GUEST EDITORIAL: Horseshoe Casino Fails to Deliver on Urban Design

The completed Rock Gaming/Caesars joint venture boasts a list of features one would expect of a casino: 354,000 square feet, $400 million price tag, restaurants, bars, a 2,500-space parking garage, and space for business meetings and conventions. None of these features should come as a shock to anyone that’s ever been in a casino.

The touted difference between Horseshoes Cincinnati and Cleveland and casinos elsewhere, is that these have been deemed “truly urban” casinos. Well, if locating in a downtown is all that’s needed to make something urban, then mission accomplished. But since a downtown is a living collection of buildings and spaces, whether something is truly urban has more to do with how it contributes or detracts from its location. And since casinos are not known to be particularly friendly urban creatures, the most recent example being CityCenter, it’s worth looking at some of the concerns expressed to the unnamed Las Vegas starchitect Dan Gilbert imposed.

Cincinnati Casino
The only actual limestone you will find on the site is the wall coping around the lawn- note the whiteness of the caps compared to the synthetic stucco below.

The first thing I think of when I look at the new casino from any angle is tan. Why in the world is it so tan? Color wasn’t something that was a key talking point for the casino, though the Urban Design Review Board has now made that a priority at The Banks, but the tan-ness of the building really dominates all other exterior features. This domination lies with the use of synthetic stucco to emulate limestone. The issue here is not with modern building technology, but that it was misused in both color and implementation.

The implementation failure lies in the lack of any ornament within the stucco. One of the main reasons for using limestone is that it is one of the best stones for showing carved detailed, as can be seen just blocks away at 30 E. Central Parkway. Why try to emulate a limestone building if the only way you do that is by using fake alternate panels and stopping there?

These two issues with the exterior of the building can be summed up in one way: the Messer Pendleton Bid Package required $5,033,623 for exterior metal framing/stucco, and $6,967,980 for interior wall framing and drywall and $2,268,821 for painting and wall coverings. The casino allocated an amount for the interior walls almost twice that of the exterior walls.

30 E. Central Parkway

The second oddity that stands out is the number of offsets, particularly on Reading Road. Offsets are a common feature of large single-story buildings, like Wal-Mart and Kroger, to break up the mass of these behemoths. But what’s the goal here? To confuse the pedestrian or neighbor across Reading into thinking that these are multiple windowless buildings? Admit you’re a grand building like Music Hall or Union Terminal. Walking west down Reading is like passing by massive stone boulders. There’s no beauty or nuance to the walls save for two large brick panel insets and foundation plantings.

“With the strong support of this very active, urban-focused community, our team has been working for more than a year to ensure that our project does not prosper alone but also benefits the surrounding neighborhoods and region. The outward facing design and pedestrian accessibility will rejuvenate this part of town, while putting thousands of people into good-paying jobs.”- Dan Gilbert- Chairman, Rock Gaming.

“Outward facing design” is a catchphrase that was repeated throughout the design process. What does that mean? To this project it means having one main entrance and restaurants with windows and a patio, quite the accomplishment for typically fortress-like buildings. But to say the design of the project is outward facing because of the openness of only 360 feet of the entire building’s facade and at only one of the intersections surround the site is like saying a restaurant near the entrance of a mall is outward facing because it’s on the exterior of the building.

Reading Road Quarry
Richard Rosenthal was right about his concern over a “gully-like” feeling down Reading. In fact, it’s a quarry.

Urban design was really were there was the most input from local groups on how the casino will most likely affect the everyday life in the public realm around the casino.

Terminated vistas – views that focus on a deliberately chosen object or scene – is a historical design concept used to draw people towards a building and create the appearance that destinations are closer than they appear, encouraging pedestrians to walk.

In the case of the casino, the site’s prow-shaped western end at the corner of Central Parkway, Reading and Eggleston creates the opportunity to terminate the view looking east down Central at the casino entrance and the developer has taken that opportunity. Again, as with the offsets, there is a lack of grandness to the view as the casino is dwarfed by the height of the buildings leading to it down Central, rendering it almost insignificant.

Central Parkway Vista

The view down Pendleton towards the casino would sad if it wasn’t so tan. No pedestrian connectivity, no windows, not even roof treatment. Nothing.

While the focus of activity for the casino will be at its entrance and new lawn for the county jail, the opportunity for Pendleton lies in what happens north of and down Reading.

