PHOTOS: The Impressive Impact of Smale Riverfront Park

There are dozens of development projects underway at any given time, but few have the opportunity to make a truly transformative impact. Smale Riverfront Park is one of those rare exceptions.

As UrbanCincy has chronicled in the past, the changes that have taken place along Cincinnati’s central riverfront over the past two decades have been truly remarkable. The consolidation and burial of Fort Washington Way. The construction of two behemoth stadiums, a world class museum and an entire new neighborhood. And now the opening up of the Ohio River through the redesigned riverbank and park.

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What was once an asphalt riverfront separated from the rest of the city by an inhospitable highway now the region’s central gathering place for tourists and a destination for everyone in the region looking to the river that gave the city its birth. The changes are breathtakingly wonderful.

Of course, there is nothing better than images to help visual such changes. Instead of posting photos of what the area was once like, as we have in the past, this collection of photos are from that past few weeks at Smale Riverfront Park’s latest addition, and its immediate surroundings.

Projects like this and Washington Park, which is currently hosting thousands of thrilled Cincinnatians as part of this year’s Lumenocity event, are the types of investments and projects that change a city. What’s even better is that they’re accessible to everyone.

EDITORIAL NOTE: All 20 photographs were taken by Eric Anspach in July 2015.

Take a Look at These 20 Breathtaking Photos of Cincinnati’s Center City

Many of you who read UrbanCincy get to see and experience the center city on a regular basis, but others of you cannot. But for those of you that do, rarely do you get to take a bird’s eye view of the city.

Brian Spitzig, an occasional contributor to UrbanCincy, recently took a flight around the inner city to take what turned out to be some incredible aerial photography. He took hundreds of photos, but we went through them and selected some of the best to share with you.

This is the first part of what will be a two-part series. The following 20 photographs are all of Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, while the next part of this series will focus on neighborhoods outside of the greater downtown area.

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If you like what you see here, you can follow Brian Spitzig on Instagram.

Episode #40: Fort Washington Way

On the 40th episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, we are joined by John Schneider. Although he is now widely known for his involvement in rail transit projects, Schneider was also one of the fathers of the massive Fort Washington Way rebuild that began in 1998.

Long-time UrbanCincy readers may remember David Ben‘s four-part series on Fort Washington Way, covering the many forward-thinking decisions made by project planners. A few of these include shrinking the highway’s widthbuilding the Riverfront Transit Centerbuilding new water, sewer, and fiber optic infrastructure, and adding support for “caps” which may be added in the future.

We discuss some alternative plans that were considered, such as rerouting I-71; the limitations that were placed on the project, including the need to reuse the existing Lytle Tunnel tubes; and how the stadiums, the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and The Banks came into the picture. Finally, we speculate on the future usage of the Riverfront Transit Center, the future of USBank Arena, and when/if the highway will ever be capped.

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 threepart series profiling the dramatic transformation of Cincinnati’s central riverfront over the past two decades.