Downtown Cincinnati has been getting some attention for its budding renaissance, and the recent interest is well deserved. The new vibrancy is primarily a result of two redevelopment projects under construction. One project is in the southernmost section of downtown, a riverfront development called The Banks. The other is a neighborhood revitalization project located directly north of the central business district in Cincinnati’s the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. The success of these two projects has brought a bustle of new retail, restaurant, and residential options, which both Cincinnatians and tourists a like have taken to, breathing life back into Downtown.
Both developments are large-scale, high impact and, instead of competing, The Banks and Over-the-Rhine offer very different options and atmospheres, providing something for everyone. Furthermore, they coalesced at about the same time which is somewhat remarkable. Both revitalization efforts had been envisioned for a long time and took years to coalesce. Various groups of people were involved in the projects, utilizing an array of strategies while facing different obstacles, yet both initiatives hit their stride at about the same time to double the impact on downtown Cincinnati.
- Public-investment led development
- Ballpark-oriented development
- Anchored by regional and national chains
The Banks is a riverfront redevelopment project that was initially conceived in 1997 by the City of Cincinnati, Hamilton County, and the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments. Prior to The Banks, little existed on the riverfront as it languished in limbo without a proper vision for the area. The Banks was conceived as an 18-acre entertainment district anchored by Cincinnati’s two major sports teams: The Reds and the Bengals.
Local government initiated the investments in The Banks, believing that their efforts would pave the way for private development. By 2007, Cincinnati and Hamilton County had made significant investments in the area. First, they dealt with the Fort Washington Way (I-71/US-50), burying the freeway that disconnected downtown from the riverfront. That reduced the disruption between the riverfront and the central business district. Then the sports teams got new stadiums at The Banks – Paul Brown Stadium for the NFL’s Bengals and baseball-only Great American Ballpark for the Reds. The city and county also invested in parking garages, a transit center, a new street grid, streetscapes, and partnered with private groups on Smale Riverfront Park, according to The Banks Public Private Partnership website.
The public-led strategy ultimately paid off. The decade-long, $128 million investment from the government prepped the area for private investment in entertainment, dining, and residential investments in The Banks. In 2008, Carter and The Dawson Company were selected as the developers to take the project over the finish line.
As construction began, it was clear what type of environment The Banks would have. Mid-rise, modern buildings in a walkable grid design connect Great American Ballpark to Paul Brown Stadium. The first floor retail spaces are large and lease structures were developed that were attractive to chains and large-scale local restaurateurs and bars. These apartments are priced at 2 1/2 to three times the city’s average.
This vision is spot-on for The Banks. Phase 1, which includes 300 apartments and 97,000 sq. ft. of retail, made its first big impression on Cincinnati on Opening Day 2012 for the Cincinnati Reds. Its popularity has steadily grown ever since. There is a lengthy waiting list for the apartments and The Banks has become a vibrant entertainment center, even when Cincinnati teams are on the road.
A study completed by the University of Cincinnati Economic Center projected that Phase 1A alone will have an annual economic impact of $91 million for the region, projecting “a nearly immediate pay back on the city and county’s investment.” While I could not find the data to confirm this annual economic impact is indeed being realized, it is hard to imagine that they could have forecasted more optimistically than what has already been realized at The Banks. In 2013, the American Planning Association awarded the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County the National Planning Excellence Award in the Implementation Category for the first phase of the development.
The Banks’ impact on downtown Cincinnati is not yet complete. Phase 2 of The Banks began in April 2014 is slated to be completed in 2015. Phase 2 will include a nine-story building that will cover a full city block, with 300 more apartments and 20,000 sq. ft. of retail space. A hotel is also a possibility in the area and The Banks’ success is drawing interest from major employers. In April 2014, GE announced that The Banks was one of three finalists to locate 1,300 new jobs in the Cincinnati region. This type of job infusion could be a game changer for downtown Cincinnati.
Regardless of which tenants end up in Phase 2, Cincinnati and Hamilton County are confident their public investment will pay dividends for the Greater Cincinnati region.
- Redevelopment Corporation master planner backed by the corporate community
- Traditional Main Street type development
- Focus on local boutiques, restaurants and retailers
While the riverfront on downtown’s south side is being transformed by The Banks, the neighborhood directly north of downtown, Over-the-Rhine, is also experiencing a renaissance. Over-the-Rhine is a beautiful 19th century neighborhood – it’s one of the largest historic districts in the country – that unfortunately has a very troubled history.
