The Triumph of Cincinnati’s Center City Plan

Cincinnati was a different place ten years ago. It was a city still reeling from the destruction left behind by the civil unrest in 2001, and had a downtown in decline with retailers closing up shop and office vacancies soaring. The Banks project was regarded as a pipe dream, a field of mud between the elevated islands of sports stadiums and a lonely museum overlooking construction on the opposite side of the Ohio River.

Over-the-Rhine was a different place ten years ago as well. The corner of Twelfth and Vine Street consistently rated as the most dangerous in the city. Block after block of boarded buildings stood silently as echoes of an era time forgot. This was Cincinnati’s center city, a dried up husk of its former glory where redevelopment projects stalled and floundered and everyone returned home before dusk.

My, how far things have come.

In ten years time, the city center has experienced a resurrection from what appeared to be a near death experience. Fountain Square now attracts concerts and events, The Banks has become reality, Over-the-Rhine is being revitalized before our eyes, and it seems like every day there is a new project, a new store, a new cultural amenity, or a new festival choosing the downtown area.

Phase one of The Banks has been built [LEFT], and a major revitalization of Over-the-Rhine is underway [RIGHT]. Photographs by Randy A. Simes for UrbanCincy.

There is a saying that it takes a village, but in this case, it took a plan to change the area’s trajectory.

The Center City Plan as conceived in 2002 by consultants as a report to the city’s Economic Development Task Force. What the plan did is lay out a vision and way forward for the city to begin restoring the vitality of its largest economic center.

“The Economic Development Taskforce was a public-private partnership that looked at how the city could thrive,” City Spokesperson, Meg Olberding, explained. “The task force laid out a structure whereby the public and private sectors each have their role, but must work together.”

The task force made 23 recommendations, in total, including the creation of a one-stop permit shop, establishment of the Port Authority as an economic development agency, and the formation of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC).

City officials and 3CDC were tasked with making the goals laid out in the Center City Plan a reality. In particular, the plan detailed four initiatives aimed at restoring vitality.

  1. Redevelop Fountain Square: The plan recommended that the city, “transform Fountain Square into the city’s retail, cultural and civic heart”. Consolidation of retail at street level and creation of an attractive public space went into the redesign of the square. The removal of pedestrian skywalks also seen as a way to focus pedestrian activity on the street.
  2. Revitalize Over-the-Rhine: With regards to Over-the-Rhine the plan said, “Without intensive focus on Over-the-Rhine, efforts in the center city will be wasted.” Starting with a focus on the Vine Street corridor as the primary retail corridor, the plan envisioned a catalytic development agency spurring redevelopment along Vine Street in the historic neighborhood. The plan was to start at Central Parkway and work north towards Liberty Street.
  3. Build the Banks: The plan initially tasked the agency that would become 3CDC with the mission of building The Banks project. Years later the project moved forward under a steering committee to overcome conflicts that arose from the various parties involved in the riverfront redevelopment.
  4. Restore Washington Park: It was recommended that the city, “Implement a comprehensive development strategy to make Washington Park a civic treasurer.”

Of the many recommendations that stem from the Center City Plan, nearly all of them have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented today. The success of the plan, and those implementing it, can be seen every time a new project breaks ground, a new business opens shop, or a new cultural attraction takes root.

Other less visible accomplishments can be credited to the implementation of the other recommendations of the Economic Development Task Force such as the evolving direction of the Port Authority, the Plan Build Live initiative, and the city’s revised marketing approach.

Olberding concluded that, “This has proven to be a winning strategy for the City and one that will be more and more important as we take Cincinnati to the next level of growth and opportunity.”

  • zschmiez

    Nice entry!

    Wanted to talk to point #1;  do we count restaurants as “retail”?  Seems that the restaurants do rather well, while ANY form of retail struggles

    • This is a good point. Restaurants are usually considered “retail”, but restaurants and services are expanding while many retail stores are suffering as more commerce moves online.

    •  It depends how you define success. Retail occupancy rates have improved throughout the past decade thanks in part to new tenants, but also because a large amount of retail space has come off the market permanently (primarily within Tower Place Mall which has become more office space).

      Often times as urban neighborhoods are restored the first commercial retail tenants to come are the restaurants and bars, and once a stable customer base is there the other retailers tend to move in. Certainly the Internet is a bit of a game changer, but it hasn’t had a total killer effect on physical retail space yet (just certain retailers).

      I would imagine the next wave of commercial investment you will see in Cincinnati’s greater downtown area will be clothing and other shopping options. Just let all these new residents get settled in and welcome in some additional neighbors.

    • Where? It’d have to be in a somewhat vacant area. Fourth St?

    • zschmiez

      There’s retail space planned (I believe) as part of Dunn Humbys relocation to 5th/Race.  That could boost some other available spaces (in use and vacant) near that area.

    • Retail implies shopping rather than dining. But it should’ve been easily predicted that dining would thrive over shopping given the environment that was created.

