Despite opposition, FC Cincinnati and city council zero in on West End

Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld today announced a deal that could bring an FCC stadium to the West End

Cincinnati's West End - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati's West End

Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld today held a news conference in the West End to announce a deal that seems likely to bring FC Cincinnati's privately financed $200 million stadium to the neighborhood.

The deal comes despite months of opposition to the stadium from many community groups in and near the West End, including a 50-10 vote against the facility by the West End Community Council.

Sittenfeld and Councilman David Mann's proposal would see the team paying an estimated $25 million in property taxes to Cincinnati Public Schools — a major sticking point in earlier negotiations — to build on the site of the district's Stargel Stadium, replace that stadium across the street and pay $100,000 a year in an as-yet-to-be negotiated community benefits agreement. The deal would also leverage land around the stadium currently owned by FCC to create more than 160 units of affordable housing worth roughly $15 million in private investment.

The city would be on the hook for about $34 million in infrastructure improvements to move gas, sewer and water lines, as well as pay for road improvements, site preparation and 750 parking spaces.

With Sittenfeld and Mann backing the plan, it seems likely to have the five votes necessary to pass through Cincinnati City Council.

"This agreement will codify what it means to be a good neighbor, and because of its importance, we’re not going to rush it,” Sittenfeld said. “City Council will be the official convener in the weeks and months ahead to get the details right for how the neighborhood and this development can move forward in a way that is truly synergistic.”

Not everyone on council is on board, however. Council members Tamaya Dennard and Greg Landsman released statements critical of the deal.

"My priority from bay one has and will remain the residents of the West End," Dennard said in an email. "I want Cincinnati to become a Major League Soccer city. I’ve enjoyed attending FC Cincinnati games. But I don’t think it should come at such a great expense to the taxpayers.  Our city is struggling with many challenges that need our resources and attention, two of which are adequate affordable and income-based housing. This notion that we should continue to subsidize big business on such a large scale and wait for it to trickle down to the working class is antiquated and factually untrue.  When we look at the disparities in our city of race and class, we have to remember that it’s decisions like these that create and perpetuate inequity."

Sittenfeld and Mann were joined by former Mayor Mark Mallory, whom the team hired to do community engagement. Mallory called the deal the largest single investment ever made in the West End. African American Chamber of Commerce President Eric Kerney, players and coaches from the West-End based Little Senators and others were also present.

West End Community Council President Keith Blake praised the deal.

"This could be the beginning of a bright future," he said. Blake told reporters that the relationship between the neighborhood and team would need to evolve as they work together.

Blake presided over a committee of the West End Community Council that somewhat controversially submitted a “framework” for a community benefits agreement with the team after the vote against the stadium by the council’s general body.

Not everyone in the West End shares Blake's optimism.

Census data shows that the neighborhood's median household income is less than $15,000 a year, and that more than 3,000 of the neighborhood's residents live below the poverty line. Another 1,300 live above poverty level but still well below the income needed to comfortably afford the city's average rent, which has hovered around $1,000 a month in recent months.

The neighborhood contains roughly 1,000 units of rental housing locked into long-term affordability due to ownership by Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority or because they were built by private developers like The Community Builders using Low Income Housing Tax Credits. Another 370 units are cooperatively owned and unlikely to increase dramatically in price.

The gap between subsidized affordable housing available in the neighborhood and the number of residents who can't afford the usual market rate rents has fueled concerns by some residents and community advocates that a stadium could raise property values and displace low-income West Enders.

"Everything is showing us that's what's going to happen," resident Tabitha Dornal told CityBeat in February about potential changes to the neighborhood. "The new restaurants and bars on Vine Street (in neighboring Over-the-Rhine) — we go to those places, we can kind of afford them sometimes, but none of this stuff is going to help us. We'd love to have our neighborhood fixed up, but why can't it happen for us? Why does it need to be fixed up because of a stadium?"

Concerns about displacement could have some factual basis. Studies suggest that while stadiums don't generally provide an economic boost to regions in terms of new development or long-term job creation, they do tend to correlate with rising property values, which can in turn raise property taxes and rents.

A number of resident associations for West End apartment communities like Stanley Rowe Towers, City West, Liberty Apartments and Regal Manor, organized by stadium opponents and claiming to represent half of the neighborhood’s roughly 6,000 people, have also expressed strong opposition to the stadium in a recent statement.

“We remain solidly against the location of an FC Cincinnati stadium in the West End neighborhood because we know that this would lead to the further gentrification of our neighborhood and the displacement of ourselves and many of our neighbors from our neighborhood,” a statement from the resident associations’ presidents reads.

In addition to the West End Community Council's vote opposing the stadium, the Over-the-Rhine Community Council has also voiced opposition. OTRCC  says its wishes had been ignored by the team, and that its questions and invitations to come to community council meetings sent to FCC had gone unanswered.

"These is a dense residential neighborhood just about 200 feet from the proposed stadium site," a statement from the community council sent today reads, referring to the stadium's proposed location on Central Parkway. "The Over-the-Rhine Community Council voted to oppose the West End stadium proposal at its March membership meeting, following the lead of the West End Community Council."

FC Cincinnati announced April 5 it will not go forward with a stadium in Oakley, and a deal with site owner Corporex hasn’t come together for the team’s potential Newport location, according to FCC officials. That leaves the West End, where FCC President Jeff Berding and co. have been working overtime on a last-minute deal after blowing through the latest March 31 deadline, which Berding says was set by Major League Soccer. The team is competing with Sacramento and Detroit for an MLS expansion franchise.

“Experience shows that successful MLS teams have stadiums in the urban core. While we believe in Oakley, it is not as close to the urban core as desired,” the statement reads. “We do not believe Oakley is the best fit for a move into MLS at this time.”

In the statement, FCC acknowledged opposition to the stadium in the West End.

Despite the opposition, Berding said that the team is committed to making something work. The team’s statement cites “nearly three months” of work engaging the West End. The team participated in a number of public hearings held by CPS and community groups, Berding points out in the statement.

Recently, the team entered into a spirited back and forth with the Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education about property taxes — CPS passed a resolution saying the team will need to pay its fair share of taxes in order to build its stadium on the site of the district’s Stargel Stadium. The district's estimated number — $2 million a year — was more than the team could accept, FCC officials said.

“While we have yet to achieve necessary political support to advance plans for a privately financed stadium in the West End, we continue to engage elected leaders in Cincinnati to build a winning partnership here in the city,” FCC's statement reads.

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