Cincinnati City Council Approves Cranley-Portune Deal for The Banks

The agreement comes after months of fighting between the city and the county over a music venue at The Banks.

click to enlarge A rendering of MEMI's music venue a The Banks - MEMI
A rendering of MEMI's music venue a The Banks

Cincinnati City Council today approved a deal between the city and Hamilton County around a music venue and other future projects at riverfront development The Banks.

Mayor John Cranley, who fought the county for months before working out a deal last weekend with Hamilton County Commission member Todd Portune, called the agreement a “win-win” in council today. Council must take at least two more votes around zoning at The Banks and an agreement with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which owns venue developer MEMI.

The agreement is the first step toward the county being able to green light MEMI's music venue, relocating Hilltop Basic Resources and delivering 3,200 surface parking spots promised to the Cincinnati Bengals in exchange for their approval of the music venue near Paul Brown Stadium. 

All of those points are important for the county because they allow it to delay many millions of dollars in stadium upgrades and other payments it would otherwise have to provide under its contract with the Bengals. 

In return, under the Cranley-Portune deal, the county wouldn't interfere with any city efforts to develop Lots 1 and 13 at The Banks, which are also near the stadium to the north. 

Previously, both the city and the county had to give joint approval for any development at The Banks via the Joint Banks Steering Committee. 

Earlier this month, the city proposed a new zoning plan for The Banks that would make things difficult for the county as it works to move forward with the MEMI venue under a tight timeframe ahead of a competing venue in Newport. Portune compared this to "a declaration of war" against the county by the city.

Cranley has long been critical of the deal struck by the county with the Bengals, saying it will cost taxpayers in the end and that the planned parking promised to the Bengals isn't a good use of land on the riverfront. The mayor also opposed development of the venue by MEMI, saying he preferred a competing plan by Columbus-based PromoWest, and wanted the venue built on Lot 24, where the Bengals have no say over the development's height.

But the deal between the mayor and Portune assuaged some of those concerns.

The broad outlines of the agreement:

• The city won't develop a lot it owns at Third Street and Central Avenue so that the county can use that through 2026 to provide some of the promised surface parking for the Bengals. 

• The county will get exclusive development rights over Lot 24, where Cranley has pushed to move MEMI's venue, and Lot 25. The city's recent zoning proposal excluded residential uses at those lots — something the county has wanted to do there since Lot 24 doesn't have the same height restrictions lots closer to Paul Brown Stadium have.

• The county will give the city the right to develop Lot 1 and Lot 13, keeping them from being used for surface parking. The Bengals will still have a say in the heights of buildings on those lots, but the county promises that any subsequent deals with the team won't impose more restrictive stipulations on those lots. Under the deal, the county would also construct a parking garage on the lots. TIF money from the lots would go toward paying off another garage on Lots 23 and 27, then would go toward the construction of the garage at Lots 1 and 13. After that, the TIF money would be split by the city and county.

• The city will work with the county to explore placing decks over Fort Washington Way.

• The city and county will explore a revenue-sharing agreement for proceeds from the SkyStar observation wheel attraction's lease at Lot 18 at The Banks. The city would use its portion of the proceeds for upkeep at Smale Riverfront Park.

Under the agreement, Cincinnati Planning Commission and Cincinnati City Council would still need to give final approval for MEMI's music venue. 

Council members mostly applauded the deal, saying it brings back to the city more control over the development process at The Banks.

“The city outsourced decision-making for one of our highest-impact, most strategic areas,” council member P.G. Sittenfeld said of the previous arrangement. “I think there are probably some lessons learned about when not to outsource the big decisions.”

Council member David Mann pointed out that there were still some details to be ironed out between the Cincinnati City Manager and the county’s representatives. Overall, however, he said he approved the deal.

“A few weeks ago I thought that this was not going to happen,” Mann said. “It’s good for the city, it’s good for the community.”

Councilmember Chris Seelbach said he’s not sold on the idea of the music venue, but expressed eagerness at the opportunity to bring more people to The Banks.

“I believe for The Banks to be successful, we need a lot more dense housing and office space,” he said. “I’m hoping that the lots we now control, when we’re looking at the development of them, we’re looking with the mind that we need more people living and working there 365 days a year.” 

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