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Reclaiming the Waterfront

Project: Waterfront Master Plan, Cincinnati, OH

Planner: Urban Design Associates, Pittsburgh, PA; Donald K. Carter, FAIA, FAICP, president; Paul B. Ostergaard, AIA, managing principal

By Hadiya Strasberg

When it was settled in 1788, the city of Cincinnati, OH, was concentrated at the Ohio River waterfront. The area grew quickly with the rise of the shipping and steamboat industries, but its prominence did not last long: After the Civil War, the steamboat industry declined, banking moved north and Chicago, IL, eclipsed Cincinnati as a prime commercial area. By 1918, the city had expanded inland, where a new downtown was established, and the waterfront had fallen into disrepair. The last straw was the construction of Fort Washington Way, a one-mile section of depressed freeway built between 1958 and 1961, which decisively separated the waterfront from downtown.

Two-hundred years after the settlers arrived, Cincinnati began the process of revitalizing its waterfront. The Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Park, designed by Andrew Leicester in collaboration with Meyer, Scherer and Rockcastle of Minneapolis, MN, was built in 1988 in place of an abandoned railroad yard and factory. Ten years later, a master plan for the waterfront area to the west of Sawyer Park was developed by Pittsburgh, PA-based Urban Design Associates (UDA).

The plan, developed for the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, involved siting two sports stadiums, creating regional attractions, accommodating public transit and reconnecting the waterfront to downtown. After these projects were underway, UDA was hired by the newly founded Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority to create a mixed-use neighborhood and park between the stadiums. "The Banks, as the neighborhood is called, includes both private and public developments," says Donald K. Carter, president of UDA. "With restaurants, retail and office space, condominiums and entertainment, it is intended to be welcoming to everyone."

Including everyone was the objective from the beginning of the design process. UDA held a week-long charrette and a series of public forums at the local convention center and met with focus groups that included residents, sports teams, developers, arts organizations, business people and economic-development groups. "We began by posing a few questions to the locals to understand both the strong and weak points of the waterfront as it existed," says Carter.

People liked the historic Public Landing, the existing green space and the location of the old stadium. There was reverence for the old warehouses as well as the steamboats and people enjoyed the ethnic festivals, fireworks, concerts and other events that were held at the waterfront. But many criticisms had to be acknowledged. People were worried about the frequent flooding and didn't approve of the old stadium structure or the parking deck that was built next to the water. They complained that Sawyer Park was too small and too far from the west bridge, that there was very little retail and few restaurants and that Fort Washington Way separated the waterfront from downtown.

Though a large number of issues were raised, UDA was prepared to address all of them. "I was most pleased, actually," says Carter. "It's best to come in at the early stages and deal with all of the pieces simultaneously. Also, we had a lot of cooperation from all of the participants and in the end there was consensus. The climate was ripe for change."

Riverfront Stadium/Cinergy Field, which had served Cincinnati's professional baseball and football teams, stood next to the Ohio River from 1970 to 2002. Two new stadiums were constructed to compensate for the loss of Cinergy Field: UDA positioned Great American Ballpark adjacent to the site of the old stadium and a new home for the Cincinnati Bengals football team, Paul Brown Stadium, was built four blocks to the west.

"We had no preconceived notion about where to place the stadiums," says Carter. "At first, everyone involved in the charrette had different ideas about where to locate them, but after reviewing about six or seven sites, we reached a consensus." The other sites did not work as well as the ones that were eventually chosen due to the network of roads and bridges as well as the need to accommodate the growth projected for the area.

After the stadiums were completed, the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame & Museum was built just to the west of Great American Ballpark; it opened in 2004. The same year, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a Smithsonian institution, was built between the stadium sites. Designed by Blackburn Architects of Indianapolis, IN, the building features two façades made of rough travertine stone and two façades made of copper panels. "The museum is very meaningful for the waterfront," says Carter. "Cincinnati was one of the stops on the Underground Railroad and it's wonderful to have that recognized."

The Freedom Center is located in the middle of The Banks in what will be a 40-acre park along the water. The partially completed Riverfront Park will extend west from Sawyer Park and the Public Landing and north from the Ohio River to Fort Washington Way. Designed by landscape architect Sasaki Associates of Watertown, MA, the park will feature a great lawn, gardens, water features, playgrounds, a carousel, boat docks and pedestrian and bike paths. It will also provide venues for festivals and community events. The park will serve a vital purpose as well: bank stabilization and flood-control assistance.

Riverfront Park is well sited not only because it is along the Ohio River. The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, an iron bridge designed by Roebling and constructed in 1866, is now honored in its position above the center of the park. "The park will showcase the bridge quite nicely, making it a centerpiece," says Carter.

Other roads, though not as famous as the bridge, were just as important to ensuring the success of the plan. UDA established an urban grid between the stadiums from downtown to the waterfront. "The new streets and blocks are similar in design and scale to those in the downtown," says Carter, "making a natural transition to the riverfront." With the blocks ideally sized, Carter says that they could contain anything and be successful. "The idea was to create a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood with flexible development blocks," he says, "which could work for housing or office space or both. The zoning ordinance, which was amended to permit mixed-use development in this area, will allow the downtown to grow and regenerate with ease." Many proposals for private development have been submitted to the city, but, to date, nothing has been built.

Some of the most significant transformations occurred on the Fort Washington Way service roads. Reconfigured as boulevards with plantings and traditionally styled street lighting, West Second and West Third streets are both more beautiful and safer. A few other major roads in the district received similar treatment. Fort Washington Way was also improved by narrowing the trench and eliminating weaving lanes. Lighting and landscaping were upgraded. In the future, the freeway could be even more integrated into the neighborhood by extending Riverfront Park further north. "We imagined the depressed freeway to be capped with landscaped decks," says Carter. "Instead of walking on a bridge with four lanes of traffic, one would walk across a park."

The Fort Washington Way redesign also accommodates an intermodal transit center built under Second Street. The Riverfront Transit Center, which can handle up to 500 buses and 20,000 people an hour, opened in 2004. "The public-transit aspect to the master plan is a valuable component," says Carter. "Initially, it will be used for people visiting the stadiums and museum and going to special events in the park. There will not be any regular service, but in the future a commuter rail and Amtrak trains will stop there. A light rail that will run above the station is also planned."

The waterfront is not fully developed – Carter says that it takes approximately 15 to 20 years from plan to implementation – but it is coming along. Many of the city-driven projects – such as the stadiums, Freedom Center museum and Riverfront Transit Center – have already been constructed. The next phase is The Banks, the market-driven private development. "But the master plan was adopted and the zoning ordinances are in place," says Carter. "And our best indication that this will be successful is that there's still momentum." TB

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