Learning from the urban design of Paul Brown Stadium

[This story was originally published in Greater Greater Washington as part a two-part series on urban football stadiums. Visit the original story for more comments, thoughts and opinions about case studies of other recently built urban football stadiums in America – Randy.]

Through its history, Cincinnati has seen a typical evolution of urban sports venues for American cities. The intersection of Findlay and Western, in Cincinnati’s West End neighborhood housed the Cincinnati Reds from 1864 through 1970 in three iterations of ballparks — League Park, Palace of the Fans, and Crosley Field — until the team moved with the Cincinnati Bengals football team to Riverfront Stadium.

The Bengals also spent their first two years playing at Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati’s campus uptown. But when the two teams moved to Riverfront Stadium, they followed a national trend of cookie cutter stadiums in urban environments meant to serve as economic development generators. The problem was that the promise never came to fruition in the cities that went after the golden egg.

Most of those same cities have rebuilt their professional sports venues, many in the urban core. But the question still remains whether the return on investment is worth the valuable land for these lightly-used behemoths.

In Cincinnati, the Reds host more than 81 games every year drawing tens of thousands of fans to each event. Additional events are held at the ballpark, and its related attractions, throughout the year that also create a draw. Four blocks away, Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Bengals, hosts 10 games each year in addition to the smattering of high school events and concerts held there annually.

The result is a larger football stadium with far fewer events and a ballpark with more events but smaller crowds. The winner in this case is the ballpark, and the new generation of urban ballparks appears to be as successful as the original wave of urban ballparks in the late 19th century.

The problem with urban football stadiums can be both a structural issue and a programmatic issue. In the case of Paul Brown Stadium it is more about the program. The large, tailgating-bound crowds demand available parking for their pre- and post-game festivities.

In Cincinnati, developers are currently constructing The Banks, a mixed-use urban entertainment node wedged between Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium and will eventually house thousands of new residents. Before each phase of development begins, it must first have two-floors of underground parking built before it even begins to satisfy the parking demands for the new residents and workers to be housed above.

Once complete, The Banks may set the stage for a truly unique urban sports and entertainment area, one that would have no surface parking and force tens of thousands of sports fans, visiting the area, out onto the streets for live music, food, drink, and festivities. This may end up being Paul Brown Stadium’s saving grace.

The beautiful thing about professional sports venues is that they can turn what is otherwise worthless land into something economically productive and thus improve land values in nearby areas. But most often franchise owners often want their venues to be located in prime real estate so that they can maximize their visibility. In Cincinnati that meant handing over prime waterfront property to two large concrete masses that only stay active a fraction of the year.

When other cities examine plans for an urban sports venue of their own, they should keep more in mind than the wishes of the franchise ownership and the promise of skyline shots on national television once or twice a year. Less is more. You want the venue to blend in so that it does not detract from its surroundings when it is inevitably non-active. You want the venue to be versatile so that it can serve other functions beyond that of playing baseball or football. And most importantly, get rid of the parking so that venue’s support facilities do not kill what you want the venue to create — economic development.

Paul Brown Stadium aerial photograph provided by UrbanCincy contributer Thadd Fiala.

  • J

    You’ve made an interesting point about tailgating at PBS. With no surface parking lots there will be nowhere to tailgate. However, there are a few other things I don’t like. To the west of PBS is dead. I never see anyone over there when I drive around, and it’s obviously because there’s nothing to do over there. There’s a practice field for the Bengals, but does it really need to be there? Today’s urban professionals have an active lifestyle. I would like to see some fields that could be used for soccer and other team sports to the west of PBS. This would make The Banks more enticing to potential residents, and playing team sports with PBS in the background would provide and interesting ambience. But that isn’t all. The fields could double as a tailgaters-only zone. The problem is the relocation of the Bengals practice field. But let’s be honest, do they really need their practice field in such a prime real-estate location? Of course, if that can’t be done there’s always surface parking under the I-75 bridges, but that doesn’t sound too enticing to me, personally.

