Friday, December 13, 2002

City's planning director resigning amid breakup

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When Elizabeth A. Blume came back to Cincinnati to become the city's planning director three years ago, a planning professor told her that modern city planning was born here and - if the prevailing political winds continued - would die here.

Her spontaneous reply: "Over my dead body."

Ms. Blume isn't dead. But she will resign as head of the Planning Department today, rather than preside over the dismantling of what many consider to be the birthplace of modern city planning.

Ms. Blume's job - and the entire department she heads - is proposed for elimination as part of Mayor Charlie Luken's plan to balance a $35 million budget deficit and refocus city government on basic services.

The reorganization also reflects a belief by the mayor - and a special Economic Development Task Force he named in June - that Planning should be merged with Community Development to make City Hall more "developer friendly."

Critics say the move would eliminate one of the most important reforms of Cincinnati's 77-year-old charter - an independent planning agency unbeholden to political interests.

Cincinnati's historic 1925 comprehensive plan became a national model and helped establish city planning as an important discipline.

Council members say it's an idea whose time long came and went.

"The Planning Department was almost given the mission of causing problems, because it was completely divorced from economic incentives and any kind of market reality," Finance Committee Chairman John Cranley said. "Today in city government, we have six street sweepers and more than 600 white-collar employees who make more than $60,000 a year. We have to set priorities."

He said City Council still must approve the mayor's proposed reorganization, but Ms. Blume isn't waiting around.

"I guess there comes a time when, I didn't want to cloud the issue for everybody. It's important for City Council to have confidence in their department directors, and I wasn't sure that was happening any more," she said. "I think council has a difficult decision to make, and in this kind of budget, something's got to be cut."

Mr. Luken said the decision had nothing to do with his confidence in Ms. Blume. "I think Liz is an extremely competent administrator," he said.

But some members of the Planning Commission see a more political motive: the department's opposition to the development of big chain retailers in the northern Oakley area.

The developer of that project, Rob Smyjunas of Vandercar Holdings Inc., was the chairman of the advisory subcommittee that recommended eliminating the Planning Department earlier this week.

"It's unfortunate if a dust-up over big-box stores in Oakley led to this," said Planning Commission Chairman Donald Mooney. "I suspect that has a lot to do with it."

In a sometimes-tearful meeting Friday, Mr. Mooney lauded Ms. Blume as the best planning director the city has seen in at least a generation.

Asked to name three major accomplishments in her tenure, Ms. Blume doesn't hesitate:

The Over-the-Rhine Master Plan, hailed for bringing the warring factions of low-income advocates and market forces to a peaceful coexistence.

The revised zoning code, still in the works, which will simplify zoning designations and, she hopes, eliminates confusion and conflict.

The citywide inventory of vacant and available real estate.

"All of those, I think, will benefit the development community," she said.

Ms. Blume, a graduate of Ball State University and the University of Cincinnati's school of planning, started in Cincinnati's Department of Neighborhood Services before joining the Dayton Planning Department in 1989. She became director there in 1995, and worked for then-City Manager Valerie Lemmie.

She came to Cincinnati in 1999 after Ms. Lemmie eliminated the Dayton Planning Department. Now, as city manager in Cincinnati, Ms. Lemmie has eliminated Ms. Blume's position again.

Ms. Blume said there are no hard feelings.

"People think there's something to that, but Valerie and I have always gotten along," Ms. Blume said.

She said she wasn't offered another job in the administration, and didn't ask. "I can't do anything else. This is what I know how to do," she said.

An unabashed optimist, Ms. Blume remains bullish on Cincinnati's most blighted neighborhoods - particularly those in the Mill Creek Valley.

At her final Planning Commission meeting last Friday, Councilman James R. Tarbell lamented the "epidemic" of vacant buildings in Over-the-Rhine.

"Some people see it as an epidemic. Others would see it as an opportunity," she said.

At 43, Ms. Blume is also optimistic about her career prospects.

Robert Manley, a lawyer and economist who teaches planning at the University of Cincinnati, has known city planners going back to Ladislas Segoe, author of the 1925 plan. He said Ms. Blume, a former student, is one of the best.

But it was also Mr. Manley who made the prediction three years ago that she would soon see the dismantling of the department.

"I remember that," Ms. Blume said. "I hate it when he's right."


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