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Council votes down density ordinance after contentious public comment

A street of densely packed buildings in the Pendleton neighborhood of Cincinnati.
Becca Costello
A street in the Pendleton neighborhood of Cincinnati.

A controversial ordinance to increase density died in a Cincinnati Council committee Tuesday. It would have removed or increased density limits in certain zoning types throughout the city, including multifamily. The committee voted 5-2 against the ordinance, with one abstention.

Council members heard public comment from about 50 people, mostly in opposition to the proposal. Residents of at least 14 neighborhoods spoke.

"We are very much in favor of increasing density and modifying zoning to be more inclusive," said LaTonya Springs of Housing Opportunities Made Equal. "However, we do not see this as an effective way to do so."

Several community council leaders spoke against the idea; many said they aren't against more density in general, but this process needed more community engagement.

"City Hall builds a relationship with its citizens and relationships come with baggage," said Kate Mock Elliott, co-president of the Kennedy Heights Community Council. "And you're hearing from constituents today with baggage leftover from the last administration; grave distrust from years of feeling like our needs come second or third or fourth to developers."

Supporters included the Northside Community Council, Northside Engaged in Sustainable Transformation, the Real Estate Investors Association of Greater Cincinnati, The Port, Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, and West Side Brewing.

Committee Chair Reggie Harris wanted to hold the measure for about a month to allow for more discussion. He said the administration would soon be releasing more information about other housing efforts, which would put the density proposal into the context of a more comprehensive plan.

But several council members demanded an immediate vote: Victoria Parks, Jeff Cramerding, Scotty Johnson, and Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney.

"We need to just have the guts to vote it down," Kearney said. "Let's start fresh. Let's start over. Let's make it right. And let's start from a place of equity. Let's start from a place where the community has a voice and doesn't get rolled over like we usually do."

Voting against the ordinance: Kearney, Parks, Cramerding, Johnson, and Mark Jeffreys. Voting in favor of the ordinance: Liz Keating, who introduced the measure, and Harris. Meeka Owens abstained.

Harris says he's disappointed but hopes to pursue more comprehensive zoning reform soon.

"What has become crystal clear to me is how much people do not understand density and what density means and how it shows up," Harris said after the vote "And so I see that as a challenge to create more tools for people to understand what it would mean, and what it would look like on the street."

Keating, who has been working on the proposal for about a year, says the discussion has shifted a lot during that time.

"A year ago, when we first had these public hearings, a lot of the complaints were, 'Whoa, this is way too far, this is way too much change,' " Keating said. "Today, most of the complaints we heard was, 'This doesn't go far enough, we need a lot more change.' We need to be looking at a much bigger picture to be able to make that change to get to where we want. And that is a really, really, really, good thing for Cincinnati."

One significant criticism of the ordinance is that it would not have affected single-family zoning, which makes up about 77% of the city. Opponents say that puts increased density only in neighborhoods that are primarily low-income and majority Black.

Harris says the opposition to single-family zoning reform is going to be much greater.

"We know that cities and particularly cities like Cincinnati, with significant Black populations, adopted zoning to exclude Black people, brown people and immigrants," Harris said. "And so we are undoing something that is rooted in a deeply racist system, and so we're going to encounter that backlash. And this does not mean that all of the people who are opposed to this are racist; but we are all informed by these systems."

The Cincinnati Chamber harshly criticized Tuesday's vote in a statement: "When faced with the opportunity to address one of the barriers to housing affordability and create more vibrant business districts, council members chose instead to do nothing," said Pete Metz. "We remain committed to working with the mayor and a council majority that wants to further policies that grow the city, add housing and maximize our investments in transportation."

Council Member Jeffreys says he voted against the ordinance because "process matters," and addressed what he thinks should happen next.

"As much as I am supportive of density, I think it needs to be included within transit-oriented development," Jeffreys said. "I do think as a first next step, I would encourage us to do ADUs [Accessory Dwelling Units] first, because I do think that is something that is widely supported in the community; we build trust with that, start there."

The City Manager's Office is working on a few reports requested by council over the last few weeks, including a comprehensive review of zoning.

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.