My Northeast Ohio Policy Wish List

You probably haven’t heard about this yet, even if you work in the planning field in Northeast Ohio, but right now the region’s political and civic leaders are hashing out a regional plan that is supposed to help fix our economy and the environment.

This isn’t like the lakefront plan either, a pie-in-the-sky vision for what the region would do if the right developer comes along or if the Feds come through with a grant. This is a planning process that is supposed to result in some hard decisions that should have been made a long time ago. This is a plan backed by $5 million from the Feds. Assuming Obama is reelected, it would potentially guide much of the further federal investment in the region — including, and probably most importantly, transportation dollars — the skeleton of the region.

Anyway, it’s all in the hands of a group called the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. The problem, as noted by many observers, is that this group is populated by many of the same characters that have prevented this region from developing a blueprint for regional sustainability and economic recovery for decades. The kind of folks that balk at the idea of tax sharing, because that would mean handing over a share of the money they make from poaching jobs from their neighbors — you know “team players.”

This group has been working on this project for a year (they have two to go) and so far and they have yet to really begin the formal public participation process.

In the interest of having a open dialogue about this stuff, I wanted to share some of my expectations for what this group should be doing for the region, a wish list if you will. This is all the type of stuff that will be on the table, or should.

#1. They should establish an urban growth boundary in Northeast Ohio. This is a planning tool first pioneered by Portland, but also in use in some form in places like Miami, Florida. It would establish an outward limit for urban development. My opinion is that the current urbanized area of Northeast Ohio should be the boundary and in the future, any development proposed outside of it would have to win approval from a board of community representatives.

The reason for this is that the NEO is shrinking. In the last 10 years we lost 2.5% of our population. But the population loss has all been in the central area of the region and the growth has all been at the edges — a pattern that is neither sustainable nor conducive to a healthy economy.

Failing this, the region should develop strong incentives for infill development and strong disincentives for greenfield (sprawling) development. In the future, all economic incentives for business location should be predicated on adherence to this generally accepted plan.

#2. The region should develop a Fix-it-First policy for infrastructure. That means we should stop building new roads and bridges we can’t afford to maintain while letting our existing infrastructure crumble. Once our current transportation system is in an agreed-upon state of good repair, then we can begin expanding it again.

#3. We should set a goal of 25% transit mode share, ie 25 percent if people using transit to get to work. In order to meet that goal we should double our investment in transit.

#4. We should develop a transit oriented development policy that offers big-time incentives, including but not limited to density bonuses, especially by rapid transit stops.

#5. Parking minimums should be lifted and parking rates should be determined by a compromise between what the market dictates and what the community believes is in its best interest.

#6. The practice of job poaching between municipalities should be formally forbidden and subject to regional economic sanctions.

I know what you’re thinking. This is Northeast Ohio, we don’t do things like that. But other regions are doing those things. They are doing them to compete in an era of energy scarcity.

Columbus’ Franklin County, for example, recently revised its parking policy to promote walk ability. In the Twin Cities the regional transportation planning board recently voted to stop expanding highways into its hinterlands and instead focus on building transit in the urban core. Indianapolis punted on a similar proposal recently, but only because of an unrelated labor squabble in the statehouse. Montreal recently established a goal of 45% transit mode share.

Northeast Ohio’s many problems require bold solutions not another endless round of unproductive meetings. We need action like this to compete in the 21st Century.

Let me know in the comments if there’s anything you think I’ve overlooked.

–A.S.

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