Harvey J Graff

Do the Mayor, City Council, and senior staff need a map of Columbus? A walking tour? A bus tour of their “Opportunity for a Few City”? They cannot turn to Columbus Partnership whose CEO lives in New Albany, the Downtown Development Corporation which does recognize the actual downtown, Columbus Police Department who does not know one area from another, or the Department of Public—that is, Private—Service who sells public space to private interests indiscriminately. I personally give walking tours of the University District to City Neighborhood staff but I recognize my limits. City government does not know the city.

The Mayor’s and Council’s obsession with protecting private property in the Short North—the only area where their actions even vaguely resemble a policy—that is, a set of somewhat related actions rather than random undeveloped and unvetted stabs in the dark—and with environmental damage to the Scioto River Bank with private development convince me that our undemocratically selected “leaders” do not know the locations or the socio-economic geography within Columbus whose history and identity remain unknown.

Electric scooters litter the streets, sidewalk, and private yards of the city, especially my own University District. For almost a year-and-a-half, City Council staff promise me that “we are working on that.” After conversations with some of them, I personally sent information on the variety of city-wide regulation plans in effect in other cities, from New York to Detroit to Portland and Seattle. I am far from alone in demanding, and expecting the City to take action against a threat to public safety, personal space, and residents’ rights.

But the City acts only in the Short North. Only in that recently prized entertainment, commercial, and increasingly developer-dominated relatively small area does the City, through its Columbus for private sale Department of Public—that is—Private—Service require that all scooters be parked in one lot. Nowhere else. Not at OSU or in the University District where the problem and dangers to the public are worse. Why?

Since many working for the City or holding electoral office attended OSU and lived in the University District, why can they not remember that historic area? Could it have to do with the fact that the City, OSU, and private property developers and large landlords colluded to destroy the once proud mixed residential district (in ways comparable to Weinland Park and Franklinton)? Or the lack of real urban planners? Or a city always for sale to private interests?

The privileged place of the North Short extends to comparable control of Rideshare Uber and Lyft vehicles. Only in the Short North are there now marked zones along High Street, including COTA bus stops when not in use, are public spaces provided to private companies. This is the work of the Department of Private Service with its ludicrous, illogical, anti-factual, and fallacious refrain, “it offers another potential tool to support mobility options in our city and safely manage high curb demand.” The coda of Columbus for sale Private Service is “facilitating mobility.” But this only involves the use and sale of both public and private space to private companies based outside the city, state, and US. And it is never city-wide. These very real urban problems are not only an issue in the Short North. Scooters and Free2Drive cars litter my own University District. CPD is nonresponsive except for violent crimes. But the City apparently does not know or care about this.

The parallel to these Short North public for private profit schemes is the same Department of Private Services selling the spaces in residential areas throughout the city already sold to residents for permit parking to short-term car lease companies like Free2Drive. This is radically contradictory and anti-public. I believe that it is also, or should be, illegal.

The Department took this action without public input or hearings. It did not inform Columbus Police or City Council. I learned about it after reporting deserted Free2Drive vehicles which my tenant neighbors, CPD, and I all thought were illegally dumped. When I directly questioned the Department, two senior staff refused to answer my specific questions, lied about their statements, and was repeatedly rude and sarcastic. They were “enhancing mobility” by violating agreements.

The Department head, one Jennifer Gallagher, refused to respond. Frustrated, I asked several City Attorneys for their advice. File a complaint, they told me. I did. It took the lobbying of City Attorneys and several City Council legislative aides to prompt an assistant to simply confirm receipt of my complaint. I also learned that a formal complaint against Gallagher is now before a State Ethics body because she gave City work contracts to her husband’s company, in violation of city and state laws.

After a month of silence, I prompted Director Gallagher to respond. She did not. Instead, she unethically had one of the senior staff against whom I had complained specifically to answer me. Of course, he rudely and sarcastically continued to lie.

A City Attorney next advised me to ask Council itself to respond. Not only were individual members of Council unwilling to put a resident’s documented complaint forward, but just as one promised to “get back to [me] the same day,” the previously uninvolved City of Staff of the “President” of City Council emailed me to inform me that Council had “heard me” and dismissed my complaint without comment or explanation.

Since that time neither Michael Brown nor any other member of Council will answer my queries. They did not “hear” me. There no City Council minutes or other records. They provide no explanation. As I have written on other occasions, even home owning, taxpaying, voting citizens of Columbus have no right to a hearing or any representation anywhere in City Hall. The City Attorney responsible for internal affairs confirms this to me in writing. This, we know, is the Columbus Way.

Meanwhile the Department of Private Service dismantles public parking throughout the city but also favors the Short North. First traditional parking meters are replaced inconsistently with a smart phone app, actively discriminating against residents without smart phones. Why? The only a response I received –repeatedly--is an inexplicable “improving the attractiveness of the environment” by removing parking meters. Really? In the process, Private Service managed to reduce the number of spaces for handicapped persons. Of course, the newly privileged Short North receives special attention.

