Construction Pace Picking Up on $120M Smale Riverfront Park Project

As is often the case in construction, warmer weather brings greater progress on the site. This holds true for the $120 million, 45-acre Smale Riverfront Park.

According to project manager Dave Prather, work has picked up in recent months and significant elements of the ongoing phase of work are now becoming visible.

One of the elements that is very quickly nearing completion is the Heekin/PNC Grow Up Great Adventure Playground that sits immediately beside the Roebling Suspension Bridge, and is on schedule to open in spring 2015. Significant progress is also now noticeable on the Vine Street Fountains & Steps, which are almost identical to their existing Walnut Street counterpart, and the Anderson Pavilion.

In the latest video update from Cincinnati Parks, Prather walks viewers through all the progress and mentions that a great deal of additional work will be completed in the near future.

“It’s really starting to come into focus,” Prather said in the 15-minute video update. “The next time we film, which will be in late summer, you’ll see the slides and pick-up sticks in place, all the stone climbing walls will be there, and you’re really be able to get a feel on what we’ll have to offer in this next extension.”

One of the things significantly different about the portion of Smale Riverfront Park west of the Roebling Suspension Bridge is the Anderson Pavilion and Carol Ann’s Carousel. These two features will create the most significant building structure at the central riverfront park to-date, and serve as potential sources of revenue to maintain the sprawling park going forward.

The implementation of the full vision for the park will not come for several years, and is still seeking additional capital funding. Some capital funding help, however, has been found this year in the form of a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The ongoing work is also being aided by $4 million from the City of Cincinnati that was approved last year following a one-time allocation of resources from a property tax supported bond increase in 2013. The recent budget quickly passed 6-3 by City Council, however, included no additional capital support for Smale Riverfront Park.

Project officials estimate that an additional $30 million will be needed to complete the park.

In April, the American Planning Association presented its National Planning Excellence Award for Implementation to Cincinnati for its execution of the Cincinnati Central Riverfront Plan, which included the reconfiguration of Fort Washington Way, and the development of The Banks and Smale Riverfront Park.

Cincinnati Central Riverfront Plan wins national award for excellence

In 1997 officials from the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County set out on a path to transform the city’s central riverfront. What became known as the Cincinnati Central Riverfront Plan laid out a bold vision to accomplish just that, and has now been recognized by the American Planning Association (APA) for the implementation of the plan first laid out nearly two decades ago.

The APA will present local leaders with the National Planning Excellence Award for Implementation at its annual conference to be held in Chicago on April 16.

“The Cincinnati Central Riverfront redevelopment is an excellent example of plan brought to reality,” Ann C. Bagley, 2013 APA Awards Jury chair, stated in a prepared release. “The fact that this development happened during an economic downturn demonstrates the strength of the plan and the importance of the public commitment that brought it into being.”


Cincinnati’s central riverfront has shifted dramatically from its form in the 1980s [LEFT], to that of the 2010s [RIGHT].

Local leaders have taken an incremental approach towards implementing the vision laid out in the Cincinnati Central Riverfront Plan. Between 1998 and 2002, the first major investments included the reconstruction Fort Washington Way (FWW), and the development of Paul Brown Stadium, Great American Ball Park, and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

The consolidated FWW opened up dozens of acres of waterfront property, and the development of two stadiums and a major museum were intended to serve as cultural and entertainment anchors that would draw Cincinnatians back to the riverfront.

These significant public investments laid a critical foundation that would enable the next phase of work, historically located in one of the most flood-prone areas of the city, out of the 500-year floodplain.

Once a private development team had been selected, the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County began to work with Carter-Dawson on the construction of the plan’s most ambitious element known as The Banks.


Phase two of The Banks will deliver another 300 residential units along with more than 60,000 square feet of commercial space, and a future office tower.

The $91 million first phase of the mixed-use development began in 2007 and resulted in 300 apartments, 76,000 square feet of commercial space, and 6,000 structured parking spaces. Emboldened by the success of phase one, developers are set to break ground on phase two in the coming months which will include another 300 residential units and more than 60,000 square feet of commercial space.

Two office towers, a hotel and townhomes are still to come within the first two phases of The Banks. At ultimate build out, officials envision The Banks to result in $600 million worth of private investment and become the home for more than 3,000 residents.

Meanwhile, construction of the $120 million, 45-acre Smale Riverfront Park is progressing concurrently with the development of The Banks. To date, the first phase of the new central riverfront park has been completed and work is beginning on phase two. Future phases will be timed with future construction of The Banks, and as funding is allocated.

“In planning terms, a project that goes from a concept to implementation in less than 20 years is impressive to say the least,” stated Todd Kinskey, Executive Director of the Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission. “It is that much more impressive because, in this case, the implementation involved seemingly insurmountable physical, economic, and political barriers.”

The early discussions surrounding The Banks, however, were tumultuous at best as local leaders grappled with complaints about too much office space being introduced into an already competitive marketplace.


The original vision of the Cincinnati Central Riverfront Plan [LEFT] included more traditional types of architecture with greater use of natural building materials [RIGHT].

