Sunday, May 21, 2000

Home sweet cool home

        Summer in Cincinnati is a killer. That's what we mutter as we leave our air-conditioned offices and get into our air-conditioned cars and drive to our air-conditioned homes to watch the news on TV, showing all the poor people who sweat in front of big square fans that stir hot air around like pancake batter in a mixer in their oven-sized apartments — because they don't have air-conditioning.

        Last summer, 14 people died in Cincinnati for lack of a little cool air. And yet we still think of A/C as a swimming-pool luxury, not a light-bulb necessity.

        Public housing in a heat wave is just a few zip codes this side of Hell: small, cramped, hot and stuffy. But Cincinnati is turning down the thermostat.

Hope Street
        You may not have heard about it, with all the noise about a $450 million football stadium, a $300 million Reds ballpark and a $50 million worm to hook a Nordstrom store, but there's another big plan.

        “I'd say it's in excess of $300 million, and that doesn't capture everything,” said Donald Troendle, director of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA).

        The drawings show a new park, new YMCA, day care, a children's center, playgrounds, a swimming pool, new schools, new streets — and new housing to replace the 1930s “projects” on Ezzard Charles Drive, Laurel Homes and Lincoln Court.

        With federal “Hope VI” grants, about 2,000 grim, almost windowless brick apartments will be replaced by 1,100 new units — with air-conditioning.

        Mr. Troendle sees more than a better life for thousands of poor families. He also sees a more vital downtown, new businesses and new neighborhoods that don't segregate the poor but let them live next door to owners and renters in new market-rate homes, also in the plan.

        “We are going to create a very exciting community on the West End, a place where people are proud to live,” said Charles “Chip” Gerhardt, chairman of the CMHA board. “It drives me crazy to see people demagogue this.”

Mom's pot roast
        He's talking about City Hall, where no good deed goes unpunished. Council members have been working over the CMHA plan the way Moe, Larry and Curley remodel a kitchen — lots of noise, dust and time-outs for head-slapping and eye-poking.

        Problems began when CMHA dumped its developer. Concorde/MidCity missed deadlines, refused to provide documents, made a $12 million math error and failed to get work done, Mr. Troendle said. “We felt like we were negotiating for a Nordstrom or a football stadium.”

        Breaking up with Concorde sounds smarter than “marrying” a deadbeat developer for an 18-year contract. But Mr. Gerhardt said council members reacted as if CMHA was telling Mom that her favorite girlfriend was being dumped, “And she says, "I really liked her — she complimented my pot roast.'”

        It got uglier than that. Council members threatened to delay everything and told CMHA to kiss and make up with Concorde.

        It had nothing to do with pot roast. CMHA officials think it had something to do with former mayor Dwight Tillery, who was listed in bid documents as a key part of the Concorde/MidCity team.

        Since leaving council, Mr. Tillery has not wandered very far from the public trough. He keeps a finger in several city-funded agencies and projects, city officials say.

        That, and his juice with council, makes people “uncomfortable” sometimes.

        If Hope VI is delayed because Mr. Tillery's team was jilted, it will make a lot of poor people uncomfortable, too — when killer heat waves come back and their air-conditioned dream homes are still only dreams.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. Call 768-8301, e-mail, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.