Fort Washington Way caps to provide valuable real estate

Each Wednesday in July, UrbanCincy has highlighted Fort Washington Way (FWW), the I-71/US-50 trench bisecting the Cincinnati’s central riverfront from its central business district. Part one of the series discussed what the area looked like prior to reconstruction a decade ago, and how that reconstruction made way for the development along Cincinnati’s central riverfront. Part two discussed some of the unseen assets included in the project that are saving taxpayers millions of dollars. Last week’s article highlighted even more of the unique features that contributing many societal benefits to the region. To conclude the series, this week will feature ideas for future development around Fort Washington Way.

When the stretch of highway was redesigned a decade ago, the better design allowed for several acres of space to be reclaimed for uses that are more productive than a highway. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was located on land that was once a highway, as are portions of The Banks development which is currently under construction. Plans for the second phase of The Banks also will make use of the reclaimed land from the redesign. The Banks, bookended by our major league stadia and highlighted by the Freedom Center, is a development project that will fundamentally transform this city’s urban core. It was only made possible through redesigning the stretch of highway and reclaiming under-utilized land on Cincinnati’s urban riverfront.

When the Federal government chose to build I-71 through downtown Cincinnati, they chose to do so in an area that already had a major roadway on it. As a result, local authorities were allowed to maintain the rights to the space directly above the federal highway. Generally, when the Federal government builds highways, they maintain the air rights so that they can better control the factors that impact the highway’s utility. In this case, Cincinnati’s ability to maintain control over these rights ensures that the area can be used to its maximum local utility.

To maximize the utility of the space, officials could choose to install 600 feet-long caps over the highway. As has been discussed previously in this series, the reconstruction of Fort Washington Way ten years ago included building infrastructure necessary to support such caps. Structurally, these caps could support several feet of dirt, allowing the city to create a fascinating, unique pocket park in the heart of downtown Cincinnati. Nearby residents would benefit greatly from a place to walk their dogs. Having the retail, office, and residential space at the Banks surrounded by green space on the south with the new riverfront park and on the north with a park above the highway could provide a stunning and dramatic space.

However, some view more park space in that location as unnecessary, and that the real estate in that particular location is too valuable to be planted over. As a result, it is likely in the city’s best interest to explore options that would generate tax revenue. According to engineers responsible for the project, the caps could be built in such as way so that developers would not be restricted with the building materials they use. However, as the height of a building increases, so too does the building’s weight. As a result, buildings on the caps would likely be limited to about four stories in height.

With that particular height, the new development would provide an aesthetic feature that would visually link The Banks to the rest of the central business district. When the first phase of The Banks is complete, portions of mixed-use development will rise six stories above Second Street. Directly to the north of this area sits the trench of Fort Washington Way, followed immediately by highrises like the E.W. Scripps Tower and Cincinnati Enquirer Building. Developers could opt for a design on the caps that would have first floor restaurant or retail options, with offices or residents above.

One of the worst features of the old Fort Washington Way that the new design did not completely fix is that the highway bisects downtown from the Ohio River. Capping the highway and building several-story, mixed-use buildings on it would go a long way to rectifying that disconnect. Because of the required space between the current bridges over the highway and the caps, entrances to these buildings would have to be from Second or Third Street. This particular design would allow comfortable transition north and south between the waterfront and downtown, but would also keep pedestrians moving east and west in the city.

A task force of engineers recently convened to study the feasibility of building and installing these caps. Their task not only includes determining the exact structural capabilities, but also projected costs. Armed with this information, city officials and developers could begin discussions shortly. Should the city push for a unique park over the highway? Or would you rather see a the area built with multi-use buildings?

  • Matt G

    Buildings, buildings, buildings! The Banks will make for a great park so green space is not really what’s needed. Good urban fabric that connects the Banks to the downtown would benefit both. Again I say look at the Short North in Columbus. Caps with buildings on it connected that area to the downtown and things have really taken off because of it. With so much more to work with in Cincy it would be a homerun.

  • mostly buildings with park elements. i worry about adding more retail, though… how much retail can the city possibly hold? i say add some smaller apartment/condo buildings with a few restaurants/coffeehouses and everyday living type retail like dry cleaners, etc.

  • How great would it be if they put townhouses on top of the caps. The sound issue would have to be remedied, but you would add an additional residential option to the downtown Cincinnati portfolio…and it would be right in the heart of it all. Vancouver is famous for its incorporation of townhouses within its center city (often at the base of high rises that sit back behind the townhouses). Maybe Cincy could learn a thing or two for this instance.

  • Ryan Lammi

    If the caps really could provide for several feet of ground I don’t know how big of an issue sound would be. I think buildings would be more beneficial though. With the banks so close it might be unnecessary, but it would make downtown a very desirable and unique city with parks…

  • I agree that another park is unnessary. Maybe some entertainment venues and a grocery store.