For decades, Over-the-Rhine struggled with high poverty, crime, and vacancy rates. In 2001, the neighborhood was the epicenter of Cincinnati’s race riots. Cincinnati’s leaders, both public and private, viewed the redevelopment of the neighborhood a vitally important piece of ensuring people feel safe downtown. In 2003, leaders from the city and the corporate community formed Cincinnati Center City Redevelopment Corporation, better known as 3CDC, to lead downtown revitalization efforts, and Over-the-Rhine quickly became the central focus. 3CDC became the Master Planner for the neighborhood, focusing on a 110-square block area.
From the outset, it was clear that local government would not be leading the charge, but instead play a role as a supporting player in the revitalization efforts. 3CDC has become a non-profit entity with heavy involvement from Cincinnati’s powerful corporate community, which includes household names such as P&G, Macy’s, and Kroger. This turned out to be an ideal strategy for Over-the-Rhine. Unlike the publically-controlled blank slate that became The Banks, Over-the-Rhine was a neighborhood filled with hundreds of different property owners, stakeholder groups, and troubled properties. Furthermore, its redevelopment would happen in small increments, building by building, project by project, working with different developers, architects, and stakeholders within each individual project. 3CDC has proved to be able to act nimbly and quickly – something that is often a challenge for local governments..
3CDC’s first endeavored to gain control over targeted properties. According to 3CDC’s website, there were 500 vacant buildings and 700 vacant lots in the target area. 3CDC land banked over 300 buildings and lots to take control of their future and stop the deterioration of the buildings.
Once land banking was complete, 3CDC began the redevelopment process, working block by block, utilizing creative financing – maximizing New Market Tax Credits and Historic Preservation Tax Credits. Given the character of the neighborhood, small building footprints, Main Street feel, and the reputation for being gritty, 3CDC developed unique lease structures that were attractive to local entrepreneurs with small scale restaurant and retail concepts and began apartment prices at a more moderate price point than at The Banks.
The strategy has worked well. Since its inception, 3CDC has invested $315 million in the neighborhood, leveraging local, state, and federal dollars in conjunction with private financing. 103 historic buildings have been or are being restored, resulting in 466 new and rehabilitated residential units, 155,000 sq. ft. of new and renovated commercial space, and 846 public parking spaces. 3CDC also recently completed a $48 million renovation of Washington Park, transforming the neglected public space, known as a mecca for drug deals, into a community-centered gathering place that includes a sprayground, performance stage, dog park, and event plaza.
Over-the-Rhine is now home to many of Cincinnati’s best new local restaurants and, according to 3CDC’s website, as of July 2013, all of the 195 completed residential units were occupied and 99 percent of the commercial spaces were leased. I have no doubt this continues to be true in May 2014.
The work in Over-the-Rhine is just getting started. 3CDC has big plans for future development in the neighborhood, including Mercer Commons, a $63 million projects including 19 buildings and 26 vacant parcels that will result in 96 market rate apartments, 30 affordable apartments, 28 condominiums, 17,600 sq. ft. of commercial space and 359 parking spaces. 3CDC is also eyeing redevelopment of 18 buildings on three other streets that would create 74 condominiums, 14 apartments, and 8,100 sq. ft. of commercial space. In December 2013, 3CDC was awarded more than $3 million in Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credits for 8 of the buildings slated for redevelopment, moving these projects forward.
Over-the-Rhine still has a long way to go, but for the first time in many years, the neighborhood’s future is projected to grow and improve.
Together, these two developments have sparked investment throughout downtown. According to the 2014 State of Downtown, downtown Cincinnati developers reported completed projects totaling over $491 million in 2013 and $930 million more in projects are under construction or proposed in the central business district and Over-the-Rhine.
Perhaps just as important, perceptions of downtown have improved as well. According to an annual survey completed by Downtown Cincinnati Inc., in 2013 78 percent of respondents said that their opinion of Over-the-Rhine was more favorable than the year before and 74 percent said that their opinion of the central business district was more favorable than the year before.
As an adopted Cincinnatian after living in the region for 8 years, I am thrilled and awed by the rapid transformation that is underway in downtown Cincinnati. The change is a result of long-term dedication and hard work by local government, corporate leaders, a strong redevelopment corporation, and a laundry list of people and organizations willing to take risks on downtown Cincinnati. Do yourself a favor and experience a rejuvenated Cincinnati to check out the exciting new developments, take in a game at The Banks and head to Over-the-Rhine for some great food afterwards. You’ll be glad you did.