Sunday, January 12, 1997
Riverfront land cost a concern
County won't rule out lawsuit
for stadium site acquisition

The Cincinnati Enquirer

In an indication of how far the parties have to travel to reach a compromise on a riverfront stadium site land purchase, County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus said he is prepared to take the dispute to court.

Robert Castellini, the major landowner on the riverfront, could be asking as much as $50 million for his 17.2 acres - land that was just appraised for tax purposes at $17.9 million. Neither the Castellini organization nor top county officials would confirm an asking price.

''I can tell you we're not agreed on price,'' said Mr. Bedinghaus, who has led county stadium development.

A court dispute is ''not unthinkable,'' he said, ''but I don't want to presuppose that's going to happen. A lot of times you go to court and it's just an honest difference of opinion. You go to court to settle it.''

Mr. Castellini, who has built his family's produce concern into one of the nation's largest, was close to speaking out publicly about his land this week. But he decided against it, choosing to work things out quietly with county officials.

''We are confident that discussions will continue with the county,'' said Castellini spokesman Joe Bride.

As county and city officials narrow potential stadium sites, questions of land ownership and prices are intensifying. The Bengals appear destined for the western riverfront, abutting either Central Avenue or Plum Street, based on a consultant's recommendation.

But the baseball stadium is still up in the air. Possible choices: At the Cinergy Field site, in place of Riverfront Coliseum, or at Broadway Commons on downtown's northeastern rim.

On Thursday, Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates will return to Cincinnati with an analysis of each site's cost, potential economic benefit and possible completion date.

Mr. Castellini wants to be a developer of the riverfront, not just a land seller. He has amassed land beyond his family's produce business holdings.

In May 1995, he announced plans with Albert Ratner, a Cleveland developer, that called for building a neighborhood along the Ohio River, complete with offices, town houses, restaurants, entertainment spots and possibly a hotel, mini-harbor and park.

He has also offered to swap some of his land for county-owned Cinergy Field property, which he could then develop. But the county says that is not legally possible.

Mr. Bedinghaus' fellow commissioners are split on the idea of taking riverfront land for one or two stadiums.

''I don't even know how much of his (Mr. Castellini's) land we'd want to buy,'' Commissioner Guy Guckenberger said.

The third commissioner, John Dowlin, said land takings are too time-consuming and could risk breaking a pact with the Bengals to have them in a new stadium by 2000.

More formidable than Mr. Castellini may be the Southern Railroad property, Mr. Dowlin said. The law does not allow county government to take land directly under railroad tracks.

''My experience is railroads are very difficult to deal with,'' Mr. Dowlin said.

The county would be better served, he said, to use land it owns on the riverfront for a football stadium and put the baseball stadium uptown at Broadway Commons - since the sellers there, Robert and Manuel Chavez, seem more willing. The county signed them to an agreement last year to hold their land price steady for a given time, which has since expired.

The 18-acre Chavez property, now home to surface parking lots, is valued at $5.9 million by the county auditor. The value of neighboring Greyhound Bus property has been set at $3.3 million.

The Chavezes, who declined to be interviewed, are said to be asking roughly half what Mr. Castellini wants. But one source close to the county said that the extra parking garages needed to support baseball at Broadway Commons close the price gap. On the riverfront, baseball and football could share parking.

A final potential site for the baseball stadium, on land now holding Riverfront Coliseum, is valued at $11.3 million by the county auditor. Brothers Brian and Albert ''Trey'' Heekin hold controlling interest. Other owners include William DeWitt Jr. and Mr. Castellini.

The county has not met recently with landowners to negotiate prices, said David Krings, county administrator. Last year at about this time, he met with Southern Railroad and ''several times'' with Mr. Castellini, he said. Meetings with Broadway Commons owners occurred later in the year.

''Once we can say specifically what spot it is we need, things will heat up again,'' Mr. Krings said. Until then, he said, it's unfair to characterize anyone's early negotiating position - including Mr. Castellini's - as final.

One option for Bengals football, placing it north of Mehring Way, appears to exclude Mr. Castellini's land altogether. But Mr. Bedinghaus said that is not the case.

''There is no question we will be using some of Bob Castellini's land,'' he said. ''There is no way we can build this without it.''