Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Randy Simes: Cincinnati’s Dramatic, Multi-Billion Dollar Riverfront Revitalization Nearly Complete

[ I don’t know how much money Cincinnati has spent promoting itself, but in my book nobody has done more to get the positive message out about what is going on in central Cincinnati than Randy Simes and his site UrbanCincy without one dime of city support. Continuing in my series of writers giving us positive stories in what’s going on in their Midwest towns, Randy fills us in on Cincinnati’s riverfront transformation. Growing up as a Reds fan in the 70’s and 80’s, I spend my share of time in Riverfront Stadium and its bleak environs, and so know this story is real – Aaron. ]

Several decades ago Cincinnati leaders embarked on a plan to dramatically change the face of the city’s central riverfront.  Aging industrial uses and a congested series of highway ramps was to be replaced by two new professional sports venues, six new city blocks of mixed-use development, a new museum, a central riverfront park, and parking garages that would lift the development out of the Ohio River’s 100-year flood plain.

Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals, was one of the first pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.  The $455 million football stadium kept the Bengals in Cincinnati and has since received national praise for its architectural design while also entertaining sold-out crowds.

Downtown Cincinnati in the 1980’s

The next piece to fall into place was the reconstruction of Fort Washington Way which consolidated the stretch of highway and opened up land critical for the construction of yet another stadium and the mixed-use development which became known as The Banks.  The 40% reduction in size was not the only accomplishment though.  The reconstruction project also included the Riverfront Transit Center designed to one day house light rail connections and a sunken highway that could be capped with additional development or park space.

Following the reconstruction of Fort Washington Way, Riverfront Stadium was then partially demolished to make room for the construction of the $290 million Great American Ball Park.  Once complete, Great American Ball Park began entertaining baseball fans at 81 home games each year and at a new Reds Hall of Fame & Museum.  The new venue eliminated any need for Riverfront Stadium and thus led to its implosion in 2002.

The removal of Riverfront Stadium then freed up room for the construction of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center atop the first piece of a two-deck parking garage intended to both lift the new riverfront development out of the flood plain, and provide enough automobile parking to replace what was previously there in the form of surface lots and satisfy new parking demands created by the development.

The most recent piece of the puzzle has been the development of the initial phases of both the Cincinnati Riverfront Park and The Banks.  The two separate projects are developing in complimentary fashion and are on similar time tables, and are both developing east to west from Great American Ball Park to Paul Brown Stadium.  Recent news will add a modern streetcar line running through The Banks development that will transport people from the transformed riverfront into the Central Business District, Over-the-Rhine and beyond to Uptown.

The 45-acre, $120 million Cincinnati Riverfront Park is expected to become the crown jewel of an already nationally acclaimed Cincinnati Park System.  The Banks meanwhile will bring thousands of new residents, workers and visitors to Cincinnati’s center city.  The initial phase of both projects is expected to be complete in spring 2011 and will include 300 new residences, 80,000 square feet of retail space, Moerlein Lager House, Commuter Bike Facility, additional components of the two-deck parking garage, and the first elements of the park.

The transformation of Cincinnati’s central riverfront from aging industrial space to a mixed-use extension of downtown that includes residential, office, retail, and entertainment options is not complete, but the two decade old, $3 billion vision is finally nearing reality.  And with that, one of the remaining traces of Cincinnati’s industrial past will be replaced by a new vision for a 21st Century city and economy.

Randy A. Simes is an award-winning Urban Planner, who graduated from the University of Cincinnatis nationally acclaimed School of Planning in 2009.   Mr. Simes currently works for CH2M HILL as a Community Development Planner and specializes in public policy and local government management.  He writes regularly about public policy and urban development for UrbanCincy.com and Soapbox Cincinnati, and his work has also appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier and the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: Cincinnati

72 Responses to “Randy Simes: Cincinnati’s Dramatic, Multi-Billion Dollar Riverfront Revitalization Nearly Complete”

  1. John Morris says:

    Randy said,

    “No more subsidies will be needed, as the rest of the development from here on out will come from private investment which will be aided by a TIF district.”

    Since these this private development is not here yet, you just can’t know that. Also, I get easily confused but isn’t TIF a form of subsidy or at least preferential tax treatment?

    I also find it very interesting that the one bullet proof amenity other than the transit center of actual value to current or future residents of the downtown and areas near it, which is the park seems to still be up in the air.

    “The park is progressing on a pay-as-you-go basis and will only move forwarded once public (federal) and private money is in place.”

