UrbanCincy To Host Definitive Debate On Proposed Parks Tax at Niehoff Urban Studio

Cincinnati Parks Levy Community ForumWhile the presidential election happens next year, there is plenty of excitement on this November’s ballot for Cincinnatians. In addition to the much publicized ballot item that would legalize marijuana in Ohio, there is also an item, Issue 22, that would raise property taxes in the City of Cincinnati in order to provide capital funding for park land and facilities.

The proposed 1-mill tax would be written into the City Charter, and become what is essentially a permanent tax.

Early on the proposal gained wide-spread support, but has since been riddled with controversies. As such, it has become one of the hottest news items of late.

For those not familiar, the proposal was rolled out and explained as providing a dedicated funding source to cover capital expenditures for a number of projects at Cincinnati Parks, including helping address an estimated $55 million in deferred maintenance.

Since that time, however, opponents have charged that the way the proposal is structured gives too much power to the mayor and that it would become a slush-fund with little to no checks and balances. Further adding to the controversy has been the heavy involvement of existing and former politicians that have come under scrutiny lately for potentially improper use of public funds to bankroll the pro-tax campaign.

On Tuesday, October 20, UrbanCincy will host a debate on the topic with Green Umbrella, Tri-State Trails and Queen City Bike at the Niehoff Urban Studio in Corryville. While other debates have taken place on the issue so far, this is the first and only debate that will feature Mayor John Cranley (D) – the initiatives most prominent proponent – live and in person.

Mayor Cranley will be joined at the event by Don Mooney from Save Our Parks. The due represent the leading voice on both sides of the equation. The idea is to gather the public for a community forum to learn more about both sides of the issue, regardless of where you may or may not stand on the matter.

I will be joined by Tom Neyer Jr. of Mainstream Strategy and University of Cincinnati history professor David Stradling to moderate the discussion.

The Cincinnati Parks Levy Community Forum is free and open to the public. It will take place from 6pm to 7:30pm at the Niehoff Urban Studio in Corryville. The location is well-served by Metro bus service and is within a block of a Red Bike station. Those interested in attending are kindly asked to register in advance online so that proper arrangements can be made at the venue.

New Parks Levy Plan Appears to Scrap Vision for Westwood Square

Imagine a picturesque park that is easily known as the center of a neighborhood district. A square with lush landscaping, a stage for plays and space for a farmers market. It’s a square that is easily the envy of Hyde Park or Mt. Lookout or Oakley. That was the vision of Westwood Square.

Westwood Square was born out of the month-long city-wide charrette that helped formulate the city’s four form-based code districts. The vision was further refined in the fall of 2012 by community groups Westwood Works, Westwood Civic Association, Westwood Historical Society, Westwood Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation.

As part of the process, citizens, planners and engineers looked at the problems Harrison Avenue had been causing the neighborhood. Serving mostly as a four-lane connector to Cheviot, ideas were floated to design some traffic calming measures for the corridor.

The idea was that Westwood should not be a place for cars to fly through on their way to downtown, but instead a place to be visited and enjoyed.

Through this process, which was championed by then Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (D), the team came up with the idea for a central square. By taking a section of Harrison Avenue at the intersections of Epworth and Urweiler Avenues, the square would be constructed to deliberately force vehicles to slow down and turn to navigate around the public gathering space.

City planners found that they could create an opportunity to form a community green space, slow traffic and make the area safer for people walking and biking by implementing such a change.

After MadCap Puppet Theater moved into the old Cincinnati Bell switching station, they cited the plan as one of their main draws to the area. Theater director John Lewandowski spoke about that plan, and the hopes for the neighborhood last year on The UrbanCincy Podcast.

During the 2013 mayoral campaign, Qualls lost to Mayor John Cranley (D), who spoke against the idea of form-based codes during the campaign, and has continued to challenge them ever since.

The recent parks levy announcement from Mayor Cranley and other city leaders included a notable change to the long-held and developed plans for Westwood Square. The adjustments to Harrison Avenue, and creation of the square, are now gone.

Instead, City Hall is now calling for $2 million to renovate the existing green space adjacent to Westwood Town Hall. The new vision will do nothing to slow the traffic at the intersection and appears to make feint aspirations at building the kind of place originally envisioned by the community in 2012.

Such changes were first hinted at during Mayor Cranley’s campaign, and emphasized during his inaugural State of the City address last September.

While specific details for the new plan have yet to be provided, the end result is now expected to be a major departure from the form-based approach that was first laid out.

Community Input Sessions Showcase Plans for $5M Ziegler Park Overhaul

The public will have another opportunity to weigh in on the proposed renovation of Ziegler Park on July 23. This will be the third in a series of meetings focusing on the renovation and potential expansion of the park, which is located at the northwest corner of Thirteenth and Sycamore streets.

The community input session will be held at the Woodward Theater, located at 1404 Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, at 5pm on Thursday.

The 1.4-acre park currently contains a pool, playground area, and shelter with picnic tables. To its east sits Cutter Playground and the former School for the Creative and Performing Arts building, which is being converted into a 142-apartment development called Alumni Lofts. Then, to the north, is a large parking lot, with a basketball court located just across Thirteenth Street to the south.

