Cincinnati officials are looking for design ideas as they work to cap urban highway

Billions of dollars of public and private investment has transformed Cincinnati’s central riverfront over the past decade. What was once a flood-prone industrial center turned unusable waterfront property, is now home to a new park, neighborhood, museums, and professional sports venues.

The investments made to date have been so successful, in fact, that they are creating spinoff investment in the Central Business District. A remaining hurdle, however, is the crossing of Third Street, Fort Washington Way (FWW), and Second Street.

The nearly 300-foot span of roadways was significantly reduced in width when Fort Washington Way was reconstructed in 2001, but the span remains a visual barrier for many of those in the Central Business District or at The Banks.

Cincinnati officials are looking to build off of recent success by capping Fort Washington Way. Photograph by Randy A. Simes for UrbanCincy.

The problem was expected by city officials, in the 1990s, during original planning efforts for the central riverfront’s transformation. As a result, city leaders worked to raise $10 million to construct pile foundations that could one day support a cap over the interstate highway running beneath street level on FWW.

The pile foundations are capable of extending 600 feet over the highway roughly between Elm Street and Main Street. According to engineers who worked on FWW’s reconstruction, the caps could support the weight required for a park, or built structures depending on height and building materials.

No specific development plan for the caps has been developed however, and now the city is launching a design competition called Connect the Blocks to establish a vision for space.

“The Banks is well underway, downtown is growing, and now we must begin thinking about what we as a community want to see over Fort Washington Way to connect downtown and the riverfront,” City Manager Milton Dohoney stated in a prepared release. “We must first have a common vision of what we want, then we can establish the roadmap to get there.”

The national competition is calling on architectural, engineering and design professionals to create and submit concepts and cost estimates for the caps that are to be built over FWW. According to city officials, three to five finalists will be selected and awarded stipends to further refine their designs.

St. Louis has dealt with similar issues as it has tried to bridge the divide created by I-70 between downtown and the Gateway Arch grounds. While I-70 will not be capped entirely, a one block portion is envisioned to connect Jefferson National Expansion Memorial with Kiener Plaza in the CityArchRiver 2015 plan.

In Ohio, the only similar example of such a project exists in Columbus where a $7.8 million cap was constructed over I-670 along N. High Street. It includes approximately 25,000 square feet of street-level retail and connects Columbus’ downtown with its Short North district.

The City of Cincinnati held the first of two public meetings, on the design competition, last Wednesday in Madisonville. The second meeting is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, October 9 at 6pm at the Main Public Library (map). The public is also invited to weigh in on the process by participating in an online survey going on now, and officials also say that the public will be invited back to view the finalists’ designs once they are selected.

Full details about how to participate in the eight-month design competition can be found on the project’s website. The implementation of any winning design, officials say, will be dependent upon the availability of funding.

  • Jasomm

    Love these contests…. Wacky Idea #1: an iconic megastructure that looks like a skyscraper size Roebling Bridge that lets people take gondola-lift rides along the suspension cables for views of the city.

    Rough mock up here:

  • CC B

    Please do not make the entire thing a park. Do we really need more parks down there? Could the city lease the space above the caps for $1.00 for X Years if the developer agrees to pays for the construction of the caps. This would pay for the caps and put the void space into use while bringing in new tax revenue.

  • Guest

    Now is the time for more residential. A waiting list at The Banks, tight supply in OTR til Mercer comes on board. I would like a plaza-type structure, apartments and commercial space that caters to residents around the perimeter built on 2nd level over open archways to a public space in the center, Plaza Real in Barcelona…minus the palm trees. 🙂

  • Now is the time for more residential. A waiting list at The Banks, tight supply in OTR and CBD. I think points to a long term demand. I would like a plaza-type structure, apartments and commercial space that caters to residents around the perimeter built on 2nd level over open archways to a public space in the center, Plaza Real in Barcelona…probably with a different architectural stlye and minus the palm trees. 🙂

    • I agree that the demand is very real. So why aren’t they building now?

    • Well…they are building Mercer Commons now, they are finishing up The Reserve down on 4th. I would like to see the Terrace Plaza become apartment or condos. I like to think that continued demand will create even more demand. As for the caps. We don’t really need another park or restaurants/bars…hence the main thing left is residential. Open to other ideas of course.

  • Pierre Skyscrapper

    How does one submit a proposal to the competition, the website does not have an explanation on how to enter. Maybe I am simply missing it and need to be pointed in the right direction. Or is this a private competition that simply asks the opinion of the public via a surveymonkey (c) survey?

    – M. Pierre Skyscrapper

  • The piles that are in place were located in such a way as to leave gaps between the existing overpasses and the future caps. This gap is about 10-20 feet to either side of the Walnut and Vine St. overpasses. These gaps allowed the caps to avoid mechanized ventilation and reclassification as a tunnel. So if they want to build just caps like what Columbus has the existing piles won’t be used at all AND they’d have to disrupt traffic to drive new piles adjacent to the overpasses. It’s a bit of a mess.

  • Being an architecture student, I wish that the city would open up the competition to more than just professional teams. Many architecture competitions offer multiple categories to widen the scope and get more proposals. It wouldn’t require much more effort…
    In any case I’m glad to see the interest in a project like this. This is exciting to me because it is a desire to create quality space using leftover area; reprogramming the no-man’s land land between downtown and the riverfront. There is potential to create something more complex and more useful than a ‘look at me’ stadium, macho skyscraper, or monumental park.

  • Much different scenarios that you have to guard against when comparing the Columbus cap to Cincinnati. There is only one, three lane cross street south of the cap in Columbus. There are five lanes of traffic on each 2nd and 3rd St’s in Cincinnati. Much different environment from a pedestrian’s standpoint. Frankly, the interstate connecting 75 and 71 should’ve never been run through the city in that location and Ft. Washington Way would’ve been much better off as a boulevard. There’s usually only 2 lanes of traffic full at peak times, anyways.

  • Zachary Schunn

    The ideas brought forth in the competition will be interesting, but due to structural issues I expect most to be thrown out. It’s likely to be a park with some artsy/sculptural aspects that will draw tourists… think the Bean and Water Fountains in Chicago.

    Here’s an idea that could be interesting to discuss… make 2nd and 3rd streets 2-way with medians, and slow the speed to 25. Much less cumbersome to pedestrians. Major issue is how you handle traffic on/off the highways. Plus you’d probably need to re-configure the Broadway to Taylor-Southgate area (which could use some re-configuring anyway).

    • To that end, why not just shrink the width of Second Street and Third Street, then use that additional space for buildings that would front onto those east/west running streets. You could get additional depth to the buildings by cantilevering them over Fort Washington Way and using the support columns as is possible.

      I suspect you could probably trim 20-30 feet off of each Second and Third Street, so then you could do horizontally aligned structures along those street frontages.

    • Zachary Schunn

      Randy, not a bad idea, but I was reminded last night that 2nd and 3rd were originally reconfigured with light rail in mind.

    • You don’t need mega wide streets for LRT, you just need one travel lane. Also, are we going to have LRT on Second Street, Third Street and inside the Riverfront Transit Center?

  • Brian Finstad

    This was done in Duluth Minnesota about 20years ago to connect the downtown with Lake Superior. I’m not exactly sure how long it is, but it is pretty extensive. It was one of the best investments Duluth has ever made.