  • J:

    I completely agree about the practice fields to the west of the stadium. That is a pretty great and simple idea to open them up to the public so that they could be used for soccer, football, or just whatever else people decide to use them for. This is what the University of Cincinnati does with their athletic fields (including Nippert Stadium) when they are not in use, and it makes much better use of the limited land.

  • ok, let me make my complete ignorance of sports ulture real plain, Can’t the tailgating continue in the garages?

  • Quimbob:

    Some people continue to tailgate inside of the above ground parking garages on UC’s campus for Bearcat football games, but tailgating in underground parking garages would seem to be difficult. Smoke from grills, I imagine, would be quite problematic. Plus you lose some of the social element of tailgating when you are in a garage…especially an enclosed underground garage.

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    There is still a huge tailgating lot around Longworth Hall and the strip of parking between the stadium and the river.

    The practice field, specifically, was a major point of contention during planning for the stadium. It single-handedly held back development of The Banks because of the millions necessary to acquire the warehouse formerly located there, then because it wasn’t used as surface parking it forced more multi-story garage construction at The Banks per the conditions of the Bengals lease.

    The real danger we’re facing is that we’re 10 years into the Bengals 30-year lease and The Banks might not be completed until right before the lease renegotiation, which leaves the Bengals free to leave for another city.

  • Was the warehouse west of Paul Brown Stadium the location where The Old Spaghetti Factory was, and where Hofbrahaus was originally intended to go?

  • Brent

    The residing public can easily use the many acres of fields to the east of PBS at Sawyer Point. If the current lack of use at that site is any indication, a field redevelopment west of PBS would be an extravagant waste of money. There’s no need to pick the scab of what was once a contentious problem. A better use of ingenuity would give all of these soon-to-be and current downtown residents moderately safe walking/biking access to grocers and convenience stores other than Findlay Market and Walgreens/CVS.

  • David M

    I pray every night that the earth will swallow up PBS and rid Cincinnati of the cancer that is the Bengals and the Brown family.

  • Dave

    Great post Randy.

    A few things jump out at me about PBS and the future of the area. The tailgating question is a great one. As a Bengal season ticket holder, I feel pretty confident in saying there is no way people will tailgate in the garage. This gives the city a unique opportunity to capitalize on the green space at Central Riverfront Park and get the most from the bars & restaurants at The Banks. Longworth Hall will continue to have its crowd, but there are a lot of people that don’t want to walk that far for Bengals games & so there will be quite an opportunity there. And Cincinnati is currently unique in that there is not a central tailgate spot, it is very fragmented currently down there on Sundays.

    Secondly, there is always an undercurrent of the Bengals building a practice bubble and it would be very interesting to see if they would use the existing practice space or try to find news space in the area. This wasn’t addressed in your post & would love your thoughts on where it might go.

    Either way, the riverfront is finally starting to come together and we are getting stadiums in a neighborhood instead of stand alone destinations.

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    The big brick warehouse next to the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge was still a warehouse up until 1998, from what I remember. The Old Spaghetti Factory was in a separate building. I think that Hoffbrauhaus wanted to be in a new building on The Banks but the process was not far enough along, or more likely, they faked interest in being on the Cincinnati side from the beginning as part of that era’s “everything’s moving to Kentucky” narrative.

  • Zack

    Uh, there is plenty of surface space to tailgate west of the stadium. The gravel pits, Longworth Hall, UPS lots, And even more space that doesnt really have a name. Heck people have grills at the lot next to the Millenium. If anything, they should try to encourage the tailgaters to the surface lots, and the fans just attending the game to the garages.

    OR, look for a radio station or TV or bar to host a large controlled tailgate.

  • jb

    Wouldn’t it be worth it to turn PBS into a covered, multi-purpose stadium for 100 million? Then you could host a SB, a FF, you wouldn’t need a practice field, etc, etc. I hope the Browns do move to LA and we get a real franchise somehow.

