There has been a lot of discussion, almost entirely figurative, about a statewide urban agenda. This would be the reason for Greater Ohio Policy Center‘s existence, though they have chosen to not flex this muscle. At the 2015 GOPC Policy Summit in Columbus, both Senator Sherrod Brown and Columbus ex-mayor Michael B. Coleman, suggested the urgency of creating such an agenda at the grassroots level. It is imperative for the grassroots to rally around an agenda before embedded institutions can safely push the envelope on needed change.
Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper also recently tweeted about the need for a statewide urban agenda. Fellow bloggers, such as Angie Schmitt’s post on Rustwire, have echoed and contributed to these calls. So let’s strike while the fire is hot.
The change we need is all around us, plainly visible to anyone. We have a system that is collapsing in a state that is treading water, with a wealth of case studies in our own backyard. For instance, Weinland Park in Columbus is one of the nation’s best case studies in holistic urban revitalization. The transformation in Weinland Park was made possible by local and state policy tools that have become exhausted – inhibiting our ability to further this successful model. We also have a streetcar case study in Cincinnati and the nation’s best BRT case study in Cleveland. Ohio is indeed in the most unique position, where visible problems and visible solutions coexist side-by-side. We just can’t connect the dots because our hands are tied.
Anyone who functions on a daily basis in Ohio’s cities must be keenly aware that we’re getting our lunch money stolen by rural areas and exurbs. In a state that is overwhelmingly urban, somehow the deck just seems stacked in favor of rural interests. ODOT is the primary vehicle of this redistribution of wealth. What ODOT actually does is set funding priorities for federal transportation dollars that we are apportioned – these are Ohio dollars paid in federal taxes, that come back to Ohio. The current transportation bill (we are now in the era of the FAST Act) sets the parameters in which state DOTs are supposed to allocate funding to projects, but only in theory; in practice, FDOT has a long-standing practice of allowing state DOTs to do anything that they want. This is even one area in which Kasich has offered an opening for common ground.
The above graph is from a Nelson Nygaard study on ODOT Dedicated Transit Funding Needs. By the way, a classic means of deflecting accountability is to hire the best consultants that money can buy, let them do their work, and then polish off a spot on the shelf for the plan to sit in perpetuity.
You might ask yourself, based on the above graph, if something happened between 2001 and 2004 that made Ohio precipitously less urban? The answer is no. Still urban!
The problem with this has been diverging venn diagrams. Whether we admit it or not, an “urban” agenda as opposed to the suburban/rural alliance that currently prevails, is likely going to be one party. Complicating matters, the democratic party in Ohio (and in most states) is slightly above moribund on a good day, and down-right moribund on most days. Something is happening at the grassroots level that is causing the extinction of state-level Democrats, even in solidly blue states.
An urban agenda must find a way to pull a few Republican and suburban leaders, without whose support, urban interests will remain sidelined. The argument must be made that suburban interests are urban interests, and not rural interests. Wherever possible, alliances must be made with rural interests as well – in the name of preservation (of farm land, of green space, of historic assets).
The agenda must be positively branded and diagrammed. There is virtually zero chance to get a politician, the likes of whom often scare easily (I would too if people were barking at me all the time!), to reverse course on a really technical, wonky policy. The problem with this is that I am a policy wonk and a planning practitioner, so I naturally go to technical details that people around me usually expect. Rather than do that, the urban agenda should stick to banner statements, with specific bullets reserved for metrics of accountability.
An Ohio Urban Agenda should cover three broad policy areas: Housing, Mobility, and Jobs. The selection of this wording is deliberate. Rather than narrow issues of urban housing, “Housing” is a policy area with which legislators are already familiar and likely involved. “Transportation” is often reworded in policy circles to “Highways,” which is intentionally anathema to urban planners – Rather than accept “Highways” or reverting back to middle ground, urbanists should use “Mobility” to specify their intended transportation goals. Lastly, “Jobs” speaks to everyone, particularly moderates apparently.
Four specific action items that accomplish three broad banner goals.
Mobility: We have to get back to actual state funding for urban public transit. Yes, our roads are a disaster – no, building more of them doesn’t fix the roads we have – “Fix it First” is how we all win, regardless of our personal transportation needs. Bringing the 3C Rail project back will get Ohio back on the path to linking its cities to the future, and having a dedicated program for matching funds for FTA/Tiger/Small Starts and any other federal grants actually brings a lot more funding back to Ohio. These solutions all increase the pot for mobility programs, enhance Ohio’s array of mobility options, and fosters parameters for multimodal connectivity both in policy and in practice.
Jobs: We can do more here, not because we have to, but because Ohio has a tremendous opportunity to leverage its existing assets. Anchor districts specifically have been huge in Ohio, leading the economic transition from industry to innovation. In addition to the state staying out of the way of this, the state can help by requiring that “job ready” sites be within our existing infrastructure footprints. Preservation of brownfield funds is paramount (which Ohio has now exhausted!), as these dollars have been vital toward revitalizing urban, contaminated sites. These sites are strategic despite their contamination because these historic industrial sites are already embedded within communities originally built for their workers. Similarly, we MUST clean up the Lake and the River – which can also lend increased tourism potential, a space where Ohio lags behind neighbors (Pure Michigan). Lastly, the historic tax credit is both a Jobs and Housing issue.
Housing: In addition to the federal low-income housing tax credit, the state has a housing trust fund that can be and must be expanded. The OHTF leverages fee revenue, invests it, and puts returns toward housing projects that help families in need and transform communities. Similarly, we must get better at homeless services. If you don’t like being “bothered” by the homeless, then let’s house them! In addition to housing the homeless, a similar group in need of housing is young professionals. The historic tax credit has been our most effective tool for retaining young professionals and housing them, and anyone else interested in urban living, within our cities. There simply aren’t any consumers lined up for Cleveland’s excess Cape Cod-style homes – there are however consumers demanding more urban apartments. Growth boundaries are the obvious tool for retention of stable suburban housing, and stopping the cycle of perpetual sprawl and decline (embrace this, stop calling it radical). Toward this last goal, a minor policy wreaking havoc on our cities is the state law requiring school districts to offer excess property to charter schools. School districts such as CMSD prefer demolishing these properties before offering them to charter schools, which not only inhibits school choice, but costs us dozens and dozens of structures perfectly positioned for adaptive reuse into affordable and/or market-rate housing. This law has come with a tremendous opportunity cost as our urban neighborhoods have hemorrhaged many of their best opportunities.
Certainly, in the end, reviving the 3C Rail and enacting growth boundaries will likely never happen. That said, close your eyes and imagine that it could – these two proposals, more than anything, ensure a prosperous future for Ohio’s cities. More importantly, in the housing realm, this is a future of stability – a growth boundary is one of the few policy tools (particularly within the low-cost, high-supply context of Ohio’s housing market) that actually resets the market to resolve its own problems. This is a virtuous solution, and given its potential to fix so much dysfunction, I think is worth fighting for. It’s not radical at all.
Common ground can likely be found on streamlining preservation of school buildings (recognizing the need to repurpose into desirable housing), the “Fix it First” policy that ODOT is already pursuing, restoring brownfields funding, and establishing dedicated funding for matches to bring more federal dollars back to Ohio. At a minimum, we can make this happen.