Faced with some push-back to the app-ification of public parking, Private Service turned with little publicity or explanation, and no public input, to the confused and haphazard replacement of some meter and app areas with parking kiosks. No one can explain any of these shifts or their unexplained, inconsistent, and incomplete nature. Signage is poor. Residents are confused and angry. Neither Private Service, Public Safety, nor CPD speaks.

The “beauty of the environment” was not a concern for City Council when it approved a large hotel for the banks of the Scioto. This is contrary to the public interest and environmentally unfriendly. It is ludicrously named The Junto, supposed as remembrance of Benjamin Franklin’s self-help club in late colonial and early national Philadelphia. Not only does this have no relevance to Columbus, “junto” actually means either right- or left-wing conspiratorial group seeking to overthrow a government.

Council is out to destroy its rare site of natural attractiveness. Over the objection of the City’s and County’s MetroParks as well as local environmentalists, it recently approved construction of a large, 750 unit private apartment complex on private land adjacent to Downtown’s Scioto Audubon Metro Park. With no hesitation in endorsing yet another private development, in the words of the Columbus Dispatch, “council members expressed dismay with Columbus and Franklin Country Metro Parks for not agreeing to cede a strip of park land that city officials say is needed for a new entrance to accommodate 1.5 million additional car trips a year to and from the project.”

City Council condemns the parks departments for doing their job, while failing to protect public interests immediate and future. Forgive me both my incomprehension and “dismay.”

Meanwhile, at the same time, City Council approves a tax abatement—one of its most frequent random actions to support private developers—that inadequately substitutes for any semblance of urban policy. Tax abatements and TIFs, both awarded all but automatically regardless of public objections to private companies and large institutions like Ohio State University reduce city revenue at a time that City services are collapsing all around us—by provide “incentives” for development. But they are never accompanied by fully developed proposals with budget, timetable, metrics to establish success or progress, or accountability. At best, they are aspirational. At worst….

This time the abatement is for the “Parkside on Pearl,” a 7 story, 75,000 square foot private building in its favored Short North. With only 780 square feet of retail space that may generate any tax revenue and 10 office worker jobs, there is no apparent reason for the tax abatement or indeed yet another structure of that size in that relatively small and congested area.

But after all, no one in City government could grasp the gross inappropriateness, congestion, environmental, and aesthetic damage of approving a 32-story building nearby beside the historic North Market just to the south of the Short North. There is nothing in a city invisible to its “leaders” that is not for sale.

This is emphatically the case when then pseudo-public for private development Columbus Partnership and Downtown Development Corporation (headed by former mayor Michael Coleman) are points of connection and the developers include Pizutti, Mark Wood, Casto, Wagenbrenner, Crawford Joying, Schiff, Big Lots, Abbott Labs, CoverMyMeds, AEP, Huntington Bank, Nationwide Insurance and Hospital, and Ohio State. This is the Columbus Way.

Like all areas in Columbus, and all cities in the US, the Short North is a site of violence including shootings. Despite the mayor’s and CPD’s best efforts to wish murders and shootings away between empty declarations of “public health crises” without response and arithmetic illogic about 35% decrease based on small numbers, the city’s response remains criminally muddled and limited.

Although crime, violence, and shootings are not the worst in the Short North, they receive the major responses from City Hall, adding to our pattern. Dramatically understaffed and disorganized CPD adds extra patrols to the area. Most recently, relatively small incidents of physical and verbal conflicts at a few food trucks in the area attract a now predictable overresponse to protecting food trucks in the Short North.

Alarmingly to me as a resident and taxpayer, other parts of the city with far greater problems literally cry out for public safety attention and City intervention. But they do not receive attention. That they have more permanent residents and more potential voters than the Short North does not make them visible to a mayor, Council, City staff, and CPD who do not know the City.

The rest of the city appears randomly in the eyes and actions of mayor, Council, and city staff. There is not overarching set of policies, not even a verbal recognition of the need. Of course, there is no physical or geographic representation.

Neither familiarity with the city as a whole nor relevant expertise is part of either electoral or governing process. The completely ad hoc committee structure functions as both cause and consequence. Unlike comparable cities, there is not even recognition of the urgent need for a professional city manager to coordinate. Council members do not know what a city manager is or does.

Instead each councilor or two-person committee with members randomly districted and no professional expertise parcels out allocations hither and yon without connective tissue, relationships, or coordination. Sums range from 10s of 1000s to 10s of millions of dollars. Seldom if ever is there a developed proposal including full program, qualifications, budget, timetable, and especially importantly measures to track progress and determine/report success or its absence.

At the same time, the seven-person City Council has both a President and President Pro Tempore (called PPT as nowhere else I have encountered). This is unprofessional and unethical, if not quite illegal. Not surprisingly, millions of dollars are allocated to private unqualified and unlicensed recipients and many other public and private entities whose qualifications and competence have not been established in any way.

Where is Columbus? Where is Columbus going? Does anyone in City Hall know?


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books on social history, the history of literacy and education, and interdisciplinarity, he writes about the history and contemporary condition of higher education for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current; Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies is published by Palgrave Macmillan in August. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of Historian is forthcoming.