Friday, January 14, 2000

Experts: Riverfront plan needed

Haste causing unexpected costs

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A proposal to build a deck over Fort Washington Way is the latest multi-million surprise for the overhaul of Cincinnati's riverfront, a billion-dollar project that is being built without a master plan.

Add-ons to riverfront overhaul
        “We have to get to the point where we stop surprising people with these constant add-ons we come up with every few months,” Mayor Charlie Luken said Thursday. “It's breeding a distrust with the community about our ability to manage costs. Let's get all the needs out there for the record.”

        Planning experts also worry that the lack of a master plan could lead to a disjointed hodgepodge of development on the riverfront.

        “The danger is the entire riverfront could end up being a jumble,” said James Rubenstein, a Miami University geography professor who specializes in land use issues.

        Those driving the riverfront redevelopment say the speed with which the project has taken shape should be applauded. Comparable efforts in other cities have taken a decade or more, which increases costs and prolongs the inconvenience such major projects bring.

        “You can't tell whether we're making mistakes until 20 or 30 years from now,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus, who has led the county's riverfront efforts from the start. “If we weren't doing this the way we are, I think we'd be paralyzed, and nothing would happen.”

        While speed will allow people to enjoy a new riverfront more quickly, future generations could pay the price for mistakes.

        “It's not a matter of haste makes waste,” said Mr. Rubenstein, the Miami University professor. “It's a matter of haste makes mistakes on what is built where.”

        Proceeding without a clear plan has resulted in some surprises.

        • Hamilton County ended up paying $20 million more than expected for riverfront land after the city and county decided to move the stadium farther west.

        • The city borrowed $8 million from the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) to pay for small pieces of property the city didn't originally believe it would need for Fort Washington Way project and to pay for land that was more expensive than originally projected.

        • City and county leaders scrounged for $6 million to pay for an exit off Fort Washington Way to serve the southeast area of downtown and Newport. The ramp was added after the Reds ballpark site was selected.

        • City and county officials found themselves scrambling for $46 million to pay for riverfront roads and sidewalks. They knew the roads were needed, but nobody had the cost budgeted until consultants raised the issue last April. City Council has since budgeted $24 million for the work.

        • After Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) leaders saw the chance to upgrade sewers while the riverfront was torn up, they had to dig up a $620,000 sewer pipe already in place to meet a Paul Brown Stadium deadline and replace it with a larger pipe at a cost of $385,000. Eventually, the project grew $1.6 million more than budgeted because work was expanded and bids came in higher than expected.

        • Most recently, a mistake on a bridge deck on Fort Washington Way will cost between $800,000 and $1 million to rip up and fix. But project managers and insurance will pay the bill, not taxpayers. The error was in part due to the process used to build the roadway in half the time that it would usually take.

        While some add-on costs have been unanticipated, city and county officials point out they're saving money by doing the work in conjunction with the other projects.

        “It's an advantage when everything's torn up at once,” said City Architect Bob Richardson.

        Since the city transferred control of Cinergy Field to the county in 1996, each government has pursued different goals for the riverfront, noted Cincinnati City Councilman Todd Portune. The county's focus is sports facilities and parking. The city wants to rebuild Fort Washington Way and preserve enough land for park space and other development.

        That has left the community with no single government body in charge of the overall project.

        Since 1996, city and county lead ers have tried to plan the riverfront transformation jointly through the City-County Riverfront Steering Committee. The group, which is made up of City Council members and county commissioners, has no direct authority. Its members are supposed to discuss issues and reach consensus before City Council or the county commissioners take action.

        The consultants leading those discussions are from Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh. The firm has worked with city and county officials from the start with consultants flying to town almost monthly. The firm's final plan should be released in February. The first major pieces of the redevelopment — the new Bengals stadium and realignment of Fort Washington Way — are scheduled to open in August.

        Todd Ward, Gov. Bob Taft's economic development representative in Cincinnati, applauded that method, saying the planning shouldn't slow down projects under construction.

        Mr. Portune, chairman of council's community development committee, said the consultants also have helped city and county leaders to keep the bigger picture in mind as they plan.

        “It's brought an awful lot of critical thinking to bear on the true priorities for the region as they converge on Cincinnati's riverfront,” he said.

        But David Gosling, urban design professor at the University of Cincinnati, called the plan-as-you-go approach a “Band-Aid” for planning that didn't take place earlier.

        “I've never seen a city undertake this kind of development without a plan,” Mr. Gosling said, noting that cities such as Cleveland and Baltimore revitalized their waterfronts thanks to good planning. “It has to be in place. This is recognized all over the world.”

        There are reasons for the rush.

        The Bengals new stadium must be finished by August or county officials owe the team millions in late fees.

        Fort Washington Way has to be finished by August, too, to get fans to the new stadium and to eliminate the daily construction hassles that have aggravated commuters and hurt downtown businesses.

        Voters passed a half-cent countywide sales tax in 1996 to fund the new Bengals stadium and Reds ballpark. Since then, county officials have negotiated lease deals with both teams, have overseen design and construction of the football stadium and have begun designing the new Reds ballpark, which is scheduled to open in 2003.

        In that same time, city officials have found funding and overseen the new design and reconstruction of Fort Washington Way.

        Mr. Bedinghaus pointed out mistakes can happen even with a plan.

        “I'm sure Fort Washington Way was created as the result of a master plan,” he said. “But Fort Washington Way is the single biggest problem we're correcting now.”

        The downtown expressway was a tangle of entrance and exit ramps that separated downtown from the riverfront. The new design streamlines the ramps, reconnects the central business district with the river and frees up about 14 acres of riverfront land.

        Even so, more than a dozen lanes of traffic will have to be bridged to get people from the downtown to the riverfront, noted Cincinnati Councilman Jim Tarbell.

        That goes to show a mistake like Fort Washington Way cannot be completely corrected, he said. Mr. Tarbell argued it also points to the need for a master plan that includes downtown so riverfront development enhances downtown rather than competes with it.

        Mr. Bedinghaus argued that, while mistakes will be made in the riverfront transformation, the benefits to future generations will outweigh the problems.

        “Cities across the country are filled with master plans that are agreed on by everyone and sit on bookshelves and collect dust,” he said. “For those who think we're going too fast, at some point you've got to do something.”

        Reporter Dan Klepal contributed to this report.


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