From the site’s layout, you can see that building coverage isn’t great on either side of Reading Road for certain spans. And oddly enough, the casino chose to build near the street for the span west of Pendleton where there are no buildings on the north side of Reading, and then chose to back away from the street for its loading docks for the span east of Pendleton where there are buildings on the north side of Reading. And since Rock Gaming owns the stretch on the south side of Reading, it’s extremely doubtful that organic infill development ever occurs in this area.

To end where the casino does, urban casinos are not uses that fail for any reason other than over taxation. When the casino opens and rightfully provides a local opportunity to keep the poor man’s tax from leaving for Indiana or Las Vegas, let’s be careful not to confuse its popularity with quality.

This guest editorial was authored by Eric Douglas, a native of Grand Rapids, MI who currently lives in Covington’s Roebling Point neighborhood. Eric is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism and earned a Bachelors of Science from Michigan State University. Since that time he has worked for Planning, Community Development and Public Works departments in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Detroit. If you would like to have your thoughts published on UrbanCincy you can do so by submitting your guest editorial to urbancincy@gmail.com.

  • Mark Christol

    Kinda comical considering the hoops local zoning folk made long established locally owned businesses jump through.

    Notably Adriatico’s
    http://www.building-cincinnati.com/2010/04/adriaticos-move-hits-snag.html

    and Skyline
    http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20110811/NEWS0108/308110011/Oakley-Skyline-fights-mural

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      Yeah, the problem was with the deal the State of Ohio made with the casino developers. This allowed them to proceed with their developments outside of the normal urban design and zoning review that everyone else must go through. As a result, local communities hosting these casinos got whatever the developers wanted to put there…just another reason why it seems ridiculous that the local districts housing these casinos have to share the tax revenues with every other county in the state.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=2309211 Eric Douglas

      Even with that, I don’t think there was much of an interest from council for even using the UDRB or planning commission in advisory roles since they passed a notwithstanding ordinance on something as simple to review and approve as signage.

    • cat

      Eric, have you ever designed a building? I’d like to see the outcome. I just love critics. Those who can do; those who can’t critique. That goes for all the morons commenting on this article.

  • jasomm

    eh… I’ve seen worse. When Universities building or museums are built in urban areas it often has the same effect. The social impact is likely worse than the urban design impact, and is possibly skewing the impression subconsciously. Its actually good to occasional have a blank wall with greenery – it breaks up the busy areas of the pedestrian areas and is a good place to walk dogs or find a quieter spot away from foot traffic. Though – if its crazy busy with auto traffic the last point is moot.

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      The problem is that there is very little pedestrian traffic out in this area, so the casino had a real opportunity to create some. The “gully” will only make this current bad situation worse.

      The vast majority of visitors will never even step foot on the sidewalk or use the “main” entrance at Broadway/Central Parkway. Instead, they will enter directly from the behemoth parking garage in back. The only real hope to generate some positive activity in the surrounding area is if the old SCPA building becomes a hotel, as they’re currently discussing. Then people will stay at that hotel and walk to the casino.

      People staying at hotels in the CBD will most likely take the shuttle bus from their hotels to the casino because it is farther than they would like to walk, especially in nice clothes.

    • jasomm

      I guess my interpretation of the design is this… Casino’s want to keep their traffic (and therefore dollars) inside. If all the inviting facades are on the inside, there will be some sections you cant pass through along the outside. the question then, is where to face the blank wall(s) and were to face the glitzy main entrance. You could have Eggleston walled on both sides with blanks walls (counting the court or sheriffs buildings backs), and make Reading busy on both sides. OR you could split the difference and have a blank wall and a busy side for both streets… Ideally they would have striven to be innovative and create a true urban side walk experience around the whole thing, but when youre dealing with Casino folks, you basically know theyre going for a tried and true system, not innovation. Philly is dealing with this processes right now, and it doesnt look promising

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      Why not build the casino as they did, but then leave enough room along the street to build a separate structure that actually engages the street. This could be with shopping, housing, room for a future hotel, or something else entirely. They could have created their fortress that keeps the people and their money inside without knowing what’s happening in the outside world, but then they also could have built up the street front with something more appropriate than a windowless canyon.

