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Planning Editorial from Cincinnati

Editorial column from the Cincinnati Post 12/10/02:

The Death of Urban Planning

Guest column by Robert E. Manley

The funeral is now being arranged for urban planning in Cincinnati -- the first city in the country to have a comprehensive master plan (1925) and the birthplace of city and regional planning as applied in the U.S.

The events leading up to the memorial service have been in the works for some time. What occurred during the past week -- the resignation of City Planning Director Elizabeth Blume, proposed cutbacks in the planning department's budget and recommendations to abolish the department altogether -- are the last rites for a corpse that has been dead for years.

The recommendation to abolish the planning department came from the City's Economic Development Task Force, chaired by George A. Schaefer, Jr., the chief executive officer of Fifth Third Bank, and City Manager Valerie Lemmie. Members are business people familiar with real estate development.

John Cranley, chairman of the finance committee of City Council, criticizes the Planning Commission for creating "too many grandiose development plans that sit on shelves" and says that planning "raises false hopes.''

In fact, it has been the economic development branch that has given false hope through silly grandiose plans.

Projects that have been promoted by the Economic Development Department have been ill-conceived because they did not have a good planning context into which they could be effectively placed.

Some examples:

• Placement of Fort Washington Way parallel to Third Street, providing what Ladislas Segoe called a great wall between the Central Business District and the river.

Although he was the principal planning consultant when the 1948 Master Plan was written, Segoe argued vigorously that the distribution function between the two major expressways (I-71 and I-75) should be in the area of Liberty Street, north of the Central Business District. His assertion was that it was wrong to separate the business district of a river city from its river.

He was overruled by economic development interests when the department stores threatened that they would leave town unless the distributor would be put between the river and the Central Business District. They won that issue and overrode long-range planning, then left town anyway.

• Tearing down the West End (now known as Queensgate) and reconfiguring the street patterns so as to merge six or eight city blocks into super blocks. Each super block was to be the home of a new multi-story factory. Fifty years later, no multi-story factory has been built because multi-story factories were not being built by manufacturers at the time the economic development department came up with this scheme.

• Locating the combined football and baseball stadium on the riverfront. The stadium, which is expected to be imploded sometime this month, had not even been paid for by the time the decision was made to replace it.

As to Lemmie, she comes to Cincinnati by way of Dayton where that city's planning department was merged under economic development and effectively prevented from functioning as a planning department.

The lesson from Dayton and Cincinnati is clear: planning, for all practical purposes, is ignored in favor of the glitz and glitter of short-term development projects.

The Ohio Planning Conference (the American Planning Association-affiliated chapter of citizen and professional planners in the state) ought to sponsor a public funeral for planning in Cincinnati, where the old issue of interaction between sound regional planning and economically successful development projects could be explored from every angle.

It should be in the nature of public debate with the advocates of planning and the critics of planning getting equal access to the platform.

Similarly, there should be a thorough debate of short-term development projects without planning versus short-term planning projects placed in a framework of a good, comprehensive regional plan.

Following these debates, Cincinnati needs to proceed with abolishing its Department of Economic Development and create a real planning department that does long-range planning and provides guidance to independent real estate developers. It is the only way the city will avoid repeating the same errors over and over again.


Robert Manley is a partner in a downtown Cincinnati law firm.


I know how Cincinatti feels. In nyc our planning department is extremely low key to say the least. This is just as well since it agrees with the DOT on everything, and discourages mixed uses. Our mayor and the (weak) regional planning Ascociation do understand urban issues, but unfortuanately state agencies usually stand in the way of what the city wants to do. During the campaign when our state economic developer was asked what he did to help nyc's economy he said "I financed shopping malls (and power centers) and created jobs".


As an economic developer I can attest to the stupidity of many economic development efforts. Some economic development professionals and their boards seem to have no comprehension of the value of sometimes saying "no" to business and development. Planning is viewed as in impediment, instead of as a partner in getting good development.

Let's take an example. Why say no to a metal building on the commercial strip? It's development! Of course, who will want to locate next to it? Fast food, perhaps. Some discount or low-end retail, but don't expect to have them put up a high-quality building. Residential? Maybe apartments. Imagine what might happen if the Plan Board required a better building. More tax increment. A nicer commercial district. Better quality businesses in nicer buildings, paying more in taxes and maybe better wages, too. But no, you can't ask them to put up a better building. That would be anti-business. It is better to be anti-city.