  • Jake

    I always found it quite wasteful that the city spent SO much on these brand new stadiums. I wish we still had Crosley, honestly. It could be like Cincy’s Fenway. Although Riverfront stadium was hideous, at least it was more economical. It hosted both teams. That makes more sense to me. We spent SO much on these once-in-a-while stadiums when we could have built something a lot more useful. Like the streetcar line 10 years earlier.

    That being said, I do love going to games at Great American. Great American wins, hands down, between GA and PBS. Paul Brown is cool and the architecture isn’t too bad but it’s hard to not look at it and go “wow, what a colossal waste of money for a franchise that can’t do a thing.”

    I honestly think that if we got rid of tailgating and replaced it with a street festival-like thing (think Wrigleyville or the blocks around Fenway) it would be so much more fun. I love to tailgate but I always enjoy myself more in the urban environments at stadiums (granted, they’re all baseball) like those in Baltimore (Camden Yards), etc.

    Enjoy the snow, all!

  • Ryan L

    I do think a street festival would be an interesting approach. Unfortunately for PBS, it is kind of tucked away behind the interstate and several overpasses. While it could be done, there really aren’t many places to go like bars in the immediate vicinity of PBS to keep people interested.

    Perhaps as surface parking becomes harder to find around the stadium, this will form naturally. While the stadium issues that were voted on present huge problems today, I do think that keeping the teams has helped keep Cincinnati area people passionate about the city. Was it a bad deal? Sure. Could the stadiums still be providing some positive aspects to the city as well? Probably.

  • Zack

    jb: Cincy doesnt have enough hotels for a superbowl or F4.

    Jake dont confuse the baseball neighborhood layouts (Wrigley, Camden) with NFL. Im not sure of any NFL team that has a neighborhood stadium. Doing a combo stadium just isnt the norm anymore. I dont think its fair also to compare the two considering GABP is in use 82+ days a year, and handles far less audience each day.

    FWIW, the Banks might actually make PBS the MOST intertwined stadium in terms of residential/commercial/football in the US! Id have to do some research, but off the top of my head i cant think of any that have the unique setup of PBS with the Banks right there, the river, the DT area, KY a short jaunt away, ample tailgating space.

  • Jake


    I know that no NFL stadium has any neighborhood setting like that. The reason I used it the MLB as an example is precisely because I agree with what you’re saying as far as it being nonexistent. My point is that I don’t think it has to be like that. I hope that the Banks Development turns Paul Brown into a stadium more like that.
    I know that the combo stadiums aren’t the norm anymore but I feel that it’s a bit wasteful to have two. I know that it’s not going to change, but I felt like complaining a bit. Hahaha.

    I just don’t want Paul Brown to hamper development around the river because they need a crap load of surface parking to satisfy the tailgaters. Good development down there will certainly make for a better city and stadium environment more than tailgating ever would.

    Good day!

  • Jake & Zack:

    You two touched on exactly what I see happening with PBS and The Banks. I believe that once fully developed, The Banks will transform PBS into one of the most integrated stadiums in the country.

    I think that most tailgating will (or should) shift to the streets inside The Banks development where they would then be closed off to moving vehicular traffic on game days. As of now there aren’t enough bars or destinations at the yet-to-be-built development, but there are already signficant additions that will be opening later this spring including the Moerlein Lager House, Holy Grail, and more.

  • Zack


    I think we are all in agreement. Not sure if the bars fill the “gatin need. Theres something fun about grilling and drinking beer out of the trunk.

    BUT, i doubt there are a substantial amount of fans that refuse to do without, and as we have all noted, there is still ample room for the park-n-grill setup. The ideal situation is one where you find existing surface lots, tailgate, head to a bar close to the stadium, and then to the game. Everyone wins.

  • Jake


    Couldn’t agree more. There is something uniquely “football” about tailgating. I think we all understand that there needs to be more of a balance and for Cincy to try something new with the Banks/PBS. We’re just all saying it a different way!