  • Retail is in decline and increasingly moving online, that is why traditional retail isn’t expanding much downtown. Shoes, books, music, and even furniture and appliance sales are increasingly moving online. I’ve bought all these online myself and it went well.

    • Chicago’s Michigan Ave. and NYC’s Fifth Ave. where shopping is an experience would disagree with that. Just go their during x-mass shopping.

    • Jay

      As a downtown retailer, we are asked by tourists (from Cincinnati suburbs as well as from all over the world) why it is they cannot find many places to spend their money.  The people are here.  They want to spend money.  Success in OTR is great, but is of no consequence to those staying at the Hilton, Westin, Hyatt, Cincinnatian, or Millennium hotels. 
      Landlords are the obstacle to most retail downtown.  Lease rates are much too high.  Tower Place was still booming in 2002 when the plan was conceived.  Bad management at Tower Place and a reliance on nationwide retailers, many who initiated policies of closing all urban locations across the nation, closed during the recession, or could not renew leases once the property went under bank control are the problems with Tower Place.

    • There have been some deals in downtown real estate recently. Landlords can be visionless and oblivious. Someone is going to have to shown them how reduced rates and increased leasing can provide them some solid income rather than waiting for the super profits that will never come. they need to see that 1 percent of something is more than 100 percent of nothing.

    • Zachary Schunn

      Matthew and Jay:  As a real estate agent myself, I unfortunately totally agree with the sentiment.  I’ve been saying that asking retail lease rates downtown are too high on these boards for awhile now, when you compare the rates to OTR or Uptown.  OTR and Uptown are seeing more activity, but for some reason many landlords downtown think they can get $20/sf just because it’s downtown, when $12-$15/sf is more common in the rest of the city.

      Unfortunately we have a lot of investors (and real estate agents) in this city who don’t understand cash-flow models and the major losses associated with vacancy.  The same holds true for office space.  It’s largely a game of finance, and everything will sell/lease for the right price.  If more landlords were willing to take, say, $12/sf and achieve 90% occupancy instead of asking $15+/sf and settling for 50% occupancy, they would be in a lot better shape, as would the rest of downtown.

  • clevelandbearcat

    Is there anything in that plan that the city didn’t get to accomplish?  Whats next after this phase?

    • In my personal opinion, the next logical step is a regional transportation plan. Now that we have established downtown as a place where many people want to live and others want to visit, we need better methods of getting around. The transit proposal in 2002 failed, but things have changed a lot since then. The Streetcar is under construction, our plans to widen I-75 and build a new bridge are stalled for the foreseeable future, gas prices are higher, and more people see downtown as a destination now.

    • Given the political support for a new Brent Spence, I wouldn’t say it is “stalled”. Streetcar extensions, small improvements in road connections, and express buses are probably the next steps transportation wise. With the mammoth quantity of parking garages built in recent years, we are going to have to accept that many will continue to come by car to downtown for years to come.

    • In January, some phases of the I-75 reconstruction project were delayed by as much as 14 years. Unless federal and state politicians have the guts to raise gas taxes or toll the interstates and bridges, don’t expect I-75’s construction to be completed until about 2030.

    • Yes, It was well announced when plans for  i-75 improvements were put on the shelf. But, support for a new Brent Spence bridge continues separately and has some  political powerful support in the senate and in state govn’ts entirely separately from the I-75 plans. All the stories planted in the local press and the national attention the ohio river bridges have gotten have continued to get attention while the I-75 plans have dissappeared from public discussion.

    • John Yung

      It will be interesting to see how that unfolds since many people are still very much against tolling the bridge. Also the push to build the bridge from the corporate community could result in a type of public-private partnership which would carry its own risks for the region if not thoroughly vetted.

    • Transportation planning in the midwest means widening highways and roads, which we can all hold off on. Unless it’s light/commuter rail or actually adding bike lanes/cycle tracks/etc., new car-oriented transportation improvements can wait.

    • That’s what I was trying to get at. Widening I-75 and adding doubling the capacity of the Brent Spence Bridge is not a transportation plan, it’s a Band-Aid on the problem. I think we are at a point (or very close to it) where we could actually implement a long-term plan to improve transit.

    • Zachary Schunn

      Totally agree, though like Matthew I think the new bridge WILL happen, even if not for 10-15 more years, and the I-75 plans aren’t totally stalled as construction is still continuing at the bottle-necks around Mitchell and 562.  I-75 will be widened eventually, but the critical question is whether rail will be included as part of the widening.

      Personally, I’d like to see the city come out with a loose timeline for streetcar expansion.  I’d also like to see better cooperation between ODOT, OKI, Metro, and the city on bus expansion plans, including BRT and transit shelters as Metro slowly transitions to a true hub-and-spoke system.  I’m curious how much state and federal funding can go to Metro and light rail in the next decade, but I think voter sentiment towards those two are even more favorable than the streetcar, so if we had to have a 0.25% or 0.5% sales tax increase, it’d likely do much better than the 2002 vote.

