Contractors working on FC Cincinnati's coming $250 million West End soccer stadium presented details about the facility at a Cincinnati Planning Department staff conference, and attendees had plenty of questions.
The takeaway: Don't expect discussions over the stadium to get any less contentious soon.
City and team-affiliated officials presented new information about likely street closures, the possible demolition schedule of at least one building close to the stadium, changes to the Central Parkway bike lane, brief overviews of light and sound studies and other details.
Meanwhile, some attendees raised questions about the fate of four residents in buildings the team purchased earlier this year. Those residents have expressed frustrations with construction surrounding their buildings and the slow process of relocation to other housing in the West End. Critics say the team shouldn't receive an expanded zoning change request until residents who live in the expanded area have relocated.
Finally, not all questions about the stadium have been answered, especially around the location of a county-built parking garage and the resolution of tension between the team and Cincinnati Ballet, which is just north of the stadium site, and with the Cincinnati Arts Association, which is still concerned about possible noise impacts of the stadium at nearby Music Hall.
The team has applied for a 1.2-acre expansion of its request for a zoning change for the area occupied by the stadium. That expansion would encompass land just north of the stadium site up to Wade Street that is currently occupied by a now-vacant Jehovah's Witness kingdom hall and an apartment building with a few remaining residents, as well as some vacant land owned by the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority. FC Cincinnati is in negotiations to purchase those plots.
Representatives from Elevar, the design firm working with the team on the stadium, and with Turner Construction, the stadium's construction contractor, indicated that the team wishes to use the space as a surface parking lot in the near future. Demolition on the Jehovah's Witness site could be done in the coming month, a representative from Turner said. A confidential agreement between residents of 421 Wade St. would keep the team from demolishing that building and another outside the zoning request at 1559 Central Ave. until all residents have found housing elsewhere or by the Jan. 31 deadline.
At the start of the hour-and-a-half-long meeting, Greg Otis of Elevar ran through the stadium's major architectural features, as well as crowd flow, lighting and sound issues. Otis said that sound and light studies commissioned by the team found minimal disruption to the surrounding neighborhood due to sound or light pollution coming from the stadium, though some residents nearby in Over-the-Rhine have questioned that assertion.
The bulk of the stadium's crowd will come in through a grand stairway on Central Parkway, Otis said.
"The stadium is anticipated to have about 26,000 seats," Otis said. "Nearly half of those folks — 13,000 to 15,000 or so — will be ascending those steps and entering that plaza. There will also be a gate entrance to the south and north sides."
That massive entryway could require a change to the city's existing Central Parkway bike lane, the city says. The current proposal would be to bring the bike lane up to the level of the sidewalk on either side to provide a wider place for game attendees to stand as they wait.
"The idea of this is that... if all of that is brought up to one level, effectively we get to provide more walking surface as all these folks are culminating at the bottom of the stairs before they ascend up the steps," Otis said. "That's where the sidewalk needs to be the widest. This gives us the opportunity to get that width without creating a trip hazard by bringing the cycle track up to the same level as the sidewalk."
The bike lane is on city-owned right-of-way. The city's Department of Transportation and Engineering would have the final decision about changes to the lane.
Not everyone was thrilled with that idea.
"On game day there won't be a bike lane," Over-the-Rhine resident Margy Waller said at the meeting. "You won't be able to use it, because there are 13,000 people walking across it."
Waller said she is not only concerned that large crowds will likely make the bike lane unusable during game days, but also that pedestrians might simply use the lane as a sidewalk on off-days as well.
Otis pointed out that a shared bike and pedestrian walkway currently exist in other places in the city, including further up on Central Parkway.
"The bike lane would exist," Otis said. "I didn't say it would be easy. I said it wouldn't be closed. People do what they want to do, but from a design perspective, it is a best practice."
Another idea that has in the past drawn some pushback — closing Central Parkway from Ezzard Charles to Liberty Street on game days — is likely moving forward, according to police officials.
Cincinnati Police Sergeant Timothy Fritz said that large crowds coming to and from OTR and safety concerns about possible violent acts, including bombings, would require closures of the street, likely two hours before games and an hour afterward. Fritz also mentioned that John Street on the stadium's western edge would likely be closed as well during those time periods.
"FC Cincinnati has not asked for any road closures," he said. "The road closures you've heard about are road closures that the police department feels are going to be necessary to implement the strategy of maintaining safety for the residents, businesses and people attending the games at the stadium on game day. Based on these issues and scenarios that are being presented at this time, I don't see how, on game day, I can leave Central Parkway open."
Officials say they expect traffic will be re-routed around to Linn Street.
Fritz also mentioned potential parking restrictions around the stadium. Those might require closure of streets nearby, with residents showing a driver's license or utility bill to gain access to parking on their streets.
Exceptions would be made for people who work or live on Central Parkway, Fritz said.
Some attendees brought up the fact that Cincinnati City Council opposes the closure of Central Parkway.
"They do, but city council doesn't dictate how public safety is done," Fritz said. "That's up to the police chief."
Residents who still live in the two buildings purchased by the team earlier this year attended the meeting, as did several of their advocates.
"With respect to the area just north of the construction site that is part of this request — people still live there," said Cincinnati Legal Aid Society Director John Schrider. "They're looking for other housing, but they want to stay in or near the West End, and they're doing their best to move. But they're concerned that the place they're living in right now is being rezoned. What does that mean for them?"
Schrider also had wider concerns, which he says are propped up by a housing study paid for by FC Cincinnati and completed by Atlanta-based APD Planning. That study is soon to be released, but some preliminary results suggest that more than a quarter of the West End's 6,600 residents are "extremely threatened" by potential displacement. The area has a median income of less than $15,000 a year and, according to the housing study, 87 percent of residents there are renters. Roughly 44 percent of the neighborhood's rental housing stock is market-rate, APD's study says.
"The result of this development is that many residents in the West End are facing displacement," Schrider said. "We need to be asking ourselves bigger questions about what the City of Cincinnati is doing to prevent displacement? What is FC Cincinnati doing to prevent displacement? What is CMHA doing to prevent displacement in the West End? Some might say that's not on the agenda today, but it should be."
James Weaver, Cincinnati Department of City Planning, says the city is looking at how to prevent displacement. Among the possibilities: a TIF (tax increment financing) district could be created by the city that could potentially be used for housing.
"One of the things we are beginning to work out with the West End Community Council is a tax increment financing district that would cover a sizable portion of the neighborhood for public improvements," he said. "We're starting those conversations now; we're not just standing idly by."
Schrider asked if another proposal around zoning incentives for the creation of affordable housing was also under consideration. Cincinnati City Council member David Mann has proposed legislation to that effect, as well as an interim development control (IDC) district put in place to provide extra checks on demolitions or other activity until the completion of a study about how those incentives could be accomplished.
That proposal has gotten some pushback from a group of homeowners in the West End, who say that the neighborhood already has too much subsidized housing. Letters to the city protesting the proposal express worries about increased crime, litter and other problems if more affordable housing is built.
The city is mulling Mann's proposal, city planning staff say.
"I believe that is something we will be looking at," Weaver said. "It's all on the table."
The remaining residents at the Wade Street and Central Avenue sites, however, say they're growing impatient with the process.
"This should have already been looked at," resident Crystal Lane said. "I'm one of those residents. While you all are looking at stuff, I'm looking to move. I doubt it will be in the West End because I've been looking for something since February and I haven't found anything. I still live here. You all are parking your work trucks there. You should respect that we're still there as much as we're respecting your request that we move."