Second Phase of Newport on the Levee to Come More Than 15 Years After First

Newport on the Levee was the talk of the town in the late 1990s. It was to be one of the most prominent development projects in the urban core for some time, and transform Newport’s riverfront into a place that would attract tourists year-round.

There were also lofty visions that the development of Newport on the Levee would spark a wholesale redevelopment of the Northern Kentucky river city, including virtually every neighboring property and the development of the 1,000-foot-tall Millennium Tower.

These ambitions, however, were never fully realized. Newport on the Levee experienced a number a setbacks and never fully embraced the mixed-use nature that would ensure its success, Millennium Tower was cancelled almost as quickly as it was proposed, and while surrounding development has taken place, it has come at a much slower pace than envisioned.

Earlier this month developers took the next step forward with a plan to build on the long vacant Lot B next to the Purple People Bridge that would aim to address those issues.

According to Capital Investment Group (CIG), the investment would total $80 million and add 238 residential units, 8,000 square feet of street-level retail space, a 150-room hotel and an 800-space parking garage.

Newport city officials and CIG representatives say they intend to start construction in July 2015 and wrap-up a year later.

While this is good news for Newport on the Levee, it is certainly not when or how developers and city officials had originally envisioned the riverfront development taking shape.

In 2000, the plan was for Newport on the Levee to include a mall with a movie theater complex, an aquarium, a state-of-the-art 3-D IMAX theater, and a second phase of development that would begin just two years later and be anchored by a 200-room hotel.

Problems arose almost immediately when the 3-D IMAX shut down just two years after it opened in 2001. The retail portions of the mall also never seemed to live up to expectations, perhaps following in Tower Place Mall’s footsteps and illustrating that enclosed shopping malls tend to not work in urban settings.

As a result, the mall portion of the development has seen a constant cycle of tenants in and out, and more recently the replacement of most retail inside the mall structure by office tenants. Several restaurant operations have even relocated across the river to The Banks development. The former 456-seat IMAX theater has since been filled by the successful Newport Aquarium.

Shortly after the opening of the first phase of work at Newport on the Levee, city officials also pursued the USS Cincinnati submarine in an effort to dock it along the shore of the Ohio River next to Newport on the Levee. Those plans never materialized and now only a portion of the submarine vessel will be returning to the region – at a location in a future phase of Smale Riverfront Park along Cincinnati’s riverfront.

During all of this Newport Aquarium has been a particularly bright spot for the development. It is consistently named one of the nation’s best aquariums and is a constant draw for tourists and locals alike – attracting more than 11 million visitors since it opened 15 years ago.

With the Great Recession now in the past and new competition from The Banks, Newport officials and developers are looking to jump start things once more. The second phase of Newport on the Levee may be more than a decade behind schedule, but it will add a critical component that was sorely missing from the original development.

Full-time residents and a hotel at the site will help drive more business to shops and restaurants operating outside of the typical weekend hours popular for tourists. The revived talk of extending the streetcar system across the river also shows a new sense of collaboration and possibility that did not exist in the lead up to the new millennium.

VIDEO: New Views of Ohio River Opened Up with Latest Excavation Work at Smale Riverfront Park

Lots of visual progress has been made on Cincinnati’s $120 million Smale Riverfront Park over the past few months.

Since the last construction update in June, project manager Dave Prather explains that the steel framing for Carol Ann’s Carousel is now taking shape, and that the Vine Street fountains and steps have now fully taken on their form. These steps and cascading fountains will be similar to the Walnut Street fountains and steps already completed to the east.

Prather also takes us inside the rentable event space beneath the carousel and fountain plaza.

While it is still quite messy with construction activity, Cincinnati Parks officials are actively promoting it and booking reservations now. Park officials tell UrbanCincy that the Anderson Pavilion will have two event spaces – Longworth Room and Mendenhall Room – that can accommodate up to 300 people. Special events can be booked through Premier Park Events at 513-221-2610.

During the nearly 12-minute video, you can also now see a new view of the Ohio River now that excavation has begun on the park’s great lawn. This area of the park will bring visitors as closer to the water than anywhere else.

Most all of the work profiled in this latest video update is anticipated to be complete in time for the 2015 MLB All-Star Game at Great American Ball Park. The week-long festivities leading up to the weekend of games is expected to being thousands of visitors and millions of eyeballs to the city’s central riverfront.

PHOTOS: Cincy Red Bike Quickly Taking Shape Throughout City Center

Last week’s press conference on Fountain Square revealed a number of new details regarding Cincinnati’s new bike share system. In addition to unveiling the design of the bikes, stations and membership cards, officials also finally shared the system’s name – Cincy Red Bike.

Jason Barron, executive director of Cincy Red Bike, said that dozens of volunteers quickly assembled 260 of the bikes that will populate the initial 35-station system. Barron further clarified a point discussed in our analysis from just before the conference, and stated that each station will have between 13 and 19 docks, thus giving the system an initial docking capacity of 520 bikes. This would easily exceed the ideal 50% space contingency.

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The press was also informed that the station at Union Terminal, which would have been a far off island from the rest of the initial system, has since been scratched for that very reason.

“Research indicated that having an island station like that is difficult for system balancing and that it typically does not get much use,” Barron told UrbanCincy. “An exception may be a park or someplace where people check out the bike ride it around the park and them check it back in.”