    • jasomm

      [Still playing devils advocate] That would probably been seen as competition to the dinning/drinking.shopping inside the casino, where they control the environment and gear it toward gambling. Or even if they own and operated the outside facing units, they are keeping potential gamblers outside at smaller profit…..
      Personally, I would like to see a developer take the chance of building their casino fortress walled in streetscape dinning and shopping, where each establishment is a winding entrance to the casino, along with a grand main entrance. But like I said, they probably view this as too much of a gamble.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bonnie.speeg Bonnie Speeg

      Sorry to say, after years of watching up close and personal the planning and redevelopment of other cities near Cincinnati incorporating casinos into their environment, that they ARE NOT interested in generating businesses outside their building to have customers walk from an old building converted into a hotel (SCPA: which I was under the impression CORE has already implemented their plans for residential condo redevelopment as of their early January public hearing).

      If it looks fairly obvious the windowless, walled off look of the casino doesn’t even bend an ‘eyebrow’ of itself toward the Pendleton district, it’s because they have no need for it. What they need are the people who from the a few miles radius, with vulnerable discretion, that like to feel ‘special’ by being wined and dined and be given a chance to hit the big bucks while being whirled around a brightly lit, noisy on purpose, controlled environment that has profit on its agenda. Street/pedestrian engagement is not on the casino menu….and neither is shopping except in THEIR shops. I’ll eventually go in to see how many shops, restaurants, gimcracks and geegaws they have to offer and compete with all my native Cincinnati businesses and know how to handle any questions I may get at the very public arts institution I work at only walking blocks south of the Cowboy Town, er, Horseshoe Casino.

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      Within the past week CORE has suggested that they could either redevelopment the former SCPA building into apartments or a hotel with a few apartments: http://www.bizjournals.com/cincinnati/blog/2013/02/dueling-plans-for-scpa-building-emerge.html.

  • http://twitter.com/prolix21 Dan

    The casino outrage is a day late and a dollar short. What did you all think it this would be? It’s a casino. A casino has a singular goal. There is no reason for them to engage with the city outside their doors. If your butt isn’t in a seat they aren’t making money. They’re all the same and if anyone ever thought this would be some triumph of urban design or become a good neighbor to all of us, you’re pretty naive.

    I think the city and state were incredibly short-sighted in this whole affair and we’ll be paying for it in the years to come. Financial projections are already lower than expected and we haven’t even begun to see the external impacts to the community. Sure the hotels might make out ok, but the casino is already stealing bookings from the Taft.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bonnie.speeg Bonnie Speeg

      Absolutely agree 100% and I’ve said the same before. If anyone thinks the casino is here for any purpose other than what you’ve stated, they need to read and think and read some more…and go do their homework by looking at this article and others. We will be paying for it for years to come..and the casinos are all the same in that respect and the fact that if you’re not inside, what do they care? The mammoth beige/tan building with the big words HORSESHOE riding across its entrance (and the new brown and white highway signs) all shout some kind of western theme. The building looks like it was implanted from somewhere out near Phoenix. Was that part of the concept? To make the people back here in the colonies think they have a little bit of southwest sand at their doorstep? (my answer is yes). I am sooo thankful the rise of the building does not go above the natural line of the most important vista to me which is Mt. Adams. I can still see it when I have to drive along the now very weird Reading Road corridor toward Staples. The buildings on the left are of absolutely no use or interest to the casino and create a border that no casino visitor is EVER going to go beyond.
      It’s a crime they’re already taking bookings from the Taft.

  • http://5chw4r7z.com 5chw4r7z

    I want to establish a fund for taggers and graffiti artists bombing that wall. To me that’s the quickest way to tie that ugly thing into the urban fabric.

    • Mark Christol

      If nobody is walking the stretch, it will be a good place for hookers & dope dealers.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1414890499 Matt Jacob

      Despite all the arts in Cincinnati, we have yet to embrace the graffiti style like Brooklyn and LA have. Nothing says open canvas like a giant tan wall.

      I’ve noticed some decent work in lower price hill (see near the new wadvogel viaduct) and queensgate. I think an outlet like that wall would be a good avenue for this type of artistic expression and keep it off places like the bridge at the Banks on the way to GABP.

  • http://www.jjakucyk.com/ Jeffrey Jakucyk

    Does the building actually engage any of the sidewalks directly, or is there always at least a little strip of plantings? If the casino developers are so averse to actually doing an urban building, I wish they’d have actually pulled it back farther (except at the entrance) and sold off the perimeter parcels for other buildings. It’s sad that such a thing is so difficult these days.

