Out of Control Policy Blog

Bob Manley on the problems of revitalization

Bob Manley was a land-use attorney in Cincinnati with a passion for cities and urban revitalization. I met him more than 15 years ago after he read some of my writings on enterprise zones. I recently asked him a couple of questions about the politics and reality of revitalizing cities. Below is his response which I thought included a richness we rarely see in public policy discussions these days.

Unfortunately, Bob passed away just a few days later (a just a week after I debated his partner at an eminent domain forum).

Sam


Dear Sam:

In response to your email of March 21, 2006, the urban renewal schemes of the '50s and '60s in Cincinnati were largely the product of interaction between the Department of Urban Renewal (then headed by Charlie Stamm) and a committee of local business people called the Cincinnati Development Committee (CDC). CDC hired a staff person named Dennis Durden. He had good academic training in planning, but he knew nothing about Cincinnati.

When the Housing Act of '48 was passed, it provided for urban renewal primarily to expand housing. Charlie Taft, the brother of the late Senator Taft, was Mayor in the '50s and on Council thereafter. He repeatedly said that Cincinnati sends too much money to Washington and their purpose was to get as much back from Washington to Cincinnati. The goal was to get as much federal money as possible. There was less attention paid to whether or not it was spent prudently.

For example, the first big project was to demolish the "West End." This was a neighborhood where my family lived 150 years ago. After World War I, it was largely vacated by whites and occupied exclusively by blacks. The buildings were fine old buildings, just as solid and durable as the 1882 building in which my office is located, or the 1885 building in which I live. Because the neighborhood was black, it was easy for the white majority to assume that the declaration that it was a slum was a valid declaration. The Deputy Commissioner of Buildings for Housing Inspection warned that to disrupt this dense population of black households without arranging suitable alternative housing for them would create chaos in the City. He almost lost his job for that. The City Traffic Engineer cautioned that the plan that called for the consolidation of six or eight city blocks to create superblocks that would serve as pads for multi-story factories would create a traffic pattern that would be difficult for drivers to navigate. Nonetheless, the West End was torn down and the superblocks were created. Of course, after World War II, there has never been a multi-story factory built. The superblocks are grossly underutilized to this day.

The City of Cincinnati did project after project and they all turned out to be economic failures. As far as I can tell, the only time that it was submitted to the voters was in the case of the athletic stadiums. The vote was taken on whether or not to authorize the bonds to build the first combined football/baseball stadium. That stadium was financed by the issuance of industrial revenue bonds by the County. The revenue was a lease to be signed by the City of Cincinnati. Thus, the County owned it, but the City operated it and paid rent to redeem the bonds. The stadium was demolished to make way for the two new stadiums before the stadium bonds had been halfway redeemed. The second vote was to raise the sales tax 0.05% in order to issue bonds backed by sales tax revenues to build the two new stadiums. Aside from those two situations, all of our eminent domain urban renewal mistakes were made without voter approval.

I shall never forget Charlie Taft's statement when the voters approved the bonds for the first stadium. He said, "At least we know we are not building another subway." Of course, he was dead when we tore down the stadium a relatively short time thereafter.

The federal subsidy for urban renewal was a disastrous source of revenue, which the City used to build useless bureaucracy and used to do public vandalism on a regular basis. The buildings we tore down in downtown Cincinnati were much better than the buildings we built. In the process, we wiped out most of the old-time family businesses.

I could go on for a book-length manuscript on the mistakes we made in the name of urban renewal in Cincinnati. Claude Gruen did his Ph.D. dissertation in Economics on the West End urban renewal project in which he proved that it did not "remove blight." He proved that it actually increased blight in the City.

Cordially,

Robert E. Manley
Manley Burke
A legal professional Association
225 West Court Street
Cincinnati, Ohio 45202-1098

Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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