Sunday, October 17, 1999

You just can't build a river on short notice




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Like half the world, I went down to the river this week. OK. Technically, I suppose it was not half the world. But there were a lot of people. Teeming. That's accurate. The riverfront was teeming with people who came to see our Tall Stacks.

        Cars cruised along Third Street with license plates from Texas and Tennessee and Pennsylvania and North Carolina. People from Anderson Township and Toronto and Oklahoma City strolled along the usually deserted banks of the Ohio River.

        People from West Chester braved the orange — barrels, barriers and cones. Citizens of Norwood and Oxford paid a lot of money to park their automobiles. They were not lured by gambling or beer or professional sports. Or even food.

        They were coming to see something they could not find at home.

Kodak moments
        They appeared to be just the kind of people you'd like to have hanging around your front yard. They swerved politely to keep out of each other's Kodak moments. They used the trash receptacles. They carried diaper bags and wore fanny packs. I hope they had a wonderful time and went home and told all their friends. I hope they come back.

        I made the trip down to the river just to look at the Delta Queen, the second oldest of the fleet of 19 boats. And the prettiest, in my opinion. I feel proprietary about her, just as I do about the river.

        I've been around here long enough to remember when the late Betty Blake saved the Queen from the wrecking ball — or whatever they use to destroy historic wooden boats. Just last year, at a cost of $3.3 million, the 73-year-old boat was stripped down her skivvies.

        “After all these years and all the coats of paint, the smell of the oak was amazing, like the wood had just been cut,” said a man who worked on the restoration. “And the grain is straight and true and perfect.”

        Well, that is what happens when you build something right the first time.

        We are struggling mightily just now to build something “right” on the river. We are hoping to come up with something unique, something you can't find elsewhere. We are hoping to give people a regular reason to come visit. Even better, we are hoping to give them a reason to live here.

        A group of some of our smartest and most civic-minded citizens came up with a plan earlier this month for a new development along the river.

A turf blanket
        Called The Banks, it will cost $248 million for streets, parking, utilities, green spaces and a boardwalk with shops and entertainment near the river's edge. The Cincinnati Riverfront Advisory Commission estimates this investment of public money would result in $600 million in private development.

        Plans call for 600 to 800 apartments and condos on the waterfront and another 300 to 500 housing units to be built along Third Street.

        As I am standing in the sunlight, watching the river, unimpeded by somebody's else's condo, I am hoping we will not squander our chance at this river. I hope we will notice that new is not always better, that the river is a draw, an attraction. So is history. Just ask some of the people who came here to see both this week.

        Our elected officials have promised to build a gazillion parking spaces. And unless we want our riverfront to be a sea of asphalt, those spaces have to be underground. I wonder what would happen if instead of buying $248 million worth of support for new buildings, we just threw a big turf rug over the whole thing.

        We'd wind up with a giant park, maybe some bike paths and a view of the river without a condo fee. Then we could see what might happen if we invested in the city's core, refurbished some buildings that already have streets and sewer lines. We'd get a two-fer. Historic buildings. And a riverfront available to everybody.

        Something you cannot buy. Something you cannot find anywhere else.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at laurapulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears regularly on WVXU radio, National Public Radio's Morning Edition and Insight's Northern Kentucky Magazine.