Mayor Cranley: A Soapdish progress report

Ah, the first days of Spring! As we pass the vernal equinox and break free from the chilling shackles of the polar vortices, it makes sense to look back on this veritable winter of our discontent. After all, there’s a new sheriff in town at City Hall. Now that we are just over 100 days along in the tenure of Mayor John J. Cranley, let’s take a more critical look back—a more careful examination of some of his promises and their ramifications—particularly as it relates to his polarizing cornerstones of parking, pension and the streetcar.
 
Cranley ran for mayor on a divisive campaign that essentially sought to drive a wedge between Downtown/Over-the-Rhine and the other 50 neighborhoods in the city, particularly those on the west side and his Hyde Park/Mt. Lookout stomping grounds. Competing against progressive Democrat Roxanne Qualls, Cranley smartly divided the progressive/urbanist element of the party and the more conservative blue collar contingent outside of the core who see the glowing successes downtown and ask “Why not us?”
 
Unfortunately, however, that type of issue demagoguery is prone to manipulation and abuse, and Cranley manipulated it like a master Machiavellian puppeteer. 
 
While witnessing the vibrancy and growth in the urban core, people in the outliers often fail to realize that success in the heart of a city radiates outward. A healthy core benefits all of the neighborhoods and, conversely, a rotten core spreads outward like a cancer. I witnessed this extensively when I lived in Detroit for a decade prior to moving to Cincinnati, where the suburbs spent decades trying to build their own central business districts outside the city, essentially saying, "We can do this ourselves. Who needs the city?” Suburbs create “town centers” and “plazas,” seeking to re-create artificial Fountain Squares and similar established attractions. Unfortunately, however, when the Great Recession hit Southeast Michigan, it didn’t just affect Detroit proper, but rather spread throughout the region in wave after wave. Just as the success in the city core spawned the suburbs, so too did the failures have dire repercussions. This lesson is universal.
 
As much as the people want to believe that, safe in their suburban cul-de-sacs, they don’t need the urban core to exist, those neighborhoods can't thrive without the City of Cincinnati and its urban center. For this reason, running for Mayor on a policy of neighborhood Balkanization, particularly in a city with 52 diverse and distinctive neighborhoods, lead to an often divisive and contentious campaign with still-lingering scars of resentment.  
 
Wielding a sort of pitchfork (and highly alliterative) style of populism focusing loosely on the “Four Ps” —pension, police, potholes and parking—candidate Cranley pledged to get our “fiscal house in order,” in part by canceling the streetcar, as well as reigning in what he characterized as rampant and unchecked spending at City Hall for programs we can't afford. 
 
Unfortunately, however, the reality is something quite different.
 
Sorting out the streetcar
Take, for example, the Mayor’s centerpiece defeat—the streetcar. After campaigning against, demagoguing and distorting the streetcar issue on the campaign trail, Mayor Cranley rolled into office crowing that the streetcar debate was “over.” He attempted to cram the cancellation down the collective throats of the City immediately upon taking office (literally, the second day). The arrogance of this move backfired, as the required three readings of the ordinance resulted in an unexpected three days of public outpouring in support of the streetcar, as well as the mobilization of an enormous swelling of grassroots support to save the project.
 
Some have said that those hearings, despite backfiring badly on Cranley, demonstrated a startling new “fresh approach” at City Hall. Councilman Winburn “marveled” at how so many people were allowed to speak out at chambers, despite so many being against the Mayor’s position. Even the Mayor noted how tolerant he was in the midst of marathon hearings, characterizing his efforts as “enduring” the extensive public comment.
 
To that I say “poppycock.” 
 
Since 2008, opponents and proponents alike have been vociferously debating the streetcar—ad nauseum and at length—at City Hall. Mayor Mallory was no different than Mayor Cranley in this regard. To say that the Cranley regime offered a fresh approach to civic debate is disingenuous at best. Three readings were required in order to facilitate a cram down of the ordinance. It is to the enraged public’s credit that they were able to mobilize and derail that act of mayoral arrogance and hubris, ultimately resulting in an early Waterloo for the Cranley regime.
 
The end result:  Cranley’s streetcar “pause” cost the City approximately $2-3 million.  Not exactly a productive second day agenda item for a self-proclaimed “fiscal conservative.”
 
Rewriting the parking plan
Next let’s look at the other pillar of the Cranley campaign strategy—killing the parking monetization and privatization plan supported by both the prior administration and his opponent.
 
The previous administration’s plan provided, among other benefits, for an $85 million up-front payment combined with an annual revenue stream, plus modernized "smart" meters and in-street sensors, not to mention capital investment in our aging parking structures. The $85 million was earmarked for a number of job-creating/economic development projects, including major funding for economic development via the Port Authority, funding for the Wasson Way Trail (a big Cranley pet project at a cost of $7 million) and $20 million for the MLK interchange project as required by the State of Ohio.
 
In a textbook example of the adage that perfect is the enemy of the good, the Mayor assembled a coalition on Council to dismember the parking monetization plan, in the process subjecting the city to a third-tier parking upgrade at a cost of $30 million, not to mention issuing bonds to pay for the $20 million MLK tab.
 
Unfortunately, the Mayor’s “plan” essentially assumes all of the burdens of the prior agreement and generates little of the benefits. Of course, we still maintain precious "control" of our parking assets, that tarnished and crumbling crown jewel of civic pride that ranks right up there with local landmarks such as Fountain Square and Union Terminal. Who doesn't harken back wistfully with sepia-toned memories and beaming pride at the magnificent might of American engineering and gee-whiz knowhow that’s represented by our City of Cincinnati parking system? 
 