  • The area should be built-up, without question. With the new Riverfront park, there is plenty of park space for this area of downtown. ANything more would certainly create a glut of park space.

  • I agree that retail could become over saturated, and echo the idea that some ammenities for residents would do very well in this location. Dry cleaners, grocery store, space for a farmer’s market, a barber, a dentist – these things will all increase the quality of life for the residents, and will therefore be a draw for new residents. With an influx of residents comes increased safety as well a stable tax base.

    As far as the housing options go, I love the townhouse idea. I’ve liven in two townhouses over the years, and love the vertical nature of them, and the proximity to my neighbors. Adding these to the urban residential mix along with some workforce housing makes a lot of sense. Employees at the bars/restaraunts and other hourly wage places need places to live that are affordable. Allowing options that are close to their employment will decrease, if not eliminate, the need for owning a car.

  • Justin H.

    I agree that because we already have Riverfront Park another park over the caps would be overkill. I have no qualms with a one block section being a park, however. That said, mixed-use or residential housing would be GREATLY preferred. Check out Google Maps Street View for 310 Main Street, it would be stunning if they built something similar to this collection on the caps–these are all beautiful, old four-story buildings. Or, if you wanted to focus more on residential, something similar to 112 E McMillan St would be jaw dropping. I was recently at Wrigley field, and little was more stunning than seeing old homes right across the street from the stadium.

    As it stands there is still a HUGE psychological barrier between The Banks and Downtown. Those bridges kinda don’t make you want to cross them. I see the caps as the final piece of the Riverfront’s puzzle, and until it’s done The Banks project won’t be done.

  • Justin H.

    One more thing, not only should the caps be put into place, but if possible the east-side of the Main Street bridge and the west-side of the Elm Street bridge should be expanded to fit shops similar to how Columbus did the High Street bridge across I-670.

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    The caps are definitely not 600 feet long. The space between the overpasses is a typical block length of 400 feet. Also, there were spaces of some kind left for natural ventilation of exhaust fumes, so if they wanted to actually cap the whole thing they would have to incorporate mechanized ventilation into the design.

  • Good catch, Jake. That was a mistake on my part. Anything longer than 600 feet would be classified as a tunnel, and as a result, would need to have the infrastructure to ventilate it and suppress fires. They are specifically ensuring that the caps are LESS than 600 feet, and that they leave about a 6-foot gap between them and the bridges. One of the things the task force is considering now is how wide these caps should be so as to avoid needing to vent the tunnel.

  • Justin H.

    Gaps between the caps and bridges? Awkward. Would it work to place vents in the middle of the roadways/bridges? That way the connection to the north/south streets and caps would not be disturbed? Am I understanding that correctly? How much of a problem would it be to make it an actual tunnel? I guess I’m trying to understand why adding mechanical ventilation/fire suppression is such a deal breaker.

  • I really like you idea that maybe the gaps could be in the middle of the caps instead of between the cap and the road bridge. I’ll specifically suggest that to the engineer.

    As far as the ventilation system goes, the issue with it is the increased cost associated with the installation and maintenance of such a system. I don’t have that figure because it has not yet been quoted, but adding costs to a project that could be done without adding those costs would be preferable, I think. I believe that there are also other regulations that are associated with building a “tunnel” as opposed to “installing caps.” The fewer hoops we need to jump through, the faster and cheaper this will be accomplished.

  • Justin H.

    Cool. To clarify, I imagine the roadways over Fort Washington Way to look similar to the physical roadway on the old suspension bridge. (You know, instead of solid concrete you’re driving across a giant metal vent and you can see the river below?) Seems like that could be done on the Walnut, Vine, and Race Street bridges to achieve more than adequate ventilation. Perhaps about four feet of solid concrete on the road level could separate the sidewalk from the actual vent, you know, so when I drop my keys I don’t have to go down on FWW to get them… 🙂

  • Sure, Justin. I see what you are saying. I did ask your original questions to the engineer, and I’ll let you know when he gets back to me.

    As far as driving over vents instead of the roadway is concerned – I like the idea in concept, but I would think there are some pretty specific laws about what can and cannot be placed over federal highways. While our air rights we retained, I would think that the DOT would have a problem with the grates because of leaking fluid onto the cars below, for instance, or the possibility to easily drop (intentionally or accidentally) any kind of debris onto a busy highway.

    Furthermore, the bridges for Main and Walnut are going to have to hold the load of the Streetcar. They were already designed to bear that extra load, so no additional structural construction is needed at this time for that. But I would think that a grate would have less structural integrity than the reinforced slab they have now.

    As far as Vine, Race and Elm go – who knows? Maybe something like that would be possible. But with the safety concerns about dropping things onto a highway, I’d be surprised if that were feasible. I’ll let you know if the engineer has any comment on that.

  • Justin H.

