Killing whole riverfront plan makes no sense

Friday, April 17, 1998

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Here we go again.

Cincinnati's riverfront development has taken yet another U-turn and is sputtering back to the drawing board.

City Council scrapped plans on Wednesday to turn Cincinnati's prime riverfront acreage into an entertainment district. Apparently, council members thought it too tawdry.

Five council members also called for a regional riverfront development commission.

That means: More talk. More study and research. More time and money spent. More opportunities to point fingers and moan about Northern Kentucky surpassing Cincinnati. More going nowhere. Establishing a commission is a good idea. I proposed it in a column last September, along with more park space, classy stores and fine restaurants along the waterfront.

And, while I can't say I'm sorry to see the entertainment district concept bite the dust, I still think council acted rashly.

Entirely scrapping two years of work makes no sense when you don't have an alternate plan. The development-minded suburbs and Northern Kentucky are breathing down Cincinnati's neck, competing for the same restaurants, department stores and entertainment attractions.

Having no development plan leaves the city spinning its wheels again, with nothing to build on, no map to get there, and nothing to hold up against the competition when outside interests come calling with opportunities.

Part of a bad plan -- the good part -- is better than no plan at all. But in its rush to do something, council has trashed everything. Council didn't like the direction riverfront development was taking. "They were getting ready to create a carnival atmosphere on the river," Councilman Charlie Winburn told me. "They were going to put up a freak show. It had to be stopped."

OK. But why kill everything so quickly? The park portion of the plan was attractive. And it was tied to commercial development. So why not at least build on that?

Council was not asked to vote the entire project up or down. It was just asked to put the project on hold until other pieces of the downtown development puzzle fell into place.

But, rather than cool it, council killed it.

Battleground

Council's rash action is part of a downtown turf war. City Hall insiders tell me the tussle is between the local players in downtown development and out-of-town developers.

For nearly two years, City Manager John Shirey and Andi Udris, economic development director, have been putting together a riverfront plan. Their partners in planning are Indianapolis developer Herman Renfro and Faison Associates out of Charlotte, N.C.

Faison owns and operates downtown's Tower Place Mall. Renfro put together Indianapolis' Circle Centre Mall. Circle Centre has what Cincinnati wants -- a Nordstrom department store.

The local faction in this battle includes Cincinnati developers and powerful interests on Fourth Street. They want the Fourth Street corridor to be the center of downtown development, harkening back to the days when the street was the center of power downtown.

Renfro and Faison shaped much of the plan council just killed. Word is the Fourth Street boosters are pleased.

But what about the rest of us?

Council is right to voice its objections now rather than after the thing's built. But killing the entire plan, and going back to square one, is a mistake. It only plays into Cincinnati's tendency to talk and plan, but never do anything.

"Where do I go from here?" Andi Udris asked rhetorically by telephone on Thursday. "I don't have a clue."

Here's a suggestion: Form the regional riverfront development commission, which must include a group of average citizens. And then add a professional arbitrator.

Give the arbitrator the power to broker a deal between downtown's competing interests, a plan Cincinnati can work to its best advantage.

If they can't get along on their own, let's arbitrate a plan. Embarrassing situation? Yes. But better that than waste more time and opportunity.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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