Banks Concert Venue Still Up in the Air

“The CSO vote has been unanimously taken care of, in case that’s all you were here for,” were city councilman P.G. Sittenfeld’s words of dismissal on Wednesday, June 20th at the city council meeting in regards to the concert venue that is in action to be developed at the Banks. Several people got up to leave after his swift comment, but the questions for city and county leaders were far from being answered.

Music and Event Management Inc., a subsidiary of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, won the vote over the Columbus based PromoWest for who would develop the venue. But we still don’t know which lot the venue will be built in, or if the City will agree to pay for the parking garage pad that will elevate the venue out of the floodplain.

The lots in question are lot 27, a space adjacent to the Paul Brown Stadium which has been a popular location for Bengals fans to tailgate prior to the games, or lot 24, a much larger space across the street just south of Radius at the Banks and General Electric’s Global Operations Center.

The Bengals, which claim to have veto rights over development over three stories in height adjacent to the stadium, are partial to the venue being located at lot 24 claiming the usage of the lot for tailgating before Bengals home games. On average the Bengals play eight games at home per season.

Lot 24, however, has already received a submission from a joint venture formed by Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate Inc., Pennrose Development and Greiwe Development Group for an $85 million mixed-use project.

A mixed-use development would be in better compliance with the Banks Master Plan, which has been the guiding planning document for the entire development since 2000. The plan identified that lot for mixed-use residential development. Additionally, county leaders have valued property at The Banks at $4 million an acre, so building on a more compact location would leave room available for future developers.

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune has commented on the matter, emphasizing that the Bengals do not have veto rights, but the possibility is open for the development to go somewhere besides lot 27.

Counter to that statement, City Councilman David Mann said that the Bengals do have veto rights over the property. Mayor John Cranley’s response to Mann was that direct negotiations should be made with the Bengals in order to come to an agreement on the location. Cranley said that he, too, is open to lot 24 being used as a music venue. The site already has the parking garage podium built.

Tom Gabelman, the attorney advising the county on The Banks has mentioned that the symphony’s proposal incorporates developing in Lot 27 adjacent to Paul Brown Stadium and keeping Lot 23 as park space for more than 90 percent of the time when it is not being used for outdoor concert space. Portune has said that the city and the county need to come to a decision about the music venue by the end of June.

Yet to be addressed is the status of the parking garage. Presently, Hamilton County commissioners expect the city to contribute up to $10 million for the garage, with all revenue going towards the county. The theory behind having the city contribute is that they would receive financial benefits from the income taxes of the people who lived and worked there.

Cranley has said that the council needs to re-evaluate the city’s relationship with the county when it comes to the dispersion of the revenue. “With GE, we gave 85 percent of income tax back, so it has not worked out how the city believed,” Cranley stated at a joint City Council and Hamilton County Commission meeting in early June. “I’m not aware we have $10 million sitting around somewhere.”

Will the plans for lot 24 to be primarily residential be ignored in order to comply with the disputed veto power of the Bengals? And if so, what does that mean for the rest of the Banks development?

An 18-acre venue where there otherwise would have been residential housing could steer the Banks away from its original vision as a new downtown neighborhood teaming with residents, office workers and visitors to yet another entertainment district. While already bookended by two stadiums, the challenges are great but not insurmountable. Realizing the original vision adds more vibrancy to downtown and further helps grow the city and county tax base.

Ideally, even if the venue is built where MEMI proposed there will be enough land left at the riverfront to develop a complete neighborhood with a retail scene and community gathering spaces the way it was planned.

Cincinnati Becomes One of Nation’s First Cities to Provide Tax Incentives for Living Building Challenge

Eight years ago Cincinnati was one of the first municipalities to incentivize sustainable building practices through tax abatements for LEED certified buildings. Last week, City Council continued its leadership in sustainable design by becoming one of the first cities in America to incentivize certification through the Living Building Challenge.

Launched in 2006 by the International Living Future Institute, the LBC has quickly become one of the most stringent green building standards in the country. Instead of focusing on reducing bad practices, the LBC encourages projects to be regenerative and create places that make a positive social, economic and environmental impact.

Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld (D) has been working with Cincinnati Living Building Challenge Collaborative members Brian Selander and David Whittaker to get the ordinance to where it is today.

“This will allow us as a matter of policy to support some of the most robust green and sustainable projects anywhere in the country,” Sittenfeld explained to UrbanCincy by email. “We hope this will encourage developers and rehabbers to push the boundaries of sustainable building.”

The LBC certifies renovations, buildings, infrastructure and landscapes, and even entire communities. It does so through a system of seven petals, including Place, Water, Energy, Health and Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. Each of these petals then includes an additional 20 imperatives, all of which must be met, and judged based on real world performance data.

The ordinance spells out that both new construction and remodeling projects attaining LBC Net-Zero can receive a 100% tax abatement of up to $562,000 of the market improved value, while those attaining LBC Petal or Full have no cap.

