Stop us if you’ve heard this one. A music venue, a football team, a Cincinnati neighborhood, a concrete company and Hamilton County all walk into City Hall…
Gears are still grinding on a complex land swap deal that would clear the way for a music venue at Cincinnati riverfront development The Banks, even as construction work preparing for the venue is underway. Part of the debate centers on the role Cincinnati City Council will play in the complicated deal.
A council committee Sept. 3 held a special hearing in Price Hill to discuss that land swap. That meeting got contentious as tensions between Hamilton County officials and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley continued.
Cranley says he has big questions about the land swap he wants answered, including how much taxpayers will have to pay for key pieces of land currently owned by building materials company Hilltop Basic Resources. The county says it is still negotiating that figure.
The mayor, who favors a different site for the venue at The Banks, also wants information about traffic and environmental impacts of the land swap, as well as information about where a proposed asphalt production facility would go. Cranley has said he is worried it will be located near the Queensgate shelter for those experiencing homelessness. The mayor also took issue with the idea that the riverfront property would be used as a surface lot for the Bengals, which he called “terrible planning.”
Council members David Mann and Amy Murray, however, would like council to begin discussing ordinances introduced earlier this week around two possible ways that a land exchange could work — one in which the city transfers ownership to Hilltop and another in which the city leases the land to Hilltop for 40 years with the issue to take the land back afterward.
"The ordinances we advanced are simply first drafts," Mann said in council's meeting today. "There are a lot of contingencies that would need to be resolved. We do have a committee structure, that’s where these things should be discussed. That is the reason for these proposals.”
But Cranley does not want to refer those ordinances to committees so council can consider them until his questions are answered, he has said.
“There were a lot of questions that weren’t answered during the (Sept. 3) hearing,” he said during council’s meeting today.
The delayed ordinances, in turn, resurfaced debate about a contentious grey area in the city’s charter — the so-called mayoral “pocket veto.”
A 2010 legal opinion by the city solicitor’s office say that the city’s 1999 amendments to its charter gave the mayor more powers, but do not allow the mayor to hold legislation indefinitely as a way to quash it. Cranley acknowledged that point today. But there is debate about when, exactly, the mayor must refer legislation so council can consider it.
Mann says he isn’t sure whether he’ll support either of the current deals on the table but maintains it is vital that city council be involved in the deal-making process with Hilltop and the county and that the mayor’s refusal to refer the ordinances “emasculates” council.
“The legal opinions make very clear that any member of council has the right to introduce legislation,” Mann says. “(Cranley’s move) is disrespectful of the rules of council, which require him to refer legislation within two meetings.”
Mann noted that council already voted to approve the location of the venue — at a site the mayor opposed — last year, and that council's involvement could be key in getting all parties to an agreement about that site.
The battle over mayoral power is just the latest in the long, winding road for the proposed venue at The Banks, which will likely compete with a coming new venue across the river in Newport. That venue will be built by Columbus-based PromoWest Productions, the promoter that lost its bid to build on the Cincinnati side of the river to MEMI. Cranley backed PromoWest's bid and opposed the one from MEMI.
Current plans for the proposed venue by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's concert promotion arm MEMI call for it to be located on a site called Lot 27 near Paul Brown Stadium, where the Cincinnati Bengals could veto the project due to a clause in the team's lease with the county. The team has indicated it will not stand in the way of the venue provided the city and county replace the parking lot where the venue is slated to go — a space fans use for tailgating.
That, in turn, has set in motion efforts to swap land with longstanding business Hilltop, which owns 15 acres nearby that it uses to manufacture building materials. It wants land at two city-owned sites near the Ohio River in Queensgate and Lower Price Hill in exchange for the land south of the stadium that would be used to replace the Bengals' parking lot.
Some residents in Lower Price Hill have asked questions about the relocation, though a deal could soon be worked out there as well. Hilltop currently has a purchase option on land it would transfer to the city for the completion of a long-awaited park in Lower Price Hill if the land swap were to be approved. Some groups in Lower Price Hill support that plan; other residents, however, are still skeptical.
Meanwhile, Cranley has promoted an alternate location for the MEMI venue, called Lot 24, farther from the stadium. That location doesn't need the Bengals' permission and already has a parking garage podium constructed.
In a letter sent last month, Cranley wanted several questions and concerns answered. Among them, Cranley asked for detailed plans of Hilltop's proposed new location, including how trucks and other vehicles will access the site; an unredacted copy of the contract between Hilltop and the county for the site in question; the exact location of a proposed asphalt plant Hilltop wants to construct; that appraisals of both properties in question be published before a deal is made; and other questions about the property transfer related to loss of city revenues, as some of the land Hilltop wants from the city is currently leased to another company.
"I believe it is vital to the public interest and to the city's consideration of any proposed transaction to know how much money the public is spending on this purchase of Hilltop's existing site," Cranley wrote in his letter.
Hamilton County Commission President Denise Driehaus, however, says the deal is a good one and expressed concerns that without the music venue deal, Lot 27 will remain undeveloped. Driehaus also says she has worked with city councilmembers to broker a deal in Lower Price Hill and get everything lined up for Hilltop's relocation.
“We have been working with Council Member (Amy) Murray to engage community members in Price Hill and business owners in Queensgate throughout this process," she wrote in a statement. "Hilltop has gone above and beyond in their efforts to solicit feedback from the community, resulting in proposal for a state-of-the-art facility in Queensgate and a land swap to finish out Price Landing Park. Along the way, Hilltop’s proposal has been presented at three public meetings, Hilltop has invited members of the community to tour its current facility, and another public hearing is scheduled for September 3 in Price Hill. To date, Hilltop has received favorable responses from residents and community leaders in Price Hill and Queensgate."