    • The construction on I-75 isn’t stopped, but certain phases of it have been massively delayed. You can find dates for each phase of the “Mill Creek Expressway” project at I can’t find start/end dates for the various phases of the “Thru the Valley” project, which includes the “Lockland split” area. The bridge is also considered a separate project with its own timelines.

    • Zachary Schunn

      Thanks for the link Travis.  I’m familiar with ODOT’s delays of I-75 expansion, and that the Mill Creek portion is just a minor part of what the state had planned.  (UrbanCincy had a post a couple months back announcing ODOT’s delays, if I remember right.)

      Personally, I think the work on I-75–both current construction and delayed plans–gives us a terrific opportunity to stand up and say we don’t WANT larger interstates, we want a rail option.  Imagine if we just got 20% of drivers to ride rail lines, what that would do for traffic problems?  And if the rail line begins to exceed its capacity, you just buy another train, instead of re-constructing the entire road system.

      After years of seeing I-75 construction up to and through Dayton, and now through much of Cincinnati, I’m sick of the mess and the delays, knowing that when they’re finally done traffic will be just as bad as it ever was.

      Give us a light rail option!

    • Kevin LeMaster

      Some of these I-75 “improvements” have been moved up due to the recent infusion of cash to ODOT.  It’s basically all road money, though.  Thank you, Dr. Asphalt.

    • John Yung

      The goals of the plan seem to be accomplished but some of the ways that were recommended were abandoned or reconfigured. For example, the PlanBuildLive initiative has its roots in the plan but it is currently under development.

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  • Cincymorron

    Mr Yung,

         You are absolutely right that parts of downtown and OTR look much better. But you ignor the problems. There is a shopping center at 4th and Race that is a mess. While Vine Street looks great, Main Street is a ghost of its past glory some ten years ago. There are parts of 4th Street that make me sick everytime I see them and think back 15 years. We unfortunately have to play a game of “rob peter to pay paul”. Areas that get the most current attention thrive but that kills the other areas. The basic problem is that with a declining population you basically have a supply and demand problem….there just aren’t enough people to support more businesses, housing and services…so everytime there is an improvement or new business there will likely be one that closes. Until we increase our population you cannot have permanent improvement. 

    • zschmiez

      I wouldn’t say John ignored anything.  The article was about the Center City Plan, and what its accomplished.  I’m sure someone could write about the shortfalls, but what would that prove?

      I didn’t see (not to say it didnt exist) a plan to restore Tower Place Mall to a thriving position. 

      I will debate Vine / Main.  15 years ago Main was full of bars.  And they were packed.  Today, Main has maybe 8 bars, but I know that 3 of them were FULL on Saturday night (Full as in you cant come in).   Add to that they have places to eat, more galleries, and businesses as well.    Its not just a strip of bars. And much of that growth on Main has been organic.  

      I think your comments are targeted incorrectly.  You say population is falling, and cant sustain businesses hence “rob peter to pay paul”.   And then we read downtown (or rather city center) population is up, businesses are opening, restaurants are opening.  and residential leasing is almost unattainable due to demand.

      The plan was to improve city center, and they are doing that.  

    • We have to let go of the “past glory.” It can’t be recreated. Move forward and build a ‘new glory’ based on new economic opportunities. The past can be a burden as well as an inspiration. Sometimes we have to put something down in order to pick up something else.

    • Zachary Schunn

      There are still issues in OTR and CBD, but your assertion that “[a]reas that get the most current attention thrive but that kills the other areas” overstates the issues.  Downtown has taken 3 or 4 steps forward for every 1 step back in the last 10 years.  While we could nitpick the steps back, I’m glad to see a net gain, and an impressively strong one at that.

  • “transform Fountain Square into the city’s RETAIL, cultural and civic heart”- While there are great dining options on the square, the block’s ONLY frontage with retail, 6th Street, is far from thriving. I would argue the retail aspect of the plan has failed or they should’ve specified “dining on the square” instead of “retail”, because it’s not a retail hub.

    Revitalize OTR should’ve also focused on Main St. The building stock and bars are better and there are less vacant or blighted parcels. Just because it’s not adjacent to Kroger and Vine St. shouldn’t mean it’s over looked. If anything, it should be getting more attention because of the riots, not less.

    • Personally, I disagree with this.  It’s because Main Street had building stock in much better shape that the street has been able to revitalize itself organically with a nice mix of retail, studios/offices, entertainment, and food.  Vine Street wouldn’t have been able to revitalize in a similar fashion without 3CDC’s help because of just how bad the building stock had gotten.  3CDC made the right call.

    • I totally agree with Dan. Main Street didn’t need millions of dollars of investment from 3CDC. Vine Street did. And that’s why Vine and Main feel very different today. Both are experiencing success in their own ways.

  • Don’t break open the champagne just yet. There’s still a lot to be done. A lot.

  • Austin Coop

    We’re quick to go right back to complaining about how much work is still to be done and our disagreements on what has been done thus far.  Does anyone else remember walking to Reds games and explaining to your out of town friends that “one day… this will be something.”  We’re on the right track!