Council Approves Land Swap With FC Cincinnati, Delays Zoning Approval

It will likely be another week at least before Cincinnati City Council signs off on the last approval for FC Cincinnati's $250 million soccer stadium

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

Cincinnati City Council today passed a key approval for FC Cincinnati's coming West End stadium, but held off on another vital green light for the $250 million facility.

While the city will sell public land in the stadium's footprint to the team, council held off on approving a zoning change needed for stadium construction.  A dispute between the Cincinnati Ballet and the team as well as a displaced West End business owner both remain up in the air as the team moves toward a March 2021 opening for its new Major League Soccer facility.

Council could vote again next week if solutions present themselves to those situations.

Mayor John Cranley last week presented council with a deal that deeds FC Cincinnati city-owned land appraised at $1.6 million. That deal passed council today 7-0, but getting there wasn’t simple.

The land has been a sticking point between council and the team, which had originally asked that the city give it a portion of a parking lot north of Cincinnati Police District 1 Headquarters and part of Central Avenue for one dollar. Council balked at that.

Cranley’s deal gives FC Cincinnati that land for a dollar, but would net the city some extras in exchange.

Some council members, however, questioned how much value the deal brings to the city.

The largest part of the deal is the promise of $400,000 a year until 2031 in ticket admissions taxes from stadium events. Anything over that would be put into development efforts around the stadium — potentially a new garage at the Town Center garage site on the corner of Ezzard Charles Drive and Central Parkway.

A revised version of the deal dictates that proceeds above $5 million will go into the city's general fund.

FC Cincinnati says ticket sales at Nippert Stadium generate about $250,000 in admissions taxes a year, though ticket prices will rise when the team joins Major League Soccer.

At a Feb. 11 Budget and Finance Committee meeting, council member P.G. Sittenfeld said that that the team estimates it will generate about $370,000 a year in ticket tax revenue should it sell out every game.

But council member Chris Seelbach has said the city will likely see that much in ticket tax revenue without the deal in coming years as the team ups its ticket prices, and that the guarantee the team is offering doesn't add up to much value for the city.

The other extras on offer center around the Town Center Garage across Ezzard Charles Drive. Those include payments from the team of about $55,000 a year to replace parking revenue lost when officers begin parking at the garage just south of CPD headquarters, up to $750,000 from FCC to add a 67-space parking lot near that garage, and another $300,000 to help move an evidence processing unit from CPD District 1 to District 3.

The team will also lease spaces in that garage from the city starting at $150,000 a year until 2025, when the cost would increase every two years.

In return for all of that, the team gets the roughly one acre in parcels from the city and the first rights to buy the land occupied by CPD District 1 if the city decided to sell it.

However, the city likely stands to get more money if it keeps the garage under its control on game days and sets parking prices itself. It stands to make slightly more than the $150,000 a year if it charged its current special events rate of $10, and could up the price to $20 — a level the team is rumored to be considering.

Also worrisome for some members of council — a provision that would stick employees of public radio and others nearby with game day rates on days FCC has control of the garage, even if they have monthly passes.

Seelbach says the deal seems better than the initial ask by the team, which faced dubious prospects in council. But he said he still wasn’t satisfied with it.

“Looking at what we have before us and being expected to vote on it on Wednesday, this is a mess,” he said Feb. 11.

Meanwhile, the fate of West End business owner Monica Williams’ soul food restaurant Just Cookin’ is still up in the air. Williams, along with two other businesses and one resident, had to relocate late last year from their rented spaces in the State Theater, which is in the stadium’s footprint. Those businesses originally got $20,000 from FC Cincinnati, which they said would not be enough to reestablish themselves at new locations.

FC Cincinnati has pledged to provide another $50,000, pay Williams’ rent at a new location for two years and to help her find a new location in the West End, where she wants to remain. One location on Linn Street in the City West development seems promising, parties working on the situation agree, but Williams faces a $200,000 gap in terms of financing build-out there.

