CINCINNATI, Ohio — Flooding is a perennial threat along the Ohio River, but high water is no longer a big worry downtown in the Queen City.
Over the past 25 years, Cincinnati has built a massive new neighborhood on the banks of the Ohio River that far exceeds what Cleveland has been able to achieve on its lakefront in the same two-and-a-half decades.
Called The Banks, fittingly enough, the $2 billion-plus Cincinnati project has transformed a former dead zone of parking lots, warehouses, and rail yards into an urban showplace. Ingeniously, the whole thing is designed to flood and drain the next time the river is in a bad mood. All of the buildings at The Banks rest atop a two-level, 4,500-space parking garage that makes the development, in essence, a neighborhood on stilts.
The project includes Paul Brown Stadium, home of the NFL Bengals; the Great American Ballpark, home of the Reds; The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center; and the brand new Andrew J. Brady Icon Music Center. Along with sports and culture, The Banks also has offices, apartments, restaurants, a hotel, park spaces, and a rainbow-colored stair-step fountain, all with stunning views of the river and the skyline.
In one garage stairwell, a bright red stripe on a blue tile wall 10 feet below the street indicates the high water mark reached by the worst flood on record, which occurred in 1937. Nothing above the line would get wet if the river rose that high again, including utilities serving the streets and buildings above.
“The garage could be filled with water down below, but you could still enjoy your beer up above,” said Phil Beck, the project executive of The Banks Public Partnership, the city-county entity that built the project.
Envisioning a transformation
An admirable feat of civil engineering and urban design, The Banks, now about two-thirds complete, is highly relevant to Cleveland as it considers whether to pursue a new waterfront development proposal unveiled in May by Jimmy and Dee Haslam, co-owners of the NFL Browns, and endorsed by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson.
Flood resilience may not matter much to Cleveland, where the downtown skyline rises from a bluff 70 feet above Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. But just about everything else about the Cincinnati project is highly significant to any discussion over the Haslam proposal.
To build The Banks, Cincinnati first had to simplify a nightmarishly complicated stretch of downtown highway, known as Fort Washington Way, that had walled off its waterfront, just like the Ohio 2 Shoreway in Cleveland. Redoing Fort Washington Way made it possible for Cincinnati to extend the downtown grid toward the water, and to open nearly 200 acres for parks and development.
Similarly, the Haslams and Jackson would like to see the downtown Mall — two-thirds of which doubles as the green roof of the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland — extended north over 20-plus acres of underused land between downtown and the lakefront, now occupied by railroad lines and the Shoreway.
The extension would create a better connection between downtown and attractions at North Coast Harbor, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Great Lakes Science Center, and the city-owned FirstEnergy Stadium, where, significantly, the Browns lease expires in February 2029.
The Haslam plan is also intended to spur private development on publicly-owned land in the ugly gap between the Mall and North Coast Harbor and additional acreage around the stadium. It identifies locations for at least 10 new high-rise and mid-rise buildings that could include a hotel, offices, and apartments.
Spokesmen for Haslam Sports Group have said the team owners would like to see the stadium renovated and to participate in any new development around it, though not by acting as the developer. An early estimate from the Jackson administration put the price of the Mall extension and revamping the Shoreway at $229 million.
The Haslams’ proposal has raised the issue of whether now is the time, after decades of civic discussions, to get serious about improving Cleveland’s lackluster lakefront. Adding urgency to the question is the upcoming mayoral election in November, in which voters will choose a successor to Jackson, and the expiration of the Browns lease.
* $380M revamp of Gateway Arch Park in St. Louis offers a how-to guide for Cleveland on reconnecting downtown, waterfront
* 12 takeaways for Cleveland’s new lakefront plan, based on lessons from St. Louis and Cincinnati
The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com recently visited Cincinnati, along with St. Louis, to see how two peer cities in the Midwest reconnected their downtowns to their riverfronts.
Today’s story, focusing on The Banks, follows a look at the St. Louis project last week. The Cincinnati story is accompanied by a summary of 12 key takeaway points from both cities.
Among the lessons: Be patient.
“This stuff takes a long time, and it doesn’t get all done at once,’’ said Charlie Luken, Cincinnati’s mayor from 1984 to 1990, and again from 1999 to 2005, during the early-stage buildout of The Banks.
Big waterfront projects can also create controversy. For all its successes, The Banks has stirred criticism, from Luken and others, over construction delays, squabbles between Cincinnati and Hamilton County, the mediocre architecture of apartment and office buildings built by private developers, and poor oversight of public spending on Paul Brown Stadium, which anchors the west side of The Banks.
But The Banks is undeniably an impressive achievement — on a scale that Cleveland hasn’t approached since it completed the 28-acre Gateway sports complex on the south side of downtown in 1994-96.
As the American Planning Association said in 2013, The Banks earned a National Planning Excellence Award that year for having “converted 195 acres of a vast wasteland between the Ohio River and Cincinnati’s Central Business District into an economically successful and vital, mixed-use development.”
