Soapdish: Cincy Crit

While Cincinnati has made great strides during my almost decade in residence, it is by no means immune from criticism.

Make no mistake: We here at Soapbox unabashedly parade our naked biases about our (and let’s not mince words) cheerleading for the city. Indeed, by virtue of the much ballyhooed “changing the narrative” mantra and concomitant focus on talent, innovation, diversity and environment (the catchy “TIDE” acronym for short), we have had no shortage of game-changing stories about plucky urban entrepreneurs sowing the fair, fertile fields of the Queen City for fun and (hopefully…one day) profit. Moreover, highlighting the positives has done wonders to fill a yawning vacuum frequently abdicated by what now passes for a diminishing mainstream media in our bustling metropolis. 

While I must admit that I have been, at times, accused of drinking the “kool aid” from the Genius of Water (guilty as charged), I do not perceive my voice here as simply a percolating and parroting purveyor of positivity (not to mention alliterative allusion). 

Indeed, in the initial column penned for this humble space, I had summoned the ghost of the late, great San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, who regularly gave the city “a sense of itself—a sense that might be bitchy, sentimental, facetious, irritated, discursive, knowing, indignant or outraged, depending on his mood, which might often be the city’s mood on that particular day.”

So, maybe…just maybe, I got up on the wrong side of the bed today (that would be the wall), or maybe someone slipped me decaf by mistake, but in a hat tip to the crusty Caen, I would like to use this virtual “soapbox” to, periodically, embark upon a random, discursive, sometimes facetious, possibly irritated, critique of the city.

In the “broader themes” category, let’s talk about the tension between architecture and development, more specifically, contemporary architecture. Our city is blessed with a treasure trove of historic buildings and architectural heritage, and, in recent years, we have seen several, meteoric big-ticket projects in our downtown basin--the sprawling rise of The Banks down on the river; the skyscaping reach of the Queen City Tower (tiaras!); and the squatting infill of the Horseshoe Casino. A polling of objective observers in architectural circles leads to a general consensus regarding each of these projects—boring, boring, boring (also, in the case of The Banks—cheap).

Now don’t get me wrong. These are all great projects injecting millions into our local economy and drawing thousands of visitors to our urban core. That is not to say that they are above criticism. Aren’t we past the point of our urban renewal evolution where we simply accept development at any cost? Aren’t we at the point where we can arch a more collectively discerning eyebrow, pushing the developers to do better? 

One look at the designs for Oakley Station is sufficient to demonstrate how prostrating ourselves at the altar of the almighty developer leads to mediocre and unimaginative developments. Same goes for Uptown’s hulking “U Square at the Loop,” a.k.a “The Banks North.”

Simply put, after all the ballyhooing and lip service to “bridging Broadway” and “connectivity” with the surrounding neighborhood, the Casino is quickly looking like it took the majority of its design cues from the jail across the street. The paucity of windows on the (seemingly endless) north wall facing Reading Road is glaring, while the south has basically none. 

It’s as if you fed the dimensions of the gaming floor plus restaurant square footage and parking into an architectural food processor and this is what it spit out. Meanwhile, the formerly Monte Carlo-style, Formula 1 “S Curve” of Reading has been widened into more expansive Central Parkway dimensions, in the process raising the spectre of a future “bridging Reading” organization designed to help petrified pedestrians frogger across the fattened roadway while avoiding speeding motorists. The sliver-like, landscaped medians provide scant shelter in this regard.

And the city isn't likely to get involved in any architectural critiques when private money is being spent on new development. Spokesperson Meg Olberding responded to the issue via email: "I can tell you that the (City) Manager’s sentiment is that we are in a growth mode and that the casino is an important part of that. It is a private development with no city money in it, so the City manager’s opinion on its looks have little to do with anything."

In discussing the issue with local architects (none of whom, for professional reasons, care to be identified publicly), it is clear that a number of factors are at work here. In one corner, there is criticism of the designs and creativity.  

As one architect noted, “One of my issues is the lack of urbanity and forward thinking in a lot of the designs. SCPA is the poster child for this, in that they literally turned their back on Washington Park. They tore down solid historic buildings to put a back-up generator, loading dock and surface parking lot facing a park that at the time wasn't great but had amazing potential (which was consequently unlocked). Too often the designs are ‘good enough’ because it's better than the empty lot currently there, but don't look to enhance and be a part of what could be there.”

Others, however, point to the issues of civic pride, patronage and community leadership. According to another, “Back many decades ago, when large building projects were seen as reflecting the growth and progressiveness of the city, the idea of the project was so strong that there was a necessary civic discussion as to how the project would be seen by our citizens and the nation as an example of our prosperity and progress. These major projects were always seen in the light as a reflection of Cincinnati and its people. Today, I think there is still some of this sentiment, but it is not the overriding factor it once was.” 

Cincinnati should demand more from its architects and developers, and not simply be content (read: desperate) to have a project built within our city’s confines. Act like you’ve been there before. It’s not simply a choice between an empty lot and a new building. Future phases of The Banks have the potential for marked improvements (indeed, preliminary designs show improvement), and it is important for the city and organizations like the Historic Conservation Board and Urban Design Review Board to hold developers' feet to the fire in order to demand the best possible outcome (see also: Tower, DunnHumby; Commons, Mercer). 

According to architect Paul Muller, director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association and a member of the Urban Design Review Board, Cincinnati’s turn to form-based codes is certainly “a step in the right direction.” Indeed, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls has made implementation of form-based codes one of the cornerstone’s of her work on city council. As Muller notes, it is critical to “get the basics right—for example, holding the form of the street consistent with the character of the neighborhood.”

I sat in on more than a few meetings and community presentations, as well as a Planning Commission mini-trial, in the drawn out battle to approve the plans and design for Mercer Commons—more specifically, the modern, glass-sheathed condo structure that will grace Vine Street. 

The call for civic engagement echoed above was clearly in great abundance. Prodding, poking and protests by Over-The-Rhine community leaders lead to incrementally revised designs by 3CDC and its architectural team. While the design revisions were often indiscernible to the untrained eye, the fact of the matter is that the community did not simply accept what was being put in front of them. They did not simply accept it because Mercer Commons is one of the critical developments in the community. Ultimately, 3CDC, its team of architects and its attorney, spent many hours in a cramped conference room/sweat lodge while the Planning Commission deliberated and ultimately approved the project. But in so doing, there was a message sent. More will be demanded, more will be challenged. “Good enough” will not cut it.

Look at the enduring structures in town like Carew Tower, Nippert Stadium, the Times-Star Building—buildings constructed by families such as the Emerys and Nipperts and Tafts—families that were vested in the city and sought to leave a lasting legacy of excellence in these structures. 

Compare that to the structures going up today. How will they be perceived in 40, 50 and 60 years, and will they withstand the test of time?

“Good enough” just won’t do. Get engaged. Demand better, Cincinnati.
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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.