Add in another $8 million in debt for the riverfront park that, again, was supposed to come from the parking plan, and you get $58 million more in debt—and not a lot to show for it.  
 
In addition, the prior plan provided millions for both the (now unfunded) Wasson Way project as well as the Port Authority’s economic development efforts, so there could be more debt on the way. Once again, not exactly fiscal conservatism.   
 
Was the Mallory administration’s parking plan perfect? No, but we are now saddled with millions in new debt. Rates will still go up. Enforcement will still be increased. Crumbling garages will remain wards of the city with no resources to cover much deferred maintenance except further debt issuances.
 
Delaying downtown development
And while we’re on the subject of crumbling parking garages, the Mayor recently turned his ire Downtown toward the truly transformative 4th and Race apartment tower project, which was dealing with a lone holdout tenant demanding more dollars for relocation. In a move that reeked of political score-settling, the Mayor deemed the project, which would replace the enormous, crumbling Pogue's garage structure with a 300-unit apartment tower, "too rich" and would not support "another dollar" for the project. The City had previously approved the deal and allocated $12 million in funds for the project. Continuing a theme struck in the campaign, the Mayor said it was time to start prioritizing “neighborhoods,” as opposed to Downtown (apparently, downtown is not a “neighborhood”). This was a particularly cruel irony, given the fact that the Mayor's much publicized (and much less impactful) Incline District apartment complex had a far higher per-unit subsidy ($50,000 per unit) than the much larger development at 4th and Race ($40,000 per unit). 
 
Moreover, the Mayor’s fit of pique directed at 4th and Race seemed to stem more from the fact that this was a star showcase project of the prior administration rather than from any rational basis in fact. Fortunately, the developer stepped in to save the day, and, hopefully, Cincinnati’s new reputation as a city that simply “ignores” contractual agreements is not yet set in stone.
 
Continuing to Campaign
Mayor Cranley does deserve some credit for stubbornly sticking to his campaign promises, no matter how wrongheaded they are. But it’s time to stop campaigning and start leading. Council members Mann and Flynn are to be commended for not simply sticking to their campaign rhetoric to kill the streetcar, but instead reviewing the new data in front of them and making an informed, independent post-election decision.
 
Moreover, a recent Enquirer story on the Mayor’s new style seemed to relish his “in-your-face” approach, contrasting it with the behind-the-scenes style of former Mayor Mallory.
 
While “in-your-face” may be more entertaining from a media standpoint, the fact remains that it is Council who determines policy under our form of government, as we do not have what is considered a pure “strong mayor” system. Consensus-building is what actually gets policy passed. Given that fact, the new in-your-face style is more bluster than substance, and, in the absence of pursuing consensus, it is difficult to discern what the Mayor offers in order pursue his agenda. Threats and score-settling doth not a consensus make.
 
Demanding Better
Be that as it may, it appears that there are areas for consensus, for example, the Mayor's laudable attempts to address the City’s thorny pension issues, as well as minority business recruitment. In so doing, it will be interesting to see how the Mayor’s style evolves, if at all. Will it continue to be Campaign Mode Cranley, or will a more consensus-building, less threat-wielding style emerge? To his credit, in the wake of his comments regarding 4th and Race, he did agree to step forward with Council member Seelbach in a rare glimmer of intra-party quasi-consensus to request that 3CDC step in to oversee the project.
 
Nevertheless, as we here at Soapbox are fond of saying, “Demand Better Cincinnati.” Easy to say, but how exactly do we go about doing that?
 
As far as the streetcar is concerned, once he knew the battle was lost, the Mayor, to his credit, pledged he would devote his efforts to raise more money from private corporations to pay for operating costs. In effect, to demand better. As Council member Flynn stated at a December 19 press conference, "This is the beginning of making the streetcar a successful project. We need to make sure that not only isn’t the operating budget hurt by the streetcar project, but that it’s successful so our operating budget is enhanced."

In addition, Council members David Mann and Amy Murray went on a recent fact-finding trip to Portland with streetcar advocate John Schneider and others to visit with their mayor and business leaders and tour their streetcar system. Mayor Cranley and the other council members should do the same, as it's both instructive as well as constructive to visit other cities with modern streetcars in order to learn firsthand about the facts. For instance, last December Mayor Cranley opined that "nobody" rides the San Diego streetcar, when in fact daily ridership is 89,400. Obviously, there is room for education on the topic.
 
In addition, Federal TIGER grant applications are due April 28. This program provides a unique opportunity for the Department of Transportation to invest in road, rail, transit and port projects that promise to achieve critical national objectives. Since 2009, Congress has dedicated more than $4.1 billion for six rounds to fund projects that have a significant impact on the nation, a region or a metropolitan area. The Cincinnati streetcar alone has received $15.9 million. Clearly, the City, as well as the Mayor, should be pressing full steam ahead to make sure that our grant application is as comprehensive and competitive as possible.
 
As for the now-dead parking proposal, the City and the Mayor should continue to negotiate with private companies in order to determine whether monetization of our parking assets remains a viable option. We did not reject outright the possibility of future plans—just this particular one. There is still a market for this type of proposal, and there is clearly immense room for improvement in our city's parking system. The fact that we are not getting smart meters and other, more advanced, options like street sensors demonstrates that there is clearly room to grow. Moreover, the crumbling parking structures that remain in the City's hands are not deteriorating any less as the winters pass by. Creative solutions remain possible.  
 
The parking plan pushed by the Mayor is more of a "treading water" type of scenario—and a lost opportunity at that. It's now time for Cincinnati to move forward, to play to win, rather than simply not to lose.
 
Demand Better, Cincinnati?
 
We'll check back in the next 100 days.

Casey Coston has been Soapbox Media's resident Soapdish columnist for six years.

 

Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.
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