Mapping the Big Picture

Public input sought on how Cincinnati should change

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It’s the last day of September and Corryville’s Recreation Center is packed.

All seating in the center’s large assembly area is filled, and a standing-room-only crowd shares the space with video cameras and lighting, waiting with a barely-contained buzzing for a short video about city planning.

It’s not a subject that usually occasions such levels of excitement, but the first Community Informational Meeting for the city’s new Comprehensive Plan effort has drawn a large and eager crowd from surrounding neighborhoods.

After the presentation, the group is asked to provide input. Everyone is posed a few openended questions about what makes cities great and issues facing Cincinnati, then is given time to formulate answers before a moderator at each table opens up discussion. A facilitator at each table writes down each resident’s ideas.

A couple tables filled with students from University of Cincinnati’s Urban Planning Department eagerly offer opinions about what the city needs most. The streetcar project is mentioned often, as is the Banks project and the need for more nightlife options.

Other tables exhibit different priorities, with affordable housing and equitable, reliable public transit put at a premium.

PlThroughout the meeting, the importance of community involvement in the planning process is stressed.

“This is not our plan, or the planning department’s plan,” Charles Graves, Cincinnati’s planning director, tells the crowd. “This is your plan.”

It’s a great moment in the room, inspirational and energizing. But beyond the excitement

of the large crowd, video presentations, and group discussions, what does it mean for a city to start a Comprehensive Plan?

Like a living organism, a city is made up of interdependent systems. Roads and public transit circulate lifeblood pumped from business districts and centers of employment.

Neighborhoods give the city personality while cultural and educational institutions produce its intellect.

Zoning is the genetic code that ties it all together, deciding what goes where and how the skin of the city will look.

A Comprehensive Plan, as the name suggests, is a big-picture approach to these and other issues attempting to consider the entirety of a city and how its various systems can better function together.

This is not the first time Cincinnati has undertaken this enormous task. In fact, the city has an impressive history with Comprehensive Plans, penning the first to be passed by a City Council in 1925. Since this pioneering step, Cincinnati has drawn up just two more — one in 1946 and one in 1980. Now a new one is being started.

At the helm of this massive effort is Graves, who wields considerable experience. He oversaw the 2005 Comprehensive Plan for Washington, D.C., and has also served as planning director for Baltimore and Atlanta. Graves has prior planning roots in Cincinnati as well, serving as senior planner from 1981-86.

Of equal importance will be a 40-member steering committee charged with setting the tone of the Comprehensive Plan and guiding its priorities and goals. Co-chaired by Planning Commission Chairman Caleb Faux and Michaele Pride, Director of UC’s School of Architecture and Interior Design, the committee will be composed of Cincinnati residents representing area businesses, non-profit groups and community leaders, each in an approximately one-third proportion.

One of these committee members is Evanston Community Council President Anzora Adkins. A whirlwind of activity, Adkins spends much of her time working as an advocate for the neighborhood where she’s lived for the past 40 years. She’s been a major proponent of the proposed King Records studio and museum in Evanston as well as helping with a not-forprofit community art studio called Flavor of the Arts.

Adkins is excited by the process. “I feel the Comprehensive Plan will serve as a catalyst for growth,” she says. Adkins, who will be working with a committee focused on neighborhood involvement, says she’s interested in the plan’s impact on Cincinnati as a whole, but hopes it also has positive impacts on Evanston. “My goal is to enhance quality of life in Evanston by eliminating the blight,” she says. “I think this plan can help us rebuild the neighborhood.”

All these elements — an experienced planning director, a strong and involved steering committee, the city’s history of pioneering in planning — are certainly a plus. Some signs, however, show Adkins and the other members of the committee focused on neighborhood involvement may have their work cut out for them.

Just days after the energized Corryville meeting, a different scene unfolds in Price Hill.

It’s early evening and the meeting room at Price Hill’s Community Recreation Center is still only about half-full. More people trickle in soon after the opening presentation begins, but a few tables remain empty throughout. Most in attendance are from other areas — downtown, Northern Kentucky, Clifton.

During the discussion session, Gerry Baker of neighboring Sedamsville seems to be one of the few voices from the area. A life-long resident, Baker lives in the same house she was born in, which she says once belonged to her grandmother. Baker’s got a lot of ideas about the city and her part of town. “I think lack of education is a big problem,” she says.

Graves recognizes concerns about the somewhat patchwork nature of the community involvement efforts currently underway. “We’ve gone out to neighborhood organizations, and we’ll be going back out to these organizations,” he says. “We’re doing everything we can to make ourselves available.”

The Planning Commission is working with organizations active in all communities, such as school administration boards.

“Recent neighborhood plans will also be incorporated into the citywide plan,” Graves says, so neighborhood-focused planning efforts such as those in places like West End wouldn’t be usurped by the larger Comprehensive Plan.

Despite these assurances, it remains to be seen how many residents in various parts of the city will be represented by the planning efforts, but there will be other opportunities.

The Community Informational Meetings, which took place in Madisonville and College Hill as well as Corryville and Price Hill, are just the first step in a long, multifaceted process stretching well into 2011.

Next on the Planning Commission’s agenda is the Neighborhood Summit, which takes place Feb. 26-27. The commission will have basic goals drafted based on the feedback at the community meetings. Those goals will guide work groups, which will be open to those with an interest in the various areas of the Comprehensive Plan.

Faux urges more residents to get involved. “I hope you think about the city, and how it fits into the region and the country,” he has said at the community meetings. “Look beyond your own neighborhood, beyond the present.”

It still remains to be seen, though, how many residents in various parts of the city will find themselves engaged enough by the process to consider that big picture.

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