Responding to crises
Earning such praise didn’t come easy. Cincinnati first had to solve two colossal waterfront problems in the mid-1990s.
One was that the Bengals and the Reds were threatening to leave town unless the city provided each team with its own new facility to replace Cinergy Field, the generic, outmoded, multi-sport facility built as Riverfront Stadium in 1970.
The threat gained sudden credibility when Art Modell announced in November 1995 that he was moving the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore, creating the team now known as the Ravens. He left because Cleveland hadn’t committed to replacing Municipal Stadium on the lakefront.
Cleveland’s temporary loss of its football team helped convince Hamilton County voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase in 1996 to build the new stadium and ballpark, with 62% in favor.
At the same time, Cincinnati, the Ohio Department of Transportation, and OKI, the regional Council of Governments representing Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, were facing another big headache.
They realized that Fort Washington Way, the 1,500-foot-wide tangle of waterfront freeway lanes and ramps that connect Interstates 71 and 75 to bridges over the Ohio River needed to be rebuilt. One of the most accident-prone stretches of highway in the state, it was falling apart.
Bad as it was, the highway mess presented an opportunity. For decades, Fort Washington Way had separated downtown from the Ohio River, preventing any redevelopment. The question was, should the highway be rebuilt as it was, or redesigned to facilitate a riverfront renaissance?
Either prospect filled ODOT, with “panic,’’ because of potential disturbances to traffic and downtown businesses, said John Deatrick, the engineer appointed by then-Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls to oversee the project. “They knew it would kill downtown,” he said.
But Deatrick led a team of engineers who figured out how to cut the width of the freeway in half lengthwise and to extend five city streets over it to reconnect downtown to the river. Those two moves opened up land for development, including the sites for the new sports facilities.
“The key was not to get overwhelmed by it and to be positive,’’ Deatrick said.
With almost blinding speed for such a big project, Cincinnati had finished rebuilding Fort Washington Way in 2000 for $342 million in federal, state and local money.
The project included building new interchanges east and west of downtown with no fewer than 27 new bridges lacing over and under one another, plus a new flood wall to replace an old levee and a big new interceptor pipe to prevent combined sewer overflows in the Ohio River.
Also in 2000, Hamilton County finished building Paul Brown Stadium. Completion of the Great American Ballpark came in 2003, followed by The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2004.
Private development on The Banks then stalled before gearing up during the 2008-09 recession. Construction crews started driving piles into the sand, clay, and gravel soil under The Banks to support sections of the flood-ready garage, plus buildings, streets, and sidewalks on top.
Fun zone with raw edges
Today, the partially finished riverfront has numerous raw edges. Most glaring is that Cincinnati and Hamilton County originally planned to cover the now slimmed-down Fort Washington Way with parks and/or buildings on four platforms between the five streets that cross over the highway.
The revamp of the highway in 1998-2000 included pilings designed to support the giant platforms, or highway caps. But the city and county haven’t yet come up with the estimated $100 million it would cost to build them, so the trench and the roar of traffic remain open to the sky, diminishing the connection between downtown and the river that the city has worked so hard to achieve.
The impression of being unfinished is further underscored by the remaining vacant development sites at The Banks. One spot east of the Freedom Center has a finished concrete “podium” or deck, ready to receive an office building, which Beck, the project executive for The Banks, said should be finished by 2023. Another site diagonally to the southwest has a grid of concrete columns topped with green rebar poking up from a below-grade garage level that’s ready to support an apartment building on top, which could be completed by 2024.
Another three blocks around Paul Brown Stadium haven’t yet been filled with garage levels. They remain subsurface cavities with parking lots at the bottom, two stories below surrounding streets. Beck predicts they could be filled in within 10 years.
Elsewhere, much of the Banks looks and feels in many ways like the fun place it was designed to be.
Along with the sports facilities and the Freedom Center, it boasts three blocks of new apartment buildings edged with restaurants and bars with outdoor seating.
Outside the freestanding Moerlein Lager House Microbrewery and Restaurant, you can sit on the grass and enjoy a Rockin’ the Roebling concert, named for the designer of the spectacular, 1866 suspension bridge over the Ohio River, which you can actually see from where you sit.
You can take the kids for a ride at Carol Ann’s Carousel, an attraction run by Cincinnati Parks with 44 hand-painted Cincinnati-centric creatures, or enjoy a rock concert at the new Icon Music Center, which opened in July with a Foo Fighters concert.
At The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the cultural centerpiece of The Banks, you can explore exhibits on America’s unfinished quest for racial and social justice. Or you can stroll downhill toward the 45-acre Smale Riverfront Park on staircases edged with waterfall fountains that light up with rainbow colors at night.
The Banks is also served by the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar line, which loops from downtown to the waterfront, and The Banks has a below-grade transit center, which can serve regional bus routes, plus large school and touring groups.
Calculating return on investment
The value proposition in Cincinnati, as it would be with the Haslam concept for Cleveland, is that by investing heavily in infrastructure, the public sector can unleash private investment that boosts the tax base, creates jobs, and grows the population.