I wonder how many economic developers and their boards ever really stop to think about why we are doing economic development. I don't believe it is for the businesses that we do our job. We serve the city and its citizens. Our role is to make the city a better place, helping to bring good jobs to the city and to increase its ability to provide those services and amenities that make the city attractive to its residents. We do that by encouraging and helping businesses and developers to invest in ways that are beneficial to the city. Unfortunately, economic development is often practiced in a manner that benefits the business or developer at the expense of the city.

When the area was discussed on another thread, I downloaded a copy of the Over-the-Rhine plan. It is a good plan. It is an .economic development plan. It is a blueprint to revitalizing a district and growing its businesses, encouraging new investment, and improving the lives of the people who live not just there, but everywhere in the city. Too bad they can't see that.


Corn Burning Fool
Staff member
If people would just see the interconnectedness of everthing, it would help. We are wanting to build a civic center here. Very little tax money is going to be used for the project. Donations and grants will cover most of the cost. Letters to the editor say things like "we do not need a civic center" "only a few will use it" or "use that money to bring jobs to town"

People do not see that amenities like civic centers, trails, a pretty downtown and the like may actually affect a location decision of a large job creator, or bring in new residents. That this in turn increases the tax base, and lowers their taxes.

People just cannot see beyond their own wallet at times.
The City (I believe) has not yet finalized this budget. So, there may be some hope yet that smarter brains will prevail. However, our Planning Director has already resigned (after being told she didn't have a job as of 1/1/03), and some staff have bailed out of the department as well.

What really kills me is that Liz Blume, former planning director, was universally heralded upon her arrival a mere three years ago from Dayton. Now, she's gone, because she dared to raise the bar for development in this city.

The planning department had many initiatives in the works, and had completed some nice plans such as the Over-The-Rhine plan. So many people invested time, energy, and hope into these efforts and were counting on the City to follow through. Now all that is being soundly shat on by big development interests and hopelessly near-sighted politicians.
And Another

Cincinnati Post Editorial 12/17/02

Planning for success


Mayor Charlie Luken is absolutely right when he says that Cincinnati needs to be an easier place to do business.
Council member John Cranley makes a legitimate argument that the city's planning and economic development functions ought to work in concert.

But it's not at all clear that the changes proposed for the planning department in the city's new budget will advance those goals. And there is a real danger that the changes would ultimately hurt Cincinnati's ability to attract desirable development.

Luken and City Manager Valerie Lemmie propose to consolidate the planning department and fold it into the city's community development department. In addition, they suggest laying off eight city planners and keeping other positions vacant to save about $700,000 a year.

The proposed changes have already prompted the resignation of Cincinnati's highly-regarded planning director, Elizabeth Blume, and in recent days have triggered a firestorm of criticism.

Although Cincinnati has had a separate planning department only since 1982, it enjoys a storied reputation as the home of modern urban planning in America. That's largely because of the pioneering work done here before and just after World War II. That, of course, was a period when downtown was the place to be and the city's economic fortunes were still on the rise. Now, market forces are pushing development to the outer suburbs, and central cities everywhere must work quite hard to attract commercial, industrial and even residential development.

Economic development hasn't exactly been a roaring success in Cincinnati lately. In fact, it's been so dismal that there's a movement afoot to remove this responsibility out of City Hall entirely. Developers, for their part, have complained for years about the city's cumbersome bureaucracy and the myriad hoops they must jump through to obtain permits, zoning changes, financial assistance and the like.

But none of those problem areas involve the planning department.

The most cogent criticism to come of that department has come from Cranley. He says city administrations often use the planning department as a buffer from neighborhood groups that are demanding help in reviving their business districts. The planners draw up proposals that look good on paper, but are never built.

Cranley also complains that the planning department has resisted some development projects, the most notable recent example being a series of big box retail stores in Oakley. City planners and many residents wanted mixed-use development there -- an office complex and some retail, with a buffer that would help the project mesh with the surrounding neighborhood. Sounds swell, Cranley says, but it's not going to happen. In his view, if there's a plan on the table from someone who wants to build, the city should help them build it.

We disagree. There ought to be, a middle ground -- one that strikes a balance between the need to attract development and the need to ensure it's done intelligently. And having an independent planning department, with staff professionals who are free to give their honest advice to decision-makers, advances the public interest.

The danger in devaluing the planning function is that developers will call too many of the shots. That's unhealthy, and will lead to bad decisions and bad projects.

The changes ordered by council Monday -- renaming the consolidated department and requiring the city manager to designate a chief planner -- are only modest improvements to the original proposal. Council can and perhaps should trim the planning department's budget. But it ought to preserve the stature and the independence of its professional planning staff.