    I understand. I just think it’s important to connect the buildings to the north/south streets so the urban fabric feels intact. My only other suggestion would be to place the gap in the center of the caps. In this case there would be a total of 8 caps instead of 4. Think of a gap half way between Main and Walnut, Walnut and Vine, etc. A facade on 2nd and 3rd Streets could be used to hide the gaps from pedestrians, so the townhouses would appear to be contiguous to the street-level onlooker, but the 6 foot gap would be visible from a bird’s-eye-view. I think this would help reduce noise pollution from FWW onto the street too. OK, I’ll be quiet now!

  • If you did the gaps in the middle of the blocks you could get artistic with those gaps by placing arched glassy coverings over the highway that would cover it and block out some of its noise, but also allow air to ventilate freely through designed openings. Heck it could even be a mesh steel arch of sorts, but something that would represent a “reconnection” of downtown with its riverfront.

  • Jake

    just look at Montreal’s Place Viger to see the pitfall of a multiple parks capping a highway without buildings & active facades on all sides. The illustrated plan represents the best option, especially given the pocket like nature this park will have to lend itself to due to its small size.

  • Susan Morell

    Fabulous series and susequent comment bantor. Well written and informative. Thank you.

  • Patrick Newton

    I’m going to go back to saying we need a park, and a more active oriented park than what has been previously proposed. I am also worried about the lack of active park space in the Washington Park renovations – no basketball court? People want to have places to play. For too long this has been marginalized to areas at the fringe of the urban core or even well beyond, and I think that provides a major component into people’s choices to move further away from cities. While I like what is being put into the Riverfront Park, it doesn’t exactly provide a place to play a pickup game of soccer or basketball for that matter, which I would imagine some of the new residents of the Banks might be looking to do.

    I present a park I had the pleasure of playing in while in Hong Kong a few years ago:

    The green area towards the far right of the image is, if I remember correctly, home to a large aquatic center.

    I’d suggest a compromise that includes some of the active play features amidst some of the other positive suggestions set forth in both the article and the comments.

  • Justin

    Patrick, I agree there needs to be more active space near The Banks, but not over the caps, which I see as too valuable for basketball courts. I think space down by Yeatman’s Cove or west of Paul Brown stadium could be better used to create basketball courts and maybe even a soccer field if we can get rid of some surface parking lots–which should be illegal downtown if you ask me.

  • Jason

    I too think the caps would be better used for buildings for mixed use development. Entertainment, groceries, shopping…whatever. That area could become a real hot-spot if the banks takes off and having more space for expansion would be wise. I don’t think park space would do much for that area. You can use the riverfront park or sawyer point for that. Plus, those caps are located right along the streetcar route, which would likely help fill those retail and entertainment spaces quickly.

  • Jon B

    I think a thing that’s important to opening downtown to the Banks would be a park where you don’t have to get smushed onto a sidewalk on the way to the game or to the museum, etc. I think the space between Main and Walnut is perfect for a small park, with perhaps a cool footbridge over Walnut to the mixed use development ideas. Lots of foot traffic to the Reds games would appreciate this little park.

    Once you put green space in an urban area, the people who live there really appreciate it and desire to live there. I think dry cleaners, grocery, etc could really go downtown without people in the Banks feeling too deprived. There is plenty of room to fill in downtown and the existing Banks projects with practicalities.

    The gateway between downtown and the Banks could / should? really be an exciting area for meet ups, recreation, fountains, art, tourism, etc. It’s a chance to really welcome and demand foot traffic.

  • I can’t find the blog, but there is one documenting fake houses in England that are actually vents for the subways, so they could be easily hidden.
    I like the idea of retail/residential. just ran a story that 3-4 story mixed use buildings generate the highest amount of taxes, it would definitely help the city.

  • Justin

    I think this is the facade you’re talking about that’s in London. Something like this could definitely work on the FWW caps!

  • Richard

    Dallas is doing this right now. Google the Woodall Rogers (freeway name) deck park. This park will cover the canyon freeway that seperates Dallas’s downtown from Uptown. The park is already creating vale as several projects are going forward because of the new park. For instance, Museum Tower is a 55 story condo building that just recieved financing. The park will have amenities such as a band shell, restuarant, dog park, etc. Most of the park is privately financed but some “shovel ready” stimulus funds were used as well.

  • Erich

    I love the idea of capping over the expressway and restoring the city from the river all the way through!!! Since the building cant be that high, I have a few suggestions. Of course more residential, that’s a no brainer. I would hope kroger was already thinking of going in to one of the new structures already scheduled to be built at the banks. I would suggest a major movie theatre!! And a really good one to, like AMC where its a big draw. No one ever talks about movies downtown, and its really needed!!!

  • J

    Any update on this? I assume the budget sidelined this, but any progress on the design?

  • J-

    No update to my knowledge. If we hear something, we will absolutely post an article as soon as we hear.

    Thanks for reading,