    Aaron, I think a little context is helpful. You yourself said Cincinnati has remarkable assets but somehow is not doing very well. If they were–the peanut gallery would not be here.

    “Yet Cincinnati has not been a strong economic performer in some time. It’s not doing poorly, but it isn’t great either.”

    Placed in this context it’s pretty clear Cincinatti is a particular type of city; a pre auto urban center with a small land area that developed before cars. It also seems to be having lots of trouble getting people to live in the city–particularly in the areas near the downtown and also in making that affordable.

    I don’t come out with this violent objection to what’s going on in Indianapolis mostly because you don’t have these geographic limitations.

    Any idiot at this point, should be able to see that cars are just not like any previous mode of transit in their effect on urban design or the costs vs. benefits they impose on a city. In fact, it’s looking almost impossible to have a city that performs it’s original trade and business functions well in which cars are the primary mode of transit.

    As has been stated here, the 3 billion spent so far is just the start and more parking garages will have to be built or surface lots needed. If there are floods we will see about further costs.

    Personally, I think a levee type pile up waterfront for now might have been the best choice.Were there ways to make that somewhat attractive? I do not look at urbanism as a fetish. The bottom line is the bottom line and that’s why I think this type of hyperexpensive policy was very wrong for the resources the city is likely to have.

    Creating some form of flood control and then getting back to the real things the city needs like great low cost transit should have been the highest priority with the long term goal of shrinking the volume of cars in town.

  2. Mike McCarthy says:

    The theory behind TIF (Tax Incremental Financing) — which has been used for at least 50 years — is that, because of expected success of the project being financed, the value of the area generally will improve and that will then lead to higher assessed property values, and therefore higher tax receipts to then finance the TIF project, without the need to ask the voters for a tax increase. IOW, the tax increase to finance the project is the result of assumed appreciation resulting from the project. It’s a way to use FUTURE expected taxes right now. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s the theory.

    The “one” amenity is the transit center? The improved FWW, the floodwall, the sewer, the 20 acres of two-story parking garages…..those aren’t also “bulletproof” amenities?

    I realize you envision a city less dependent on auto and truck traffic, but be fair. The sewer ALONE is a huge amenity, and that has nothing to do with transportation, or parks, or neighborhood development at all. Cities all over the country are struggling with sanitation systems that are 100 years old and widely over-stressed. And yet, here in Cincinnati, we have a brand new main. That’s as least as good as a transit center (which may not ever be “worth” its $200M cost) or a huge city park (that I predict will get financed and completed, sooner rather than later, given its aesthetic importance relative to both “The Banks” and the newly repainted Suspension Bridge).

  3. Mike McCarthy says:

    John, you seem to imagine a city like a gated community. Few cars, walled off from nature (behind levees), and with very little traffic just passing through (despite the inescapable fact that the city is located at a national crossroads).

    You would instead route trucks and through-traffic around the outerbelt, build levees along the river, reduce cars inside the city to a minimum, and instead rely on public transportation or bike/walk?

    You would turn the city into a great big campus? (You wouldn’t be a college student yourself, or a recent grad?)

    OK, so maybe that’s a vision for an urban community, and maybe even a good vision.

    But, here’s something else to: the VOTERS have decided — repeatedly — that they want the riverfront to remain the riverfront. The want the Reds to play there, they don’t want levees, they want parks that go right to the water’s edge. That’s what they want. What people actually want…..doesn’t that count?

  4. John:

    The Cincinnati Riverfront Park is currently under construction, so no, it’s not “up in the air” as you claimed. The statement I made prior referred to future phases of the $120 million, 45-acre park. Once again, if you took 2 minutes and visited the project website you would know this already.

    Also, no additional parking (lots or garages will be built). What you see in those aerial renderings is the final product that will be completed in the coming years. The only thing those renderings do not include are the caps over FWW that will either hold park space or buildings as the pilings are engineered to support up to four-story structures.

    The costs for the flood walls and flood management have either already been realized in development that has already took place, or factored into project costs.

    Last thing, if you prefer levee walls like the ones in Nky, then you clearly have less of an interest in urban waterfront development than you make it out to be. Levee walls are great for unpopulated areas, but for cities we should be building our riverfronts in ways similar to what is shown here. Unless of course the river is small and can be made into a canal of sorts (see Chicago, Milwaukee).

  5. John Morris says:

    No, I don’t consider the 20 acres of parking an amenity, particularly since it looks like it’s just the start of what’s needed for furter development to happen.