The latest proposal for the park was presented in late June at the launch of the Citizens for Cincinnati Parks levy campaign. The plan, said to cost $5 million, depicted the current Ziegler Park site renovated into a large, open lawn space, with the removal of the existing pool; and the parking lot to the north being removed and converted to an aquatics and play area.

A parking garage would be built under Cutter Playground, serving both the residents of Alumni Lofts and visitors to the park and surrounding area. Several enhancements along Sycamore Street would make it easier for pedestrians to cross between Ziegler Park and Cutter Playground.

According to the project team, which consists of the Cincinnati Park Board, Cincinnati Recreation Commission, City of Cincinnati, and 3CDC, the latest site plan will “maintain and expand park amenities while meeting the parking demands of the neighborhood.”

After gathering feedback, organizers say they will prepare a preliminary master plan that will be presented at a fourth community input session. From that, the final master plan will then be developed.

Proposed Tax Would Provide Dedicated Parks Funding Stream, $85M in Improvements

A campaign to improve Cincinnati’s parks by raising the City’s property tax by 1 mill will “change the city for the better,” according to Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (D).

Cranley made his remarks during the official launch of the Citizens for Cincinnati Parks levy campaign on Saturday morning at New Prospect Baptist Church in Roselawn.

The charter amendment would raise the City’s property tax rate to 13.1 mills and would bring in approximately $5.3 million a year. The move would require City Council to fund the Parks Department’s capital budget at its 2016 budget level, and approve bonds for capital improvements using levy revenue.

Proponents say that 75% of the levy revenue will be available for the City to borrow against in order to fund 13 designated capital projects selected by the mayor and city manager. The remaining 25% will go to system-wide maintenance and operating costs.

“We’re asking to voters to pass a very small property tax that we believe, for that small amount of money – $35 a year per $100,000 value – will increase property values and increase the quality of life for all Cincinnatians as we take the wonderful park system and we bring it to the neighborhoods,” Cranley said.

The group needs to collect approximately 6,000 signatures by August 15 to make it on to the November 3 ballot. Cincinnati Parks has not placed a levy on the ballot since 1927.

“We have decided that the only fair way to do this, if we’re going to be asking the taxpayers to pay more money, is to ask the citizens first to even let us put it on the ballot,” Cranley said. “At the end of the day, we’re putting this decision in the hands of the voters, and we believe the value proposition is there. We believe that this will build a better city.”

Vision needs funding
Board of Park Commissioners President Otto M. Budig, Jr. said that his organization has been charged with creating the best parks system in the country, but despite generous City funding and donor contributions, it continually finds itself short on money for major initiatives.

“We have had some difficulty in developing major projects that have long been needed,” he said. “I went to the mayor and I said, ‘We need these funds to bring about a new vision. You give us a vision, we’ll take care of the details.’ The mayor has given us the vision.”

While many of the projects are only in the conceptual stage at current time, the Citizens for Cincinnati Parks website says that they were chosen due to being the most shovel-ready, with the ability to be completed quickly.

Multipurpose recreational trails are a major component of the plan, including the Oasis River Trail ($8 million), Wasson Way ($12 million), Mill Creek Greenway Trail ($5 million), and the Ohio River West Trail ($6 million). The City also plans to work with the Cincinnati Off-Road Alliance to develop more than 20 miles of off-road trails in Mount Airy Forest ($11 million).

“The bike system that will be created as a result of this levy, off-road, which is a big thing for me – I think off-road is a much safer, dedicated path that doesn’t have as many accidents – the most extensive, bicycle urban path in America,” Cranley said.

The plan would also raise $10 million for a joint venture between the City, the University of Cincinnati, and Clifton Town Meeting to create a new master plan for Burnet Woods.

“As I often say, Burnet Woods – even more so that Washington Park – could be the Central Park of Cincinnati,” Cranley said. “If you think about Corryville, CUF, Clifton, Avondale…all surround this park. It’s the densest part of the city and it’s right across the street from 30,000 students. We can have the same impact with that park as we did with Washington Park.”

Other projects include:

  • Developing part of the 20-acre New Prospect Baptist Church grounds into a communal programming center, athletic fields, and an urban camp site that would cost $8 million;
  • A public-private partnership with Western & Southern Financial Group that would provide $5 million to renovate and reprogram Lytle Park;
  • $5 million for the redevelopment of a portion of the former Mercy Hospital complex in Westwood into athletic fields and green space for an expanded Oskamp Park;
  • A $5 million redesign of Ziegler Park in Over-the-Rhine/Pendleton, in conjunction with the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC);
  • $4 million for streetscape and roadway improvements surrounding Christ Hospital and improvements to Inwood Park in Mount Auburn;
  • $2 million for the preservation of the historic King Studios site and development of a small café/museum in Evanston;
  • $2 million for upgrades around Westwood Town Hall and Epworth Avenue; and
  • $1.8 million for a new boat dock/marina at Smale Riverfront Park.

“Now we have this new vision,” said Parks Director Willie Carden, who already has overseen the amazing transformations at Smale Riverfront Park and Washington Park, among others. “The vision brings ‘parkonomics’, partnerships to the neighborhoods. We can do this. We can make this a safer, healthier community, but we need your help.”