Downtown Cincinnati's skyline rises above the Ohio River Valley. Driven by several converging market trends, businesses are again finding the city an attractive spot to set up and are luring residents back to the city.
By Keith Schneider The New York Times
CINCINNATI -- The shoreline of this Ohio River city, which in the 19th century hummed with 30 steamboat visits a day but faded in the 20th as pollution and industrial disinvestment pushed people and businesses inland, is emerging again as a hub of civic and economic vitality.
Last year the Great American Insurance Group opened a $322 million, 800,000-square-foot office tower close to the river that now dominates the city's skyline. Two blocks in front of the 41-story building, the city and Hamilton County are constructing a $120 million riverfront park. It steps up from the shoreline in tiers of grass and stone to meet the Banks, a $600 million, 18-acre mixed-use retail, residential and entertainment development.
And Rock Gaming is building a $400 million, 354,000-square-foot casino downtown that is scheduled to open early next year. A 2.6-mile streetcar line, under construction at a cost of $112 million, will link the new park and the Banks to the city's business center and the historical Over-the-Rhine residential and entertainment district.
"We're seeing a new Cincinnati coming from all of this," said Mayor Mark Mallory, a three-term Democrat elected in 2006. "We have a new set of activities, new places to live, new places to work. We are investing in things that grow a city."
Cincinnati's economy and its capacity to attract new residents and jobs reflects several converging market trends.
The public University of Cincinnati has significantly rebuilt its campus in recent years, attracting more students and national attention, and serving as the foundation of an expanding medical research and health services industry. A growing number of independent marketing and branding companies, many focused on online markets, are developing with the help of and through various collaborations and partnerships with Procter & Gamble, the city's consumer products mainstay. And upriver from Cincinnati, the energy industry is investing billions to develop deep shale gas and shale oil reserves.
The aim is to revive the state's steel industry, generate a new petrochemical sector, create thousands of jobs and strengthen urban economies from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati.
That is no small goal for a river city founded as a western frontier outpost in 1788. By 1950, Cincinnati had grown into an industrial powerhouse of nearly 504,000 residents. But since 1960, as the metropolitan region expanded to more than 2 million people and globalization drained manufacturing jobs, Cincinnati has been losing an average of 4,000 residents annually. The median household income is well below the state and national average.
Still, with 80,000 downtown jobs, Cincinnati's business core is thriving. And with nearly 300,000 residents, 10,000 of them living downtown and now on the waterfront, it remains the third-largest city along the six-state, 981-mile Ohio River, behind Louisville and Pittsburgh.
Like its bigger neighbors, and several smaller river cities -- including Marietta, Ohio; Owensboro, Ky.; and Evansville, Ind. -- Cincinnati is experiencing a strong revival in urban core business and residential growth, much of it prompted by development along a scenic river that state and federal water quality data show is cleaner and more ecologically vital.
On a bright blue afternoon, just the sort of day that prompted Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 to describe this part of the Ohio River as "one of the most magnificent valleys in which man has made his stay, " the full sweep of Cincinnati's new development, clearly designed as the city's gateway, comes into full view.
Construction workers laid stone walkways and sod in the shoreline park. Alongside, on the upriver end of an 18-acre expanse of grass, walkways, new streets and pocket parks are the first two buildings of the Banks, which opened last year. The sleek six-story brick-and-glass buildings, which cost a total of $82 million, have ground-floor restaurant and retail space and 300 rental apartments above.
The $78 million second phase of the Banks, which is being developed by Carter, is set to start construction late next year. It will include one more mixed-use building of a similar size.
Piece by piece, a new neighborhood is taking shape. It combines an old riverfront economic concept based on housing, entertainment, travel and tourism with a newer focus on the value of professional sports.
Located between the two phases of the Banks is the $110 million, 158,000-square-foot National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opened in 2004 and was visited in February by Michelle Obama. Flanking the entire development, to the east and west, are Cincinnati's professional sports stadiums -- the Cincinnati Bengals' $455 million Paul Brown football stadium, which opened in 2000, and the $337 million Great American Ballpark for the Cincinnati Reds, which opened in 2003.
The construction of the Banks and the 45-acre shoreline park comes after more than a decade of significant infrastructure investment along Cincinnati's riverfront, much of it financed by a half-cent sales tax approved by the city and Hamilton County voters in 1997. Revenue from the tax supported a $322 million highway modernization that narrowed the Fort Washington Way expressway between the river and the central business district. Engineers shortened the overpasses over the sunken freeway, making it much easier for pedestrians to reach the river from downtown.
The tax also supported the new football and baseball stadiums and the construction of a $120 million, 5,500-space underground parking garage that is designed to withstand the river's periodic flooding. It serves as the out-of-the-floodplain dry pedestal on which all of the new construction is perched.
"There was some pretty sophisticated engineering, and a lot of new structural work that had to happen in a known floodplain before we could do anything with that part of the city," said Michael Moore, Cincinnati's director of transportation and engineering. "These are the sort of changes that take a city a generation to plan and complete."
Laura Swadel, a vice president at Carter, explained in an interview that putting so many "built assets" together along an impressive river is proving to be very attractive to businesses and residents. She said that the development's retail space was 92 percent leased and that there was a 66-person waiting list for the one- and two-bedroom market-rate apartments, which rent for $1,600 to $1,700 a month.
When fully built out, which will take most of this decade, the Banks will consist of an additional 1.5 million square feet, including more than 1,200 residential units and 500,000 square feet of retail office and hotel space. The cost of construction, she said, is estimated at $600 million.