Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Plans to shore up downtown on shoestring

Consultant John Alschuler brings practical approach to reviving development in city

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When consultant John Alschuler unveils a plan today to stimulate downtown development, he won't trumpet fancy architectural drawings of multimillion-dollar projects that look great on paper but are too expensive to build.

And his strategy won't be an academic exercise in what downtown Cincinnati could look like if it had a limitless capital improvement budget.

Mr. Alschuler declined to reveal specific goals for his Cincinnati vision before he unveils some details this morning at Mayor Charlie Luken's economic development task force headed by City Manager Valerie Lemmie and Fifth Third Bank chief executive officer George A. Schaefer Jr. But he confirmed some key points: emphasizing a nine-block area surrounding Fountain Square, revitalizing Over-the-Rhine's neglected housing stock and shoring up downtown's office and shopping base through incentives.

John Alschuler
John H. Alschuler, the former city manager of Hartford, Conn., and Santa Monica, Calif., is president of Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler.

His major projects include the redevelopment of the Brooklyn waterfront and a five-point development plan for Columbus. Other projects have included the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the Guggenheim Foundation and Madison Square Garden.

His firm also has been the part of plans for the Philadelphia waterfront, the Anacostia waterfront in Washington, D.C., and downtown Memphis.

In addition to his work at HRA, Mr. Alschuler teaches real estate development at Columbia University and is a director of S.L. Green, a real estate investment trust listed on the New York Stock Exchange that owns and manages office buildings in Manhattan.

"We bring a focus on how to make change happen," said Mr. Alschuler, of the New York planning and economic development firm Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler. "Our approach here and in other cities across the country is to have a strategic plan much like a business would."

HRA's plan comes as downtown struggles to retain high-profile shops, restaurants and office tenants. It also comes as plans for the redevelopment of the former McAlpin's store on West Fourth Street and the Fifth and Race site - once reserved for a Nordstrom's department store that was subsequently canceled - are in limbo.

"The difference with John's plan is building a business plan with investment strategies," said Laura Long, who heads Cincinnati Business Committee, a group of Cincinnati's most prominent CEOs. "He understands budgets. He understands what's doable."

CBC will pay Mr. Alschuler's firm $350,000 for the economic study and a land-use and design strategy, to be completed by another firm, Cooper, Robertson. The city contributed $100,000, and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and Downtown Cincinnati Inc. also chipped in money.

The urgency of dealing with downtown's problems was punctuated by this month's announcement by Closson's, the venerable furniture and art gallery, that it would close its downtown shop of 137 years by March 31 to build a new store in Norwood, Oakley or Hyde Park.

Other immediate problems include the Maisonette, the longest-running five-star restaurant in North America, which warned it may close this year if it's unable to complete an ambitious expansion that would add a 500-seat concert venue and carryout cafÈ. Meanwhile, it's possible that one of Cincinnati's largest employers, Convergys Corp., may abandon its three downtown office buildings for a campus in Northern Kentucky, a move that would eliminate more than 1,500 jobs - and the earnings tax income from them.

Mr. Alschuler agrees that downtown Cincinnati faces significant challenges, and that's what makes a clear, precise vision all the more vital.

"One of the key tasks is to get a clear, common understanding of priorities and development," he said. "Without a shared understanding of priorities, you cannot build a sustained effort."

Mr. Alschuler, former city manager in Hartford, Conn., and Santa Monica, Calif., understands how to squeeze extra dollars from tight city budgets.

In the ocean community of Santa Monica, Mr. Alschuler managed the transformation of a derelict stretch of empty storefronts into an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and entertainment options known as Third Street Promenade. The development depends heavily on its close proximity to the ocean with offerings such as seafood restaurants and surf shops.

But it's a common trait for HRA to craft an economic development strategy that draws on a project's environment. For instance, his firm helped secure $1.4 million in state funds to build a waterfront park near the Brooklyn Bridge and helped guide the redevelopment of the 260-acre Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman hired Mr. Alschuler to manage a comprehensive development plan for Ohio's capital and largest city.

Mr. Coleman said that unlike other consultants, Mr. Alschuler's report represents a fresh way of thinking instead of a reincarnation of past, failed efforts.

"No cookie-cutter here," Mr. Coleman said. "What he did with his advice was to tailor-make a downtown plan that is practical yet visionary and will lift downtown to new heights."

Mr. Alschuler's five-point plan for Columbus includes:

Offer incentives for developers to build housing in an effort to lure up to 10,000 residents downtown.

Recruit suburban office tenants back downtown with aggressive incentive offers such as reimbursing income tax generated by new or retained jobs.

Redevelop the riverfront.

Build a new neighborhood, RiverSouth, in the blocks near Columbus' downtown mall, City Center. The area is now a collection of large, asphalt parking lots and deteriorating buildings but could emerge as mixed-use housing and shops.

Invest in downtown parking and transportation improvements.

Columbus formed a nonprofit organization, Columbus Downtown Development Corp. to implement the downtown plan. The organization has a $1 million annual budget and an initial goal to raise a $10 million housing fund.

So has Mr. Alschuler's plan made a difference in Columbus since it was unveiled April?

After five decades of virtually no new housing development downtown, builders have announced plans or started construction on more than 2,500 units. The city has secured state funds for road and other infrastructure improvements downtown.

"His advice has been great," Mr. Coleman said. "He's very practical."

Mr. Alschuler said Cincinnati and Columbus face many of the same challenges - suburban competition, declining retail and lack of office development.

Yet there are many differences.

Columbus has the benefit of a much larger tax base, but it lacks the cultural amenities and professional sports teams that Cincinnati boasts. Cincinnati also has an impressive collection of historical buildings, large corporations and committed civic leaders, he said.

He said Cincinnati also has a "much more highly charged racial environment" that must be bridged for the city to improve.

In private meetings with Mr. Alschuler, some of Cincinnati's corporate leaders have been impressed.

"It's necessary for everyone to come together around a plan," said John Barrett, CEO of Western-Southern Life Insurance Co.

Other downtown observers say that any new plan won't be successful unless it examines a broader scope - including Northern Kentucky developments such as Newport on the Levee and the Covington riverfront as well as the University of Cincinnati.

"We have to figure out what is the real demand," said Stan Eichelbaum, whose retail consulting firm, Marketing Developments Inc., is based downtown. "If we overexpand in any sector, we can topple altogether or waste precious resources."

Staff writers Greg Korte and Cliff Peale contributed to this report. E-mail kalltucker@enquirer.com

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