    I would like to know what it might have cost to just do the sewer, water, flood control stuff. By the way, will the area have buried power lines? That’s a big urban plus type thing.

    The jury as I said is still out on this and there’s just no way to look at the road not taken. Right now, my guess is that you have created regional assets at the expense of the city itself.

    How are things going in Kentucky? I would imagine this would provide a good point for comparison. I know, Aaron talked about some development on the way to Dayton. Could it be tax refugee’s from Cincinnati?

    By the way, I know this can’t be an all Cincinnati chanel but a review of the street car progress is of great interest.

  6. John:

    There is no acreage occupied by surface parking. NONE. The parking that is included is underground parking garages.

    Yes, the utilities are all buried. Once again, something you could figure out in 30 seconds by looking at the websites for these various projects. Feel free to check it out for yourself. Both The Banks and Cincinnati Riverfront Park are currently under construction.


  7. Mike McCarthy says:

    John, you might also read this article:


    Note that the geologist being interviewed applauds two cities in MO for learning their lesson and, instead of rebuilding in a floodplain, they instead abandoned the floodplain entirely and rebuilt elsewhere.

    Cincinnati is doing something much more ambitious — they are building a community ELE

  8. Mike McCarthy says:

    John, you might also read this article about building in floodplains –


    Note that geologist Criss being interviewed applauds two cities in MO for learning their lesson and, instead of rebuilding in a floodplain, they instead abandoned the floodplain entirely and rebuilt elsewhere.

    Cincinnati is doing something much more ambitious — they are building a community ELEVATED above the flood plain — The Banks — and that is ONLY possible because The Banks is part of a larger scheme that mixed repairing infrastructure (roads, sewers, flood walls, the transportation center), building flood-tolerant facilities (stadiums, parks) and mixing public purpose with private development.

    I doubt that any single piece could have been done alone, and certainly there would have been a lot of extra expense to do things one step at a time.

    Transforming FWW, building a new sewer and building a new floodwall only makes economic sense if they are all done at once, and none of those things would have been done at all had the entire riverfront project not been catalyzed by the fact that Riverfront Stadium had become obsolete. You need to see the big picture, and what a unique opportunity this was, and how well it is progressing.

    The alternatives? We could have gone with the status quo and left under-utilized warehouses and cement factories and abandoned railroad tracks in place, watch them flood occasionally, and maybe see pro sports leave the city for good. Many people would say that would have been for th best. Sports are too expensive anyway.

    Or, we could have just abandoned the area and turned it all into greenspace, as geologist Criss advises, and stop wasting any more investment in an area that will be flooded every few decades anyway.

    We tried something else — a $2-3 billion flood tolerant project.

    Yes, tt could become an urban white elephant, a textbook case of bad planning and execution, and make Cincinnati the poster child for Criss’ argument.

    Or it could become a huge success, a signature for the city.

    I’m inclined to think it will be the latter, but it’s too soon to tell.

  9. John Morris says:

    “You would turn the city into a great big campus? (You wouldn’t be a college student yourself, or a recent grad?)”

    Really? That’s like saying NYC or Manhattan, London, Tokyo or Hong Kong is a “campuses” walled off from the world.

    Manhattan is not walled off from anyone who wants to deal with it on it’s terms. You can fly in and use taxi cabs which don’t need parking lots. You can come into the city by New Jersey transit, Metro North or The Long Island Railroad. You can use subways or PATH. You can take an express bus or you can stay in town and use your feet or a bike as the primary mode of transit. You can also drive, but you generally pay through the nose.

    The point is that, this form of development has worked for the city and has been bankable. My personal guess from a distance is that this is the type of development that’s right for this city.

    Yes, the voters have spoken, but there’s another form of voting and that’s with your feet. So far, it does not look like the city is doing so great in that area. I’m sure it could be worse.

  10. You’re wrong again John. Sure Cincinnati is not experience similar success to Sun Belt cities, nor does it have the urban form of most East Coast cities, but Cincinnati is certainly holding its own in the Midwest…especially compared to the Cleveland-Youngstown-Akron area.

    The most recent Census data shows population gains not only for Cincinnati MSA, but Hamilton County and the City of Cincinnati. The economy in Cincinnati is also fairly stable and generally considered recession proof.

    You can try to talk down your nose all you want by saying “My personal guess from a distance is that this is the type of development that’s right for this city” but the fact of the matter remains that this is one of the highest quality transformations along a major riverfront in America. Not St. Louis, Louisville, Baton Rouge, or New Orleans even come close. In fact, the only city doing anything similar is Pittsburgh which I assume you know well.

