News: Redefining Cincinnati

Urbanism has to mean more than new rules

May 14, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Local delegates to the Memphis Manifesto Summit May 1-2 were (L-R) Jamal Muashsher, James Czar, Nick Spencer, Barry Gee, Melinda Canino and Ryan Rybolt.

There's no shortage of visionary ideas floating around right now in Cincinnati, a city overhauling its economic development system by partially privatizing it.

Reform is long overdue in the slow-moving city bureaucracy — a system with a 473-step building-permit process. But streamlining that system leaves larger questions: What kind of development are we going to get? Is that development in the city's long-term interest? Will city leaders settle for sprawling, car-dependent projects that enable them to claim a quick success? Or will they push for mixed-use, architecturally compatible, pedestrian-friendly projects to fill in the city's gaps?

On May 7 city council voted to begin the work to create three new agencies: an independent, semi-public Cincinnati Development Authority; a private, business-led downtown development group; and a one-stop development center outside City Hall.

The vote means council basically agreed with the recommendations of the 18-member Economic Development Task Force it created last year. A final vote to implement a new economic development system is expected before council's June 25 meeting, its last for the summer.

But expecting meaningful change from city officials and business leaders could lead to disappointment, according to Charles Ellison, a professor in the University of Cincinnati School of Planning.

The city has lost about 35 percent of its population since 1960. That means the city's policies the past few decades have been absolute failures, Ellison says.

Although the task force's recommendations would change city bureaucracy, he says, they only represent a formalized system for replicating the failures of the past: a top-down organization led by major CEOs who want predictability, order and control.

"These people are masters at creating the dull," Ellison says. "That is what they've done. That is what they will continue to do."

'Don't try to be Portland'
It's been a year since the stir created by the visit of Richard Florida, a professor of economic development at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of The Rise of the Creative Class (see Cool Is Money, issue of June 20-26, 2002). Florida's visit sparked a resurgence in young professional activism and civic participation in Cincinnati, as his book has around the country.

Florida is the keynote speaker Monday for the National Town Meeting on Main Street, which Cincinnati hosts through May 21.

Young people must create change instead of waiting for others to serve them, according to Florida. He inspired local groups such as the Urbanists and Cincinnati Tomorrow with his theory that cities need to attract people — not companies — and that the creative people who drive economic growth are looking for open-minded, welcoming, diverse cities.

Cincinnati Tomorrow hosts weekly social walks in downtown and Over-the-Rhine. In February the group released its "Creative City Plan," a list of recommendations of how Cincinnati could become a more hip, diverse, attractive city and thereby slow or stop its four-decade long population loss.

Two Cincinnati Tomorrow leaders were among six Cincinnatians who recently participated in the Memphis Manifesto Summit, an invitation-only conference of young professionals from around the country. The purpose was to share stories and write a proclamation of principles — the Memphis Manifesto — that cities should embrace to attract young, creative professionals.

Three of the local participants offered mixed reviews of the Memphis Manifesto, but each found the event full of useful information and networking opportunities.

"I think that was probably the best thing to come out of it," says Nick Spencer, founder of Cincinnati Tomorrow.

In recent years, Cincinnati has often tried to copy the successes of other U.S. cities. But one Memphis panelist said cities should figure out their own strengths and improve them. The message for Cincinnati?

"Don't try to be a Portland," says Melinda Canino, workforce consultant for the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. "Don't try to be an Austin. That was encouraging to hear. We need to constantly remind ourselves of that."

That kind of economic development requires authenticity, or improving on a region's unique features. Over-the-Rhine, the Ohio River and a wealth of historic architecture are a few of Cincinnati's strengths, according to Canino.

It's also important for a city's leaders to embrace entrepreneurs and new ideas, according to conference participant James Muashsher, co-founder of Give Back Cincinnati, a volunteer group of 21- to 35-year-olds. Cities need to nurture small upstart businesses in a formal way, he says.

"Which is, I think, a major thing we lack in this city," Muashsher says.

