Monday, April 21st, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley

I was able to sit down this month with new Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley to spend an hour on such topics as Cincinnati’s incredible historic assets, its history of social conservatism, streetcars and bike lanes, the repopulation of the urban core, and more.

If the audio player below doesn’t display, click here for the MP3 file.

Mayor John Cranely. Image via City of Cincinnati.

Here are some edited highlights of our discussion. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

By far the most provocative thing the mayor talked about to me was his direct challenge to the idea of metropolitan government. Cincinnati hasn’t annexed territory since 1925, leaving it as a smallish, hemmed in city that is only 14% of a very fragmented region. Meanwhile cities like Indianapolis and Nashville had city-county consolidation, Columbus annexed, etc. He thinks that in a new urban era, this model of government is running out of gas and the pendulum is going to swing back the other way:

There’s a real cultural shift and renewed pride in Cincinnati. More specifically though, there are some unique advantages that we have. Think of it this way: if you took our Downtown and Uptown and the corporate base, let’s say it’s 70% of all of our major jobs and income taxpayers. If you take the same exact area and map it in Columbus, they’re going to have 70% of their companies Nationwide, et cetera, all within the same geographic area. The difference is that they have to spread that money among all of Franklin County. We have to provide for 300,000 people. And very quality 19th century historic neighborhoods that already have a sense of place and culture. And we get the benefit of, on a per capita basis, being able to invest way more in these urban neighborhoods than any of our peers because we didn’t annex.

Now, historically, the attitude of urbanists had been, like myself, the we’ve got to have metro government. In essence, the attitude has been, “We poor city.” We need you guys have to play Robin Hood for us. I think the shift is already underway. Now, we have more work to do but the shift is already underway that we’re going to be a better choice for the dollar value because of our historic infrastructure, our density, our diverse economies of scale. The home owner to apartment mix which looks bad at a distance but, candidly, makes it more dense in which it makes labor pools a lot easier to transport inside the city.

What we haven’t done, in my opinion, is be insistent enough on value for the dollar, because we’re spreading our dollar over a much smaller population than cities of size. So why isn’t the quality of customer service of all services of city government superior? You still get complaints today of people who say, “I live in a nice suburb and my snow is picked up immediately and it’s cleaner and my roads paved faster and less litter. Coming to a city, I can immediately tell it’s a city.” There’s no excuse for that. And I believe that we can provide a better customer service because we have more money over less people than our competitors do. Which if you think about the fact that we lost population to cities this way, people kept moving one suburb out — and I think most of us agree we’re going to repopulate from the inside out — we have more resources to invest in economic growth policies than our competitors do, and we intend to use that advantage to become the most exciting urban city in the country.

We’ll have to see how this plays out, but I think there’s something to this. When places like Indy, Columbus, and Nashville annexed all those suburban areas, they were able to capture that tax base to support the central city. Now though they are saddled supporting miles and miles of aging and decaying suburban type development that may ultimately represent a drain on the resurgent urban core tax base. To the extent that the urban core does come back, places like Cincinnati, from a municipal point of view, will get a bigger lift from it because it gets spread over a smaller area. It’s easier to turn around a small ship than a big one.

We also talked about the geography and architecture of neighborhoods like Mt. Adams, which is like a Midwestern San Francisco. Mayor Cranley likes that analogy:

As I always say, if Chicago is the New York of the Midwest, we’re the San Francisco — in fact, that’s exactly my mind is to say Chicago is the New York of the Midwest. We’re the San Francisco. Because we have the hills, the architecture, the arts, the culture, the big league teams, all the advantages of a major city with the livability of a small town. And everyone has an opportunity to be a big fish if you got that kind of ambition. And it really is. Again, we’ve proven that’s true because we’ve been able to maintain such a concentration of Fortune 500 companies which then, of course, leads to all kinds of spin-off businesses and a huge privately held company, group of businesses, that have really been family traditions that have lasted a hundred years and have really continued to come. As I like to point out, what city our size has an entire company dedicated to Shakespeare? We have a theater that does all Shakespeare. And it has full on season.

I pointed out one important difference vs. San Francisco: Cincinnati’s history of extreme social conservatism. A number of wealthy conservatives like billionaire Carl Lindner and Charles Keating (yes, the Keating Five Charles Keating) poured tons of money into anti-pornography campaigns. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt was convicted as recently as the late 90s of obscenity charges. In 1990 locals tried to ban an exhibition of explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and even put the museum director on trial for obscenity (he was acquitted). An anti-gay rights amendment was added to the city charter by citizen initiative in the early 90s. There was a race riot in Over the Rhine in 2001.

