Cincinnati’s dramatic, multi-billion dollar riverfront revitalization nearly complete

[This op-ed was originally published on The Urbanophile on July 13, 2010.Β  Visit the original op-ed for more comments, thoughts and opinions on the matter of Cincinnati’s dramatic riverfront revitalization effort over the past two decades – Randy.]

Several decades ago Cincinnati leaders embarked on a plan to dramatically change the face of the city’s central riverfront. Aging industrial uses and a congested series of highway ramps was to be replaced by two new professional sports venues, six new city blocks of mixed-use development, a new museum, a central riverfront park, and parking garages that would lift the development out of the Ohio River’s 100-year flood plain.

Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals, was one of the first pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. The $455 million football stadium kept the Bengals in Cincinnati and has received national praise for its architectural design while also entertaining sold-out crowds.

The next piece to fall into place was the reconstruction of Fort Washington Way which consolidated the stretch of highway and opened up land critical for the construction of yet another stadium and the mixed-use development which became known as The Banks. The 40% reduction in size was not the only accomplishment though. The reconstruction project also included the Riverfront Transit Center designed to one day house light rail connections and a sunken highway that could be capped with additional development or park space.

Following the reconstruction of Fort Washington Way, Riverfront Stadium was then partially demolished to make room for the construction of the $290 million Great American Ball Park. Once complete, Great American Ball Park began entertaining baseball fans at 81 home games each year and at a new Reds Hall of Fame & Museum. The new venue eliminated any need for Riverfront Stadium and thus led to its implosion in 2002.

The removal of Riverfront Stadium then freed up room for the construction of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center atop the first piece of a two-deck parking garage intended to both lift the new riverfront development out of the flood plain, and provide enough automobile parking to replace what was previously there in the form of surface lots and satisfy new parking demands created by the development.

The most recent piece of the puzzle has been the development of the initial phases of both the Cincinnati Riverfront Park and The Banks. The two separate projects are developing in complimentary fashion and are on similar time tables, and are both developing east to west from Great American Ball Park to Paul Brown Stadium. Recent news will add a modern streetcar line running through The Banks development that will transport people from the transformed riverfront into the Central Business District, Over-the-Rhine and beyond to Uptown.

The 45-acre, $120 million Cincinnati Riverfront Park is expected to become the crown jewel of an already nationally acclaimed Cincinnati Park System. The Banks meanwhile will bring thousands of new residents, workers and visitors to Cincinnati’s center city. The initial phase of both projects is expected to be complete in spring 2011 and will include 300 new residences, 80,000 square feet of retail space, Moerlein Lager House, Commuter Bike Facility, additional components of the two-deck parking garage, and the first elements of the park.

The transformation of Cincinnati’s central riverfront from aging industrial space to a vibrant mixed-use extension of downtown is not complete, but the two-decade old, $3 billion vision is finally nearing reality. And with full completion expected in the coming years, one of the remaining traces of Cincinnati’s industrial past will be replaced by a new vision for a 21st Century city and economy.

  • Bob

    I cannot wait till the Banks is done! With these types of projects Cincinnati will continue to bring people downtown.

  • Nate

    “and provide enough automobile parking to replace what was previously there in the form of surface lots and satisfy new parking demands created by the development.”

    You mean a massive government subsidy to cars instead of human-scaled transportation right?
    I’m all for chearleading for the Banks-its a big deal after all- but that’s rediculous.
    If I remember right, that garage cost the city about as much as the streetcar would.

    Not all construction is development :-/

    BTW, If you haven’t read “The High Cost of Free Parking” by Donald Shoup yet, you’re doing yourself a disservice πŸ™‚

  • Nate:

    I have read “The High Cost of Free Parking” and in fact I’ve written about the topic of urban parking policy several times on this very website. If you follow along I think you will realize that my opinions are that there is more parking than what is necessary in this development, and all across America’s urban centers.

    With that said, the parking garages built here were built for those very reasons. 1) To replace the surface parking that previously existed, and 2) to supply the parking needed for the new development above. You can disagree with the amounts of parking all you want (like I do), but the narrative is what it is.

