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Lower Price Hill battles 'blight' tag

By Kevin Osborne
Post staff reporter

Neighborhood groups in Lower Price Hill are opposing a city-backed plan that would classify dozens of homes as blighted and make them vulnerable to seizure by the city.

The homes would become part of an urban renewal area around an industrial site targeted for cleanup. The "blight" designation would help in securing state and federal funds for cleaning up the possibly contaminated Queen City Barrel Co. property.

A closer look
  Founded in 1927, Queen City Barrel cleans, reconditions and resells industrial barrels.

  Following public outcry by residents and years of being cited by regulatory agencies for failing to comply with environmental laws, the company invested about $3 million in pollution-control equipment during the mid-'90s.

"There's nothing wrong with this neighborhood," said Eileen Gallagher, a Lower Price Hill resident for about 20 years. "This is being done to bail out one company, but it should be the responsibility of the owner to clean up that land."

Gallagher is a member of the Lower Price Hill Community Forum, a group that opposes the urban renewal plan.

Further, they say, taxpayer money shouldn't be used to clean Queen City Barrel.

The residents prefer instead that the company's owners foot the bill.

After a contentious meeting earlier this week, the Lower Price Hill Community Council -- the group formally designated by the city to represent the neighborhood -- also voted to oppose the plan.

Although Queen City Barrel once employed 200 people at its South Street facility, the firm is closing the site and transferring operations to Columbus.

Peg Moertl, director of the city's community development and planning department, said the residents' fears about eminent domain are unfounded. A developer has expressed interest in the property if it is free of any lingering contaminants and Queen City Barrel can't afford any possible cleanup, Moertl said.

 The potential tenant would create much-needed jobs, she added, and any cleanup would be paid using a state fund set aside for reclaiming so-called "brownfield" sites.

Queen City Barrel representatives couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.

Under the city's proposal, a portion of Lower Price Hill from the Ohio River on the south and extending beyond Liberty Street to the north, between State Avenue and the Queensgate area, would be dubbed as blighted.

The area is mostly used for commercial and industrial uses, but includes 63 of the neighborhood's roughly 200 residences.

A city blight study determined that 72 percent of the structures and vacant parcels in the area are deteriorating, and that public improvements are in "a general state of deterioration."

City law defines blighted areas as those that "contribute to the spread of disease and crime, are an economic and social liability, and impair the sound growth of the community."

The designation allows city officials to acquire private property in the area and hold it for possible future development.

"The city's study is pure puffery that allows them to justify spending money for the cleanup," Gallagher said. "For most of the time they were talking to the community about this project, the study wasn't even done."

Some City Council and planning commission members strongly endorse the effort.

"If we have an opportunity to take that space -- which people have been upset about for years -- and do something exciting there, we should do it," said City Council Member Jim Tarbell. "It's really kind of in limbo right now."

"My sense is that the people working on this plan are well-intentioned," said Don Mooney, the planning commission's chairman. "If we have the opportunity to revitalize a site that is under-utilized and create jobs and tax revenue, why shouldn't we pursue that?"

But opponents are concerned because they say officials are rushing the plan through the city's normal approval process without enough review and limited public input to meet a deadline to apply for state aid.

City staffers began the process in late March and only released a final version of the plan this week.

The planning commission will make a recommendation on the plan today, and City Council is scheduled to vote June 18, before members take an extended summer break.

Some residents distrust the city, noting a history of botched economic development efforts.

Officials had the chance to keep Queen City Barrel within Cincinnati and add some jobs in 1998, when the company wanted to buy the former Conrail site on River Road from the city, opponents said.

City staffers, though, wanted to lure a larger employer to that site. And the city refused to rebuild a 150-year-old water main under another site that Queen City Barrel considered.

Also, opponents cite what they call abuses of eminent domain authority.

Those include Norwood's attempt to force residents from their homes for the Rookwood Exchange project, and Cincinnati's own efforts to redevelop Calhoun Street in Clifton and to attract big box retailers in Oakley -- all over the objections of residents.

"Given recent experiences in Norwood and elsewhere, urban renewal and blight have taken on a very negative connotation," Moertl concedes.

There will be no push to use eminent domain in Lower Price Hill, Tarbell said.

"The only way that would be used is to break free vacant properties," he said. "We're not going to displace people from their homes."


Publication Date: 06-06-2003
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