• Cyburbia is a friendly big tent, where we share our experiences and thoughts about urban planning practice, the built environment, planning adjacent topics, and anything else that comes to mind. No ads, no spam, and it's free. It's easy to join!

Cincinnati Planning

Razing the roof:
Some laud developer for his action, while others simply bristle
Dan Monk Courier Senior Staff Reporter
January 3, 2003

He might not be Cincinnati's richest developer, but when it comes to making historic change, few can match the run Rob Smyjunas is on.

"I just want to have an impact," said Smyjunas, owner of Vandercar Holdings Inc. in Madeira, which in 2001 demolished the historic Milacron headquarters building in Oakley to make way for big-box retailers Meijer, Target and Sam's Club in the new Center of Cincinnati development.

Smyjunas also helped dismantle another historic relic — this one at City Hall. For the first time since the 1930s, Cincinnati's planning department ceased to function as an independent unit. Following the recommendation of an advisory panel chaired by Smyjunas, City Council merged planning into the city's economic development department and cut in half its $1.2 million budget.

But Smyjunas isn't finished yet. By the end of 2003, he hopes to break ground on the first of three more big-box centers inside city limits. He declined to provide details but said the developments will be similar to the 38-acre Center of Cincinnati.

And, Smyjunas was recently invited to tinker with the city's zoning code, which he's vowing to make "more economic development-oriented." The invitation to comment on city zoning rules came from Smyjunas' role as chairman of the regulatory reforms subcommittee of Mayor Charlie Luken's Economic Development Task Force, an 18-member advisory group appointed last summer to recommend ways of improving the city's relationship with developers.

All of that influence has made some uncomfortable with Smyjunas.

"He apparently has the ear of both the mayor and city manager. In their minds, he represents the future of the city, development-wise, and that's a very scary specter indeed," said Sue Doucleff, president of the Oakley Community Council, who battled against Smyjunas' retail development, arguing it will cause traffic problems and chase residents away from her neighborhood.

"I find it very odd that (Smyjunas) participated in making the recommendation to abolish the very department that is regulating what he's trying to do," said Caleb Faux, a member of the Cincinnati Planning Commission, which lobbied against the planning department's restructuring, adopted by City Council last month as part of a new two-year, $1.4 billion budget.

Faux called the mayor's development task force a "stacked deck" that is "very heavily weighted toward developer interests."

Doucleff agreed: "This whole thing is a sham. We feel our neighborhood is under siege by developers."

But Luken said such criticism is "exactly what's wrong with development in parts of the city. We treat the development community too often like they are the bad guys. I wish we had more people willing to take a harder look at developing in the city."

To Luken, Smyjunas' experience in Oakley offers a good case in point.

In 2001, Smyjunas unveiled plans for $170 million in new office, commercial and housing development, on and near the site of the old Milacron plant. The retailers Smyjunas brought to the site were enamored of its highway access and the densely populated neighborhoods around it. But that density also caused some problems. Many Oakley residents worried about increased traffic. Others feared being forced out their homes. Still others were willing sellers.

Cincinnati's planning commission responded by stalling much of Vandercar's development for six months while a new neighborhood master plan was developed. That plan, adopted in May, called for a mixture of office, commercial and retail uses. Smyjunas said he tried to comply with those guidelines, but the city wasn't willing to use its eminent domain powers to acquire homes from two reluctant sellers.

Ultimately, he settled for a much smaller project, an $18 million design center that will be built by home-improvement retailer Home Depot Inc. this year. The saga left Smyjunas with a low opinion of city planning officials.

"They don't understand market forces," he said. "Because they don't understand market forces and they don't have the experience they should, they try to stop everything that's new."

Many developers share Smyjunas' point of view, said Kathy Schwab, residential adviser for Downtown Cincinnati Inc., a nonprofit booster group that tries to stimulate developer interest in the city's center.

"He had his own horror stories, but so did everybody else," said Schwab, who served with Smyjunas on the development task force's regulatory subcommittee, which proposed merging the planning department into community development in early December. One day later, both Mayor Luken and City Manager Valerie Lemmie incorporated the task force's proposal into their two-year budget. But Luken and Lemmie both said Smyjunas didn't influence their decision.

"Nobody's ever lobbied me from the economic development task force except the city manager," said Luken, who added the city and the task force were on a "parallel path" when it came to its views on planning.

When she was city manager in Dayton, Lemmie merged planning and development, an approach she views as similar to the Cincinnati restructuring. Lemmie added Luken was a critic of planning before the economic development task force formulated its own views. And the city faced a budget crisis, requiring the elimination of jobs.

"It all worked in concert," she said.

Whatever the motivation, Luken and Lemmie's restructuring brought a sharp rebuke from the Washington, D.C.-based American Planning Association. It argued the changes will "give developers undue influence over the city's future growth at the expense of citizens groups."

Luken agreed the change is historic, but he called it necessary.

"In the last 30 years, we've seen the city become less competitive in terms of development," said Luken. "I'm not for throwing the baby out with the bath water, but pretty soon, we're not going to have any baby or any bath water. We've got to try to do things differently."


Most of my professional experience has been as an economic developer. I can't stand to see "economic development" used as an excuse for these kinds of abuses. ED serves the community first!