The controversial proposed supportive housing facility
for Alaska Avenue in Avondale was the main subject of a heated session
of City Council's Budget and Finance Committee today, which resulted in the committee's decision to put the project on hold for two weeks. The committee also announced its intent to allocate $5,000 for an independent mediator, which the city administration will be responsible for finding.
A slew of Avondale community members spoke out in opposition of
the project, while representatives from National Church Residences (NCR), Josh Spring of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition and Kevin Finn of Strategies to End Homelessness were some of those who publicly expressed support for the project. Many in opposition articulated concern that predominantly poor black neighborhoods such as Avondale are "targeted" for low-income housing projects like these, while supporters insist a spread of misinformation is largely responsible for the tension and that the complex is a necessary step in moving forward with the city's 2008 Homeless to Homes Plan, which explicitly cited NCR as the well-regarded nonprofit developer and manager of supportive housing facilities commissioned to bring a permanent supportive housing facility to the city.
The proposed project, coined Commons at Alaska, would be a 99-unit facility providing residency and supportive services to the area homeless population, particularly those with with severe mental health issues, physical disabilities and histories of alcohol and substance abuse. The project, which gained City Council's official support in February, has recently come under scrutiny from community group Avondale 29, Alaska Avenue residents and other community stakeholders who are fervently expressing public distaste for the facility, which they worry will threaten the safety and revitalization efforts in the neighborhood. CityBeat covered the controversy here.
Councilman Smitherman, who originally voted against Council's support for the project in February, vocally expressed his opposition, and later, Councilman Winburn rescinded his support for the project.
"It appears that maximum citizen participation did not happen... you are having hundreds of people who are not ready yet for this project. So something went wrong somewhere," he said.
Winburn was also the one to announce the motion that asked council to suspend the project for two weeks.
Both sides are expected to once again go in front of the Budget & Finance Committee on a Sept. 30 meeting.
Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld on Monday announced he will vote to continue the $132.8 million streetcar project.
Sittenfeld’s support for the project means the incoming City Council might not have the six votes required for an emergency clause that would immediately halt the project and make a cancellation vote insusceptible to referendum.
If streetcar supporters successfully put a cancellation vote to referendum, the project would be forced to continue until the streetcar once again appears on the ballot in November 2014. The continuation would sink more costs into the project as construction is forced to progress for nearly a year.
Sittenfeld’s announcement preceded a vote from the outgoing City Council to officially write the streetcar project into law, which means Mayor-elect John Cranley, a streetcar opponent, won’t be able to take administrative action to halt the project and instead must bring the project to a City Council vote after he and other newly elected officials take office on Sunday.
The two remaining swing votes in the incoming council — David Mann, who Cranley on Monday named as his choice for vice mayor, and Kevin Flynn — previously discussed delaying the project as council analyzes whether it should permanently cancel or continue with currently ongoing construction.
But Sittenfeld equated a delay to total cancellation after warnings from the federal government made it clear that the city could lose federal funds for the project even if it only delayed progress.
If either Flynn or Mann move to support the streetcar project, streetcar proponents would gain a five-vote majority on the nine-member council to continue the project and preclude a referendum.
Sittenfeld characterized his decision as the better of “two bad choices.”
“We can pursue a project that has never earned broad public consensus and that has yet to offer a viable and sustainable budget,” he said at a press conference, “or we can scrub the project and throw away tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money, forgo a massive federal investment and have nothing to show for the enormous effort and expense.”
To explain his decision, Sittenfeld cited concerns about how much money has been dedicated to the project at this point, including $32.8 million in sunk costs through November and a potential range of $30.6-$47.6 million in close-out costs, according to estimates from the city. Sittenfeld noted that, at the very least, half of the city’s $87.9 million share of the project will be spent even if the city pulls the plug now.
Sittenfeld also voiced concerns that pulling back from the project and effectively forfeiting $44.9 million in allocated federal funds would damage Cincinnati’s reputation with the federal government. That could hamper projects he sees as much more important, such as the $2.5 billion Brent Spence Bridge project.
“I did my part to avoid getting us into this reality, but it cannot be wished away,” Sittenfeld said.
There was one major caveat to Sittenfeld’s decision: the operating costs for the streetcar, which the city estimates at $3.4-$4.5 million a year.