    Do you have similar issues with Pittburgh’s $3 billion riverfront redevelopment efforts that include two new sports stadiums, riverfront parks, rebuilt bridges, parking facilities, a casino, convention center and some other commercial development? Guess you could say Cincinnati actually did a better job by only putting two stadiums on the riverfront and keeping the other “white elephants” Pittsburgh stuck on its riverfront (casino, convention center) elsewhere.

  11. Mike McCarthy says:

    NYC and Tokyo? London and Hong Kong? You are talking there about MUCH greater population density. Indeed, mass transit has always worked best where density is greatest. Some people like living that way, some people like living a different way. You can’t force a “dense living” model on an area where the living isn’t dense.

    Yes, people vote with their feet. They move to the ‘burbs when things get too cramped in the city, and they move back to the city when things get too congested in the ‘burbs. The pendulum swings. SW Ohio will never be NYC or Tokyo. There are far too few people and far too much space. That’s a specious comparison.

  12. Jim Russell says:

    I’m quite familiar with Williamsburg (Brooklyn). Lots of people who live there own cars and use them daily. There is a ballet of parking concerning the street restrictions. It is very similar to Boston.

    Carless, I’d rather live there than Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, but the distinction doesn’t matter. Having a car opened up economic opportunity in Williamsburg just like it does anywhere else in the United States.

    New York City is one of the most car-dependent cities in the entire world.

  13. Jim Russell says:


    I’d caution you against pigeon-holing John Morris as an unabashed Pittsburgh booster. This is not an issue of Cincinnati versus Pittsburgh, other cities in Ohio, or other cities in the Rust Belt. John has voiced similar critiques for other cities, including Pittsburgh. This isn’t a Rust Belt city pissing contest.

  14. Jim:

    I do not know John, so I am just trying to understand his point of view. It seems like from others, including yourself, that John holds this utopian view of how cities should be managed, but I withhold judgment until I can learn on my own about a person’s views.

    Personally, I think what Pittsburgh has done is well executed and should be commended as well. The problem is that John mentioned examining “best practices”, but when it comes to best practices in this setting, that Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are those best practices.

  15. JG says:

    Probably should close this thread down. Otherwise interesting last 3 UP blog posts.

  16. Alon Levy says:

    If I were Cincinnati, I’d be quite embarrassed that people are praising me by comparing me with New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

    The fact that I-75 is an important transportation artery doesn’t explain why Cincinnati needs to have I-71 tearing through its downtown.

    Just because other US cities keep their superhighways and spend billions on stadiums doesn’t mean it’s good policy. Mass delusion is still delusion.

  17. John Morris says:

    Yikes, I do not think what Pittsburgh did is anything close to “best practice”. It might be what passes for that in America, but that’s just sad.

    Both, Cincinnati, and to a greater extent Pittsburgh were actually left with a huge stock of assets, great buildings, corporate headquarters and old money to build on by previous generations.Pittsburgh, as you know also has off the charts educational institutions.

    Luckily, Pittsburgh’s North shore did not face the kind of likely flood risk it looks like Cincinnati had.In fact, the Old Allegheny City left behind in the early 1900’s was almost an urbanist’s dream city, which had only to be connected to the river.

    Instead, what’s there are a bunch of extreme white elephants. In spite of all the city is doing to hype and distort the issues to make the complete revival of the city (which is very much a work in progress) a result of these moves, I think most people know better. The proof once again can be seen on the ground in the relative lack of development on the North Shore and the constant need for subsidies and jerry rigged bailouts. The Casino was needed to fill the hole left by the stadiums.

    The jury is also very much out on Pittsburgh. Obviously, we are doing better than average right now because we are pretty much a college town.We also, like Cincinnati have the bones of some remaining undamaged old neighborhoods.

    What happens when the government irrigation stops is up in the air.

    If I had to think of a best practice Cincinnati might be doing, it’s likely related to the streetcars.

    The city is also, attracting more and more people who either don’t drive or don’t want to drive all the time.

    Youngstown, is also IMHO, rapidly going to be seen as a best practice case pretty soon.Watch Youngstown for real tips on cheap DYI urban revival tips.

  18. John Morris says:

    Randy said,

    “Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are those best practices.”

