Tuesday, March 11, 1997
Builders still covet riverfront
Prime location worth the risk of flooding

The Cincinnati Enquirer

When city and county leaders talk about making better use of one of Greater Cincinnati's greatest assets - the Ohio River - they face one of the area's most destructive forces - the Ohio River.

That's why whenever leaders talk about newdevelopment along the riverfront, they also talk about the potential for flooding, said Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls.

''Anything built has to be raised out of the floodplain,'' Ms. Qualls said. ''That's one of the reasons why to actually develop anything at the riverfront is extremely expensive and very difficult.''

The flooding last week that closed Pete Rose Way, drowned parking lots and muddied riverfront businesses didn't come as a surprise to those who want to develop the riverfront, Ms. Qualls said.

And it didn't change their minds about their vision.

''Even the fact that it was the worst flooding in over 30 years doesn't change the approach,'' she said.

The approach is two-fold: To reconnect the city and its residents to the river and to protect development from the flooding that's bound to happen.

Ms. Qualls said lifting development above the floodplain could be accomplished by building parking structures that act as a basement of sorts and making new riverfront buildings level with downtown. The basement would flood every so often, but the city would have to expect that, Ms. Qualls said.

Any development's elevation would be roughly level with Third Street, said City Architect Bob Richardson. Third Street was not flooded even when the river crested nearly 15 feet over flood stage.

City leaders also have talked about developing park land at the river's edge that would stand up to the river's occasional heavy flooding, Ms. Qualls said.

And any project that gets built along the riverfront - whether it's a stadium, a museum or a business - would be built to withstand 100-year flood levels, said City Manager John Shirey.

Because flooding can be so damaging, many agencies must give their OK before projects can be built in a floodplain, Mr. Richardson said. Those agencies include the Army Corps of Engineers based in Louisville, the city's building department and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Mr. Richardson said.

But those agencies don't appear to scare people and their projects away from the riverfront.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's museum is one prominent project that could end up there.

The freedom center is ''actively interested'' in a riverfront site but is waiting to see where the new Reds stadium will be located before making a commitment, said Eric Bachmann, assistant to the director.

The center's literature, in fact, says the museum will sit on a ''central riverfront site.''

Flooding will be a big consideration in the building's design if the museum ends up on the riverfront, Mr. Bachmann said, but recent flooding has not dampened the center's interest.

''There are many ways to work around that through the design of the facility,'' he said.

Newport, which also has big plans to develop its riverfront, will take a different approach for the aquarium it plans to build by June 1999 and other projects.

The city will locate them behind its flood wall, said Phil Ciafardini, the city's director of finance.

Newport will use its historic river walk to tie its new development behind the flood wall to its commercial development - mostly floating restaurants - right at the river, he said.

That approach, Mr. Ciafardini said, will keep the development out of a flood's path and keep floating restaurants on the river, which can weather the flooding without much trouble.

Troy Blackburn, the Cincinnati Bengals director of stadium development, likened building near the river to living in Southern California, where residents put up with earthquakes.

If you build a football stadium and practice fields along Cincinnati's riverfront, as the Bengals plan to, you have to put up with flooding, he said.

The new Bengals stadium will have a built-in flood wall as Cinergy Field does now, Mr. Blackburn said. There also will be spots where two flood gates can be installed when they're needed, he said.

''One of the foremost concerns anyone has is the water,'' he said. ''You know you can't control it. You just have to plan for it.''

Protecting the practice fields will be trickier, he said. The team is looking at building an 8-foot mound around the field to serve as permanent sand-bagging to keep floodwaters away, he said.

Even so, the team has no reservations about locating near the river, especially after seeing how well Cinergy Field fared during the flood, Mr. Blackburn said.

Reds Managing Executive John Allen, who favors a riverfront site for a new ballpark, has said Cinergy Field's victory over the flood just shows what a good spot the riverfront is.

The bottom line, said County Administrator David Krings, is that any big building project on the riverfront will include money and planning for floods.

''The fact that this area is prone to flood does not come as a surprise to anyone,'' he said. ''You have to plan your building and your business to periodically be flooded.''