Bank On It

Once-stalled Banks Project wins development award; leaders look ahead to new phases

Jan 16, 2013 at 10:17 am


ohn Deatrick calls it the “Oscar” of planning awards. The city-county Banks project executive seems genuinely excited and proud to be part of the riverfront project receiving the American Planning Association’s (APA) 2013 National Planning Excellence Award for Implementation, announced Jan. 9.

The award recognizes the project for converting “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,” according to APA’s website.

Deatrick recently described how the riverfront has been a thorn in Cincinnati’s side for literally centuries. When the city was first built in 1788, settlers ignored warnings from natives and established the city directly on the Little Miami riverfront, way below the flood line. The big exception was Fort Washington, which was set up deeply inland and above a flood line that had been previously established by the natives.

The flood did not wait long — it came in 1789, and settlers were forced to abandon the riverfront for higher land. Cincinnati has had multiple floods since then, and each has made the city more cautious of construction on the riverfront.

The Banks project is the first time in the modern era Cincinnati is taking on a comprehensive plan for the riverfront. Deatrick says until Banks development began, aerial shots made it seem like the city was “missing its teeth.” As he sees it, finishing The Banks project is all about filling in those teeth.

But The Banks project hasn’t been as simple as a trip to the dentist. There has been no shortage of ideas since the early 1800s, but the city has consistently faced two major hurdles: funding and collaboration. 

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Cincinnati and Hamilton County paved their own ways for The Banks. The county stuck to its stadium projects, and the city focused on roads.

“That was OK, but it was kind of dysfunctional,” Deatrick says. “We had a bunch of joint meetings, and we tried to stay out of each other’s way. But it really wasn’t a joint project.”

In 2006, the dysfunction came to an end. Bob Castellini, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, initiated a three-day summit for the city and county. The goal was to get Cincinnati and Hamilton County to commit to The Banks project, which officials laid out in a plan seven years earlier. By the end of the summit, the city and county reached an agreement, established a five-person panel headed by Castellini and the search began for a developer.

Bringing the moving pieces together made everything a lot easier. Not only did it make planning more streamlined, but it also let Cincinnati and Hamilton County combine grant money to boost overall funding. With the combined money and a more streamlined plan, the city and county were able to handle a true master plan for the riverfront.

There were also some lucky breaks along the way. While the Great Recession didn’t help, the city and county managed to land $24.7 million in stimulus funds as a result of it. “Needless to say, that helped a lot,” Deatrick says.

Today, anyone in Cincinnati can see the outcome of the mostly complete first phase of development by going down to the riverfront. What was once a muddy, barren parking lot is now filled with bustling businesses, claimed apartments, lively parks and a general sense of activity. The place is especially packed during Reds and Bengals home games, offering the types of bars and restaurants fans had been frequenting across the river before and after games since Newport on the Levee opened in 2001. 

But the first phase is only the beginning. Pointing to a map of The Banks area, Deatrick shows just how much room is left for construction, then begins explaining what’s planned for the future.

The second phase of the plan is partially underway, but construction won’t kick off until the spring. Once it’s completed, the riverfront should have new apartments, a parking garage, more parks and even a hotel. The city will also work on making the area look cleaner and more stylized, which will make it more inviting to visitors.

For each part of the plan, the idea is to iterate, Deatrick says. Every step should come out better than the last, as officials and planners learn from the previous mistakes.

But one remaining hurdle in the plan is what to do with Fort Washington Way. Deatrick says he understands some people see the freeway as a “divide” between downtown and the riverfront, even though he personally doesn’t see it that way. 

If the business community has its way, the divide will soon be closed off. The idea is to deck Fort Washington Way, or essentially build a roof over it. But it won’t be a simple, plain roof. On top of the roof, the city, county and businesses will be able to build parks and buildings. If this happens, Fort Washington way will become a tunnel, eliminating the chasm visually dividing downtown and The Banks.

For the decking, the city is leading an initiative called “Connect the Blocks,” which is currently focusing on a design competition. Fundraising will come at a later date.

Beyond making the Cincinnati riverfront look more attractive, The Banks development is having a big impact on the local economy. A University of Cincinnati economic impact study in May 2012 calculated some of the economic benefits. It said the first phase of the plan will produce $276 million each year once the hotel and office buildings are finished, or $2.7 billion between 2011 and 2020. That’s enough economic impact to directly create 1,400 jobs, according to the study.

The Banks development will also create more demand in other parts of town, which will have more customers for products and services in retail, restaurant supplies and other business services. That demand, which is seen as indirect job creation, will add another 1,000 jobs.

In total, the 2,400 jobs are expected to bring in about $81 million in earnings to Hamilton County, with 2,050 jobs, or $69 million in earnings, within Cincinnati.

The economic boost will also result in more tax revenues for the city and county, which could ultimately make the massive, award-winning project profitable for city and county coffers. ©