While City Council has made stricter requirements for LEED tax abatements in recent years, this new ordinance would not alter those existing incentives for LEED projects. Instead, this provides project developers and owners with more than one opportunity for an applicable certification process; while also helping raise the bar of sustainable and resilient design.

The decision not to override existing incentives for LEED projects makes sense from an overall usage standard. So far, there have been more than 69,000 LEED projects worldwide, while only 23 projects have been certified by the ILFI, with some 250 projects currently registered. Part of this is due to the newness of the ILFI standard, but it also has a lot to do with how difficult it is to attain certification.

For example, full ILFI certification requires a project to produce all of its own energy, process its own waste, and harvest all of its water on the property, or by sharing resources with another property. These are not simple tasks to accomplish, and require a diverse set of skill sets in order to achieve.

Selander, a mechanical engineer with KZF Design, and Whittaker, a landscape architect with Human Nature and founding facilitator of the Cincinnati LBC Collaborative, reflect the diversity of interests and collective buy-in needed on such projects.

“In order to meet the requirements of the Challenge, everyone has to begin to think more holistically and take an integrated systems approach, looking at the building, site, and context in more complex ways beyond just first costs,” Whittaker said.

He also believes that these projects often have a transformative effect on those involved in their creation.

“When project teams start to see how the built environment can become more socially just, culturally rich, and environmentally regenerative, they become very inspired and willing to go the extra mile to develop projects that benefit their communities.”

Some of the practices called for in this more aggressive green building standard, however, are prohibited by other existing City ordinances. This means that any project looking to go down this path will need to exhaust all regulatory appeals, short of legal proceedings, before using any exceptions allowed by the LBC that acknowledge current policy conditions.

This, developers of the standard say, is where the Challenge becomes more than just a checklist, but a tool for advancing regulations and culture, advocating for a more resilient, sustainable, and vital built environment.

Are area governments ready to embrace new technologies?

Many of us can appreciate that local governments are where real change happens. The decisions made by local politicians and government officials have an immediate and direct impact on residents and visitors in that community. To that end, local governments can and should be leading the charge when it comes to the utilization of new technology to save their constituents time, money and agony. What benefits for Cincinnati, where it seems P.G. Sittenfeld (D) is ready to lead that charge, might the use of new technologies provide? More from Urbanful:

Last week, Ron Bouganim launched the Gov Tech Fund, designed to spark innovation in government technology. So far, the fund has raised $23 million, he says, which it has invested in four companies: SeamlessDocs, a way for employees to sign and share documents securely; MindMixer, which develops platforms for local governments to engage online with their communities; Smart Procure, which connects local, state and federal buyers and sellers; and AmigoCloud, which allows localities to share GIS data and maps across tablets, laptops and smart phones.

Uber Officials Credit Cincinnati’s Urban Revival, Tech Scene for their Arrival

Four days after our initial report that Uber would soon enter the Cincinnati market, the technology company that has been changing the way people think about the taxi and ridesharing industry officially launched their uberX and uberBLACK services in the Queen City.

With one week remaining on Uber’s initial two weeks of free service, people who wish to use the service are asked to download the company’s smart phone app and then create an account. This is important because this is how users will pay, rate their drivers and access information about where and how many vehicles are available.

The use of this application also allows Uber to track important data about their drivers and their customers. It also helps the company make business decisions.

“Cincinnati has certainly been a market that’s been on our radar for a while,” James Ondrey, Uber’s Ohio General Manager, told UrbanCincy by email. “As a tech company that likes to look at data to drive our decisions, we could see that many people had downloaded Uber or opened the app to look for a ride in the Cincinnati area. So there is definitely pent up demand here.”

Beyond that pent up demand, Ondrey also says that changes to Ohio’s for-hire-sedan code, which allowed for rates to be charged beyond only an hourly rate, opened the door for Uber to work with area limousine operators using rates based on time and distance.

Cincinnati, however, is not Uber’s first market in Ohio. They launched in Columbus in December 2013 and are currently rumored to be eyeing Cleveland for a launch later this year.

“Columbus has been great so far – riders and drivers have been embracing us in drovers and I think the city sees the benefits to having Uber in town,” continued Ondrey, whose position is based out of Columbus. “We expect to see the same here in Cincinnati.”

Ondrey says that the goal is to establish Uber as the most reliable transportation option for Cincinnatians, and he expects that service levels will only improve as they are able to add driver-partners.

“I want you to be able to open your Uber app and always see a car available in less than five minutes,” Ondrey said. “We are in soft launch phase now, so we start with just a handful of initial partners, but you’ll see that grow quickly as we try to keep up with all the demand.”

Not everyone, however, has been thrilled about Uber’s launch.

One UrbanCincy reader explained difficulties with signing up as a potential uberX driver, and was frustrated by what he perceived as a lack of transparency about the need for cars to be no older than eight years. Other readers from the taxi and limousine industries have also expressed frustration.

Bob Michaels, owner of Crown Car & Coach, told UrbanCincy by email that, “As a black car service operator of 11 years in Cincinnati, it is not the taxi industry that is affect, but our core business also.”