In terms of handling the balancing for such a large initial system, Cincy Red Bike will be utilizing a small van at first, but may add a trailer or a bike trailer to the balancing fleet at a later date depending on the system’s needs.

The process of getting a system like this operational so quickly comes with some challenges. While installing two to three new stations a day, officials are also still trying to work out the final membership and daily rates for users. Barron also says that the system map has changed some since initial releases, and that a new map will be released soon.

Those who want to stay up-to-date on the rapidly evolving system can do so now by following Cincy Red Bike on Facebook and on Twitter @CincyRedBike.

EDITORIAL NOTE: All 24 photos were taken by Breanna Tracy for UrbanCincy on August 16, 2014.

Delay Presents Opportunity for 3CDC to Rethink 15th and Race Development

Between two of Over-the-Rhine’s most treasured attractions is a Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) proposal currently on hold. As a result, the non-profit development corporation will either need to obtain a new funding source or the project will need to be “a little more within the scale of the existing market.”

The current proposal for the mixed-use project at Fifteenth and Race includes over 300 parking spaces, 57 residential units, and almost 22,000 square feet of commercial space. With the project now on hold, now is the time to step back and critically evaluate a major development in the heart of Over-the-Rhine.

The unnamed development sits primarily along Fifteenth Street, between Pleasant and Race Streets, and would occupy almost an entire city block with a massive parking garage and what can otherwise be described as a lackluster design. Think Mercer Commons 2.0.

Stand at the northern edge of Washington Park and look down Pleasant Street. If your eyes are better than mine, you’ll see Findlay Market. If you’d like to walk there, it is only a leisurely five to ten minute stroll. This proposed development’s car-centric design places a parking garage exit on Fifteenth Street, and would force vehicular traffic onto one of Over-the-Rhine’s most important pedestrian axes.

Additionally, the garage packs in 200 more vehicles than is mandated by law, forces the partial demolition of two historic structures, and limits the available commercial and residential space sandwiched between the phase one Cincinnati Streetcar route. If the streetcar should increase property value as predicted, a parking garage may not be the best use of land for such a prominent location along the line.

As is currently designed, the buildings that would wrap the garage present themselves as a homogeneous wall. This character contrasts heavily with the existing fabric that presents gaps between buildings, portals to interior courtyards, and strong visual relief. While the roof line makes an attempt at creating rhythm in concert with windows, its variation is not enough to mask that it is one big building.

These characteristics detract from the pedestrian scale, though the new construction hints at these qualities with balconies, recessed entries, and slightly offset building faces. These expressions are more akin to developments at The Banks and U Square at The Loop, and are a cheap imitation of Over-the-Rhine’s authenticity.

Along Pleasant Street, the Fifteenth and Race townhomes are compressed by the large, central parking garage. The private walk at the townhomes’ rear is noted as a ‘garden space’ but these spaces are approximately 10 feet wide and will be shadowed by a three-and-a-half-story parking garage. Along the street, the crosses and boxes highlighting the townhomes’ windows are wholly contemporary, which are expressions out of place on a building that is neither modern nor traditional; it is non-committal.

It should be noted that an entire block design is a difficult task in Over-the-Rhine because its designation as a historic district stems from the collection of smaller individual buildings built over time. Furthermore, the neighborhood’s historic character, established before the invention of the automobile, does not easily accommodate cars.

However, there will be a need for more parking, and the Over-the-Rhine Comprehensive Plan recognizes this, but states that new parking should be done “without impacting the urban fabric or historic character of the neighborhood.”

Individually rehabbed buildings do not typically have the potential to alter a neighborhood’s character, but when large-scale development is proposed, community members should have a place at the table.

When asked about developers engaging community stakeholders, Steve Hampton, Executive Director of the Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation, says, “If there’s one place for community outreach it is in large-scale development because of the unique architecture, historic neighborhood, and diversity of people in Over-the-Rhine.”

In the case of this Fifteenth and Race development, the first stages of community engagement were initiated by Over-the-Rhine Community Housing (OTRCH) and Schickel Design, who completed the Pleasant Street Vision Study (PSVS) in 2013.

While the proposed development incorporates all of the individual elements from the PSVS, it is not in the spirit of the pedestrian-focused Pleasant Street Vision Study and on a very different scale. The size and location of the parking garage is a major difference between the 3CDC proposal and the PSVS, and Mary Rivers, of OTRCH, noted that this is a big issue for many people.

Of course there is a gap between a vision study that outlines a community’s desires or needs, and the market forces that drive a real development, but there are various ways a community should be engaged in a project of this scale.

While OTRCH held focus groups prior to beginning the award-winning City Home project one block south along Pleasant Street, Rivers said that 3CDC did not engage OTRCH until after the current plans had been unveiled.

Rivers said, “We asked a diversity of people, ‘What do you like in Over-the-Rhine? What are you looking for in a home?’ Their answers ultimately influenced the design.” This type of engagement is not easy; and Rivers acknowledged that the best way to engage a community is on big issues not the details.

3CDC needs to step up, engage community stakeholders, and propose a design that is more respectful to Over-the-Rhine’s residents, and its unique architectural and urban form.

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.