“The current plan to include 30-story buildings along the riverfront would harm downtown and violate the riverfront plans adopted by the community many years ago,” then Councilman Jeff Berding (D) told the Business Courier in 2007. “We need to remember that the plan adopted several years ago was not simply pulled out of the air, but was the result of intense public input and driven by professional urban planners.”

While design elements may not be of the same caliber as those originally envisioned, the urban form of the private investment appears to be as desired. But even more gratifying than that, for many of the early people involved in the planning, it is that the project has happened against all odds and skeptics.

“The successful implementation of the plan is the result of unprecedented cooperation between the city, the county and their partners,” exclaimed Vice Mayor Qualls (C), who was one of the original driving forces behind the development of the Cincinnati Central Riverfront Plan.

Her thoughts were further validated when Bagley concluded, “The fact that this development happened during an economic downturn demonstrates the strength of the plan and the importance of the public commitment that brought it into being.”

In addition to the future phases of the Smale Riverfront Park and The Banks, city leaders are now soliciting ideas for how to cap a 300-foot span of FWW. City and county officials say that the work to cap the short stretch of interstate will commence once a design is in place, and funding has been secured.

In 2010, UrbanCincy published an exclusive three-part series profiling the dramatic transformation of Cincinnati’s central riverfront over the past two decades.

Episode #12: Cincinnati’s Form-Based Code

On the twelfth episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, Cincinnati’s Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls joins the UrbanCincy team to discuss the city’s adoption of a form-based code.

We discuss the advantages of a form-based code over a traditional zoning code, and Vice Mayor Qualls explains the process four Cincinnati neighborhoods (College Hill, Madisonville, Walnut Hills, Westwood) have used to put the code in place. John Yung shares his experiences with implementing a form-based code, and Randy Simes shares his concerns about needing to plan at a regional level.

We also discuss the now-adopted Plan Cincinnati, the city’s first comprehensive plan in 33 years. We discuss what makes Cincinnati’s comprehensive plan unique and how the plan will influence investments made by the city and  organizations like the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA).

Finally, we discuss how projects like the two-waying of Taft and McMillan Streets in Walnut Hills and a Liberty Street “road diet” could add to the livability of Cincinnati’s urban neighborhoods.

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.

The time is ripe for a central intercity bus terminal in Cincinnati

Megabus is experiencing tremendous ridership growth throughout the Midwest, and is working to expand their intercity bus service to and from places like Cincinnati. In 2010 the company experienced amazing growth of 65 percent and now records $100 million in business annually on 135 buses to 50 different U.S. cities daily.

The growth has been so profound that the company has spawned the “Megabus effect” which is driving up ridership for providers such as Greyhound and BoltBus. And cities all across the U.S. are scrambling to offer prime locations for Megabus to utilize.


Megabus picks up passengers at 4th & Race Street in downtown Cincinnati – Photograph by Thadd Fiala for UrbanCincy.

The European-based company prides itself on its low fares, and does so in part through its low overhead. The intercity bus service accomplishes this by picking up and dropping off passengers along the street. Thus no facility or overhead costs are needed for their operations, but passengers must deal with inclement weather and lack of waiting area typically provided at other transport facilities.

Greyhound historically located its facilities on the edges of downtowns in otherwise rundown areas. This model is changing though as Greyhound attempts to attract new choice riders to its operations. The new Greyhound Express services include buses similarly equipped to Megabus and BoltBus.

Fortunately for Cincinnati, city leaders have an underutilized piece of infrastructure built beneath 2nd Street. The $18 million Riverfront Transit Center (RTC) was completed in 2002 as part of the reconfiguration of Fort Washington Way (FWW), and has sat there rarely used ever since. Its presence presents the opportunity for Cincinnati to create a consolidated bus terminal in the heart of its urban core without negatively impacting the quality of life of those around it.


Riverfront Transit Center interior photographs by Ronny Salerno.

The opportunity of both bus service providers being able to locate within a consolidated, covered and modern facility in the heart of Cincinnati’s downtown would seem to be attractive. Passengers could wait inside and out of the elements; hotels, shops and restaurants would greet arriving passengers above at The Banks; easy access to local bus and streetcar service would be available, and the providers would have a protected area to park their buses.

Meanwhile, the city would be able to finally utilize one of its most unique pieces of infrastructure. Future bus service providers could also tap into the RTC until capacity is reached. This would allow the Queen City to have a centrally located, consolidated intercity bus terminal convenient to travelers and beneficial to service providers.

Financing of maintenance costs would have to be determined, but a deal on Greyhound’s land and some sort of a license fee agreement with Megabus and others could be reached to help offset costs.

Building the RTC today would most likely prove to be cost prohibitive. Fortunately, city leaders had the foresight to build this piece of infrastructure beneath 2nd Street. City leaders should move to free the already congested 4th Street of Megabus operations, open up land adjacent to the city’s new casino for future economic development, and establish a center that will facilitate the addition of other intercity bus service providers.