Episode #54: Summer Update

On the 54th episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, Randy Simes, Jake Mecklenborg, and Chris Cousins join Travis for a summer update. We discuss the proposed parks levy, whether GE might relocate its headquarters to Cincinnati, the expansion of Red Bike, and new developments in the CBD.

Proposed Tax Would Provide Dedicated Parks Funding Stream, $85M in Improvements

A campaign to improve Cincinnati’s parks by raising the City’s property tax by 1 mill will “change the city for the better,” according to Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (D).

Cranley made his remarks during the official launch of the Citizens for Cincinnati Parks levy campaign on Saturday morning at New Prospect Baptist Church in Roselawn.

The charter amendment would raise the City’s property tax rate to 13.1 mills and would bring in approximately $5.3 million a year. The move would require City Council to fund the Parks Department’s capital budget at its 2016 budget level, and approve bonds for capital improvements using levy revenue.

Proponents say that 75% of the levy revenue will be available for the City to borrow against in order to fund 13 designated capital projects selected by the mayor and city manager. The remaining 25% will go to system-wide maintenance and operating costs.

“We’re asking to voters to pass a very small property tax that we believe, for that small amount of money – $35 a year per $100,000 value – will increase property values and increase the quality of life for all Cincinnatians as we take the wonderful park system and we bring it to the neighborhoods,” Cranley said.

The group needs to collect approximately 6,000 signatures by August 15 to make it on to the November 3 ballot. Cincinnati Parks has not placed a levy on the ballot since 1927.

“We have decided that the only fair way to do this, if we’re going to be asking the taxpayers to pay more money, is to ask the citizens first to even let us put it on the ballot,” Cranley said. “At the end of the day, we’re putting this decision in the hands of the voters, and we believe the value proposition is there. We believe that this will build a better city.”

Vision needs funding
Board of Park Commissioners President Otto M. Budig, Jr. said that his organization has been charged with creating the best parks system in the country, but despite generous City funding and donor contributions, it continually finds itself short on money for major initiatives.

“We have had some difficulty in developing major projects that have long been needed,” he said. “I went to the mayor and I said, ‘We need these funds to bring about a new vision. You give us a vision, we’ll take care of the details.’ The mayor has given us the vision.”

While many of the projects are only in the conceptual stage at current time, the Citizens for Cincinnati Parks website says that they were chosen due to being the most shovel-ready, with the ability to be completed quickly.

Multipurpose recreational trails are a major component of the plan, including the Oasis River Trail ($8 million), Wasson Way ($12 million), Mill Creek Greenway Trail ($5 million), and the Ohio River West Trail ($6 million). The City also plans to work with the Cincinnati Off-Road Alliance to develop more than 20 miles of off-road trails in Mount Airy Forest ($11 million).

“The bike system that will be created as a result of this levy, off-road, which is a big thing for me – I think off-road is a much safer, dedicated path that doesn’t have as many accidents – the most extensive, bicycle urban path in America,” Cranley said.

The plan would also raise $10 million for a joint venture between the City, the University of Cincinnati, and Clifton Town Meeting to create a new master plan for Burnet Woods.

“As I often say, Burnet Woods – even more so that Washington Park – could be the Central Park of Cincinnati,” Cranley said. “If you think about Corryville, CUF, Clifton, Avondale…all surround this park. It’s the densest part of the city and it’s right across the street from 30,000 students. We can have the same impact with that park as we did with Washington Park.”

Other projects include:

  • Developing part of the 20-acre New Prospect Baptist Church grounds into a communal programming center, athletic fields, and an urban camp site that would cost $8 million;
  • A public-private partnership with Western & Southern Financial Group that would provide $5 million to renovate and reprogram Lytle Park;
  • $5 million for the redevelopment of a portion of the former Mercy Hospital complex in Westwood into athletic fields and green space for an expanded Oskamp Park;
  • A $5 million redesign of Ziegler Park in Over-the-Rhine/Pendleton, in conjunction with the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC);
  • $4 million for streetscape and roadway improvements surrounding Christ Hospital and improvements to Inwood Park in Mount Auburn;
  • $2 million for the preservation of the historic King Studios site and development of a small café/museum in Evanston;
  • $2 million for upgrades around Westwood Town Hall and Epworth Avenue; and
  • $1.8 million for a new boat dock/marina at Smale Riverfront Park.

