News: Steering Over-the-Rhine

Will the new plan end the old fight?

Jun 27, 2002 at 2:06 pm
The plan suggests moving Washington Park elementary School south of 12th Street and expanding the park itself.

No one could say the new comprehensive plan for Over-the-Rhine was rushed. It resulted from 18 months of talking, walking, dreaming, writing, arguing and rewriting.

But at least some of the people involved in the process wondered last week why the plan, released June 20 went so quickly to city officials for approval.

Reporters had copies of the plan even before some members of the Over-the-Rhine Steering Committee, which drafted it. A committee meeting was scheduled June 20 but was canceled. Yet the plan was presented to — and approved by — the Cincinnati City Planning Commission the very next day.

Pending approval by city council, expected June 26, the city has a new vision for the neighborhood.

At the plan's June 20 unveiling, Mayor Charlie Luken said it should end decades of conflict between people who support market-rate development and those fighting for affordable housing and social services in Over-the-Rhine.

But the cease-fire didn't even last the day.

Trees, lights and lofts
Since November 2000, the Over-the-Rhine Steering Committee — made up of low-income residents, high-income residents, bankers, developers, social workers, store owners, architects, artists and lawyers — has argued, debated, listened and sometimes even laughed with each other during meetings at 1200 Race St., a borrowed space with creaky hardwood floors that came compliments of the neighborhood's most successful market-rate developer, Urban Sites Properties.

The real Over-the-Rhine occasionally interrupted meetings meant to create a new one: Sometimes street arguments almost drowned out the conversation inside or someone walking by knocked on the huge picture windows for no apparent reason. Sometimes passers-by stared at the huge sketches of what Over-the-Rhine could be. The more than 100 people involved with the steering committee and its four subcommittees seemed to get used to these distractions over time.

Committee members took neighborhood walking tours. They talked about what makes people feel unsafe, about how to best fight crime, about the city's long-term commitment to affordable housing, about bikes, buses and light rail — and about how planning means nothing without money.

A lot of the plan's recommendations were already underway before the first steering committee meeting, such as Findlay Market renovation and the plan to move the School for the Creative and Performing Arts to a block south of Music Hall.

Other parts of the plan are strictly conceptual, such as creating a loft district north of Findlay Market.

The major goals are to renovate the 400 to 500 vacant buildings in Over-the-Rhine, build housing on the 200 to 300 vacant lots where it's possible, keep 40 percent of the neighborhood's housing affordable and make the neighborhood safer.

In coming months City Planning Director Liz Blume and her staff will work on financial tools to turn the plan into reality, including forming some sort of neighborhood development corporation.

Years of work lie ahead. Putting in more trees and lights, fixing up parks and playgrounds, building new housing and renovating old housing will take many millions of dollars.

That might come from tax increment financing (TIF) — an advance on property tax dollars these projects will create. Cincinnati might be the first to use a new state law allowing TIF across 300-acre districts, an area about half the size of Over-the-Rhine.

Also likely are loans from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a housing trust to collect money from a variety of sources, such as city dollars and grants.

'Continuing disrespect'
Luken promised redevelopment will not force out current residents. This was exactly the idea steering committee, led by Blume and her staff, had been championing all along.

But it quickly became clear it will take more than a 240-page plan with colorful sketches to end the quarrel. The tension between affordable housing and market-rate housing will complicate decisions about Over-the-Rhine for years.

Less than three hours after Luken's press conference, Blume sat in a folding chair at 1200 Race St. and handed out copies of the plan. She said the final steering committee meeting wasn't held because many members had picked up copies at the press conference.

Blume says she learned a key lesson during her work on the plan.

"The most important part of planning is listening," she says.

She had to do it again as Mary Burke, business manager of the Over-the-Rhine Housing Network — a developer of affordable housing — asked why the steering committee wasn't meeting for a final vote.

Burke told the planning commission she wanted more details and discussion on financing.

"But we didn't talk about the effect (TIF) would have on affordable housing," Burke said.

"(The plan) does," Blume said.

Burke wondered how tax breaks could help affordable housing. Blume said TIF money could easily be used.

The discussion left Burke uncomfortable about how quickly the plan traveled its final stretch. Sharing her concern was Bonnie Neumeier, director of the Peaslee Neighborhood Center.

Neumeier was miffed that reporters from WKRC-TV and The Cincinnati Business Courier called for her reaction a day before she had a copy of the plan.

"It's just the continuing sign of disrespect for the community," Neumeier said. "We were expecting to get it, to at least talk about it."

Blume reassured Burke and Neumeier they could still submit changes to the plan before city council voted.

At the planning commission meeting the next day, Burke seemed even more upset that the plan was already headed to city council. Again she and Neumeier were talking about pulling out.

"It's hard to decide how much work to put into this," Burke said.

She said she now understands why the Black United Front (BUF) tore up the collaborative agreement that ended the racial profiling lawsuit against the Cincinnati Police Department. Burke said the BUF felt cut out, and she felt the same way.

Many of the supporters of market rate housing didn't attend steering committee meetings but still had their ideas included in the plan, according to Burke. Advocates of affordable housing, however, had to attend the meetings and had a harder time getting their ideas in the plan, she said.

Aware of how many city plans have been shelved, never to be implemented, the planning commission adopted a motion asking the planning staff to provide annual updates on the new plan's progress.

In some ways the tables have turned since 1985, the last time the city seriously attempted a plan for Over-the-Rhine. Seventeen years ago, market-rate supporters walked out of meetings before the plan was finished. As a result, the plan recommended that virtually all housing in Over-the-Rhine be saved for low-income residents.

Since then the neighborhood has decayed further and its population has dwindled to roughly 8,000 people — about one-third of what it was in 1960. But since 1985, market-rate supporters have established themselves on Main Street and at City Hall.

This time both sides got a little of what they wanted, perhaps because each side knows it can't really accomplish much in Over-the-Rhine without the other. They've both tried and failed for nearly two decades.

If the new plan succeeds, it might also owe to the fact that the process included people who didn't fight the old battles. One of them is committee member Arlene Turner, a mother of three in Over-the-Rhine.

Turner says she feels a little part of her is in the comprehensive plan. She didn't get everything she wanted, and she would like to remove some parts. In that conclusion, at least, there seems to be consensus — and a foundation to do something concrete in Over-the-Rhine.

"This is the only ride going," Turner says. "If you don't get it, you won't get there." ©