The Memphis conference offered a lot for application in Cincinnati, according to Spencer. Both are river cities that have had difficulty with racial issues. But Memphis has tackled those issues more directly than Cincinnati, Spencer says, partly by making sure music festivals have a diverse lineup, coming clean about the city's poor history on racial issues and making its downtown a place for diverse street life.

Five years ago downtown Memphis was hurting, Spencer says.

"It's really clear that in five years or so it is going to be an entirely different downtown," he says.

The vision thing
Spencer likes much about the Economic Development Task Force's 15-page report, especially the bureaucratic reforms.

"I think it's pretty good," he says. "I'd give it about a B."

But he's not sure if, in practice, it will be enough to really change the city. The report's authors seem to believe that removing red tape and making development easier will solve most of the city's economic problems.

The bigger problem is a lack of diversity in decision-making and a lack of support for new ideas and people, Spencer says.

"We've got to be a city that supports ideas from the ground up," he says.

The one-stop development center will help, but that's just the beginning of what's needed. The task force recommended the creation of the Cincinnati Development Corporation, a private downtown development group comprised of nine to 11 senior-level CEOs from the downtown business community.

But Spencer gets nervous when he sees a local leader who lives in Warren County on a downtown panel.

"Outside of going to the The Lion King once a year, I never see them downtown," he says. "I think locking 15 CEOs in a room is not going to produce the center city we're looking for."

So far Cincinnati's proposed reforms have focused on structural staff changes, but at some point these new agencies are going to have to make some decisions. What kind of development should the city pursue? How should city incentives be used?

The city is looking to John Alschuler to provide a long-term vision for the new development agencies. A New York consultant to Downtown Cincinnati Inc., Alschuler is working with the task force on the Center City Plan.

"That is where we're going to agree on a vision," says City Councilman David Pepper.

So far Alschuler has emphasized the need to polish the jewels of Cincinnati's urban center, especially Fountain Square and Washington Park. These need to be places where people want to spend time, Alschuler says.

He's also talked about the need for the city to get its minority population more involved in the arts, among other issues.

But during a recent speech to the Urbanists, Alschuler also said corporate executives need to be more involved in the city, which makes one wonder if he really understands Cincinnati. For better or worse, the city's CEOs are almost always involved in major decisions. The private downtown development authority proposed by the Economic Development Task Force would be led entirely by CEOs of major local companies, conjuring visions of corporate welfare.

The fundamentally flawed assumption is that everyone will benefit if the city's major downtown corporations do well. But that's not necessarily true, Ellison says.

He cautions city leaders against backing just any project that gets proposed.

"Putting any big box retail in Cincinnati is a bad idea," he says. "It won't even be there 10 years before it's dead."

The task force did recommend development projects be graded with a smart growth index that awards more points to pedestrian-friendly, mixed use projects. But it's unclear how seriously that will work out, because one of the new economic development job descriptions includes this line: "to ensure that ... planning does not serve as an impediment to the creation/retention/expansion of jobs in the city of Cincinnati."

In defense of the task force, diversity, small businesses and neighborhood business districts were a key concern of the 18 task force members, according to Kathy Schwab, one of the members and a consultant to DCI.

Schwab says the task force, which was comprised by developers, bankers, government leaders and others, made a conscious effort to reach out to a diverse group of neighborhood leaders, city department heads and others.

"We interviewed everyone," she says.

Schwab understands the concern that these new organizations might focus too much on downtown. That's why the city has a Community Development and Planning Committee and a citywide development authority, she says.

"The reality is that downtown corporations aren't going to care about Bond Hill," she says.

Schwab says balancing jobs against the best urban design is going to be a case-by-case decision.

"No one is advocating for the asphalting of the city on a large scale," says James Ritter, another task force member and the director of investment banking at Ross, Sinclaire and Associates.

Planning is valuable as long as it avoids embracing unrealistic expectations, Ritter says.

Chip Gerhardt, vice president of KMK Consulting Co., which advised the task force, agrees.

"I think that planning needs to be done in context with what is achievable," he says

It all comes down to one guiding question.

"The question is, how can Cincinnati be a better Cincinnati?" Ellison says.