The Banks offers some proof of that logic.
Since 2008, developers have built riverfront apartments housing 1,100 new residents. In 2016, General Electric built its 12-story, 335,000-square-foot U.S. Shared Services headquarters at The Banks, bringing 1,500 new jobs to the city.
And earlier this month, Cincinnati snapped a 70-year losing streak in population, growing by 4.2% to reach 309,000 residents. The census tract that includes The Banks contributed to the gain.
But computing the return on public investment at The Banks is tricky. The project is not audited separately from the city and county, according to the Auditor of State’s office. The Banks Public Partnership, the joint city-county agency that has managed the project since 2006, publishes detailed monthly updates, but they don’t aggregate data from the full life of the project.
Cincinnati and Hamilton County have invested $1.88 billion in federal, state, and local money in The Banks since 1997 according to self-reported numbers provided by the partnership.
Much of that money flowed between 1997 and 2004, including the $342 million devoted to Fort Washington Way, $735 million to build the sports stadiums, and $212 million in infrastructure to support the stadiums and the Freedom Center, according to a summary prepared by the partnership.
The cost of the football stadium, however, remains in dispute. In 2011, The Wall Street Journal highlighted Hamilton County’s agreement to build the stadium, as “one of the worst professional sports deals ever struck by a local government – soaking up unprecedented tax dollars and county resources while returning little economic benefit.”
The article cited an estimate that the stadium cost $555 million, about $100 million more than the county has acknowledged.
In contrast, the ballpark was finished in 2003 on time and on budget, with a public investment of $280 million, and $10 million from the Reds. The Wall Street Journal stated that the ballpark is largely self-supporting, while the stadium continued to impose heavy annual expenses on the county for debt service.
The plus side
On the plus side of the ledger, The Banks has attracted $430 million in private investment between 2008 and 2021, on top of $188 million in public investment in infrastructure during the same period, including garages and streets. That’s a return-on-investment ratio of 1-to-2.2, and it should improve to 1-to-3 when the upcoming office and apartment buildings are built by 2024 on the two sites already prepared for them.
Those numbers came from Thomas Gabelman, the lawyer who has represented the Board of Hamilton County Commissioners on matters related to The Banks since 1997, but who did not participate in negotiating the football stadium deal.
As for economic impact, Gabelman said The Banks attracts 6.5 million visitors a year and generates $1.7 billion a year in economic activity.
That includes salaries for 2,600 workers, plus direct spending by visitors, and other outlays that ripple through the local economy.
Those numbers have not been independently verified, and they’ve been questioned by observers including Luken, the former Cincinnati mayor.
He sits on the Joint Banks Steering Committee, a civic group headed by Bob Castellini, owner of the Reds, which advises the city and county on the project.
“I’ve gone round and round with Tom over the years,’’ Luken said. “These economic numbers … they compound and triple. I say, ‘OK,’ but my eyes roll around over those things.’’
Luken said Cincinnati and its partners have failed to provide a clear understanding of the true public cost of The Banks.
“Whatever you think it’s going to cost, double it and assume that ultimately it’s going to be almost an exclusively publicly-supported venue,’’ Luken said. “These things take longer and are more expensive than you expect them to be.”
Gabelman is well aware of those critiques and of coverage by local news outlets of the $21 million in fees paid for work on The Banks to two law firms for which he has worked. But he defends the value of his contributions and said his firms have helped The Banks receive $100 million in government grants for the project.
And he insists that Cincinnati is benefiting from its new riverfront.
“All along it’s been about leveraging this public investment to bring in the private dollars and getting the return,’’ he said.
Low architectural quality
The biggest disappointment at the Banks — on which many parties agree, including Gabelman — is that the heavy lifting by local governments that made the project possible did not inspire private developers to respond with high-quality architecture.
The parks and public spaces at The Banks are generally excellent, particularly Smale Riverfront Park, designed by Sasaki Associates, based in Watertown, Mass.
However, most of the buildings, including the new General Electric office building, are boxy, bland, and forgettable. They fail to live up to their impressive location and the high-quality public amenities that surround them, much less historic buildings throughout the city.
“I couldn’t agree with you more; we’ve got to do better,’’ Gabelman said when asked about the architecture.
He attributed the problem to the challenges of financing projects amid the 2008-09 recession, plus the relatively low rents commanded by the real estate market in Midwestern cities, which squeeze profit margins, leading developers to reduce investment in design.
“I’ve scrutinized the developers’ proformas [financial plans] and I know they can be pretty skinny,’’ Gabelman said.
Luken, the former mayor, said low design standards were a byproduct of pressures felt by Cincinnati and Hamilton County to get development moving in the 2010s after years of delay.
“They just wanted to get something up,’’ he said. “There was a lot of anxiety about the failure to get anything going.”
His advice for Cleveland: “I would hold out to do something right and to do something of quality and to do something that people are going to be proud of in the long term. I’m sure you will do it with fewer hiccups than we did.’’