“Now we have this new vision,” said Parks Director Willie Carden, who already has overseen the amazing transformations at Smale Riverfront Park and Washington Park, among others. “The vision brings ‘parkonomics’, partnerships to the neighborhoods. We can do this. We can make this a safer, healthier community, but we need your help.”

VIDEO: Latest Phase of Work at Smale Riverfront Park Virtually Complete

Cincinnati Park officials have celebrated a string of openings at Smale Riverfront Park over the past month. While a few more openings remain, the vast majority of work in the latest major phase of the $120 million park is now essentially complete.

In the latest video update from project manager Dave Prather, he explains what all has taken place and what remains before work slows down considerably. At this point, Prather said, attention will turn to raising funds for the next wave of work, including the boat dock and western reaches of the 45-acre park.

The latest additions to the central riverfront park are more active than what has been developed so far. There are more of the popular family swings overlooking the river, an interactive foot piano, a flying pig playset, water pumps and channels, Carol Ann’s Carousel, and the P&G go Vibrantscape. Where railyards once existed, there are now even movable picnic tables sat atop rail ties.

Two of the larger features of the latest expansion are actually passive spaces. The Great Lawn is now nearly complete and the “beach” is in its early stages of formation. Once complete, visitors will be able to walk all the way down to the water’s edge, although this “beach” will not be made of sand due to the risk of erosion.

Two unique historical features are also part of this latest work. The first is a cornerstone marker in the middle of the Great Lawn that shows where the first addressed building in Cincinnati was situated. The second is a collection of foundation walls that were uncovered during the park’s excavation. These foundations, historians say, remain from 19th century buildings developed along the Ohio River.

This is expected to be the last video update from the Smale Riverfront Park development team for some time. As development at The Banks catches up, the park will soon be able to continue its westward expansion.

Project Officials Ready to Move Forward With Next Phase of The Banks

Officials overseeing the development of The Banks have announced that they will soon proceed with the design and construction of the infrastructure needed for the next phase of the massive riverfront project.

Yesterday, at a special meeting of The Banks Steering Committee, the eight-member group unanimously voted in favor of moving forward with what they expect to be $29.3 million worth of work, which would then provide the platform for millions more in private investment in the form of offices, residences and retail on what is referred to as Lot 24.

As has been the case with all prior phases of the mixed-use development, the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County will build out the utilities and roadway network, and construct a 690-space, two-level parking garage that will lift the site out of the Ohio River floodplain. Carter and The Dawson Company – the private development team selected for the project – would consider what elements should be included and then proceed with building and leasing out whatever is built on top of the parking decks.

A guiding principle that has not changed since the beginning of the development process is that the underground parking garage will be reserved for public parking, leaving Carter-Dawson to develop additional above-ground parking to satisfy the City’s mandatory parking requirements.

The Steering Committee said that the public work will be funded through the issuance of $22 million in tax increment finance bonds, and $7 million from the State of Ohio. Project officials say issuance of the bonds is expected to come within the coming months.

While the Carter-Dawson team has not yet decided the exact mix for this third phase of work, it is widely expected to be primarily residential. In total, the zoning and infrastructure for the site will allow for around 320,000 to 400,000 square feet of developable space.

The timing of the announcement could not be better, with work rapidly progressing on General Electric’s 338,000-square-foot Global Operations Center, 19,000 square feet of retail space, and the 291 apartments at the phase two site to the immediate north; and with the announcement that AC Hotels will develop the long-sought hotel along Main Street in front of Great American Ball Park.

Phase two work is expected to be completed in phases throughout 2016, while AC Hotel by Marriott is expected to open in spring 2017.

While management with the Cincinnati Bengals expressed some concern over the loss of one of the team’s few remaining tailgating lots, The Banks itself is evolving into more of an entertainment district than many had thought.

In April, state officials approved a new open-container district law that will soon be in place at The Banks; and yesterday, in a separate move, the Cincinnati Reds applied for a zoning variance to allow for the installation of a video board that will overlook Freedom Way – providing live video programming when the surrounding streets are shut down to cars for special events. Such moves could render tailgating lots obsolete as fans move to the streets on game days.

