Sunday, March 7, 2004

Pass the Kroger gateway project


The Kroger garage project at Vine Street and Central Parkway is a deal Cincinnati has to get done even if it ties itself into knots trying to get the terms right.

The deal started - and should end - with two non-negotiables: a new garage for Kroger's corporate headquarters and a "gateway" complex for Over-the-Rhine.

The latest site plan calls for an extra $2.5 million from the city for 25 condos, besides $11.8 million already voted for a 950-space parking garage. Mayor Charlie Luken wants council to approve the design this week, but it's unclear if there are five votes yet for the package. Some members are balking at a subsidy of $100,000 per unit for condos averaging $170,000, and others still are not pleased with the design or mix of uses, although developer Neyer/Kimbler has revised its design.

They should remember that the project keeps Kroger's corporate headquarters downtown, with almost 1,200 current jobs and the potential for 270 new jobs within seven years. The upside of the city's extra $2.5 million is that it could add new condo homeowners downtown, and it leverages private dollars. Cincinnati's new development corporation 3CDC is lending $2 million and the Cincinnati Development Fund $1.93 million, along with Kroger's donation of an acre of land valued at $869,000. All told, the housing will cost $7.64 million to build.

Some sticking points: The city's $100,000 per-unit subsidy is high even for Over-the-Rhine. The developer's risk is minimal. The garage design along Central Parkway still looks like a garage, and the condos along Vine include first-floor units. We all hope and even expect Vine Street to come back like Main Street a few blocks east, but a year from now, who's going to buy those street-level condos at Vine and Central Parkway? The current plan calls for only token first-floor retail.

Some members argue for first-floor retail running the length of the Vine Street side. Upper-floor housing drove first-floor retail on Main Street, and could similarly attract new retail to Vine. That site was long considered for a downtown Kroger supermarket. Central & Vine also clocks the highest street traffic count downtown - 20,000 vehicles a day.

That's another reason the 2001 Over-the-Rhine master plan and the city's "request for proposal" for the Kroger garage called for a "gateway project" at that site. It is the chief entranceway to reviving Over-the-Rhine, and will help to support the Ensemble Theater, the coming Cincinnati Art Academy and other hoped-for development.

Central Parkway is one of the city's grand boulevards, and this $20 million investment ought to look the part in enhancing the many architectural gems along the parkway. Design isn't negligible. If condo buyers or retail tenants don't go for it, the city doesn't need more empty space downtown.

Council members need to resist the temptation to dump the condo/retail part and just do a garage. A combined deal is much more valuable for Kroger, Over-the-Rhine and the city, and if well-designed it will be an asset all can be proud of.

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