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09.22.2011
Down by the Riverside
New Cincinnati neighborhood addresses old planning woes.
Courtesy Castelli Management

A neighborhood is born in Cincinnati. After a decade of debate, financing, design, and construction, phase one of The Banks—arguably one of the country’s most ambitious urban design projects—is nearly complete. When finished, the 18-acre mixed-use development will add nearly three million square feet of building to long vacant land between Cincinnati’s Central Business District and the Ohio River.

While The Banks’ site has long been vacant, this is no blank slate. The project occupies a rectangle of land that has served as Cincinnati’s laboratory for urban design since the city’s inception. To clear the way for 1961’s I-71 / Fort Washington Way, a dense riverfront district was demolished and the resulting void filled with modernist mega-structures (including the Reds’ Riverfront Stadium of 1970) that left the city landlocked for decades. Other sites were entertained before the construction of two new stadiums in the 1990s, but in 1998 the public voted in favor of again siting the buildings on the river. Recognizing the flaws of this strategy but also its potential, the city appointed a commission to study the construction of a finer-grained urbanism between the stadiums and adjacent to the Ohio. In 2007, Carter and The Dawson Company partnered with the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County to pursue financing for The Banks. Construction of Phase One broke ground in 2008.

 
Construction of the Walnut Street Steps (right) and the Current South building (right).
 

According to Terry Grundy, a professor of urban planning at the University of Cincinnati, the urban design here is smart. “The early concepts for The Banks development were just right: reclaim a scruffy and long-neglected riverfront for the city's future; put in a mix of public amenities and residential and commercial developments to add to downtown's residential population and tax base,” Grundy wrote in an email. The plan also “integrates the new structures with contiguous high profile infrastructure like two new sports stadiums, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and one of America's most charming and historic 19th century bridges, and connects it all to the historic Central Business District.”

The blocks of Cooper Carry’s masterplan, essentially an extension of downtown’s gridiron, average approximately 260 by 390 feet, or roughly half the size of a Midtown Manhattan block. Built out at six or seven stories, this density is roughly the scale of Haussmann’s Paris. Programming is textbook Jane Jacobs: retail at ground level, residential apartments in various configurations above, office and hotel sprinkled throughout. The architecture is fairly banal though, with nothing as formally inventive as Daniel Libeskind’s The Ascent directly across the river. “The Banks’ scale, massing and layout seem to be just right and will eventually create a vibrant urban neighborhood along the Ohio River waterfront,” said Randy Simes, urban planner and editor of UrbanCincy.com. Sasaki’s adjacent Riverfront Park and a stop on Cincinnati’s forthcoming streetcar enhance the district’s appeal.

For all its urban design strengths, The Banks still accommodates cars, a lot of cars. The entire first phase sits on a massive 1,800-car parking podium, and there’s also an above-ground garage. Simes explains, “While the underground parking was necessary in order to lift the massive, mixed-use development out of the Ohio River floodplain, the above-ground parking was not.” Presumably the development team is hedging its bets in a city still beholden to the automobile, yet these garages are a wasted opportunity to encourage more Cincinnatians to adopt a car-free lifestyle. They also were hugely expensive and required massive public subsidy from city, county, state, and federal sources.

In a country that long ago ceded its reputation for bold city-making to Europe and Asia, the construction of a dense new urban district in a mid-sized American city is grounds for optimism. The Banks was touted as a savior for Cincinnati, and the project had unusually strong support from Mayor Mark Mallory and other elected officials to push it forward. Despite its flaws, The Banks probably will be very good for Cincinnati. But given the amount of subsidy the project required, it is questionable whether this is a viable template for other American cities attempting to add inner-city density, especially given cash-strapped local, state, and federal governments.

Travis R. Eby