tax increase is intended to contribute another $5,000,000.

What I’m missing in this Mayor-branded public-private partnership is the private part of the equation.  Where the heck is Western & Southern’s contribution and why are we are giving them naming rights like it’s a tennis tournament?  I understand very clearly that John Barrett met regularly with Park Department design staff to cover such details as what shape of the sidewalk he would prefer.  But I don’t understand what this city is getting in return and why Western & Southern gets such preferential treatment in private meetings that the public cannot attend.

Cincinnati’s negotiating skills with the corporate community could stand a little improvement, don’t you think?  It’s like we’re the 90 lb. weakling at the beach with Charles Atlas kicking sand in our face.

What's Western & Southern Putting into the Lytle Park Public-Private Partnership?

Excuse me.  I’m a little confused.

At the end of June Mayor Cranley announced his plan to put an initiative on the ballot to increase property taxes for dedicated parks’ funding.  The list of projects he picked raised lots of questions, but one entry was especially troubling.

The reason I am confused is because I just recently submitted a public records request for the estimated costs of the renovation of the park in front of my home.  My friend, Steve Schuckman of the Park Department, was very helpful and got them for me right away.

2015-02-11-HN-MP Update_Cost Estimate (2)-page-001 2015-02-11-HN-MP Update_Cost Estimate (2)-page-002As you can see, total estimated costs for renovation are slightly under $6,000,000.

The Ohio Department of Transportation is paying $1,000,000 to reconstruct the portion of the park being torn up to install new ventilation fans in the I-71 tunnel.  Mayor Cranley’s property tax increase is intended to contribute another $5,000,000.

What I’m missing in this Mayor-branded public-private partnership is the private part of the equation.  Where the heck is Western & Southern’s contribution and why are we are giving them naming rights like it’s a tennis tournament?  I understand very clearly that John Barrett met regularly with Park Department design staff to cover such details as what shape of the sidewalk he would prefer.  But I don’t understand what this city is getting in return and why Western & Southern gets such preferential treatment in private meetings that the public cannot attend.

Cincinnati’s negotiating skills with the corporate community could stand a little improvement, don’t you think?  It’s like we’re the 90 lb. weakling at the beach with Charles Atlas kicking sand in our face.

Why Cincinnati's Economic Development Policy Doesn't Work

Sometimes people actually read the stuff I write on cincyopolis.

I know this because of a conversation with a neighbor on the way home from the Lytle Park Master Plan meeting before I left for Italy.  My friend was really excited about the new park and looks forward to all the Western & Southern instigated changes in the Lytle Park Historic District, the hotels and restaurants, their future corporate headquarters and the residential tower.  “It is going to work out fine,” I agreed – but immediately jumped headfirst into my “affordability” lecture about the use of tax-payer subsidy.

That’s when my neighbor used one of my own posts against me.  “But it brings new jobs and income taxes go up,” he said.  “I saw it on your chart.”

I remember my headline.  Something about, “Good news, Cincinnati.”  Just in case you were busy living your life, picking up kids at soccer games, doing the grocery shopping (the really important stuff), here’s my chart:

image (13)Cincinnati’s economic policies have been generating more income tax revenue over time.  And compared to the rate of inflation, they out-performed.  But they haven’t grown fast enough to keep up with our expenses.  I will “spare us all another public records request”  (that’s a direct Facebook quote from a city administrator – do you think they are getting slightly exasperated with me down at City Hall?) and not ask the finance department to pull the numbers for a comparable 30-year history of city expenses.  But if you’ve lived here for more than a couple of years, you know those numbers intuitively.  We’re always broke.  Cincinnati never has enough money.

Our subsidies haven’t produced enough revenue to cover rising costs.  This is not because City Hall is spending money like drunken sailors. They have cut everything they can cut – including 23% of their staff in a decade and pension benefits – and it’s still not enough.  After 30 years of using incentives to buy jobs it costs more to maintain what we’ve got than we are taking-in.

We are not alone, Cincinnati.  This state of affairs has been the norm all over the country.  No-holds-barred real estate development financed with Tax Increment Financing has brought California to its knees and they have discontinued the practice.  Here’s why:

TIF_graph-page-001

This is the reality of of what happens when we buy jobs with never-ending subsidies.  We freeze our income from real estate. (Insult to injury: For the last 15 years City Council has added an artificial cap on their share just in case any new property tax revenue miraculously sneaks through – which has got to be one of the most bone-head moves in the history of public policy decisions.) We don’t get the full benefit of new income taxes because we frequently give 65% of that away, too.  All this infrastructure to support the new development needs to be maintained.  Basic services have to be funded.  Costs go up faster than the financial benefits coming in.

To all those who claim these tax breaks for corporations don’t really cost us anything, I say if it’s too good to be true, it is.  We have to pay for all these shiny objects with real money, not promises of good things to come. Practice a new mantra, Cincinnati – please.  Say it loud and say it proud: “We cannot afford to give away more than we take in.”