Sunday, March 30, 2003

Development: What's next?

Tie it all together

Opening Day crowds will see Cincinnati's spectacular new riverfront, loaded with stadiums but still devoid of development in between. Impatient leaders here clamor for a start on The Banks plan, a $1 billion neighborhood of condos, shops, restaurants and waterfront park between the stadiums and National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. But New York-based consultant John Alschuler, like a prophet on a mission, has been warning us to shore up center-city Fountain Square or risk slipping to second-class status.

The Banks project and 9-block Fountain Square district don't need to be in competition with each other, nor should Cincinnati's future get hung up in a financing battle over "Who goes first?"

Three finalists will present development proposals for The Banks in late April. Whichever team wins should make sure riverfront retail does not suck more life out of the central downtown. The success of both projects will depend on tying them together so they support each other.

"Alschuler didn't say, 'Don't do the Banks,'" Hamilton County administrator David Krings points out. But Alschuler does fault Cincinnati for investing in disconnected projects, without making each serve broader development purposes.

No one wants a sea of surface parking on the central riverfront. Yes, delay is frustrating, but not surprising given a recession, flat sales tax revenues, 9/11 and now a war. Developers are unlikely to shoulder the risks of The Banks until the economy recovers. In advance of that day, the county, city and port authority need to assemble the financing for parking decks that will make the riverfront project possible.

Alschuler urges livening up Fountain Square by tearing down the stage and skywalk, fixing the Westin's cavernous atrium and adding new retail. He says Cincinnati can start linking downtown and Over-the-Rhine by resurrecting Washington Park, and he slams the police force for not aggressive enough policing to eliminate safety as a concern about coming downtown. The Banks, Fountain Square, Washington Park projects need to create great new places that serve the broader strategy of bringing new people to this metro as a whole.

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