News: Riverfront Progress

New stadium, new parking; now comes the hard part

 


The work in progress that is Cincinnati's riverfront stalled a couple of times in 2000, but it's still running.

The volunteers who are the moving force behind The Banks — the proposed 24-hour neighborhood between the stadiums — spent a few months of 2000 waiting for the city and county to approve a new organization to build it. Meanwhile, project managers continued designing and building what might be the most complicated urban redevelopment project in the Midwest: two stadiums, a museum, a transit center, a 52-acre park, a reconfigured highway and apartments, offices and businesses over two levels of underground parking garages.

This year Paul Brown Stadium opened on time but more than $50 million over budget, while Great American Ballpark is facing potential overruns because of bids for concrete and steel contracts that were costlier than expected. The $147 million reconstruction of Fort Washington Way finished more or less on time, with one major ramp to still to come by spring 2001. And after months of sometimes contentious debate, the 16-member Riverfront Advisors Commission (RAC) essentially merged with the Hamilton County Port Authority for Brownfields Redevelopment. The new 18-member port authority is charged with both redeveloping old industrial sites and luring private dollars to The Banks, which the RAC proposed in late 1999 after months of public input.

Now that the organizations are in place, all that's missing is the money — to start, $78 million for a new park and about $40 million for three blocks of decks to cover Fort Washington Way, connecting the park to Third Street.

Port authority gets late start

This time last year, RAC members were trying to figure out who would build The Banks and how it might be financed. The Banks plan introduced in September 1999 was $52 million short of its estimated cost of $248 million.

The Total Riverfront Funding Plan was $177 million short, according to the RAC.

Although the finance question still needs an answer, the RAC concluded a port authority was the only way to effectively manage The Banks. A city-county effort would not create enough developer confidence in the project, considering the political disputes that often get in the way of city-county cooperation, the RAC believed. A port authority's tax-exempt status would also save several million dollars in construction costs.

But one port authority already existed — the county's Port Authority for Brownfields Redevelopment, formed a few years ago to handle old industrial sites. State law doesn't allow for a second simultaneous authority, so the existing one had to be reconfigured.

It wasn't easy to get Cincinnati City Council to agree on the new port authority's makeup. The proposal originally included powers of eminent domain, raising concerns about authority vested in an organization run by non-elected officials. A public hearing in September produced a list of more than two dozen questions about conflicts of interest, public records and meetings and minority participation. In a memo, County Administrator David Krings wondered if a port authority were even needed.

The city and county approved the new port authority with amendments assuring the body would obey Ohio's open-records and open-meetings laws, make minority participation a priority and not have power of eminent domain.

But the debate didn't stop there. The city and county, which each appointed nine of the port-authority board members, chose mostly RAC members, raising concern from those interested in brownfield redevelopment. Although board members have little experience in brownfields, everyone on the board is concerned about them, according to chairman Jack Rouse.

The port authority held its first meeting in a Cinergy boardroom at 7:30 a.m. — not the most convenient time for the public. Rouse says the authority chose Cinergy simply because the company offered the space. The port-authority board is scheduled to meet at Cinergy for the first three months of 2001, and could pick another location then. Rouse says he expects to hold special public meetings from time to time as The Banks progresses.

The port authority is taking shape quickly, naming Steve Love (vice president of Blue Chip Broadcasting) vice chairman and Tim Sharp (principal architect at Parsons Brinckerhoff) interim executive director. A search for a permanent director is in the early stages.

The No. 1 priority for The Banks in 2001 is issuing a request for proposals (RFP) — the document inviting developers to propose projects. Tom Humes, the RAC's finance expert and now a port-authority board member, hopes the RFP will be ready in April.

Humes says the RFP must answer a couple of questions. What role will the port authority play in building parking garages? How will the port authority use tax-increment financing, a way of paying for projects with future tax revenue from those projects?

Mike Brown directs parking

Parking is the foundation of riverfront redevelopment — literally. If The Banks is built, it will be over two levels of underground parking garages. But the overall riverfront needs the right number of spaces in the right places at the right times, or costs could climb.

One of the key factors is the Bengals' stadium contract. The contract calls for 3,260 spaces near the stadium this year, 4,110 in 2002 and more than 5,000 by 2004, according to Terry Evans, the county's assistant director of stadium development.

For The Banks to be built, about 1,800 of those spaces will have to be moved north of Third Street, possibly forming the foundation of up to three office towers. Bengals owner Mike Brown would have to approve that, and so far he has said nothing publicly about the idea, unveiled about 15 months ago. Brown won't comment until the port authority presents a specific proposal, according to Bengals spokesman Jack Brennan.

The Cincinnati Reds parking contract is still under negotiation, but Evans says the Reds will probably need more than 3,000 spaces.

If Brown disapproves or The Banks takes longer than expected, the Bengals' parking contract will take away much-needed construction room each year.

Evans says it will take one year to design the parking garages and another year to build them. But first planners need to know what The Banks will include so they don't build garages that are too strong or too weak.