This is clearly a sore point for the mayor, as he answered at length. He acknowledges the history of these things, but says things have changed radically and wants to be able to get the word out on the new attitude in the city:

I think that’s changed. You take one rather prominent issue with gay rights. In 1993 an anti-gay law was passed in the city charter which was awful, and would stain our reputation for ten years. When I was on council we had a transvestite who was murdered, and even the very conservative chief of police said that this was a hate crime. And I led the effort to add sexual orientation to our hate crime law. And that was sort of — this was 2002, I believe, 2002 or ’03, it might have been 2003. And this had only been ten years since the charter thing had been passed. Remember, the charter thing was passed in the aftermath of Bill Clinton being elected and gays in the military, that first debate. And several cities, including Denver, Colorado, passed virtually identical [language] ran by a right wing group around the country.

Here, we went on a major effort and we progressively, in 2004, in the midst of Bush getting reelected in Hamilton County 54 to 46, got the thing repealed by a substantial margin, which showed a real shift in our culture and our attitudes. And then we immediately passed — reinstated — the human rights ordinance. We immediately reinstated the non-discrimination. We passed benefits for domestic partners and many, many other things. So candidly, and this is why I think it’s so important that you’re here, we need to get the message out. I believe that we have moved many, many miles since then.

In addition, we have been incredibly progressive as it comes to civil rights and to police-community relations. We had, in 2001, a very difficult time with police and the community, the black community in particular. And we voted to invite the Justice Department in the Cincinnati to mediate rather than litigate allegations of police misconduct. And we led to the 2002 collaborative agreement — which I’m proud to say I helped negotiate — which is now held up as a role model for how to improve police community relations around the country. In fact, the judge in New York who struck down the “stop and frisk” law in New York City specifically cited Cincinnati’s collaborative agreement as the right way for the police and the community to work together.

And so I respectfully say that I understand that we have some baggage in terms of what happened in 1993 on gay rights, and we’ve had on the 80’s and 70’s…Larry Flynt… So I’m not denying that there isn’t some reason for that reputation, but it’s no longer fair.

In addition to a Harvard Law degree, Mayor Cranley also has a Masters of Theology from Harvard Divinity School as describes himself as a man of deep faith. I asked him how that informs him in his role as mayor:

I think that all of this has to be done in the context of the common good and building a society that expands opportunity. And I think at the end of our lives we’re fundamentally going to be asked did we make the world a better place for those who didn’t have as many advantages as we had and did we leave it better than we found it. A sense of stewardship. And all that comes, I think, deeply from my faith, schooling and family, values, traditions, et cetera.

And so we spend an enormous amount of time thinking about how are we going to reduce the poverty rate. One of my major planks in my campaign was reducing the poverty by at least 5% over the next four years. We are engaged at every level, re-examining the dollars that are — federal dollars that come in to the city budget that are earmarks for low income individuals and must be spent to the benefit of low income individuals — are we really getting the most bang for the buck out of these dollars?

Right now we have a cohort coming out of the Great Recession of folks who have never had high school or college degree, with kids, who have got very bleak prospects, and that is not surprisingly where those folks live tend to be some of our toughest neighborhoods. If we can, I think, rise to the moral challenge of figuring out how to not write off this entire generation but invest in job training and skill set to get them at least ready to work at low skill, low paying jobs and bring the dignity back of having a breadwinner in the family, the social dividends of that are enormous in terms of turning those neighborhoods around, those families around, the city around.

But in addition, if we can do it on a systematic basis, we can then market Cincinnati as a place for companies who want to locate with a large, ready to work population. Now, obviously, 20-30 years from now I’d love for us to have a higher education rate. I’m not saying it’s good and we just want to leave the education rates where they are, but given what we have today, how do we turn all that into an advantage and, at the same time, tackle the moral issues of poverty?

And while it’s not the same thing — a very sensitive issue, this is not the same thing — but building a more inclusive and welcoming society for immigrants and for African-American, Hispanics is also, I think, part of my faith tradition of — it does come from a history of prejudice that Cincinnati has been part of. And so we do have a moral obligation to tackle those issues but I do think from a political standpoint, it’s better — and true, not just better political argument, which it is, but it’s also true — that it’s better for all of us to have a more inclusive and welcoming city.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Arts and Culture, Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Historic Preservation, Public Policy, Regionalism, Talent Attraction, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Cincinnati

67 Responses to “The Urbanophile Interview: Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley”

  1. John Morris says:

    I agree that The old West End/ Queensgate development is critical. Any plans to change the zoning for that area?

    One needs a lot more than a few more apartments downtown. One needs at least 20,000 residents.

    All of the investment like the highway cap costs real money. The ROI only makes sense if one really builds densely.

