EDITORIAL: It’s Time to Consider Moving Major Festivals to Central Riverfront

There has been much rancor over the past week about how or if to operate the streetcar during major events such as Oktoberfest or Taste of Cincinnati. The perceived problem is that the streetcar’s tracks cross the existing location of those major festivals, and would thus pose a conflict.

It is worth taking a look at these festivals and their locations along Fifth Street, along with what other options might exist.

Historical Context
Both festivals got their start in the 1970s, with Oktoberfest tapping its first keg in 1976 and the Taste of Cincinnati kicking off in 1979. While Oktoberfest originally began on Fifth Street, Taste of Cincinnati did not. In fact, it was not until very recently that the Taste of Cincinnati moved to Fifth Street and joined its mega-festival partner.

When Taste of Cincinnati modestly kicked off 36 years ago, it was actually held in Piatt Park. It stayed there for three short years and then moved to Central Parkway, where it remained until 2007 when the renovation of Fountain Square was completed. At that time, it made sense to host both festivals to Fifth Street around the reborn Fountain Square.

When the city’s first modern streetcar line opens next year, it will have been nine years since both festivals were regularly being held on Fifth Street. Following this year’s scheduled events, it will also be time for both festivals to consider moving to even better environs along the central riverfront. Of course, since the streetcar isn’t planned to open for operations until September, that means Taste of Cincinnati could stay where it is without any problems for 2016 as well.

One of the biggest positives and negatives about Fifth Street is its central location and connectivity to Fountain Square – the traditional public gathering point for Cincinnatians. Everyone knows where it is. The problem with it is that it is also all of that for everyday residents, visitors and workers in the bustling central business district; and these events shut down that corridor for days at a time.

With the events typically extending from Race/Vine Street to Sycamore/Broadway Street – a four- to five-block span – they also require a number of cross streets and major transportation hubs like Government Square to shut down. When the streetcar begins its operations, it too will have to alter its operations and only run approximately half of its initial route during the events.

By moving both festivals to the central riverfront they would be able to take advantage of the huge Central Riverfront Garage underneath The Banks, and also be able to take direct advantage of the Riverfront Transit Center, which was custom built for serving massive crowds such as those that attend Oktoberfest and Taste of Cincinnati.

At the same time, Metro bus service and streetcar operations would be able to continue uninterrupted.

Furthermore, unlike Fifth Street, the streets at The Banks do not serve as major access points for the regional highway system, so closing those streets off would not severely disrupt the flow of goods and people in the central business district. Without that restriction, Oktoberfest and Taste of Cincinnati could explore the idea of taking place over additional days, instead of being limited to three-day weekends.

Like Fifth Street, the central riverfront is within close walking distance of the many hotels located in the central business district, but it doesn’t serve as a barrier to them with its tents, debris and staging.

In addition to the hotels, businesses at The Banks would be much better-suited to handle mega events such as these. Buildings and storefronts along and around Fifth Street have been designed in a traditional sense, while those at The Banks have been custom built to accommodate large street crowds and festivals with walk-up windows, fold open walls and the forthcoming open-container law.

In fact, the huge popularity of Oktoberfest has already begun to spread beyond Fifth Street. UberDrome is now set-up in Smale Riverfront Park by the Moerlein Lager House and Paulaner; and the growing number of breweries in Over-the-Rhine are also now hosting special events during the period during and around Oktoberfest. A perfect connection between all of the festivities, as has been suggested by Christian Moerlein’s owner Greg Hardman, is the first leg of the streetcar.

Organization and Set-Up
Fifth Street, unlike the central riverfront, has very little in terms of open areas for special activities. With the $125 million dunnhumby Centre now complete at Fifth and Race, Fifth Street has also lost a large surface parking lot that had served as a staging area for these festivals. Along the central riverfront there are several event lawns that not only offer more flexibility for programming, but also are more comfortable for event-goers than the hardscapes offered along Fifth Street.

Furthermore, while Cincinnatians have grown accustomed to the linear organization of these types of festivals, which may not be the best set-up for them. With the ability to shut down multiple streets at a time without causing problems for traffic flow, The Banks allows for a more district-oriented festival. This would allow people to more easily get from one spot to another, without needing to go back against the grain an entire four blocks to meet friends just arriving.

In addition to all of this, The Banks development and Smale Riverfront Park are only getting bigger. So as they expand over the coming years, so will the possibilities for both of these great festivals that help to define the spirit of Cincinnati and its people.

While the Cincinnati Streetcar may be sparking this conversation, the decision to move Oktoberfest and Taste of Cincinnati to the central riverfront is clear on its own merits and should be seriously considered. Both continue to grow in popularity and set record crowds each year. At some point soon we are going to have to make a decision about how to accommodate these growing crowds.

