Soap Dish: The view from behind the fence

I recently read where the city of Detroit took decisive action to roll out the welcome mat and tidy up the city in anticipation of Ford Field's hosting of the much ballyhooed Final Four college basketball brouhaha which just concluded last night.  A few years back, the city received high praise for its hosting prowess, drawing rave reviews for both the baseball All Star game as well as the uber-spectacle that is le Super Bowl.  This was, by the way, a very good thing.

This year, alas, things are a bit different in Detroit.  Perhaps you've heard.  As a result, a cash-strapped city is finding its options limited as far as the length, quality and thread count of the red carpet which can be unfurled.  While the Super Bowl relied in large part upon private support, those resources have, by and large, dried up in the current economic climate. Nevertheless, the show must go on, and in this case, the "show," in part, consisted of erecting fences with "images of Detroit landmarks" in order to mask numerous downtown sites where once elegant (and sometimes mammoth) structures were razed with no plan in place to replace them. In announcing their ersatz, low rent Christo-esque plans, a representative for the city noted that "eyesores, such as the site of the razed Statler Hotel on Grand Circus Park, will be surrounded by high mesh fences decorated with the images of Detroit landmarks."  This is not, by the way, a very good thing.

As a former Detroiter, and someone who fought to save some of those since-demolished structures, I can safely say that the irony of the situation is not lost on anyone.  I recall when the plans for demolishing a classic 1908 era hotel called for replacing it with a "lighted, landscaped parking lot."  Those plans, I am happy to report, have in large part been successful (minus the landscaping aspect).  Now, Detroit is effectively putting up images of landmarks to hide the sites of the landmarks that they demolished.  The Statler, a basketball's throw from Ford Field, was demolished almost six years ago, with no confirmed plans for the site.  Similar moonscapes can be found scattered about in the central business district, with more demolition occurring every day.  In addition to the high mesh fences festooned with optimistic imagery, the Final Four welcome mat included patching sidewalks, picking up trash, fixing streetlights and generally less capital-intensive means by which the downtown can be spruced up… tasks which most Cincinistas generally take for granted.

Demolition for the sake of demolition and erecting fences to hide vacant lots are, fortunately, not the type of tactics that have popped up with great frequency in downtown Cincinnati.  If you look around, behind and over the fences in Cincinnati, you'll find some incredibly active construction sites, including Trinity Flats in Over-the-Rhine, the Banks, Queen City Square and the gleaming new School for the Creative and Performing Arts, as well as new headquarters for KZF Design (at 7th and Broadway) and dunnhumby (at 3rd and Central Avenue). Numerous large cranes dot the skyline, providing visible signposts of successful urban developments.  Similar sites can be found in Uptown at the rapidly evolving $45 million Burnet Avenue revitalization project.  

While many uninformed naysayers over the past year have reflexively slogged on the Banks as a "mud pit," those same folks will see quite a different space when they venture back down for their first Reds game of the new season.  A similar and even more explicit contrast can be found at the Queen City Square site, where the core of the fledgling skyscraper as well as the surrounding floors keep rising every day.  Last year, those inimitable cheerleaders at Channel 5 seized upon the opportunity to interview a few not-so-well-informed passersby at the Reds game, who pointed at the inherently unsightly demolition of the old parking garage at the of QCS site and took that as an opportunity to throw dirt at Cincinnati.  Similar style "Joe and Josephine on the Street" interviews were pointed in the direction of the Banks site (insert "mud pit" reference here).  

Educating the uninformed masses is nothing new (why do you think they call this Soapbox?), however, let's focus on the facts:  Cincinnati, unlike Detroit, has actual plans for those sites.  Cincinnati residents and supporters can take great pride in the fact that high mesh fences in and around downtown are meant not to hide the lack of activity, but rather to protect you from the buzz of construction going on behind them. The destruction that occurred was not simply for the sake of destruction (and perhaps, the presence of a new glittering surface parking lot), but rather with a concrete (and steel) plan in mind.  Let's hope the Reds have a modicum of success this year, if only, as a side benefit, for the opportunity it will give to the ignorant naysayers of last summer to be duly enlightened.

Make no mistake, although blessed with admirable doses of both modern and historic density within the city core, Cincinnati does have some less than attractive patches of surface parking in the central business district, the most egregious of which would be Sycamore along 7th and 8th, Plum and 4th, and that old standby, 5th and Race, not to mention Broadway Commons on the periphery.  While a surface parking lot is far and away the most undesirable and unsightly use of a downtown block (blight tax, anyone?), Cincinnati can take heart in the fact that it is more the exception rather than the norm.  Moreover, these sites do not seem content to remain surface lots in perpetuity, as the constant jockeying over 5th and Race development schemes, the (understandably slow moving) hotel plans at Sycamore and 8th and the nascent casino plans for Broadway Commons most assuredly demonstrate.  

Moreover, as options for transit continue to expand (hop on board the Cincinnati streetcar!), you will continue to see less an emphasis on massive surface lots and parking structures and more an emphasis on actual living.  The unsightly by-product of a transit-deficient culture is exponential growth in the parking industry.  Increase the transit options, beginning with the streetcar, and see the emphasis on parking diminish accordingly.  This would be, by the way, a very good thing.

Photography by Scott Beseler
The Banks, No Fall Zone
Western Southern demolition
The Banks, Through the Fence

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.