By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer
When City Council agreed in November to spend $12 million to build a parking garage for the Kroger Co., city officials touted the deal as a way to keep Cincinnati's largest private employer and trigger Over-the-Rhine development.
The neighborhood's carrot would come in the form of 25 to 30 condos along Vine Street in front of a 953-space garage at the northeast corner of Vine and Central Parkway.
But now, some business leaders say the neighborhood needs extra parking more than street-level condos. And others worry that a large, concrete garage could clash with Vine Street's collection of Italianate buildings.
Over-the-Rhine leaders have lobbied the city and its developer, Kimbler Interests/Al Neyer Inc. to consider switches.
"We would prefer the condo part be dropped and the entire site be developed as a garage," said Tom Besanceney, chief executive of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce.
Besanceney said a 1,200-space garage would provide ample parking for Kroger's downtown employees and also support neighborhood venues such as the Art Academy, the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, Oaktree Montessori School and other private housing developments.
He said Kroger's Gateway garage has the potential to spur development on Vine Street the same way that a Hamilton County-financed garage off Main Street provided the vibrant entertainment district with cheap, safe parking. The county originally wanted to build a 400-space garage, but it eventually agreed to add another 300 spaces after hearing input from Main Street business interests.
Developer Rick Kimbler and his architects are working on design improvements, but he said it's unlikely that the condos will be scrapped for more parking.
"I strongly believe that residential on Vine Street will stimulate more development," Kimbler said. "It would be a mistake to do a garage that takes up the whole block."
Kimbler's team has modified the project slightly during two public meetings of the city's Urban Design Review Board, an advisory group of architects who review city developments. Kimbler expects to start construction in March. Kroger's contract with the city calls for a finished garage by March 31, 2005.
One sticking point is whether condo shoppers would be willing to buy a unit with a front door on Vine Street - a street with a reputation for crime and drugs. One possibility includes restricting access to the condos through a Central Parkway lobby.
"Vine Street is probably not the ideal address today," Kimbler said. "Hopefully, two years from now, it will be a great spot."
Chris Frutkin, who developed the adjacent Hale-Justis building on Central Parkway, is more worried about the garage's appearance.
"This building is being constructed in a neighborhood of gracious, soft-toned brick buildings," Frutkin said. "To put raw concrete in that environment is going to clash."
He eventually wants to convert the Hale-Justis apartments to condos, and he thinks potential buyers would prefer a "softer" garage with a brick fa┴ade rich with landscaping.
"We suggested that, and I think they're receptive," Frutkin said.
Councilman Jim Tarbell agreed that the garage's design would be an important symbol for the neighborhood. He's urging a dramatic piece of public art - possibly a marquee - in front of the garage on Central Parkway. Fa┴ade improvements for the garage along Jackson and 12th streets should be considered too, he said.
"It's needs character, and I don't think we're there yet," Tarbell said. "But it's a whole lot more parking than we've ever had, and it will serve the neighborhood."
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