Revised Brent Spence plan could reclaim land for convention center, new arena, group says

‘You can build a bridge, or you can fix a city.’
A rendering of the current ODOT design for the Brent Spence Bridge project (left) and the...
A rendering of the current ODOT design for the Brent Spence Bridge project (left) and the alternative proposal from Bridge Forward (right).(ODOT/Bridge Forward)
Published: Mar. 17, 2023 at 10:23 PM EDT

This story has been updated with responses from ODOT. The latest BSB project updates can be found here.

CINCINNATI (WXIX) - A group of citizens met with city and state transportation officials in Cincinnati on Friday to discuss changes to the Brent Spence Bridge project they say could hugely benefit the city.

“Our vision is really not a transportation vision,” said Brian Boland, president of Bridge Forward. “It’s a planning vision. It’s a city development vision. The transportation is just the thing that lets us do it.”

Representatives from Bridge Forward revealed new designs on Friday showing a narrower I-75 approach to the bridge and fewer ramps. [See here]

Boland says the changes could return as many as 30 acres for development downtown, potentially including an expanded Duke Energy Convention Center, a new multi-purpose arena or a new tennis tournament complex.

Officials including 3CDC’s Steve Leeper, Hamilton County Administrator Jeff Aluotto and Visit Cincy’s Jeff Berding have also noted the possibility of the DECC’s westward expansion.

Bridge Forward has commissioned an economic study to get an accurate picture of the benefit in returning that land to productive use. Josh Junker, also with Bridge Forward, speculates it could be in the billions.

State officials are currently bidding out the project to firms that will refine the plans and consider alternatives. The design-build contract will be awarded on May 31. Boland hopes Bridge Forward has enough momentum by then to force the issue.

“We think our idea is a better idea, and we’re hoping it will catch fire, and someone at the city, God love them, will finally stiffen their spine and say we should really do this,” he said. “Our message to them is gonna be: You can build a bridge, or you can build a great bridge... You can build a bridge, or you can fix a city.”

‘Just not good enough’

Bridge Forward began coming up with alternative plans for the BSB interstate approach in 2017, founded on the premise that such a massive project could empower Cincinnati to reclaim what it lost—or represent another missed opportunity.

Junker recalls federal programs, including urban renewal housing projects and highway construction in the 1960′s, that hastened the demolition of whole neighborhoods. These neighborhoods, often populated by minorities with little political representation, suffered from overcrowding, high rates of poverty and low property ownership after decades of red-lining.

That, in part, is what happened in Cincinnati’s West End and a neighborhood known as Kenyon Barr, where nearly 27,000 people were displaced—more than live in the entirety of the urban basin today.

“We know we can’t get back to that number,” Junker said. “But that entire area, especially the area east of Freeman avenue, it’s very desolate. It’s not utilized. And we think this plan could start a conversation and activation of that area west of 75.”

Bridge Forward and ODOtT have met several times over the preceding months and years. The designs unveiled Friday, Boland says, reflect a compromise vision incorporating ODOT feedback on the group’s initial artistic renderings. They’re the group’s first attempt at a post-construction street grid, and they eschew—for now—the highway caps that ODOT has told them are infeasible.

Representatives from ODOT’s project team say the aims of state transportation officials and Bridge Forward aren’t as far apart as Boland and Junker suggest.

“We share many of the same goals like minimizing the footprint of the project to free up land for potential development, reconnecting downtown to western neighborhoods, improving safety for all road users, not just vehicles,” an ODOT spokesperson said. “Once the team is selected to build the project, they may make additional revisions to the design to maximize our ability to meet these common goals and others.”

The spokesperson says the plan has seen multiple modifications over the last several years, resulting in “significant cost savings and reduced property impacts.” But ODOT concedes there are “some limitations” on what more can be changed.

“We are working closely with community leaders and remain committed to making sure the project meets the needs of the neighborhoods surrounding it and the region and nation that depends on it for transportation of people and goods,” the spokesperson said.

Boland claims there’s still resistance at almost every level.

“The city has kind of accepted this line from ODOT which is, well we have a plan and it’s too late to change it, and that’s absolutely not the truth,” Boland said. “This is not an engineering problem, this is a political will problem. Do we have the political will to ask the engineers to give it a second look... a real look.”

Boland says the state’s current plan relies on traffic and engineering studies from almost 20 years ago.

“That old plan is just not good enough for the Cincinnati of 2023,” he said. “Maybe they accepted that in 2004, when this process began, but they need to step up now.”

Junker argues no one should be comfortable with spending $3.6 billion—the state’s current cost figure—on designs he calls antiquated.

He and Boland blame institutional inertia and a blinkered political climate for the plan’s overall resilience amidst what they both describe as better options.

“They never thought it would get off the ground after 2015,” Junker said. “And then, voila! Suddenly the [Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill] is passed, and they have the opportunity, and they want to push the same design.”

“They had a plan on the shelf and just wanted to get going with it,” added Boland.

Timeline for the Brent Spence Bridge project.
Timeline for the Brent Spence Bridge project.(City of Cincinnati)

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