Supporters rallied outside of City Hall before council's vote. Williams, who has taken a third-shift job at Kroger to pay her bills, says she just wants to start cooking again.

"There's a misconception in this city that black businesses cannot thrive, but mine did for six years," Williams told council, saying she overcame a tough childhood to thrive as a restaurant owner.

Williams' situation illustrates a wider debate about development in Cincinnati, some council members argued, and brought up memories of residents displaced from the West End by urban renewal and others priced out of recently-trendy neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine.

Council member Tamaya Dennard said there is a way to do development more equitably, but stadium isn't it. She said that Williams had been used as "a pawn" in the stadium approval process.

Council member Wendell Young agreed, tying her situation to larger trends in development across the city, especially in neighborhoods like the West End, where more than 80 percent of residents are renters and where the median income is below $15,000 a year.

"The way we develop in these under-served neighborhood has got to change," he said.

But others had a different perspective. Council member Jeff Pastor said he believes the stadium is a great opportunity. Mayor John Cranley, a stadium supporter, agreed.

"I believe the stadium is great for the West End," he said. "It will reverse generations of inequity there."

Another potential snag in the stadium process seemed to work itself out today. A recently-released report showing that noise from the stadium could bleed into Music Hall’s Springer Auditorium and rehearsal spaces threatened to keep council from approving the stadium's needed zoning change. But FC Cincinnati President Jeff Berding Feb. 13 released a statement saying the team had come to an agreement with the Cincinnati Arts Association, which represents the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and other arts companies that perform at Music Hall.

"Pleased to announce we have reached agreement with Cincinnati Arts Association, CSO, Opera & other Arts organizations for Music Hall," Berding tweeted. "Carl H. Lindner III has signed, and we expect to have a fully executed agreement by 1:00 pm today."

But that's not the only wrinkle with arts organizations. There is still an ongoing dispute over the parking lot of the Cincinnati Ballet, which sits on the corner of Central Parkway and Liberty Street. The ballet, which holds a 17-year lease on the space owned by FC Cincinnati, last week sent council members a letter asking them to hold off on a vote until the situation is resolved. In that letter, an attorney for the ballet says that the team’s zoning variance request is invalid because it does not have complete control of the land for which it is seeking the zoning change.

""The Ballet has very different issues than Music Hall," a letter to council from the Ballet today says. "Again, all matters of concern remain unresolved. We ask that Council hold the PD to allow time for these negotiations to be completed."

The zoning variances passed through the city’s Planning Commission, which approved the team’s initial development plans for the six-story, 26,000-seat, 62,000-square-foot stadium last month.

One of the elements of the plan approved by the commission includes temporary closures of Central Parkway, a major artery downtown, during game days. Despite inclusion in the planning documents presented to the planning commission, approval of those closures would likely fall to the Cincinnati Police Department. Council members Chris Seelbach, Tamaya Dennard, Greg Landsman, P.G. Sittenfeld and Wendell Young have signed a motion that would oppose closures of the parkway.

Assistant City Manager John Juech says the city is considering whether to allow the closures, which he says may be necessary for safety reasons.

The zoning vote marks council’s last chance to have a say in the stadium’s design, which will go before the Planning Commission again for final approval. Some members of Over-the-Rhine Community Council have urged the city to hold off on voting to approve the zoning variance until more details about the plan, including traffic, road closures and noise mitigation, are made final.

Some West End residents near the stadium also have concerns about light, sound, traffic and other quality of life issues.

Earl Brown, who has lived on Bauer Avenue, just north of the stadium site for three decades, says he and his neighbors were never consulted about the coming facility.

“What impact will this have on residents on the street?” he asked last week. “No one has ever spoken to me or other residents about this."

The team and its contractors say the light and noise issues will be addressed at a later stage in the planning process, before its final designs are approved by the Cincinnati Planning Commission.

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