Let’s allow our companies in the central business district to flourish without interruption, our transit systems to serve huge crowds at full capacity, and two of our greatest cultural festivals the ability to grow and prosper for generations to come. Move Oktoberfest and Taste of Cincinnati off of Fifth Street and to the central riverfront.

  • I’ve heard from more than one downtown business that those two weekends kill their business.

    • I have also heard this…and I can understand why. Businesses on downtown streets just weren’t designed for things like this. So when these events take place existing businesses really struggle with adapting. That’s not the case at The Banks.

    • Brad McLaughlin

      I can also tell you from working in the US Bank tower on 5th street, that the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday etc following, reeks until that first rain washes down the street. Truly, an awful smell.
      I like the idea of large tents in various locations around CBD and OTR, even add Newport and Covington riverfronts for Oktoberfest. I also think it would be cool if riverboats, ala Tall Stacks, were part of Oktoberfest.

  • EDG

    Yeah, 3-day festivals like the ones you mentioned make sense down there. But what about the bockfest and opening day parades? Seems to me that significantly altering each route to avoid shutting down one or both streetcar loops for a few hours would detract from each parade.

    • Matt Jacob

      The Bockfest parade was already changed this year in preparation. It went up Sycamore then the wrong way down 12th in front of Neon’s before turning up Main Street.

    • EDG

      Yeah, it kind of sucked this year that it didn’t go straight up Main.

    • chris

      The city of Cincinnati forced Bockfest Parade to change the route because of the construction of the streetcar line.

    • Those are much smaller events. It wouldn’t be all that problematic to shut down the streetcar for a few hours to accommodate those events, rather than shutting it down for three days at a time, while also shutting down Government Square as these festivals currently do.

    • John Schneider

      Streetcars could operate as normal within the Bockfest and Opening Day parades, picking up and discharging passengers along the way. There are only about six or so blocks where their routes merge. We should stop thinking of streetcar as some sort of pet and just start to figure it in part and parcel with daily life in the city. However, big festivals definitley belong at The Banks.

    • EDG

      Too bad they’re mixed traffic…

  • SC

    I could go for either using the Banks or just altering the fests to use Vine street from 3rd to 7th or something. Could allow the streetcar to run, you could still park in Fountain Square garage (AFAIK) from the entrance on Walnut. Plus, you can have streetcar run uninterrupted yet still have Fountain Square be the central gathering place of the city.

    • I think the argument against a north/south alignment is that the east/west running streets in the CBD serve as collectors for the regional highway system. Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth/Ninth over by City Hall as flow straight into the adjacent highways. Running a festival north/south would mess up every single one of them.

    • SC

      True. I wonder if 4th-7th would be enough. Who knows.

  • Mark Christol

    I’m guessing the planners figured on moving events to the banks very early on.
    I don’t think those events really do much to introduce people to the downtown area anyway.
    And getting away from the linear layout could only improve things.

  • Ellen Faeth

    I liked the Taste, and Octoberfest best when they were held on Central Pkwy….didn’t t shut Down downtown, had plenty of room, and could engage people from dwntwn and OTR..

    • I remember that a lot of people didn’t like Central Parkway because it was so barren and had little to no shade. Between the infrastructure and business set-up at The Banks, the comfortable environment offered by Smale Riverfront Park makes the central riverfront an ideal location.

    • EDG

      Central is maybe the most underutilized large space downtown. Bring back the canal!

    • Adam Nelson

      central should be a grand boulevard in a truer sense. 5-6-7 story buildings to the lot line both sides, wiiiide sidewalks.

    • Neil Clingerman
    • Eric Hammer

      Great drawing!

    • Neil Clingerman

      For those who didn’t already guess, that was the original plan for Central Parkway around 1905…

    • Adam Nelson

      Neil you are breaking my heart.

    • Brian Boland

      Looks like Av. 9a de Julio in Buenos Aires, is it?

    • KeepReal

      Neil Clingerman: No, something more like this.

    • Eric Hammer

      You are so right! We have the Casino on the eastern end, and on the western end…. the Charles St. Substation and a bunch of surface lots. Imagine what we could do all along Central, but especially on the western end.

    • charles ross

      I recall the Central Taste locale as a hellish sort of place. Very high sun + asphalt combo factor. I also recall visiting Chicago a few summers back and they had their Taste going on in their waterfront park. They got the lake, we got the river – it’s so much better than tarmac. And folks can float their boats nearby. The river front already can support multiple events and as we expand it, so much moreso.

  • Adam Nelson

    this is such a no-brainer that I’m sure it will be hotly contested for 3 years.

    • I’ll put it in the same file cabinet as the one calling for the creation of an intercity bus terminal at the Riverfront Transit Center, or the rebuild of Elm Street to include a two-way protected bike lane to connect the Central Parkway protected bike lane with the Ohio River Trail.

    • Neil Clingerman

      I’m still baffled as to why SORTA wants to charge so much more than anyone else when it comes to using the Riverfront Transit center. They need to be pressured into lowering their costs.

