Convention Wisdom: Once Again, There's No Plan


Jul 29, 1999 at 2:06 pm

There seems to be little doubt that Cincinnati's next major public investment will be an expansion of the Delta/Sabin Convention Center. As with most tax-and-spend projects, without the benefit of a coordinated downtown masterplan, "conservative" organizations like the Republican Party and The Cincinnati Enquirer have eagerly endorsed this huge public expenditure.

In fact, this project might be a prudent investment for the citizens of our region. Still, there is plenty of reason to doubt its effectiveness.

The big money folks in this town have proven their ability to sell to us whichever pet projects they wish. Despite substantial resources, our ability to plan these important projects is embarrassingly inferior to their ability to market them.

Consider the "rebirth" of our riverfront. We're spending roughly $1 billion, yet there is no corresponding downtown plan. Yes, we will have two stadia, an Underground Railroad Freedom Center, parking garages, a multimodal transit hub, etc. But after three years of "planning" and millions of dollars spent on study after study, there is no working plan. Our $1 billion riverfront is being stitched together totally on the fly.

Lately we found out that, after the years of "planning," even as construction continues, there is no plan to accommodate the Firstar Center and its 1.9 million annual patrons. We will have a new "regional" multimodal transit hub on the riverfront, without facility to handle all the modals we're told to expect. There is simply not room for "regional" high-speed rail.

The produce industry is gone, the last remaining historic buildings have been demolished and parking rates are soaring. Contractors have been paid large sums of taxpayer cash for mysterious and undefined "consulting" work. Minority contracts have been suspiciously misrepresented. And, finally, county officials have suggested that, well, maybe we should have some kind of audit of the stadium projects. We should not be proud of three football practice fields on prime riverfront real estate.

Since the Firstar Center is ugly and inappropriate for the new piecemeal riverfront — it really belongs to the previous generation's piecemeal riverfront — we should make enough room for the Reds' ballpark (suggested name: Taxpayer Park) by demolishing this white elephant with the tacky green hue, formerly know as The Crown and Riverfront Coliseum. Incorporating a new arena in the convention center expansion project would cost just a little extra, maybe only $200 million — hardly anything in Hamilton County dollars — and would solve a host of problems. The new baseball stadium might actually fit nicely on the riverfront, and there might be room enough for the transit hub, the parking, the promised green space and the rest of our new, but as yet unplanned, tourist trap riverfront.

Maybe the proposed low-rise development parcels can be designed to reflect the actual low-rise buildings we demolished 30 years ago to allow for riverfront development. It might actually work. If we only had a plan.

Truth is open to interpretation, but it seems clear the planning process has run amuck. The vibrant downtown, the strong regional center everyone wants, is never going to materialize until we earnestly address some fundamental realities about cities of character. Downtown will never be perceived as prosperous, exciting and vibrant — dare I say cosmopolitan — until we have 35,000 downtown residents and we learn to value and capitalize on the unique "character" of our extraordinary historic architecture.

Business and government leaders must realize that all of the airports, corporate headquarters, convention centers, fancy department stores and stadia in the world will not elevate Cincinnati above the mediocrity which defines the modern consumption of the American landscape.

Forget Beacon Hill, Georgetown, Greenwich Village, Lincoln Park, Lo-Do, San Antonio's riverwalk, German Village, Charleston and Savannah. Forget character, forget the genuine — what we need is a charming downtown strip mall with plenty of free parking ... and, of course, Nordstrom's.

ANDREW LAURENS is a Cincinnati design professional who's concerned with urban development issues.