Sittenfeld said the cost must not hit Cincinnati’s already-strained operating budget and instead must be paid through fares, sponsorships, private contributions and a special improvement district that would raise property taxes near the streetcar line.
A special improvement district would require a petitioning process in which property owners holding at least 60 percent of property frontage near the streetcar line would have to sign in favor of taking on higher property taxes to pay for the streetcar.
“Ultimately, that’s a decision for the citizens,” Sittenfeld said.
If the special improvement district doesn’t come to fruition, Sittenfeld cautioned that the streetcar project would be more difficult to support going forward.
Asked whether Sittenfeld thinks some of the people who voted for him will see his decision as a betrayal, he responded that his conclusion shows the “thoughtfulness and carefulness” people expect of him when it comes to taxpayer dollars, given the costs of cancellation.
In a replay of the Republican kerfuffle after President Obama’s State of the Nation address last year, there will be dueling GOP responses tonight to Mayor Mark Mallory’s State of the City address.
The Hamilton County Republican Party sent a press release this afternoon announcing that Amy Murray, an ex-Cincinnati City Council member, would provide the GOP’s formal response to Mallory’s speech.
A Democrat, Mallory will give his seventh State of the City address at 6:30 p.m. It will be presented in the Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center for the Arts, located at 650 Walnut St., downtown.
After the press release about Murray’s response arrived at 2:55 p.m., however, current City Councilman Charlie Winburn sent a notice from his council office at 3:39 p.m. In the notice, Winburn announced he “will be available to give the Republican response” immediately after the mayor’s speech.
Winburn’s release helpfully noted that he is “the only Republican on Cincinnati City Council,” in case anyone wasn’t sure.
The concurrent responses are similar to what occurred after Obama’s speech in January 2011. At that time, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was selected to give the GOP’s official response to the address. But U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), then a rising star in the Tea Party movement, decided to give her own response.
At the time, House Speaker John Boehner (R-West Chester) called the move "a little unusual."
Bachmann’s performance was widely lambasted, as she didn’t look directly at the camera but off to the side, and appeared disconnected and halting during her remarks. Bachmann later sought the GOP’s presidential nomination but dropped out of the race early after several disappointing primary finishes.
Murray is a former Procter & Gamble employee who now owns a consulting firm that tries to attract Japanese companies to Cincinnati. The party’s release stated she would give her response immediately following Mallory’s address in the Fifth Third Bank Theater’s lobby at the Aronoff Center.
A Hyde Park resident, Murray ran unsuccessfully for Cincinnati City Council in 2009, finishing in 12th place out of 19 candidates. She then was appointed by party leaders in January 2011 to fill the remainder of Councilman Chris Monzel’s term, but lost election in her own right the following November. In that election, Murray again finished 12th, this time out of 22 candidates.
Cincinnati would save just $7.8-$52.6 million in capital costs if it incurs tens of millions in additional expenditures to cancel the $132.8 million streetcar project, according to an audit from consulting firm KPMG released Wednesday.
By showing the potentially high costs of cancellation, the numbers could throw a lifeline to the streetcar project just one day before City Council decides whether to restart construction or permanently halt the project.
But Mayor John Cranley appears undeterred in his commitment to cancel the streetcar project. By accounting for the annual costs to operate the streetcar, Cranley estimates the city will actually save $102 million if it cancels the project.
The city already spent roughly $34 million on the project, according to the audit. Cancellation would add $16.3-$46.1 million in close-out costs, bringing the total costs of cancellation and money spent so far to $50.3-$80.1 million.
Completing the project would add $68.9 million in costs, after deducting $40.9 million in remaining federal grants, the audit found.
But the completion estimate assumes the city will need to pay $15 million in utility work — a cost that is currently being debated in court. If the city wins its case against Duke Energy, the utility company would be required to pay the $15 million and bring down the total completion costs to $53.9 million.
The audit also put the costs of operating the streetcar at $3.13-$3.54 million a year, lower than the previous $3.4-$4.5 million estimate. After revenues from fares, sponsorships and other sources, the city would need to pay $1.88-$2.44 million to operate the streetcar, according to the audit.
The reduced estimate for operating costs could become particularly important in deciding the project's fate as private contributors attempt to get the cost off the city's operating budget.
Delaying the streetcar project while KPMG conducted its audit also added $1.7-$2.8 million in costs, according to the audit. The city allocated another $250,000 to pay KPMG for its work.