"We can't build anything until we know what's going on top of it," Evans says.

In the short term, supporters of riverfront development are trying to get more workers to park south of Third Street, where more than 2,000 spaces that debuted in the fall sit empty. Moving downtown workers' cars to the riverfront would allow downtown visitors to use parking in the central business district.

Of 6,420 riverfront parking spaces, including the new East Garage and remaining Cinergy Field spaces, more than 4,000 are occupied, according to Jeff Jones, general manager of Central Parking.

Queen City Metro launched a new shuttle service, Parking Meeter, in early December. The 25-cent shuttle runs from the riverfront to Fourth Street 13 hours every weekday, with buses every five minutes during the morning and evening rush hours. So far up to 300 commuters a day are using the new shuttle, which can carry up to 4,700 riders daily, according to Metro spokesperson Sallie Hilvers.

Crossing a river of stone

While the port authority and football stadium grabbed most of the headlines in 2000, more than two years of construction on the Fort Washington Way project essentially ended late this year. All eight lanes of the reconfigured, narrowed highway are expected to be open Thursday. All nearby ramps will also be finished, except for one connecting northbound Interstate 471 to Third and Walnut streets, expected to open in late spring.

The riverfront street grid, funded half by the city and half by the county, reached its first milestone Dec. 18, when Theodore M. Berry Way opened. This moved Roebling Suspension Bridge traffic to Race Street, allowing workers to begin building a parking garage and transit center under the site of the proposed National Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center.

The transit center — designed to handle bus traffic and potential rail traffic — is expected to go to bid in January. Metro hopes to use it by Riverfest 2001, according to Hilvers.

The Freedom Center debuted in late 2000 — at least on paper. The actual museum isn't expected to open until spring 2004, according to Ernest Britton, assistant communications director.

This summer the museum backers reached the halfway point in their $90 million campaign. At year's end they had reached $62 million and in 2001 expect to reach their goal, split evenly between public and private funds.

Project designers included a symbolic stone river that must be crossed to reach the museum's three separate buildings, each of which will have curved walls, suggesting river banks.

Britton expects all museum contracts to go to bid in 2001 as the museum's exhibit and interior take shape. One of the key artifacts will be a shedlike wooden building from Northern Kentucky that once held slaves on their way to auction.

One of the most tense riverfront moments concerned the decks planned to cover Fort Washington Way. The decks needed pilings to support them, and in January the contractor with the piling machinery was finished with other work and ready to leave. If that happened, the decks and pilings would cost the city about $14 million more because of the tight construction space and because the city would have to pay to bring the machinery back. But the city didn't have the $10 million needed immediately.

City council debated past the contractor's deadline, Cincinnati City Manager John Shirey convinced the contractor to stay later and for a couple of days the pilings looked doomed. The tension ended in January with the city approving $10 million for the project after the county promised to chip in $2 million, as did a group of private businesses.

In riverfront-park news, Ohio granted $1 million for the project in the summer, which will allow designers to work on park details and hold public meetings in early 2001.

"It's going to be a busy year designing the park," says Dave Prather, Cincinnati park planner.

Although the city didn't get the $100,000 it sought from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2000, Prather believes federal funding will come eventually.

"We hope to get tens of millions of dollars of federal support for the park," he says.

But first the Corps has to conduct environmental, archeological and other surveys to make sure construction won't worsen flooding or cause ecological damage.

Meanwhile, design continues for a large fountain on an acre near the riverfront between Main and Race streets, and a full-size carousel is tentatively planned as well, Prather says.

When this park and the $8 million Theodore M. Berry Friendship Park are finished and connected to existing parks, the city will have a 2.75-mile stretch of parks along the riverfront.

Then come the lawsuits

This year voters put a Democrat, Todd Portune, on the county commission for the first time in 36 years, at least in part because of football-stadium cost overruns. How will this affect the riverfront projects, considering Portune campaigned on renegotiating the Bengals' stadium lease? It's anyone's guess.

Another unknown variable is lawsuits. At least three suits over riverfront projects are in the courts — one by Bengals' season-ticket holders upset about seat locations, one by a FWW contractor contesting city fines of $1,500 a day for late work on Second Street and one by Firstar Center over patron access. In October, Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman ruled the county harmed Firstar Center by breaking its parking contract in order to build Great American Ballpark. But Ruehlman delayed a ruling on damages.

The county immediately appealed the case, which heads to the Hamilton County First District Court of Appeals in mid-January for oral arguments.

So when might residents see The Banks begin to rise from the ground? The original plan outlined two phases, opening in 2003 and 2006, and the Freedom Center will open a year later than previously hoped. But Rouse isn't talking about specific dates.

"So much is influenced by market conditions," Rouse says.

Although Humes would have liked to be further along by now, he's not complaining. A project as complicated as this one always faces curve balls.

"I'm actually very pleased with where we are today," Humes says. ©

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