Tuesday, March 07, 2000

County can't afford to cheap out now

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Five years ago, when the football stadium was just a twinkle in Mike Brown's twinkly eyes, I asked Enquirer readers what it would take to bring you downtown. More than once a year. With your families. And your wallets. What would you like to do that you can't do in your own suburb or neighborhood?

        Nearly 300 suggestions came in from Westwood and West Chester and Indian Hill and Anderson Township and everywhere in between. Diagrams and maps and 10-year plans. One man included a drawing of a 300-foot-high lava lamp.

Chutney and linens
        Some people wanted shopping they couldn't find elsewhere. “Nordstrom,” several readers begged. “Give us a Nordstrom.” Or Bloomingdale's or Crate & Barrel. A Covington man wanted Harrods of London, where we could buy “chutney and linens in the same place.”

        A lot of people thought public officials ought to concentrate on housing. “If we want the city center to be vital and alive, especially after dark, we have to get people to come back and live close to the center of town,” a Hyde Park man wrote.

        Thinking ahead, dreaming.

        And a year later, Hamilton County voters approved a half-cent sales tax to build two stadiums. I never believed it was because people were just crazy about sports. I believed — still do — that people around here are crazy about Cincinnati. And they understand the relationship between a healthy central city and the surrounding neighborhoods and suburbs.

Blowing our allowance
        So people handed the county a boatload of money. On trust. County officials rewarded voters by acting like a kid who just got his first allowance. They blew it on the first thing they saw. The football stadium.

        We have just been given the unwelcome news that the Paul Brown Stadium is about $45 million over its already bloated budget. The county is going to tighten up. On the Reds. On infrastructure. On parking. On everything but the football stadium itself.

        Paul Brown Stadium will still be state-of-the-art. No expense spared. Super-duper scoreboards and special tiles on the restroom ceilings. Oh, and by the way, special accommodations for possible, potential soccer games.

        Meanwhile, Hamilton County's financial adviser Ted Ricci in a Feb. 23 memo asked for information on the cheapest parking. If Mr. Ricci rummages around in the files over at the county, he could probably lay his hands on a $20,000 study by a very fine Cincinnati firm, THP Limited Consulting Engineers, who gave the answer to that two years ago.

        The answer is ugly.

        Parking lots cost about $2,500 per space. Standard parking garages cost $8,500 per space, and underground parking garages engineered to support development on top cost $16,500 per space. So maybe the price has gone up in the past 24 months. Lord knows that riverfront has a way of sucking up more money than we ever dreamed possible.

        But the cheapest option still is paving the land between the Brent Spence and John A. Roebling Suspension bridges. That option leaves only a small strip for parks and a big hole between downtown and the riverfront after Fort Washington Way is finished. It's an opportunity to ruin everything at the last minute.

        A new report says Cincinnati's downtown housing market is — if not hot — at least simmering. Right now, as many people live in the central business district as in 1970. John Pepper and Ed Rigaud are raising money for the Underground Railroad Museum. People are standing in line to buy tickets for Opening Day. Football fans have their seats picked out at the new stadium. Developers are sniffing around The Banks. A big chunk of money has already been spent.

        Will all this money and uproar bring people downtown? Will it save the city? Or will the county let us drown in a sea of asphalt?

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and Insight's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com