Monday, February 2, 2004

Make Kroger garage a gateway


About the only thing critics agree on about the design of Kroger's new parking garage is they don't like it. They're all over the map on what's wrong about it. In November, City Council agreed to spend $12 million to keep Kroger downtown, with the parking it needs across from its headquarters at Vine Street and Central Parkway. Nobody's gone wobbly on that part of the deal. But city leaders pitched it as more than a garage, as they should. That's where the unhappiness begins.

The revised plan called for a 953-space garage and about 30 condos for a "Gateway" project to Over-the-Rhine. Now some want more parking; others, more condos; still others dread a blunt concrete garage fronting on Central Parkway, which could gut hopes for a strong comeback along the parkway and Vine. City officials need to keep faith with the Gateway vision if this project is to be anything more than housing for automobiles.

The 2001 Over-the-Rhine master plan called that intersection a major gateway to Over-the-Rhine. Mayor Charlie Luken in 2002 called the one-mile-plus stretch of Vine Street in OTR the most important street in the city, and the city's "Request for Proposal" for the Kroger garage also called it a gateway project.

Most agree more parking will help not only Kroger but the rest of Over-the-Rhine, but if it's not done right, it could make condos a tougher sell and fail to spur more private investment along the city's grand thoroughfare Central Parkway and northward into historic, but neglected OTR.

Developer Rick Kimbler's design has undergone some changes before the Urban Design Review Board, the advisory group of architects that reviews developers' designs for city-funded projects. One early vision had condos atop the garage, but Kimbler's plan calls for the garage fronting on the parkway, and condos along Vine. Some fear condo buyers won't go for an address on downtrodden Vine.

Chris Frutkin, who redeveloped the adjacent Hale-Justis building, thinks a raw concrete garage will damage the looks of the parkway studded with several outstanding architectural gems. Stan Eichelbaum, president of Cincinnati-based Marketing Developments Inc., argues residential development is needed along both the parkway and Vine.

Tom Besanceney, chief executive of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce, first said he would favor a 1,200-space garage and drop the condos, then after hearing from his board, he reacquired a taste for condos. Councilman James Tarbell suggested a dramatic piece of public art placed in front of the garage on Central Parkway, but would a piece of public art in front of the Tower Place garage (formerly Pogue's) make it any less an architectural blunder?

Haste to build the Kroger garage is partly driven by the company's expected loss of a surface lot to a planned new Washington Park elementary school. City and school officials might be able to buy some time to make sure the gateway project at Vine and Central Parkway is done right.

The problem with architectural mistakes is they can last just as long as architectural successes.

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