By Don Mooney Jr.
Those of us who think that Cincinnati can restore its fading reputation as one of America's most livable cities were surprised by the city manager's plan to eliminate our planning department. It's the type of reorganization she pushed through during her years in Dayton, our not so charming neighbor to the north.
But what fit for Dayton is not necessarily the right course for Cincinnati. Have we so dumbed down our own expectations, as a result of the racial unrest, public safety concerns and budgetary demands of recent months, that we aspire to emulate Dayton, rather than Cleveland,Portland, Pittsburgh or Indianapolis?
Times are tough, but not so tough that we must choose between police and planning. Indeed, for many families choosing to remain city residents, the primary attraction remains our city's well planned and protected neighborhoods,with their mature trees, sidewalks, wide streets, accessible business districts and parks. What separates neighborhoods like Mt. Lookout, Hyde Park, Clifton or Walnut Hills from our suburban neighbors in Colerain or Anderson townships is something called zoning and planning.
Planning is the reason you do not see the sprawl, congestion, endless strip centers and fast food frenzy of Colerain and Beechmont avenues in Cincinnati. For many in the city, competent planning and zoning is just as much a "quality of life" issue as cleansing the sidewalks of panhandlers. Downtown, you can cross the street or simply ignore the beggars who have so many in an uproar. But think of a neighborhood waking to find a new "Sam's Club" next door, plopped down without thought as to the impact on nearby residents or the traffic created on residential streets.
Contrary to the rhetoric of planning opponents like City Council Member John Cranley, competent planning does not simply say "No" to development. But planning can and does make sure that development enhances the city while protecting those of us who still want to live here.
Cincinnati has been planning to encourage and accommodate development since 1925. But nostalgia is not the reason to keep doing it. Over the last year the planning department that the manager wants to eliminate has worked with the Price Hill community to prevent what they feared would be a damaging CMHA housing development. Liz Blume, our outstanding planning director who recently resigned as a result of the city manager's budget proposal, did the unthinkable in bringing long divided factions together behind a long range plan for Over-the-Rhine.
The staff also developed comprehensive plans for development and redevelopment along Seymour Avenue and in Westwood, two areas in need of revitalization. A recent analysis of housing trends in the city and surrounding communities prepared by the planning staff provides a road map for those interested in stemming the flow of households out of the city if anyone cares to read and learn from it. The new zoning code to be completed early next year will foster redevelopment and home ownership.
Yes, times are tough. But two paths remain for the city.The first, hunker down, hire a few more police to protect us from ourselves every year, and try to slow the process of decline as best we can, with fewer taxpayers available every year to pick up the tab. That seems to be the Dayton/Detroit strategy. Visit those cities to find out how well it works.The other path is to invest what we have in revitalizing our city. Rebuilding neighborhoods in decline, preserving the jewels,attracting jobs and urban pioneers across ethnic and racial boundaries to supplement the population we have lost. That strategy is working in cities like Cleveland, Portland, Chicago, and Seattle.
That path demands both long and short term planning.It requires insisting on quality, and not accepting without question the first development proposal that crosses the development director's desk. It involves protecting the great neighborhoods we have and making sure that plans are created and implemented that make fading neighborhoods attractive to current residents and new ones.It demands quality professional planners giving independent advice to council and our communities, not under the thumb of a development department or any particular developer.
Council can cut the planning department budget while keeping the type of independent planning staff the city needs to build a real future for a city that is down, but not out.
Don Mooney Jr., an attorney in downtown Cincinnati, is chairman of the Cincinnati Planning Commission.