SoapDish: the latest scoop on Cincinnati's favorite ground breakings

Attention loyal Cincinistas, it’s time once again for your humble columnist to pick up the virtual megaphone and sound the clarion call to action.  Well, perhaps not action per se, but there certainly has been a lot of buzz-generating activity and ceremonial dirt-tossing in our fair downtown the past several weeks.  The Soapdish was able to observe quite a bit of that positive buzz first-hand, beginning at City Hall with an update on the 1 billion dollar archeological dig on the riverfront currently known as the Banks. As the final remains of Riverfront Stadium’s concrete dugout are extracted from the earth, representatives from the Banks development group gave an update to the assembled council-members on what will be known as the first phase between the Freedom Center and Great American Ballpark.  Actually, it’s more like a lot of micromanaging sub-phases (“Phase 1-A, 1-B etc.”).  All of this was certainly quite exciting, in concept at least, with Phase 1-A involving 300 apartments and up to 110,000 square feet of retail, 1-B being 300,000 square feet of office space and 1-C consisting of condo/town homes and a possible hotel.  The most exciting aspect here was the prospect for a 25,000 square foot grocery store occupying a portion of the retail component.  Rumors of a new, high concept-Kroger store on the Banks have been circulating for quite some time, however developers were clear that no deal has been signed and discussions with potential tenants are “ongoing.” As for the two restaurant spaces to the south of the Freedom Center, the developers are, once again, “in discussions” with restaurateurs on those prime sites. There was also a presentation about the riverfront park, which has a tentative groundbreaking (again for the $32 million portion known as Phase 1) slated for September 29 just east of the Roebling.  Here’s hoping that goes well, as superintendent of parks Steve Schuckman, in a moment of comic relief during the presentation, was like a real-life Mr. Magoo with the laser pointer, seemingly unable to locate the site on the plans.  In any event, perhaps he was feeling the pressure, as the City Council presentation was a bit rushed, with everyone chomping at the bit to scamper across downtown to the silver-plated shovel exhibition known as the Queen City Square groundbreaking.

Over at the QCS site, the ceremonial tents were up and the caterers were at the ready, as the assembled dignitaries engaged in the requisite rhetoric and speechmaking before turning their spades loose on the carefully cultivated dirt mound presented before them.  The tiara-topped 41 story skyscraper at the corner of 3rd and Sycamore will clearly have a transformative effect on the city’s skyline.  Again, all very exciting news for the city (although the probable ramification of a glut of Class B office space coming on line as a result of QCS is a topic I’m pretty sure many in the audience would prefer to avoid), and the confluence of these two events made for palpable yet very tangible signs of progress in the re-energized urban core of downtown. 

Unfortunately, this Kum-Ba-Yah double feature of positivity was followed up the next day by the unveiling of site designs for the Banks in front if the Urban Design Review Board.  The reactions from most quarters were, to put it charitably, underwhelming at best in response to what appeared to be a somewhat antiseptic “lifestyle center” mode of design, leading some to conclude that the plans were somehow mixed up with Liberty Township’s new square.  “Calhoun Street South,” was another characterization tossed around by local wags, drawing comparisons to the hulking red brick battleship which anchors UC’s southern edge on Calhoun Street.   Suffice to say, these are not compliments.  Now to be fair, these are merely preliminary drawings, and the details will obviously evolve over the next year as the plans come into sharper focus.  That said, however, those who saw the original banks renderings (see below) can’t help but wistfully harken back in the face of this latest incarnation.  Here’s hoping that the developers, in conjunction with the Urban Design Review Board, are able to craft an appropriate design aesthetic that thoughtfully echoes the wealth and breadth of Cincinnati’s historic architecture.

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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.