Garage or Opportunity?

Cincinnati is a city of downtown surface parking lots scattered across key sites, a pedestrian skywalk that ends in mid-air on the edge of Race Street, a major street halting beside the new basebal

Jan 21, 2004 at 2:06 pm

Cincinnati is a city of downtown surface parking lots scattered across key sites, a pedestrian skywalk that ends in mid-air on the edge of Race Street, a major street halting beside the new baseball stadium, an unfinished downtown retail building awaiting its top floors — and the dreams of what these half-realized structures might become. The development fantasies are elaborate: apartment buildings, retail stores and — looking at the sprawling riverfront lot amidst the stadiums and the rising National Underground Railroad Freedom Center — an entire new neighborhood built from scratch.

One key dream involves surface parking lots at the corner of Vine Street and Central Parkway. At a June 2003 street fair celebrating successful fund-raising by the Art Academy of Cincinnati in its campaign to buy and renovate two Over-the-Rhine buildings for its new home, Councilman Jim Tarbell described the spot as "where the Over-the-Rhine renaissance continues or comes to a crashing halt."

Six months after the Art Academy's summertime celebration, Tarbell has the chance to turn development fantasy into concrete reality. In September 2003, Cincinnati City Council approved a deal to build a city garage on the northeast corner of the intersection of Vine Street and Central Parkway. Tarbell's current campaign is to convince fellow council members to approve the additional funding necessary for the garage to become more than just a garage.

"What's most important for me is how it progresses as a development and not just a garage," Tarbell says, speaking recently from his City Hall office while an Urban Design Review meeting in another room considers the project's latest renderings.

Tarbell envisions housing along the Vine Street side of the garage project, perhaps 25 units, and some space for first-floor retail.

"I wanted to have housing on the Central Parkway side, but the chance for that is minimal due to costs and the fact that drawings have already been completed," he says.

"Now I need to get my colleagues to agree on the funding gap for the housing."

The relocation of the Art Academy to Over-the-Rhine represents the most significant investment in the historic neighborhood in recent years: $10.5 million for a new 120,000-square-foot home for students and faculty. Yet the new garage for Kroger has little to do with the Art Academy and its investment in the neighborhood. As is often the case with city-funded projects, a member of the corporate community carries the power and influence.

While Art Academy leaders were raising money for their Over-the-Rhine relocation, Kroger executives threatened to take their 1,200 downtown workers outside the city unless funding was approved to help build a garage for employees' daytime parking needs. Like many City Hall deals, the process has been complicated and politically charged, involving land owned by Kroger and a structure that reverts to Kroger ownership after debts are paid.

Still, after debate and compromises, the Kroger garage will be built by a March 2005 deadline.

The undecided factors include the garage's final plans and, more importantly, how the parking spaces will be divided between Kroger and its surrounding neighbors, the Art Academy and Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC).

ETC Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Myers is busy in rehearsals for A Lesson Before Dying, a story set in 1940s Cajun Country about a young innocent man on Death Row and a schoolteacher hired to "teach him to die like a man." Still, she continues to think about the impending garage at the theater's front door.

Myers admits that ETC is in a good position to bargain with Kroger since the theater needs parking in the evening. Her main concern is where ETC patrons will park during the garage's construction — right now they use the surface lots.

Art Academy President Greg Smith faces greater challenges. He needs daytime spaces for students and faculty, and he's uncertain how many, if any, of the garage's spaces will be available to his organization.

For the moment, Tarbell is pushing to complete the garage's design.

"I'm focusing on how bold a look it should have," he says. "It should look like a gateway. I'm thinking something along the ghost of Gaudi or a type of curtain, a medallion or a piece of sculpture that announces, 'This as an arts district.' "

These design ideas all require money. The Art Academy, a small private college, has already paid a princely sum for its new digs. Will Kroger follow suit?