Cincinnati City Council Gives What is Likely Its Final Approval for FC Cincinnati's West End Stadium

Last-minute deals between FC Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Ballet and displaced West End restaurant Just Cookin' convinced council to approve a zoning variance the team needs to move forward with its $250 million stadium.

click to enlarge Cincinnati's West End - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati's West End

Cincinnati City Council today voted 7-0 to approve a zoning variance FC Cincinnati needs to move forward with its $250 million soccer stadium in the West End.

A last-minute, $1 million deal "good neighbor" agreement between the team and the Cincinnati Ballet as well as another, smaller agreement between the team and displaced restaurant Just Cookin' both paved the way for those votes — likely the last council weigh-in needed as stadium construction moves forward.

But the process ahead isn't exactly all nailed down yet, either.

"There's no end date when it comes to being a good neighbor," Council member P.G. Sittenfeld said of the agreements. " It's a permanent mindset, and I look forward to these many valued organizations and individuals continuing to support one another. This is a complex development and these were not easy negotiations; I am proud of the work that was undertaken this week by the many, many stakeholders to get us to a better place."

Though the vote was unanimous — council members Chris Seelbach and Christopher Smitherman were excused — there was plenty of discussion about the city's policies around development, especially as they relate to low-income people and minority-owned businesses.

The Ballet and FC Cincinnati were at odds over the Ballet's location, especially the parking lot to the south of its building. The property is owned by the team, but the Ballet holds a 17-year lease on it. The team wanted to build on the lot, but the Ballet objected, also raising concerns about noise and other issues from the stadium.

Today, just 45 minutes before council met, the two announced they had reached a deal. Part of that 17-page agreement stipulates that the team will provide $1 million for noise mitigation should experts attest to that need. If noise mitigation isn't needed, the Ballet could use the money toward building costs for a new location. The team will also provide gates and signage for the Ballet's parking lot.

"As of approximately 1:15pm today, The Cincinnati Ballet has signed a good neighbor agreement with FC Cincinnati," the Ballet said in a statement. "This good neighbor agreement protects the integrity of Cincinnati Ballet for the next seventeen years should we remain at our current location on the corner of Central Parkway, as the Agreement addresses many of our issues relating to parking, access, noise, operations, and others. Should the Ballet ultimately decide to relocate, this agreement helps us to work in good faith with the leadership of FC Cincinnati over the coming weeks to determine a mutually beneficial solution, prior to the approval of FC Cincinnati’s final development plan."

Council also voted 6-1 to approve $75,000 in relocation assistance for Just Cookin', which stood in the footprint of the coming stadium until late last year.

The city money for Williams is part of a larger package. While both the team and restaurant owner Monica Williams declined to discuss a deal between them, the team will reportedly offer $150,000 on top of an earlier $20,000. That money, designed to help Williams find a new location in the West End, will go into a trust held by the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio.

In the meantime, the Port of Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority will provide a food truck from which Williams can cook.

Williams says she wants to get back to cooking "as soon as possible," but in the short term will need to balance a commitment to a third-shift job at Kroger she found to pay her bills. All but one of her eight employees have found other employment since the restaurant closed in late November.

The deal ends months of uncertainty for Williams.

"I feel hopeful and blessed," she said after the vote, praising community activists and city council members who helped her. "I got kind of worn down toward the end of the fight, but with so many people on my side, I knew we were going to make it. Overall, people wanted to help out. I didn't know Cincinnati is capable of so much love and support. My eyes are wide open."

Though it passed with a veto-proof majority, not everyone was thrilled with the way the assistance for Williams came about.

Council member Amy Murray voted against the ordinance, though she acknowledged it was poised to pass. Murray says she supports Williams, but thinks her former landlord, Lighthouse Worship Center, should be the one paying to help her relocate and that the city shouldn't be taking money out of its reserve fund. Though he voted for the assistance, Murray's fellow Republican Council member Jeff Pastor echoed Murray's concerns.

Other skeptics across the ideological spectrum feel similarly. Some progressive-minded critics say that the team or Williams' landlord, not taxpayers, should be shouldering the burden of making Williams whole and that paying to help her relocate amounts to more "public subsidy for the stadium.

The church received a deal reportedly worth $6 million for the State Theater on Central Avenue that contained Just Cookin', a convenience store and a barber shop that proprietor Jason Briers lived above. All had to move.

Williams said she hoped there would still be help coming for the Briers brothers, who ran the barber shop and convenience store in her building, and indicated she believed the team was working to try and provide assistance.

Mayor John Cranley agreed with Murray, noting that he believes the city should stick to subsidizing arts and entertainment, housing development and office space and shouldn't get involved in funding retail businesses because they are too risky. Cranley cited past examples of retail businesses that sought city help, including Clifton Market, as reasons why it isn't a good idea for taxpayers to fund them.

Cranley and Murray's opposition set off a discussion about the city's development policies.

"This is a really important debate," said Councilmember Greg Landsman, who put together the deal for Just Cookin'. "if you want to see real growth, you have to make sure as many people can participate as possible. You want to design policy that, no matter who you are, if you are talented and committed you can be successful."

Council member Tamaya Dennard blamed many of the city's development policies for large wealth inequalities in Cincinnati and said if the city was willing to provide $34 million in infrastructure help for FC Cincinnati but not give Williams $75,000, it was "making a statement."

“There are reasons we have such big disparities in wealth here in Cincinnati," she said.

While the team likely won't need any more council votes for its stadium plan, it must go back before the Cincinnati Planning Commission to get approval for its finalized stadium plans. The team is gunning to get the stadium finished before the start of the 2021 Major League Soccer season.

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