    Seriously, don’t you think the project should at least be finished before you say it’s best practice? The space hasn’t even been filled up yet, let alone is there lot’s of evidence of a groundswell of downtown investment. I know, I should research that, but somehow, I think if there was you would have said so. This seems so common now for ideas that have not even proven themselves yet are hyped.

    This might be best practice if you are working for an engineering firm. Cost alone, likely puts this in the big dig category of projects that can only be done once.

  19. John Morris says:

    I mean Pittsburgh is attracting people who don’t want to drive.

  20. Nathan Strieter says:

    As a graduate of the University of Cincinnati Architecture Undergraduate and Master’s program, I have spent my past 6 years split between Cincinnati, London, New York, Copenhagen, and Los Angeles. Working and studying in these metropolises, has provided for a perspective on the urban condition and that of Cincinnati which I believe is rationally pro-density.

    With respect to this thread, I believe the comments have moved away from the intent of the original post. John brings up a very valid point, in that the development of “The Banks” has not necessarily happened in the best interest of density or of the city’s future tax revenues. It must be noted that in America, and excessively in China, urban policy makers have become more focused on modes of development based on image, with the intent of advertising their city. (Alan Southern, The Political Salience of the Space of Flows: Information and Communication Technologies and the Restructuring City p 249-263) Sasika Sassen often comments about this modern occurance suggesting that as cities and spaces have become brands and images, they act to preclude habitation. In many ways “The Banks” is one such development, but this is not the whole story.

    It is important to note that the development of this area of the riverfront comes as the result of years of political wrangling. For decades the city of Cincinnati has not be well represented, at least numerically, on a state level. A relationship with the Ohio Department of Transportation was not in place with respect to the re-routing of I-71. Cincinnati would be better off without either highway downtown and was architecturally and infrastructually mamed by their initial construction. (Note 71 must cut through the city because any branching of the highway which would happen prior this would have to be negotiated with the Kentucky Dept of Transporation, as they control the Brent Spence Bridge which carries 71 and 75.)
    The political situation was further compromised because the contracts for the the raised surface of the parking garages is city owned, but the garages were part of a county agreement and supposed to be funded by the county.

    Despite this the project with all its flaws did anticipate a number of infrastructural needs for the future, and provides a way to put platforms over the highway as to “bury” it. The pilings for these platforms will be able to support up to 4 story structures, thereby connecting the “urban fabric.” The project is far from perfect and owes many of its flaws to a lack of political and infrastructural control on the city level- a major flaw in the United States.

    Luckily the project provides for a multitude of futures, and provides for this image to become more. It connects a number of pre-existing riverfront parks, with a future that may be as ambitious as the green necklace of Hamburg, and provides rail-lines to the east direct connection to the transit center and over to Northern Kentucky (we try to focus regionally now, rather then divisively).

    I fear that people see this as representative of all of Cincinnati. There is a lot more going on beyond “The Banks” and this thread. Randy does a good job covering the other 52 neighborhoods on urbancincy.com. Cincinnati needs more density, it needs better transit options but it is making strides in a number of its historic neighborhoods, has one of the best cultural arts history in the Mid-West, and is working in a more authoritative role with regard to O-DOT’s plans to reconstruct I-75 interchanges along the west side of the city.

  21. Nathan, thanks. And let’s make that the last word.

    Please no further debates on this topics.

  22. Mike McCarthy says:

    “in the best interest of density…..”

    Sigh…. College boys.

    Adults generally do not want density. They want space to raise families, a yard so they can get out of the house, a garage (so they can get away from their beloved family), a mud room. They want to relax in space they command as their own, to imagine they are building equity, and providing for their families, and preparing for retirement. They will spend years, decades, to achieve this. It is NOT an urban dream or density and public transit.

    Such adults — most adults — don’t want “density.” They don’t want the urban vision you college boys imagine.

    You want the taxpayer to build your urban playground, with freeway corridors mowed out of your way, with light rail and street cars and bike paths instead? You want to attract people who don’t want to drive?….uh, we call who don’t want to drive “children.”

    You may get your wish. Cities may cater to young urban homesteaders and partner with them to create vibrant neighborhoods with transportation and greenspace amenities, and you may pat yourself on the back as having “created” something special, but my guess is, in the final analysis, the taxpayer subsidy for your “city-as-campus” dream is going to dwarf by an order of magnitude the amount of money spent on sports stadiums and Freedom Centers.

    Good luck to you, though. Advocacy is the American way, and fighting for your particular affinity group is the name of the game. Just don’t kid yourself that you are creating a City that serves everyone.

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