Cincinnati’s Riverfront Development Finally Moving

Sun November 18, 2007 - Midwest Edition

CINCINNATI (AP) The vision for the downtown riverfront for decades has been of a gleaming neighborhood of green space and high-rises for living, working and entertaining, a destination for visitors and haven for young professionals and downsizing baby boomers.

Deal after deal was shot down by lack of funding or political infighting. A classic case was the squabble between city and county officials over who owns the air rights over parking garages needed to lift buildings out of the Ohio River flood plain.

New cooperative agreements among the city, Hamilton County and the master developer have put the dream closer to fruition than it’s ever been. But developers still have to find approximately $800 million, and public officials another $200 million for infrastructure, to make it happen.

“The work is not done; it really is only beginning, in many ways,” Councilman David Crowley noted as officials approved the enabling legislation at a joint meeting Nov. 1 at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The center is the only building in a four-block by three-block area between the river and the downtown business district.

“The good news is the city and county appear to be on the same page and seem to be working reasonably well together, which is rare here,” said Arn Bortz, a partner in Towne Properties, which is building other high-end housing nearby.

The area awaiting development covers about 18 acres between Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park, leaving about 40 acres for a riverfront park.

Urban planners had hoped that construction of the city’s first downtown sports stadium — Riverfront Stadium, which opened in 1970 — would spur development of the area, where there was only a few bars and a produce warehouse. But it remained mostly what it still is, a sea of surface parking lots, even after a proposal for “The Banks,” as the area became known, was unveiled a decade ago.

The city and county finally put together a group headed by Cincinnati Reds owner Bob Castellini in May 2006 to strong-arm the project and line up a master developer. Then-Commission President Phil Heimlich confidently said, “Now we can count on a 50-acre mud hole becoming a world class retail, office and residential community.”

But the developer backed out, Heimlich failed to win re-election and the process, in effect, was back at square one.

Now, with the city and county agreeing to work together and ceding certain rights to each other, Atlanta developers Carter & Associates Commercial Services and The Dawson Co. can begin to solicit designs and line up financing.

Ground could be broken on first-phase construction by early next year, with people living and working there by the end of 2009 or early 2010. But officials concede the entire project could take at least a decade to complete.

“We are stepping away from 10 years of disagreement and moving into 10 years of development,” said Mayor Mark Mallory.

Finding the money to get it started isn’t a sure thing, Bortz said.

“Clearly, it’s going to have to be sliced into smaller pieces to improve the likelihood you can find some support for at least the initial phase,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to find it all in one place. An equity lender might say, ’We’ll do the first building and an option in the next phase.’ You won’t get it all from any one source.”

The city and county will have to come up with about $58 million for infrastructure, and the developers about $74 million for the first phase, which will include about 300 apartments, some retail space and a couple restaurants. If the entire project is completed, it could add 1,800 apartments and condos to Cincinnati’s downtown housing market.

“I view The Banks, to some extent, as competitive with one or two of the buildings we’re doing, but it may be a good thing because it’s bringing people back to the urban core,” Bortz said.

The Banks also will have to compete with high-rise projects across the river on the Kentucky shore, including a similar $1 billion mixed-use proposal by one of the developers that walked away from the Cincinnati deal.

City officials believe the project reflects a turnaround for the city, which appears to have stanched a decades-long out migration of residents and shows a trend of rising property values.

“No longer are we going to focus on the negatives,” said former Councilman Todd Portune, now president of the Hamilton County Commission. “This city and county are turning things around.”

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