  2. bigdipper80 says:

    Very good points. Given the number of available space though, I still think that magic 20k, and 50k in the core, is very possible, but still a ways off. Most of the northern half of OTR hasn’t been touched yet and the southern half still needs a lot of work.

    Just as a reference, the entire basin (Downtown, OTR, and West End) has about 17,500 residents. This is obviously spread out over a large geographic area that isn’t tied together with strong transit networks, so it would be unfair for me to claim that there are only 3,000 more people needed, but as I said it’s purely a reference point.

    Downtown itself has about 4800 residents, but geographically OTR and Downtown can serve as a reasonable approximation to a similar-sized city’s downtown due to their relative compactness. That said, there is definitely plenty of need to increase the density throughout the actual “downtown” itself with many more residential options.

    West End (or what is left of it) is essentially a residential neighborhood so it’s ready for redevelopment. The biggest problem is the sheer scale of redevelopment still needed to stabilize OTR puts the West End on the back burner. It was pretty much decimated when I-75 plowed through. As far as I am aware, Queensgate is still zoned for mostly light-industrial, although more start-ups have been moving into the neighborhood.

  3. Matthew hall says:

    I had a meeting in downtown cincy today. There seems to construction or reconstruction on every corner.

  4. John Morris says:

    Queensgate also looks like nice place for offices. Zoning should be freed up immediately.

  5. Hcat says:

    @quimbob interestingly enough Gary Bauer grew up in the Kentucky part of metro Cincinnati, where his father fought against vice.

  6. George Mattei says:

    Interesting take on the annexation topic. He may be right. But as I said before, I think annexation already had a powerful effect on Columbus, and perhaps cities like Indy and Nashville. Columbus spent so much time and resources annexing the burbs that by 1998, when I moved her, it had one of the worst downtowns in America. That has changed, and is evolving, but only after recent efforts to refocus investment in the core instead of annexing. There was a trade-off.

    Now, that said, when a new slew of malls were built and all the old malls closed, Columbus was in a position to grab those. they were going to be built regardless, and now they are all generating tax money for Columbus. Given that Columbus is growing twice as fast as Cincinnati, in 25-50 years its likely that the current footprint will be much less than the about half the metro area it is now, and it might be beneficial to have that land.

    However, it will be expensive, as much of it is lower-density sprawl development. I guess time will tell.

  7. George Mattei says:

    Oh another impact is the streetcar. Even though Cincinnati had a tough go of it, it’s getting done. Columbus, which is a city you would think would be more supportive of something often labeled a shiny liberal hipster toy, has failed several times to do mass transit beyond buses.

    Much of this can be attributed to the fact that folks out in the ‘burbs parts of Columbus see no benefit from it for them. In Cincinnati, these folks are in other municipalities. In Columbus, they are part of the City, so you have a different political reality.

    Now granted 10 years ago it never would have been possible in Cincinnati either. But the city has changed. For better or worse, many people fled after the race riot in 2001. The remnant that’s distilled seems more ready to support redevelopment. I guess that makes sense-why give up now when you stuck it out through the tough times and are just starting to catch the wave up?

  8. John Morris says:

    Exactly, you can’t acquire land without gaining the voters who live there.

    Expanding the base of sprawl supporting voters more than offsets the increased tax dollars.

    Cincy seems to have the worst of both worlds. A lot of the stadium decisions seem to have been made at the county level.

    Toronto is the best example of how a forced urban/suburban merger can cripple an otherwise thriving city.

    IMHO, NYC also suffers for having merged. Congestion pricing, parking and tolling policy would be very different if each of the 5 boroughs were independent cities. Anti urban zoning policies in the outer boroughs would have also changed more rapidly.

  9. Tom Baker says:

    Columbus has never “annexed the ’burbs”. Beginning in the 1950s, if developing areas wanted water and sewer service, they had to first annex into the city of Columbus. The city never sought to annex or take over existing suburban municipalities.

  10. John Morris says:

    Effect is the same either way.

  11. Chris Barnett says:

    Correctin: beginning in the 50s Columbus didn’t annex existing suburbs. That’s why the old suburbs (see: Bexley, Whitehall, Upper Arlington, Grandview Heights, Worthington) are landlocked islands inside an ever growing Columbus.

  12. Peaton says:

    Aaron, I have enjoyed your interviews with both Mayor Cranley and Louisville’s mayor. I really liked the Louisville interview, and was impressed by Cranley’s knowledge of urban history and how articulate he is. I am uncertain about his stance on zoning and density (which I would have liked you to talk about a little more), and wish as the mayor of a potentially great city that he were more supportive of public transit issues (again, I would like to have seen him offer an alternative vision of how he will expand transit through strategies with more ROI by opposing the streetcar) and bike lanes. That said, it seems like both of these cities have very competent and thoughtful executives.