While those issues are sorted out, along with a variety of other complaints that have been lobbed at the startup company, Uber officials are moving forward and happy to bring a new transportation choice to Cincinnatians.

“I think transportation choice is ultimately a great thing for consumers,” Ondrey concluded. “We are bringing efficiency to the transportation system in Cincinnati. And again, consumers will ultimately benefit from that competition.”

“You look at all the resurgence that’s happening in Cincy right now – the continued neighborhood development and the increasing desire of folks to return to the urban core – and you can see why it’s a match made in heaven.”

In follow-up correspondence with Lyft officials, the company has said that it has not yet decided officially whether it too will enter the Cincinnati market, but conceded that they are considering it at this time.

Stay tuned to UrbanCincy for further developments on that, and for additional reports as we continue to examine the other aspects on the region’s car-for-hire industry.

Photographs provided by Uber.

Cincinnati’s Streetcar Victory a Decade in the Making

The final, final, final vote for the first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar took place today. Perhaps by now you all know the outcome. A six-person veto-proof super-majority voted to continue construction. Cincinnati, as Mayor John Cranley (D) said today, will have a streetcar.

What is important in this moment is to realize that everyone involved lived up to their campaign promises. Wendell Young (D), Chris Seelbach (D) and Yvette Simpson (D) stood strong in their support of the project – even in the face of uncertain outcomes.

At the same time, Christopher Smitherman (I), Amy Murray (R) and Charlie Winburn (R) held true to their promises to oppose the streetcar no matter what. They were the three lone votes against restarting construction.

Construction work will soon resume on Cincinnati’s $133M streetcar project. Photographs by Travis Estell for UrbanCincy.

Then there are the three council members who campaigned on taking a serious look at the numbers and making a prompt decision about whether to cancel the project or proceed. P.G. Sittenfeld (D), David Mann (D) and Kevin Flynn (C) all did that once they saw the numbers in detail. Cancelling a project this far along would have been fiscally irresponsible, and they voted true to their campaign promises to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s dollars.

UrbanCincy has been covering this project since we started the website back in 2007. Our original coverage focused on redevelopment efforts in Downtown and then Over-the-Rhine, but the streetcar quickly became a big part of that redevelopment narrative. It is no secret that we are strong supporters of the project and believe it will improve mobility in the center city and set the city on a path toward building the regional rail system everyone seems to now desire.

There are many people responsible for getting Cincinnati to this stage, but the biggest credit must absolutely be given to John Schneider. If it were not for his unrelenting leadership on this issue over the past decade, we would not be anywhere close to where we are now.

The emergence of Mayor Mark Mallory (D) then gave the city a prominent leader to push the project forward, and Mallory leaned on the expertise and leadership of former City Manager Milton Dohoney and Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (D) to get it all done.

It is important to keep in mind that the person who first pushed for the Uptown extension to be included in phase one was in fact Roxanne Qualls. The Uptown Connector was never part of the original phase one plan, but was added in later as “Phase 1b” at the urging of Qualls, who then worked with Mallory and then Governor Ted Strickland (D) to secure state funding to make that happen.

Hard fought victories in 2009 and 2011 helped keep the project alive, but also delayed it and ran up the project’s costs. Those delays also allowed enough time for Governor John Kasich (R) to assume office and pull the $52 million in state funding Ohio had originally pledged.

So while Qualls’ leadership and vision to have the first phase include the Uptown Connector is not being realized at this exact moment, our attention must now turn to extending the streetcar line to neighborhoods in Uptown as quickly as possible.

Cincinnati Regional Rail Plan
The first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar system is a small part of a much larger regional rail plan envisioned by leaders. Map provided by OKI Regional Council of Governments.

A new wave of leaders and organizers has emerged in Cincinnati as a result of this most recent battle over the streetcar project. This includes the heroic efforts of Eric Avner and the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation for drumming up private support to contribute $9 million toward the project’s ongoing operations.

Their hard work and courage should certainly be commended, but let’s also not forget the people who have been pounding the pavement on behalf of the streetcar since the beginning. Most Cincinnatians in 2007 did not know what a streetcar was, much less a modern one and the benefits it would bring. The hard work put in by those people early on was necessary.

This movement was not built overnight and these supporters are not fair-weather fans of the city. The movement has grown in size and grown more sophisticated over the past decade and is now stronger than ever.

You too can join this urbanist movement in Cincinnati.

We gather at the Moerlein Lager House around the first Thursday of every month to host URBANexchange – an urbanist networking and social event. We also partner with the Niehoff Urban Studio at the University of Cincinnati to study complex issues facing our city and engage the public in that dialog. Please join us at our next URBANexchange and pay us a visit in Corryville for our next event with the Niehoff Urban Studio.

Now is a time to celebrate and reflect. But it is not the time to get complacent. There are more issues to address and this energy that saved the streetcar needs to be redirected there. Congratulations, Cincinnati! Let’s get to work.