    Also, I’m not “cheerleading” anything here. I’m simply laying out the story of how the central riverfront has been transformed over the past two decades. I think the transformation has been for the better even though it might not be perfect. I’m not sure where you got the “cheerleading” impression from this op-ed, but I would love to hear where you thought I went to far off of telling the narrative for this story with said “cheerleading.”

  • Oh, and in case you have trouble finding those parking policy stories I have written, you can find them here:

  • Nathan Strieter

    ^Nate- Not that it matters too much but aside from a parking garage you can not legally (or profitably) put too much else in directly in a floodplain.

    With this in mind the garage is actually a great asset because it makes the land above it marketable.

    You might also want to read the comments section of the original Urbanophile post… it blew-up, like crazy, with comments similar to your own. Randy does a great job of explaining his position on The Banks neighborhood, as an opportunity, and as a part but not a representative whole of Cincinnati.

  • Nate

    Thanks for the links-I had not seen those.

    I see what you are saying about stating the reasons for building the lots, but I guess where I disagree is that I think stating a bad reason for doing something and letting it stand unopposed seems like agreement with the reason. Though I now understand your position, so I’m really just picking at the wording πŸ™‚

    Regarding “cheerleading”, perhaps that wasn’t the right choice of words. It may be that I just see most of the things you report on as positive. I’ve always thought of this blog as sort of a cheerleader for the central city. There don’t seem to be a whole lot of negative articles-not that there is anything wrong with that.

    Alas though, surely SOMETHING else could have gone there. It must have been cheaper to just put two storey pillars under the whole thing, or build a levy around it. That garage wasn’t the only option…

  • Nathan Strieter


    The garage is county project, done in the city. You get no argument about how public funds should not be used to support private transportation (ie cars), but associating the garage as a city decision in lieu of streetcar or light rail is not accurate.

  • The garages served dual several purposes, first among them:

    * complying with the requirements of the leases with the teams that obligated the County to provide a minimum number of parking spaces to the Reds, Bengals and U.S.Bank Arena on game days plus some other days.

    * created a “parking bank” for downtown — an ample supply of cheap parking for downtown office workers; the streetcar will leverage this investment; light rail would leverage it even more.

    * lifted our central riverfront – this was the riverfront of Mark Twain — out of the flood plain for the first time in 222 years and established a new “level of life” for a third of the new downtown Cincinnati.

    * provided sites for civic buildings and a major riverfront park.

    * became the new postcard of Cincinnati.

    Under the leadership of Mayor Qualls, the 1990’s will long be be viewed as the golden age of city planning in Cincinnati. Some big decisions were made that will pay off for generations.

  • As much as I hate to say it, parking is sometimes a necessary evil. Developers can’t get loans without it. Companies refuse to relocate without it. Tourists will leave without it. It’s just the paradigm of U.S. culture, unfortunately. The important thing is that parking structures are designed right and incorporated into new projects in a less-than-obtrusive way.

  • Nate

    Randy, sorry for completely derailing the comments…Good article! πŸ™‚

  • Justin

    So, when The Banks are done how large with the underground parking garage be? Will it be one of the largest underground parking garages in the world?

  • Tasha

    Go Bengals!

  • Mike McCarthy

    The discussion about public versus private transportation is all and good, but when Randy posts this —
    “With that said, the parking garages built here were built for those very reasons. 1) To replace the surface parking that previously existed, and 2) to supply the parking needed for the new development above. You can disagree with the amounts of parking all you want (like I do), but the narrative is what it is.”

    it is apparent that something CRITICAL is being misunderstood. The riverfront is a FLOODPLAIN. The parking garages exist in LARGE part to elevate The Banks and The Freedom Center above the floodplain.

    Yes, other methods could have been employed, but to elevate development and then NOT think of something to do with the space underneath the development — which is massive and only floods a few times per century — would be completely irresponsible.

    These discussions about the riverfront always seem to miss the obvious as they degenerate into treatises about social engineering, urban lifestyle, transportation subsidy, and politics in general. Set aside ALL those too-often-inane subjects and look at the facts on the ground — it’s a flood plain.

    From 1997 —