News: Controlling the Stairs

A clash of neighborhoods and values in East Walnut Hills

Graham Lienhart

Working to permanently re-open a public stairway are (L- R), in front, Bob Roncker, David Doepke, Bob Dinser, Doug Davis, and Laurie Keleher.

Twisting through wooded hills and down steep inclines, the concrete structures trail along cliffs and into ravines, unknown by many Cincinnati residents but fiercely protected by a group of loyal enthusiasts.

One of Cincinnati's many unique features is the series of public stairways dotting its hillside neighborhoods. Built mostly in the early 20th century, about 400 sets of stairs span nearly 30 miles altogether, providing pedestrians an experience unmatched among Midwestern cities.

A dispute over one set of public stairs in East Walnut Hills pits issues of public safety against convenience and historic ambience — and raises allegations of classism and buying favors at City Hall. At the center of the debate are the Collins Avenue stairs, which connect the end of Collins near William Howard Taft Road to Keys Crescent.

On one side of the debate are Keys Crescent homeowners, who say their expensive houses on the short, secluded street are threatened by thieves and vandals who use the steps to make a quick getaway after breaking into homes and vehicles.

The other side involves residents of surrounding streets, who say they and their children regularly use the stairs as a shortcut when walking up the hillside. Some students at Withrow High School use the steps to get to a bus route. Closing the steps would inconvenience many people to benefit a relative few, they add.

Closure supporters contend the steps, in actuality, aren't used all that much.

Opponents believe the crime bedeviling Keys Crescent isn't caused by the steps but is generated mostly from the opposite direction by the nearby Evanston neighborhood — and could be stopped if residents would erect a fence.

'Over the edge'
Keys Crescent homeowners, led by resident Tim Mathile, petitioned city council last summer to close the stairs, triggering a debate that has divided both the neighborhood and elected officials. The request came after city planners budgeted money to repair the steps.

Council eventually proposed a compromise to close the steps for five years and then see if it affects crime in the area. But lawyers for closure opponents discovered that council didn't follow due process. A little-noticed section of the city charter requires that a decision of this nature first go before the city's Planning Commission.

As a result, the Planning Commission will discuss the issue and make a decision Friday. The group likely will vote to keep the stairs open, meaning it will take at least six votes on city council to overturn the decision.

Residents on both sides are gearing up for a fight.

"The steps aren't being used very often, and crime is rising in our neighborhood," says Mathile, who moved to Keys Crescent with his family five years ago. "The only people I've seen using them are the people using them at night to do these types of things."

Keys Crescent residents are affluent: Mathile, for example, is an heir to the Iams pet food fortune and owns Franklin Brazing & Metal Treating in Lebanon.

Crime always has been a problem on the street, Mathile concedes.

"The second night we were there, someone tried to break into our house," he says.

Still, he believes the situation has worsened in recent years. Mathile presented council members a videotape last summer that showed a gang of youths coming up the steps one morning before the sun rose and checking his home's doors to see if they were unlocked.

The videotaped incident was the final straw for City Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz, part of a council majority that supports closing the steps.

"That sent me over the edge," Ghiz says. "I'm not going to endanger people's safety just to keep steps open."

But residents who live on other streets in the area counter that the steps are a scapegoat and the crime problem is deliberately overstated to justify creating an upscale enclave on Keys Crescent similar to a gated community. That type of street is inappropriate in an urban environment, they add.

Numerous residents have e-mailed city council, hoping to persuade the group against making any closure.

"The steps are like the city of Cincinnati's sidewalks," says David Doepke, a Cleinview Avenue resident. "Because the terrain in the city is rugged, they're an important part of bringing the community together."

Marcia Koverman, a Collins Avenue resident for almost two decades, says she and her neighbors use the steps to walk to shops in O'Bryonville, to catch the bus on Madison Road and for exercise.

"The proponents of closing the steps are using increased crime in their area as an excuse," she says. "They believe that it's coming up the steps from below. Although 20 years ago that may have been a possibility, in the last several years crime has been non-existent for us."

Hackberry Street resident Carol Strebel agrees.

"These steps are a vital part of our Cincinnati heritage and history, as well as an important pedestrian right-of-way," she says. "These steps should be repaired and reopened for all to use. The good of the many should take precedence over the desires of a few."

Money at the end
Organizations that support keeping the steps open include the East End Assembly, the Hillside Trust, the O'Bryonville Business Association and the East Walnut Hills Assembly.

The Cincinnati Police Department initially issued a letter stating it didn't consider the steps a high-crime area and wouldn't take a stance. Later, Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr. walked the steps, then wrote a letter stating that evidence of transient activity could be seen on the steps and seeming to favor closure.

Many residents who support keeping the steps open note that they far outnumber the Keys Crescent residents seeking closure. There are just 15 homes on Keys Crescent, ranging in price from $875,000 to $1.7 million, according to the county auditor's Web site.

Also, closure opponents say many Keys Crescent homeowners are contributors to city council members' campaigns. For example, Mathile donated to several campaigns, including giving $500 to Ghiz.

"To date, these few influential individuals have been able to persuade a majority of council to vote in their favor, contrary to what most citizens desire," says Bob Roncker of Duncan Avenue.

Council members reject claims of influence peddling.

"That's baloney, that's just so far-fetched," Ghiz says. "If these steps were in Avondale or in Bond Hill, I'd say the same thing. Do you think $500 is enough to make me make a decision like that? C'mon."

Last year six council members — Ghiz, Jeff Berding, Chris Bortz, John Cranley, Chris Monzel and Cecil Thomas — supported closure; members Laketa Cole, David Crowley and Jim Tarbell wanted to keep the steps open.

Since that time the council bloc has fractured, and it's unclear whether the six votes remain to allow closure.

"I am assuming all six of us will stick to our word," Ghiz says. "Crime has only gotten worse since last summer."

Many East Walnut Hills residents plan to lobby city council to change their minds before any vote, which likely will occur in February or March. ©

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