Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Washington Park plan unveiled

Developers looking to revitalize Music Hall area of Over-the-Rhine

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

An ambitious plan that calls for an expanded Washington Park, two new schools and a new garage near Music Hall to revitalize Over-the-Rhine's housing, retail and cultural attractions was unveiled Tuesday.

The Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., a private development group, said a clean, safe park and good schools are sorely needed for the neighborhood's turnaround.

The plan marks a significant departure from the existing course pursued by Cincinnati Public Schools, moving the two schools from their originally proposed sites to make way for the bigger park and the garage.

Key components of the development group's plan submitted to City Council members include:

• Pushing Washington Park's boundaries north to the existing site of Washington Park Elementary School. The park, which opened in 1855, would grow by 2.6 acres, adding 50 percent more space.

• Building a replacement elementary school at 14th and Walnut streets, instead of at the school district's preferred site of Central Parkway and Elm Street. Western & Southern Financial Group's development arm owns the 14th and Walnut Street site and is pursuing a 100-unit market-rate housing development near there called Mercer Commons.

• Developing a new School for Creative and Performing Arts at Elm and Central Parkway, instead of the school district's proposed site adjacent to Music Hall. The new arts school would replace its current building in Pendleton, which opened in 1910.

• The site near Music Hall - now a surface parking lot and the Pipe Fitters union hall - would become a 750-space parking garage and street-level shops for use by the arts school, Music Hall and possibly neighborhood businesses.

The private development group, known as 3CDC, said it's too early to tell how much the plan will cost. But chief executive Stephen Leeper said he would push an aggressive, 90-day schedule to get necessary approvals and funding.

Possible funding sources could include $50 million in federal tax credits earmarked for development projects in downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

The school district has set aside money to replace Washington Park school. The city may be asked to contribute money for the garage.

Mayor Charlie Luken said the development group's Over-the-Rhine plan is the type of big-picture thinking that's needed to turn around one of the city's poorest, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

"When you get the opportunity to make a big statement like this at Washington Park, it's controversial," Luken said. "But you really have to get behind something like this ... It's an exciting plan that remakes the whole area into a great urban space."

The development group's officials have discussed the plan in private meetings with school superintendent Alton L. Frailey and other officials overseeing the district's nearly $1 billion rebuilding program. Changes to the district's Over-the-Rhine agenda could be debated by a school board committee as soon as June 9, spokeswoman Janet Walsh said.

"We're giving some strong initial consideration to the plan," Walsh said. "The superintendent has seen it. We're still in discussion with 3CDC and all of the stakeholders."

The school district's existing plans call for keeping the existing Washington Park school, built in 1958, as extra classroom space even after the new school is built. The district also is required by state law to offer its vacated schools to charter or private schools before selling or donating schools to other government entities or groups.

Leeper acknowledged that his group's plan was unveiled months after the district studied and selected sites to build new schools. The development group studied more than a dozen neighborhood sites before settling on its plan.

He said the plan accomplishes several goals, including improving neighborhood safety, providing much-needed parking and creating a new front porch for Music Hall.

Kathy Schwab, a Downtown Cincinnati Inc. residential adviser who worked with 3CDC on the Over-the-Rhine plan, said an expanded park could encourage rehabbers and developers to renovate the dozens of abandoned buildings into new housing for all income levels.

The relocated Washington Park school would be much closer to students' homes, too, Leeper and Schwab said.

Leeper also expects the revised plan could help the school district's private fund-raising efforts for the arts school. The school district pledged $26 million to rebuild it, and private stakeholders face a June 15 deadline to raise another $26 million.

The private development group will seek to gain support in coming weeks from the school district, City Council and neighborhood groups such as Over-the-Rhine Community Council and Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce.

OTR Chamber President Tom Besanceney said his group will discuss the plan at its Thursday meeting.

"It is one of those very comprehensive plans that is quite different than what we expected," Besanceney said.

Leeper said 3CDC's board has endorsed the plan. Western & Southern's chairman and CEO John Barrett is a board member of the private development group.




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