Project officials say the phasing of construction at the 18-acre site has been carefully coordinated between the district’s various stakeholders, along with the construction schedule of Smale Riverfront Park. As park work has moved west so has work at The Banks, and with the latest work on the park taking place just south of phase three of The Banks, the timing makes perfect sense.

If all goes according to plan, this next phase of infrastructure work could begin as soon as January or February – just after the conclusion of the Bengals football season.

AC Hotels by Marriott to Partner With Eagle Realty on $35 Million, 165-Room Location at The Banks

After several years of trying to attract a hotel to The Banks, the project has landed a brand that is sure to attract the fastest growing customer segment in the industry – millennials.

In a special meeting before the Joint Banks Steering Committee, Eagle Realty Group development affiliate Main Hospitality Holdings and Blue Ash-based hotel operator Winegardner & Hammons announced plans to build a seven-story, 165-room AC Hotels by Marriott on the southwest corner of Freedom Way and Joe Nuxhall Way, directly across from Great American Ball Park.

The news was broken was UrbanCincy last month and comes one year after the brand backed out of a deal to redevelop the former School for Creative and Performing Arts in Pendleton.

Known for its upscale, contemporary European influences, the brand began as a joint venture between Marriott International and leading European hotel developer Antonio Catalán in 2011. The brand officially launched in the North American market in 2013 and now boasts locations in Chicago, Kansas City, Miami Beach, New Orleans, and Washington, DC, making it the fastest launch of a Marriott brand in history.

“We’ve wanted this brand for over five years,” explained Mike Conway, president and CEO of Winegardner & Hammons, with regard to why the third largest hotelier in the world wants to grow in the Cincinnati marketplace. “We think it’s a…absolutely home run in Cincinnati. The reason why we say that is people are moving back to the urban core; and our city, like all major cities across the country, is experiencing a revitalization of downtown.”

Adding to Conway’s enthusiasm was Cincinnati Reds president and CEO, and committee chairman, Bob Castellini.

“The Banks offers up perhaps the best location for a hotel in the city,” Castellini noted. “It took us a while to find and secure the best possible flag and developer for the hotel at The Banks, and I really believe that we have the best possible flag and developer.”

The designs show an L-shaped structure, with the main building height fronting on Joe Nuxhall Way and a smaller, one- to two-story portion to the building’s south.

Along Joe Nuxhall Way, the building will include the front desk and guest rooms – expected to have a $180 per night average rate – and will be capped with a rooftop terrace bar and deck overlooking the Ohio River. It will also include a water feature and a four-story animated LED video board.

The shorter southern portion, made necessary due to height restrictions, will include a lounge, library, fitness facility, conference rooms, and a courtyard overlooking Smale Riverfront Park.

The project team will present the plans to the Urban Design Review Board on Thursday. If all goes according to plan, construction could begin in August and be completed by spring 2017.

The development is expected to cost approximately $35 million, with the equity and debt financing already in place. But the best part, steering committee member Tom Gabelman said, was that it will require no city or county subsidies.

“That’s rather phenomenal in this environment,” he said. “And it’s rather phenomenal, too, that we basically have the quality of hotel that the city and county desired for this premier location.”

Meanwhile, construction continues on Phase 2 of The Banks, most notably on a 339,000-square-foot office building for General Electric that is expected to employ between 1,800 and 2,000 workers when completed in late 2016. Next door, a building featuring 291 apartments and 20,000 square feet of retail space is slated for completion next spring.

Project officials provided some additional details on the infrastructure buildout for Phase 3, which will be paid for with revenues produced by prior phases. This infrastructure work is critical to lift the development out of the Ohio River floodplain, and must be completed before any private real estate development can begin.

Leadership also said that there is a desire to diversify the retail environment along the central riverfront, and further add to the “live, work, play” mantra driving the development.

“I want to add another word there pretty soon, because we hope to have there not just a hotel, but a grocery store and some other retail opportunities so it will be a great place to live, work, shop and play,” said Castellini, who also explained how he used to have to walk down to the river at 4am to make sure it was below 52 feet so that he could open his produce business.

Much has changed along the northern banks of the Ohio River since the days of Castellini’s produce business, and much more will change over the coming years. Project officials say that they will bring a detailed plan for the next round of work to City Council within the next one to two months.