News: CityLink Divides West End

Social services agency would be city's largest

Stephen Novotni

West End resident Carlos Sartor collects scrap metal from a lot recently cleared by One City. Sartor plans to sell the scrap to a local junkyard.

Depending on whom you ask, the CityLink project is something that could save the West End or kill it. CityLink is planned to be the largest private social services offering in the city. The idea is to provide about 100,000 square feet of space — the size of a large department store — that would offer the city's poor a one-stop social service mall, where they could receive health care, job training, drug counseling and more.

The $12 million faith-based initiative is being planned by One City, a collaborative organization of 10 prominent area churches and social service organizations, including Crossroads Community Church in Oakley and CityCURE of Mount Auburn.

It's a dramatic and controversial idea that seeks to take a vacant lot and industrial building — the old Club Chef building at the corner of Lynn and Bank streets — and transform it into a place of hope. Detractors, of which there are many in the West End, say CityLink would make their neighborhood a magnet for all of the poor in Cincinnati, halting the progress of urban renewal.

Martha Gitt, a member of the Klotter-Conroy Homeowners Association, says CityLink would literally be in her back yard and she wants it stopped.

"They call it CityLink," she says, "But the funny thing is, it isn't linked."

Gitt says One City has ignored requests for meetings with the opposition, lacks ties with local government that she believes would be critical to the program's success and doesn't have the support of the neighborhood or its churches.

Gitt says the only contact the opposition has had with One City has been through West End Community Council meetings, which have become a battleground over the issue.

Community Council President Dale Mallory has moderated two tense meetings on the matter. His brother, Mayor Mark Mallory, also of the West End, is keeping out of the discussion for now.

CityLink is being thoughtfully planned and is open to meetings with any residents, according to Tonia Elrod, spokeswoman for One City.

"We're trying to partner with the West End," she says.

Elrod admits that local government isn't part of the project but sees its private funding as proof of how many believe in the plan.

The Rev. Gerald Bates of St. Mark Christian Fellowship has been vocal in his opposition to CityLink. In a Dec. 18 appearance on City Talk on WCKY (1530 AM), he stated that the West End didn't need any more social service agencies and that, while One City's goals are honorable, their execution is ill conceived. CityLink would be better placed on Spring Grove Avenue or near the Justice Center downtown, he says.

Elrod said the West End was chosen because of its central location, making it easy for the poor to access. All programming would be scheduled, she says. There would be no meetings without an appointment and no reason for transients to hang around the building as they do at some social service agencies in Over-the-Rhine. Private security would also be on site, she says.

In the same WCKY broadcast, West End resident Kimberly Hale argued that the new center would make the West End a more dangerous place and would lower property values.

"Unfortunately, the poor and homeless is a blight most people fear," she says.

But Mike Howard, director of Justice Watch, a transitional housing program in the West End, sees it differently.

"I'll tell you what brought the property values down — when those guys started firing off M-16s down here," he says. "If the community can be brought down any farther, I don't want to be here."

Despite initiatives such as City West, which replaced public housing projects with multi-income housing, the West End remains a drug-infested, crime-ridden community, Howard says. Violence is rampant, and if CityLink doesn't happen, the Club Chef property will remain vacant and the West End will still be "a nightmare," he says.

"What's right is not always popular, and this is right," Howard says. "It will be a safe haven and will be a Godsend because of the quality of treatment."

The community is dotted with "No CityLink" signs — nearly as many as the visible reasons that One City chose the location: The homeless and hopeless are a constant on the streets and represent an opportunity for intervention, Howard says.

Listen in to a community council meeting, and you'll find that the opportunities of one group are the bane of another. West End residents who gambled on a community that was on the upswing are concerned that their investments will fall flat if the area becomes a poverty center. Many of these people fear for their safety and their quality of life, and some have questioned the motives of the project, asking if this is a way to gentrify Over-the-Rhine by relocating all of the poor to the West End.

"We need these services," Howard says. "Bates has his church right next to the CAT House (Center for Chemical Addiction and Treatment), and his property values haven't gone down. It's not about the community being put at risk. If anything, it will be enhanced."

The opposition to One City will appeal the zoning of the project, Gitt says. If CityLink does break ground at the West End location, it could be operational in just a few years, Elrod says. ©

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