If there's been a single positive theme throughout the long, tortuous stadium-building process here — something that's given taxpayers reassurance that our money is going to a greater good — it was the pledge from county politicians that the effort isn't simply about new ballparks. It's about revitalizing the riverfront, reconnecting downtown and re-energizing the Tristate region.
The new Bengals and Reds stadiums, we were told over and over again, would reward our sales tax investment with multiple spin-off effects, from tons of new jobs to wonderful development around the facilities. The stadiums would be world-class, sure, but nothing more or less than cornerstones for a bigger, better Cincinnati in the 21st century.
Once again, however, stadium reality has failed to live up to the hype.
Designs for the new Reds facility unveiled last week utterly fail to connect the ballpark with anything downtown. The stadium itself, in fact, is hidden behind huge warehouse-like buildings that are to host Reds administrative offices and a team hall of fame.
To anyone walking on street level nearby, the new stadium will appear only as upper deck seats and light poles peeking above four-story brick buildings. Add a little barbed wire on top, and the whole thing would look like a prison.
So let's finally retire The Wedge name for the stadium site.
My suggestion for a new name: The Pen, as in the Penitentiary.
Sure, the stadium's interior seems great. There's no need to nit-pick the layout suggested by HOK Sport, the country's premier ballpark designers. Grass, dirt, a huge scoreboard, luxury suites and 42,000 close-in seats all sound pretty good.
But the poorly planned stadium exterior, the lack of public space and how the whole project fits into the riverfront and the rest of downtown is a major disappointment. The Reds design is HOK's first real clinker since Comiskey Park in Chicago — although its plan for Pittsburgh's new PNC Park doesn't do much for me either.
Here's the main sticking point: The vast majority of Hamilton County residents who are paying for the Reds stadium will never step inside the ballpark, so the interior amenities don't mean jack to them. All they'll ever see is the outside — and its design has effectively walled off the stadium from them.
It's clear from HOK's renderings that four-story buildings are envisioned for the block across Main Street from the stadium, whether or not that area ever becomes The Banks. Why not put the Reds offices and hall of fame there and truly open the ballpark to the public? If there were more space on the site, the buildings could have been moved behind the left-field scoreboard as HOK did in Pittsburgh.
But the site doesn't have any more space. Ultimately, that's the bottom line, isn't it?
Make no mistake — the dots are easy to connect:
· County officials, offering no details whatsoever, sold the public on passing a sales tax hike to build new stadiums that would spawn "the rebirth of the riverfront" and downtown.
· Backed by influential local business leaders, officials demanded that both stadiums go on the central riverfront.
· The Bengals, threatening to leave town, took the plum position west of the Roebling Suspension Bridge; the Reds got squeezed into what became known as The Wedge.
· HOK, hamstrung by a small site footprint and by a strict $280-million budget, came up with a stadium that looks like a prison and isn't integrated at all into the riverfront or downtown.
· The local mainstream media immediately got on the bandwagon, creating conventional wisdom that the design met our needs. (Sample coverage: A front-page Cincinnati Post story that quoted four positive public comments and three negative ones featured the headline "Fans on ballpark: 'It's awesome'.")
· The average taxpayer, beleaguered by constant and total bungling of the stadium projects, breathed a sigh of relief and said, "Well, I'm glad the Reds finally have a home."
Given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to remake Cincinnati's "front door" with $1 billion in public funds, our political leaders have fumbled the ball. When they might have sought truly visionary urban planning, they settled for mediocrity.
That's their legacy. Unfortunately, with the blasé Reds stadium design, it's our legacy as well. ©