    • EDG

      I wonder if the proximity to 3CDC parking garages and revenue are one of the reasons why everything hasn’t moved to the riverfront (county-owned) garages yet.

  • Matt Jacob

    I’d love to see Cincinnati take Oktoberfest to the next level by adding more of the things that Munich already does better than us.

    Use the Haile carousel as center of a carnival/amusement ride spot with ferris wheels and other trucked-in rides in front of the Freedom Center and in that lawn at the end of the Roebling bridge.

    Do more large festival tents like the real thing; making each tent a different type of destination. Moerlein/Paulaner’s Uberdrome on the Schmidlapp event lawn; 1-2 more on the new event lawns of Smale riverfront park and in front of the Freedom Center; 2 more tents on the P&G gardens (which I’ve said for years they need to do a better job of utilizing); and then throw up a tent on the south side of Fountain Square (just closing 5th between Vine/Walnut). You spread the events out slightly, but keep a core at the Banks.

    The streetcar would then allow circulation for some spin-off tents/events in Washington Park, Findlay Market, Rhinegeist, and the Brewery District. Buses could be rerouted around the few streets sectioned off.

    Taste of Cincinnati seems like a much easier move. Pick a street at the Banks or in Smale itself.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Oktoberfest should have a main event downtown and many side events in OTR celebrating Cincinnati’s German heritage. I know its going that way right now, but having the streetcar connect the two major activity nodes makes one heck of a lot of sense.

  • akaPatience

    I agree that this idea is a no-brainer. We have a huge swath of parkland in downtown, huge enough to easily accomodate the size of the crowds that attend these festivals, and with ample parking nearby. There’s no good reason to continue to burden and inconvenience businesses in the CBD. Fountain Square is indeed a well-known landmark but who doesn’t know where the river is??? It’s time to do the smart thing and move the festivals to the best, most logical venue for them.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Doesn’t mean that fountain square still couldn’t be used for side events, perhaps a tent there or a stage for live music.

    • akaPatience

      I’m wondering what/where that beautiful etching in your thumbnail below is? I love all of the Beaux Arts architecture depicted. What a Golden Age.

    • Neil Clingerman

      It never happened, it was a concept for what Central Parkway complete with subway could have been had things gone differently (and better).

  • Definitely agree these events belong on the riverfront. How can we make that happen? Who as more sway in the festivals’ location? The festival organizers or the City?

  • Brian Boland

    Oktoberfest in Munich is held at the Theresianwiese fairgrounds, an open air fairground in Munich, so having it at an open area like the Banks would be more true to the original than having it in the middle of the business district.

  • Agreed. I never loved the situation at these fests where you are crammed elbow-to-elbow with people in hot weather trying to eat food over a street sewer grate. The riverfront allows for cool breezes, beautiful vistas, river views and green grass. Move em over. People will complain for a year, then forget about it. And you can still have smaller fests — maybe even some new ones –on Fountain Square area to keep it happening.

  • Chris

    I love the idea of moving the big festivals to the riverfront. Given the recent emergence of the riverfront as a viable location, and the growing popularity of the festivals resulting in extreme human congestion, it’s only a matter of time before this happens.

    This may be a non-issue depending on how the festivals would be arranged, but utilizing more lawn space would leave the festivals more vulnerable to bad weather. I can envision a scenario where a recent heavy rain turns grassy areas into big mud pits. Not likely to be a decisive issue, but it’s something new to consider. In their current form festivals can still be rained out, but pavement isn’t as messy. Just a thought.

  • Mark Christol

    Well, the Chamber of Commerce thinks it’s a ridiculous idea.

    Of course, how could they know without trying….


    • Neil Clingerman

      Then everyone should write the chamber.

    • EDG

      See my above comment. It’s always about money, isn’t it.

  • Emily Schneider

    I agree wholeheartedly, Randy. It’s too bad that the Chamber, Cranley administratition, etc. don’t see the logic in this – because it’s perfectly clear.

  • Ron Johnson Art

    Yep… it’s time to move major events down to the river… more sun, more fun and NO BLOCKED town center streets…. 30 years to late

  • KeepReal

    OTOH, when O-fest is held there is either a Reds or Bengals home game/series that weekend. Though the fest and game(s) play off of each other nicely, I wonder if having the event at the Banks would disturb the sacred parking (and tailgating) requirements of the sports fans. There is a 50% chance the same could be the case for Taste.

  • Matt Woods

    I can’t understand the thinking having festivals in the cbd is a good thing when it kills local businesses because of the gridlock. The Banks is by far the best choice. Our sales are usually cut in half on festival days. We own the hardware store on Main Street and the gridlock truly hurts us via Fountain Square festivals.

  • Lou Meyer Jr.

    I agree completely! I miss the central parkway openness and the deplorable 5th street is to crowded for the 2 events hosted there