  13. Neil says:

    ^-This interview is full of hot air, he fails to address the more crtical concerns that Aaron brings up. Look at his actions not his words, he’s a Lawyer so he’s articulate, but his actions show a ton of incompetency.

    Here’s a few incompetent things he’s done over the years:

    1) Escalating the riot situation in 2001 due to a non-chalant attitude towards protesters from the murder of Timothy Thomas (see videos I posted above). Keep in mind that meeting was called to address the issue, and Cranley just treated it like nothing bad was going on at all spending lots of time discussing taxi’s of all things. When the room got too roudy he lost control and failed to take leadership needed to keep the situation from going completely out of control. The crowd went out of control which lead to an event that pushed the city back 10 years. Yes the causes of the riots were more complex than this, but a good leader knows how to manage a crisis situation, Cranley does not. He is not fit to be a leader.

    2) The whole streetcar debacle which I’m glad to say he lost, but by pausing it, it wound up costing the city upwards of $1million dollars – private money even wanted to step in and help save the cost while they deliberated about the future of the streetcar but he refused to accept it – a sign that “fiscal responsibility” means nothing to him in spite of his campaign.

    4) He has yet to hire a proper city manager which is supposed to be one of his most important duties.

    5) After the previous council under Mallory developed professionalism as a priority, he threw that out the window with his first council meeting which had no rules. He just told the people to make them up. It led to chaos – this is terrible leadership.

    6) Canceling the parking deal which lots of people supported, then coming up with a new deal that was just as bad without additional revenue streams and

    7) Hiring 25 new cops in a city that already has one of the highest per-capita police forces in the nation after he had previously beefed it up when on council – lots of expensive unionized workers (which doesn’t make sense given that he ran on a platform of “Fiscal Responsibility”.

    8)Stall tactics on the 30 story tower downtown which included a urban grocery as part of its plan. This is critical for urban redevelopment and he’s taking a non nonchalant its downtown approach to it. He’s working very hard undo all achievements that were done under Mallory.

    9) The current issue with the bicycle lanes on Central Parkway – he’s allowing one property owner to gum up the works because in his classic Cincinnati petty tribal attitude it was something the last guy did that was going to be successful and we can’t have that.

    There are probably more that I didn’t cover, but Cranley is old fashioned Cincinnati petty insular dysfunction at its finest. The only progress I expect to see under his watch is in spite of him not because of him.

  14. John Morris says:


    Thanks. That fits with my view. The interview is reasonably articulate, but a pattern of actions indicates he doesn’t do what he says.

    I tried to watch the video you posted but I lacked enough patience and context. Mostly, they talk about taxis and other minor unrelated matters in front of people waving signs.

    Unimaginative hack might be a good word. Similar to Pittsburgh’s former mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who seemed to have defended some unknown status quo, old boy network.

    That said, the former mayor was above average- with ideas like eliminating parking minimums downtown. Probably a little ahead of his time.

  15. Neil says:

    I just noticed that in my fit of writing all of these reasons why Cranley is bad I didn’t finish one of my points:

    6) Canceling the parking deal which lots of people supported, then coming up with a new deal that was just as bad without additional revenue streams and *NEW PART* – eliminating the advantages that Xerox would have brought with smartphone enabled technology and app driven parking (much much more innovative than the plan that Cranley has in place that fails to really address the issue but gums things up).

    “That said, the former mayor was above average- with ideas like eliminating parking minimums downtown. Probably a little ahead of his time.”

    That’s largely due to a push from Randy Simes at Urbancincy to my understanding – he provided an idea that united both right libertarians and left pro-urban progressives and council ate it up. Then again the last administration/council was unusually open to new ideas for Cincinnati – it had me really feeling like some kind of revolution had happened down there, yet sadly Cranley is pretty good evidence that a very very hard fight is still ahead. (Though I think in the end the pro-urban camp will win and Cincy will return to being a great city).

  16. John Morris says:

    Whoever came up with the idea, the former mayor deserves credit for not opposing the elimination of parking minimums. In most cities that is still a very courageous stance.

    Supporting transit as an upper middle class toy is now common, but taking the next step to eliminate parking requirements is still cutting edge.

  17. John Morris says:

    Cincinnati back in the news for social conservatism as police blockade entire roads near The University of Cincinnati to stop prostitution- creating a virtual prison.

    I guess by now, many know that Toyota is pulling its main enginering center in Northern Kentucky & moving operations to Texas & Michigan, resulting in 1600 local layoffs.

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