Ground Breaks On The Banks, But Not Everyone Is Thrilled

(CINCINNATI) -- A former county commissioner once called the downtown riverfront area between Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park - potentially the most valuable real estate in the city - a 50-acre mud hole.

He was only partly right. Asphalt parking lots occupied much of the site.

After nearly a decade of planning and negotiating between the city and county, a ceremonial groundbreaking was held Wednesday for what could become a $1 billion retail, recreation, office and residential complex - in another decade.

Initial construction of "The Banks" will start with parking garages to form a platform to raise the rest of the project out of the Ohio River flood plain. That will be followed by about 300 apartments, retail space and a couple restaurants.

If the entire project, driven by $600 million to $800 million in private investment, is completed, it could add 1,800 apartments and condos downtown, creating a self-contained neighborhood between the river and the central business district.

"This is a proud day for us here in Cincinnati," said Mayor Mark Mallory. "We are at a point in our history where we are about to take a giant leap forward."

Gov. Ted Strickland was on hand for the ceremony.

"You can feel the energy in the place," Strickland said. "This project will create a vibrant riverfront."

That was the vision four decades ago, when construction began on Riverfront Stadium. It opened in 1970, but nothing else followed.

Officials said the area had flourished in the 19th century but being in a flood plain was problematic.

In 1996, Hamilton County voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase to build separate stadiums for the Reds and Bengals, but the only development to follow was the largely taxpayer-funded National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

When former Commissioner Phil Heimlich thought a development deal was imminent in 2006, he said, "Now we can count on a 50-acre mud hole becoming a world class retail, office and residential community."

But that agreement broke down and new developers had to be found, and then they had to line up the financing.

"Today, we move from vision to execution," Mallory said. "A lot of people thought we wouldn't make it to this day."

Two Atlanta companies, Carter and Dawson Co., partnered to take on development and raised $74 million for first-phase construction.

Other Ohio cities have had various degrees of success developing their riverfronts.

In Columbus, work is about to begin on a riverfront park that Mayor Michael Coleman has been pushing since 2002. Ground breaking is set for April 14 on a mile-long promenade along the Scioto River, including fountains, sculptures and restaurants that officials want completed before the city's bicentennial in 2012.

In Cleveland, a developer has expanded plans for a residential, retail and entertainment project in the Flats district along the Cuyahoga River because of the demand for downtown hotel rooms and office space.

The estimated cost has doubled to $522 million, and there is an aggressive timetable for construction to be finished by late 2010.

The plan includes a park, boardwalk, gourmet market and 10-screen movie theater.

However, not everyone is banking on the Banks.

Those working to revitalize Over the Rhine are concerned about what the Banks will mean to that neighborhood and it's need for re-development.

No one is denying that the Riverfront needs a new deveopment between the stadiums, but advocates for Over the Rhine are frustrated and concerned that the banks will move Over the Rhine further down on the priority list.

There will be thousands of square feet of retail space, housing, restaurants. It's a project almost a decade in the making.

And this is a neighborhood more than a century and a half in the making where they're searching for a way to revitalize.

"As you walk up and down Main street you'll see all kinds of vacant retail in addition this neighborhood is full of first floor retail space that's bricked over, "said Mike Morgan with Over the Rhine Foundation.

Morgan says that while progress is being made, like the new developments on Vine Street, Over the Rhine's problems have just relocated.

"You look up and down main street and it has become a dump all the crime that was on Vine has moved to main it looks like Rumpke dumped trash on a daily basis," said Morgan.

And more development just blocks away, while it's a step forward for The Banks, Morgan says will mean a step back for Over the Rhine.

"What are we gonna do to the existing city we're not taking care of?" asked Morgan. "We go from back burner to far back burner that the things that need to happen to create real change aren't gonna happen."

The majority of the money funding the Banks is private developer funding, not city and county funds, so it's not as though the Banks will take away funding from other projects like the revitalization of Over the Rhine. Corey McConnell with Associated Press wire copy. Copyright 2008. All Rights Reserved