Redesigned Streetscapes Could Turn Fourth and Race Streets Into Vibrant Public Spaces

Fourth Street offers one of the more impressive urban street canyons in all of America. Its pre-war high-rises dominate the streetscape and offer a glimpse into the proud history of Cincinnati.

Once the very center of business activity, Fourth Street was historically known as the region’s financial district – a place where all the power players lingered and conducted business. Since its heyday in the early 20th century, that center of financial clout has shifted. Some say it has shifted to Third Street, while others say it has moved east along Fourth or even north to Fifth Street.

In any case, many of those power players are now in other nearby districts, while the impressive structures they built are left behind.

City leaders had believed, with good reason, that Fourth Street would become the region’s premier shopping destination. However, with the demise of downtown malls and department stores, that vision never fully came to be.

All has not been lost though. Virtually all of the impressive, historic urban fabric remains and has since been largely converted into residential space. There is also a movement afoot from some business and civic leaders to breathe new life into not only Fourth Street’s retail scene, but Race Street’s as well.

Part of the ongoing transformation includes Mabley Place, which converted the former Tower Place Mall into a parking garage with street-level retail, the proposed 30-story residential tower that would replace the aging Pogue’s Garage, and the nearby and soon-to-open dunnhumbyUSA headquarters tower.

There is even the possibility of Fourth Street being converted back to two-way traffic following the activation of the now unused ramp to I-75 from Third Street.

As all of these projects start to become reality, they offer a unique opportunity to redo the public space in the area. One particular area that has long needed a redo, and has been the subject of many studio projects at DAAP, is Fourth Street’s dated streetscaping. Not only does the design of the sidewalks, benches and street trees leave much to be desired, they also do not follow standard good design practices.

The renovation of Fountain Square realized this and implemented good urban design practices in its final product. Things like softscaping and movable furniture are powerful elements to a good public space. The same could be done along Fourth Street’s, and for that matter much of Race Street’s, wide sidewalk widths.

Being in the midst of the digital age, it would also make sense to make the area more welcoming to tech users by implementing Internet hot spots and including solar-powered charging stations at benches and tables set up along the street.

Specifically, the areas best suited for such a transformation would be the north side of Fourth Street between Vine and Elm, and the east side of Race Street between Fifth and Seventh.

With more and more hotels opening up downtown in general, and specifically on or very near Fourth Street, this public space could also serve as a convenient and desirable ‘third place’ for travelers that are looking to spend some time out in the city, without feeling obligated to purchase endless cups of coffee or beer, but not also be trapped inside their hotel room.

Such a design could also activate the largely lifeless corridor with people from all backgrounds, and provide more passing customers for existing and potential businesses looking to setup shop there.

With all the construction taking place and about to get started, it would make most sense to leverage these private investments to improve this public space at the same time. Heck, it might even be the perfect opportunity to connect the new Central Parkway Cycle Track with the Ohio River Trail.

Will Saks Fifth Avenue Remain in Downtown Cincinnati Following Collapse of its Kenwood Move?

News spread quickly yesterday that the deal for Saks Fifth Avenue to relocate from downtown Cincinnati to Sycamore Township at the new $200 million Kenwood Collection had fallen through.

The announcement drew immediate speculation about what happened and where the high-end department store might locate instead, if anywhere at all. Since representatives at Saks Fifth Avenue have been mum during the whole process, little information is known about what will happen in 2016 when they had been expected to relocate to Kenwood.

Here’s what we do know.

The current Saks Fifth Avenue store downtown opened in 1983 and was renovated in 1996 and again in 2003 thanks to $8.7 million in city funds. The 2003 renovation also included a stipulation that Saks extend the lease for their downtown Cincinnati store for 15 years (2018), and not open another store within 30 miles for at least seven years (2010). For what it’s worth, Kenwood Collection is located approximately 11 miles from Fountain Square.

The terms of that 2003 agreement, however, are a bit murky. According to the Business Courier,

Part of the agreement with the city says Saks can be released if “Saks sells the Saks store on the property to an entity which acquires the majority of the Saks stores then located in the states of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.” Toronto’s Hudson’s Bay Co. acquired Saks in a deal that closed at the beginning of November.

The clause basically appears to give Saks an out on their lease agreement that would otherwise keep them at 101 W. Fifth Street until 2018. While the existing store is 72,640 square feet, Saks had reportedly signed a letter of intent with Kenwood Collection for a slightly larger 80,000 square-foot space.

The rumors following yesterday’s announcement largely discussed one of three potential scenarios: 1) Saks closes its only store in the Cincinnati region as it has done in other mid-sized markets; 2) Saks relocates into the retail space at the $140 million dunnhumby Centre, which, interestingly enough, was to become the home of a Maison Blanche in 1998 and then eyed for a Nordstrom in 2000; or 3) Saks relocates into the retail space at a restructured unnamed development at Fourth/Race.

The first scenario is something that would be very difficult to predict, but the second and third scenarios present interesting opportunities and challenges.

The biggest challenge with Saks moving across the street into the dunnhumby Centre is that it only has 30,000 square feet of retail space. Since the building is already far along in construction, it seems unlikely that the development team would be able to modify it in a manner to provide an additional 50,000 square feet of space for Saks.

The unnamed development at Fourth/Race had a grocery store lined up to occupy its even smaller 20,000 square feet of retail space, but that development agreement has since been substantially restructured and is currently being reworked. This leaves open the possibility that Flaherty & Collins and the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) could adjust the design as to accommodate Saks.

In both of these cases it would allow for the redevelopment of Saks’ existing structure at the southwest corner of Fifth and Race Streets. This would prove to be important in order to clear the way for developers to build a new residential high-rise in its place. Both of these options would also keep Saks within a block of Macy’s 180,000 square-foot downtown store, and along the stretch of Race Street that city officials hope to turn into a shopping corridor.

The combined demolitions of the aging Pogue’s Garage and existing Saks Fifth Avenue store would also allow for the removal of two to three skywalks/bridges over Race Street.

Of course, there is one more option. Saks could simply stay where they are and live out their lease through 2018, or even renew it beyond that.

CORRECTION: In the original story it was incorrectly stated that the existing Saks Fifth Avenue store in downtown Cincinnati is 185,000 square feet. The store is actually 72,640 square feet.

PHOTOS: The Changing Face of Downtown Cincinnati

It’s not just housing that’s booming in the center city, there is also a slew of office, retail, hotel and infrastructure projects underway that are transforming Cincinnati’s skyline and its streetscapes.

All of the construction activity makes it feel as if there is work taking place in just about every corner of the central business district and its immediate surroundings. And for the most part, that feeling is valid.

In addition to the thousands of residential units under construction, work is also currently underway on the second phase of The Banks, which will include not only 300 additional apartments, but also General Electric’s new North American Global Operations Center, 313-room Renaissance Hotel, dunnhumbyUSA Centre, Mabley Place, reconstruction of Second Street, and work is about to get underway for the new 115-room Holiday Inn hotel at Seventh and Broadway Streets.

In addition to all of the construction work taking place, the weather earlier this month was terrific and made for a perfect time to take pictures of some of the center city’s beauty.

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EDITORIAL NOTE: All 22 photos were taken by Travis Estell for UrbanCincy between July 2 and July 9, 2014.