After the efforts to build the new Reds ballpark at Broadway Commons next to Over-the-Rhine came to a crashing defeat on a November 1998 ballot, I still remember the optimistic words of then-Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls. She predicted that the Broadway Commons decision would be the last gasp of old time cronyism in Cincinnati, the end of an era when the influential tell the rest of us what to do.
Qualls was convinced that decisions about large public projects and sizable chunks of public money would no longer be made in the backrooms of downtown offices by select business leaders and politicians. The people would have their say.
Better yet, they'd demand their say after watching their Broadway Commons dream squelched by months of expensive, negative campaigning by business leaders who favored a new riverfront baseball park close to their real estate holdings.
The latest public debate returns to the edge of Over-the-Rhine in the battle over a city garage planned for two surface parking lots at the corner of Vine Street and Central Parkway. The garage is part of a complicated deal between the city and Kroger, whose executives threatened to move their offices out of downtown unless the city built a garage to fulfill the daytime parking needs of their employees.
Councilman Jim Tarbell led the fight for Broadway Commons as the city's best-known advocate for center city renewal, a fight that essentially became his platform for election to city council.
Now Tarbell is a political player, an incumbent councilman of some influence. The battle over the Kroger garage -- specifically whether the garage will include residential and retail components as well as an attractive design -- has become his new rallying cry.
Compared to the fight for building a new ballpark, a major development that clearly would have invigorated Over-the-Rhine, Tarbell's battle over the Kroger garage feels small, unimportant and dull. It's downsized activism, a cause with half the dazzle and significance of Broadway Commons. Worse yet, the rules over public projects, despite Qualls' rosy predictions, haven't changed.
The city will spend $11.8 million to build the 950-space garage and will consider on Wednesday an additional $2.5 million to build 25 condominiums adjacent to the garage, a sizable investment compared to the $860,000 worth of land Kroger will donate to the project. Still, Kroger executives are calling the shots, including holding the city to a March 25, 2005, deadline for opening the garage.
Art Academy of Cincinnati leaders, who years earlier voted to spend $10.5 million to relocate to a new 120,000 square-foot home to Over-the-Rhine, and Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers, who remains committed to the theater company's Vine Street location, study garage renderings and stay abreast of the latest design changes.
Like the small business owners who continue to support Over-the-Rhine with their own money, they're conscientious observers with little or no impact on the proceedings.
The Art Academy might gain some exhibition space on the garage's first floor, but they'll have limited access to garage parking spaces. Meyers might have concerns about a massive concrete garage rising across the street and casting her front door in dark shadows, but there's nothing she can do about it. Just like Broadway Commons, the ultimate decisions are out of her league.
Meanwhile, Tarbell, a modern day Don Quixote who tilts at garages instead of windmills, remains convinced that he's protecting the good citizens around him by making the Kroger garage his latest cause. He walks through a longstanding Over-the-Rhine coffeehouse with the latest garage renderings tucked under his arm, showing them to anyone who asks.
Compared to the Broadway Commons facade that stood at the junction of Broadway and Reading Road, the Kroger garage drawings lack pizzazz. The common people, the very Over-the-Rhine business leaders and residents Tarbell insists he protects, will watch while the garage rises despite their concerns.
The Kroger garage is Broadway Commons déjà vu -- public money being spent with little to no concern for the public's interest.
Tarbell is lucky he's not running for re-election this fall.