News: Secret Plans for The Banks

Officials take steps to keep development drawings under wraps

Apr 11, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Christopher Smitherman wants more minority involvement in planning for The Banks.

A new design for a proposed housing and shopping district along Cincinnati's riverfront is being shown behind the scenes to area leaders by a developer interested in building the project, and one key official said he expects ground-breaking for the long delayed plan to happen this fall.

After years of relative inactivity, progress on The Banks project is starting to occur at a much quickened pace, although the public hasn't yet been informed about some of the latest developments.

Representatives of Atlanta-based AIG/Carter, the company selected last fall as the master developer for The Banks, have been privately showing mockups and design concepts for the project to various individuals during the past few weeks. To ensure the project is ready to go once a contract is finalized with AIG/Carter, drawings have been shown to the city's Urban Design Review Board (UDRB), but in a manner to keep the project away from public scrutiny for now.

The UDRB is a panel of five architects appointed by the city manager to look at plans for any major development planned downtown and to direct changes, if necessary, before the project goes through the city's permit approval process.

AIG/Carter and a Hamilton County advisory panel negotiating a contract with the developer is circumventing the public release of The Banks design by having one or two UDRB members look at the plans at a single time. By not having more members present, it doesn't constitute a quorum and isn't considered a public meeting.

City officials have instructed UDRB members not to discuss the plans with the media.

Not 'on the cheap'
Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune says he's unaware that AIG/Carter has been showing the design to the UDRB but acknowledges that he recently has seen it in an appointment with the developer.

"They look pretty good," Portune says.

"I have seen mockups and conceptual drawings. I wouldn't say anything I've seen looks like a finished project at all."

Proposed in 1999, The Banks is envisioned as a mix of condominiums, offices, shops and a hotel on 15 acres between the Reds and Bengals stadiums next to a large riverfront park. The project has stalled over funding and jurisdictional issues, particularly who will pay for up to $81 million in parking garages and other improvements needed to lift the development above the Ohio River flood plain. County sales tax revenues were supposed to pay for the garages but are far below initial projections.

About $200 million in taxpayer money is expected to be included in any financing plan for The Banks, which has an estimated price tag of about $800 million.

One point of contention has been the ratio of retail and office space in the project compared to housing and other uses. Portune declined to elaborate on what's included in the latest design.

"I don't know what the exact percentage is," he says. "They're all in there."

Some people who have seen the design privately complain that the project is facing financial constraints and doesn't live up to expectations for what's been touted as one of the prime pieces of real estate in the nation. They worry that county officials, under fire for years of delays, are pushing the project forward at any cost.

Portune denies that assertion, adding he's pleased with what he has seen so far.

"I'm not an architect, but I don't get a sense that it's being done on the cheap," he says.

The public likely will get to see the revamped Banks design at an unveiling tentatively scheduled for April 23.

No longer all white
Last week Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials relented after months of complaints and appointed two African Americans to the Banks Working Group, the advisory panel that selected AIG/Carter as developer and is negotiating a contract. When the group was created last year, city council and county commissioners appointed five white men to the panel, which worried groups such as the NAACP and some elected officials who wanted to ensure the project includes provisions for minority inclusion in contracting and hiring.

"It is unfair to use our federal, state or local public tax dollars and exclude the African-American community from The Banks project," says Christopher Smitherman, the local NAACP's president.

Original Banks Working Group appointees were Robert Castellini, Reds owner and board member of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC); local attorney Tom Gabelman; 3CDC President Stephen Leeper; local developer Robert Rhein; and Tim Riordan, a retired assistant city manager.

After the AMOS Project and labor unions held a protest meeting late last month, other members quickly were added. They are Steve Love, president of the Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky African-American Chamber of Commerce, and Robert Richardson, president of AFL-CIO International Union Local 1268.

Their additions are important because the group's by-laws state that any recommendations from the group must get a unanimous vote or they won't be passed along to city and county officials.

The AMOS Project, a Tristate coalition of 40 churches committed to social justice, is pleased by the additions. Previously, a subcommittee that was formed as a compromise by the Banks Working Group to draft a workforce inclusion policy was mostly ignored, AMOS leaders say. Subcommittee members add they never could meet face-to-face with the working group, despite numerous requests.

"They kept saying, 'Wait until later and we couldn't get any commitment in writing," says the Rev. Gregory Chandler, AMOS president.

Citing the county's missed minority hiring goals for the $458 million Bengals stadium, Chandler adds, "We've heard that song and dance before. There's a history that we have here that's not very encouraging."

AMOS will propose a set of goals to the county that calls for hiring Hamilton County residents for at least 50 percent of all workers needed to build The Banks. Of that amount, AMOS wants to have 25 percent come from low income areas and 15 percent come from apprenticeship programs through area labor unions. That way, people will gain skills that they can use to find jobs after the project is completed, Chandler says.

Portune hasn't seen the AMOS proposal yet but says he'll consider it. He wanted more minority representation when the Banks Working Group was formed. At the time, though, he was the sole Democrat on the county commission and was outvoted. That changed with November's election of David Pepper.

Other officials have been more resistant. Last May, Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory rejected pleas that minority members be added, saying, "The structure of the Banks Working Group has already been agreed to by the city and the county, and that's the structure we're going to work with."

Castellini has kept tight control over the working group's deliberations and typically speaks only through a public relations firm. A request to interview Castellini for this article was declined.

In a written statement, Castellini said, "We will continue to look toward the economic inclusion and workforce development committee to recommend a Banks policy framework for economic inclusion and workforce development. This group's work is critical to the project's success, as it is the expectation of all involved that a Banks project will only progress with such a policy framework."

Portune is confident that The Banks will soon become a reality. Negotiations with AIG/Carter have improved and should be completed shortly, he says.

Also, funding is in place for the first phase of a proposed $65 million, 36-acre riverfront park adjacent to The Banks. Ground will be broken in October, and that portion could be done in 18 months, Portune says. Further, he expects decks to cover Fort Washington Way could be installed within the next 18 months, creating a Lytle Park-like space designed to better connect the riverfront to downtown.

"This thing is moving in a very positive direction," Portune says. "We are well down the path." ©