The audit did not account for the potential costs of litigation if contractors and investors along the planned streetcar line sue the city to recoup costs.
City Council paused the streetcar project on Dec. 4 to obtain the cost estimates of completion, cancellation and annual operations. The full body of council will decide whether to restart the project on Thursday, before a Friday deadline set by the Federal Transit Administration for federal grants.
Read the full audit:
This post was updated at 12:59 p.m. with more information and details.
As part of CityBeat's continuing election coverage, we’ve once again sent a questionnaire to the non-incumbent Cincinnati City Council candidates to get their reactions on a broad range of issues.
Nine of the 14 non-incumbents chose to answer our questions. Others either didn’t respond or couldn’t meet the deadline.
During the next few weeks, we will print the responses from the non-incumbents to a different topic each time.
Today’s question is, “Do you believe City Council should continue taking its two-month summer break, or should it meet weekly during the summer?”
A City Council committee on Tuesday voted to rescind council’s support for state tax credits going to a 99-unit supportive housing facility in Avondale that would aid chronically homeless, disabled and low-income individuals.
But since National Church Residences already obtained tax credits for the project from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency in June, it’s possible the project could continue even if council stands in opposition, according to Kevin Finn, executive director of Strategies to End Homelessness.
Still, the decision from the Economic Growth and Infrastructure Committee comes in the middle of a months-long controversy that has placed neighborhood activists and homeless advocates in a heated dispute. (CityBeat first covered the issue in greater detail here.)
Independent Christopher Smitherman and Republican Amy Murray, the two present members of the committee, both voted to pull support from the project. The issue will now go to a nine-member City Council, which consists of five Democrats, and Democratic Mayor John Cranley.
Smitherman, chair of the committee, claimed the project’s issues spawned from a lack of community engagement.
“I want everybody to take a pause,” Smitherman said. “Respecting our city, in my opinion, means that you do the community engagement at the level that reflects the magnitude of what you want to do.”
Smitherman’s comments followed testimony from neighborhood activists who oppose the facility and homeless advocates who support it.
Opponents insist they support policies addressing homelessness. But they argue the “massive” facility would alter the neighborhood, worsen Avondale’s problems with poverty and damage revitalization efforts.
Supporters claim the dispute stems from a not-in-my-backyard attitude that predominates so many supportive housing facilities.
“In our society, we have a tendency to say we don't want ‘those people’ in our neighborhoods. And history dictates to us that conversations that start with ‘we don't want those people here’ don't typically end well,” said Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.
Finn of Strategies to End Homelessness
said the facility is part of his organization’s Homeless to Homes plan, which council
previously approved to address Cincinnati’s struggles with homelessness.
Finn’s organization aims to reduce homelessness in Hamilton County from more than 7,000 in 2012 to roughly 3,500 in 2017.
The Avondale facility could also help reduce Cincinnati’s high levels of poverty. More than half of Cincinnati’s children and more than one-third of the city’s general population live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey.
The full body of City Council could take up the issue as early as Wednesday. Smitherman advised both sides to attend the council meeting and state their cases.
Updated with additional information from Kevin Finn, executive director of Strategies to End Homelessness.
The NAACP turned out to the City Council meeting Wednesday to start the conversation about a disproportionate amount of city contracts awarded to non-minority contractors. Many of the speakers said that of the $1 billion worth of contracts awarded by the city, less than 1 percent were given to minorities.
Brian Garry has sent out word to the media that he's interested in replacing outgoing Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley, who announced yesterday that he's leaving office to work on Price Hill development projects and join a local law firm. Kevin Osborne reported yesterday that Greg Harris is the favorite to replace Cranley.
Garry, who has already announced he's running for City Council this fall, describes himself as a "community organizer and lifelong Democrat" in a press release touting his credentials.
"I've run for Council before, and I know what it takes to win," he says. "Building from my 2007 campaign will allow me to not only have the resources to retain this seat but also the man power it takes to get out the vote."
Garry placed 18th in the 2007 council race, when he was endorsed by the Democratic Party, and 23rd in the 2003 council race, when he ran as an independent. (Harris finished 15th in the 2007 council race, when he was also endorsed by the Democratic Party.)
Garry says he hopes to soon meet with Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke "as well as several other prominent Democrats" about Cranley's seat.
(Photo of Garry and Obama from Garry's press release.)