  • http://travisestell.com/ Travis

    I never had very high expectations for the design of the casino itself. I think perhaps a bigger missed opportunity is that the city removed Broadway between Eggleston and Central Parkway to make way for the grassy area in front of the casino. A smarter decision would have been to leave Broadway and remove Eggleston between Broadway and Central Parkway, allowing for a new building to be built from Central Parkway to 9th Street, blocking the ugly Justice Center.

  • Peter Cunningham

    If urban design does anything, it establishes a sort of informal order: what’s good, what’s bad, what’s important, what’s unimportant. This is the fundamental purpose behind form-based code. The Casino promotes a toxic, illusory notion that gamblers can get something for nothing. This is contrary to the hard-working, independent “American Way” and contrary to common sense and experience. Cincinnati designers have distorted this order by centralizing and exalting an activity that, though it shouldn’t necessarily be eliminated, should at least be marginalized. It fits, then, that gambling is housed in a cave.

    Horseshoe’s design is certainly what we expect from a culture that lost its architectural vocabulary to the mid-20th century. I am thrilled for all of Cincinnati’s development; so much so that next year after college I plan to move back to my hometown instead of Boston, New York, or other well-functioning beautiful urban centers. But, what scares me about Cincinnati is its non-existent aesthetic. The uniform and yet diverse style of OTR and the old CBD is what made and keeps this city so vibrant and enjoyable, but we discredit the importance of style and design for the sake of “development.” The casino will not always be a casino. It simply will not. But if the building in which the casino resided was beautiful and inviting to humans, it would outlast any type of programming that temporarily occupies it.

    It is NOT “too little, too late” to complain about the design flaws of the casino, because functionality, sustainability, and aesthetics must be better considered in Cincinnati’s many other projects.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=21405087 Neil Clingerman

    I’m surprised that the whole Bridging Broadway in no way addressed these concerns. Was anyone at those meetings to know if this was discussed at all? It seemed like (though now it seems like PR) this business was going to reach out to the community but as you can see by the result here, it may have been for moot.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=2309211 Eric Douglas

      Stephen Samuels, President of Bridging Broadway, doesn’t know if the casino used any of their work, so that says a lot about how much the casino was willing to work with residents. BB’s work was of a planning excercise around the casino area but it was light on the casino site itself. There’s an active relationship between BB and city staff but it doesn’t appear any elected officials pressed to implement BB’s work outside of infrastructure improvements not that . #notwithstanding

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=21405087 Neil Clingerman

      Even then, did anyone bring up concerns about a massive blank wall stymieing growth of what could be a very vibrant business district on Reading Road?

      Even if they were in touch with the city it seems like there was a disconnect. Why hype Bridging Broadway so much and put so many resources into it if it was only an exercise not meant to bring any tangible benefits to the area?

    • Jay

      Neil,

      One can buy the bullets, load the gun, even help another take aim –but someone has to pull the trigger. The city failed to pull the trigger and put pressure on the design aspects, not Bridging Broadway. Bridging Broadway was never given (nor asked for) any specific authority over design or other aspects of the Casino project. Bridging Broadway was given a specific task to perform and, in concert with the UC Design Center/Niehoff Urban Studio, collected and analyzed a great deal of information. I suggest that you start here where you’ll find links to the Broadway Commons District Study and other information: http://bridgingbroadway.com/2011/11/the-study-is-final/ Please read the report.

      I can be argued that the city had very little leverage in the first place, since the State of Ohio essentially granted the Casino operations the right to build what they wanted. Many of the typical local oversight functions regarding business development simply did not apply thanks to the leniency granted by the state. What leverage the city did have would have had to have been applied in an aggressive way within a short time frame. The political grandstanding of Gov. Kasich squeezed an insignificant number of additional dollars (from the casino’s perspective) in exchange for looking the hero. This left little room/time/patience for a subsequent hard ball tactic to extract concessions through delays and threats by the city.

      I don’t know what you mean by, “put so many resources into it” when referring to Bridging Broadway. It is a completely volunteer organization; no office; no paid staff. The money paid by the City for the Study was a token amount given the depth and scope of the document produced. The extremely modest budget that supported the organization during it’s most active period was provided by donors, not tax dollars.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-W-Hall/1723611491 Matthew W. Hall

    What is “roof treatment”? I’m sure it isn’t some kind of protective coating…..

  • Neal Morris

    …and the big hole and asphalt parking acreage that was at that location prior to the casino were a real visual asset to the neighborhood.

  • charles ross

    re: article photos – pic 2 is the American Building, a fair distance down central pkway from the Horseshoe. It’s just west of the Emery. Not sure why it’s in the article?