Bob Castellini called it a “mud pit” and “dust bin.” Mark Mallory called it a “bunch of nothingness” and “pile of dirt.” The Cincinnati Reds owner and the former mayor were describing what downtown Cincinnati’s riverfront was like about 15 years ago. Two expensive new stadiums had been erected, with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center situated between, but surrounding them was a lot of dirt and acres of parking lots.
Today, of course, nothing less than an utter transformation of the riverfront has taken place, as the mud pit became The Banks—a $2 billion-plus 200-acre playground of pro sports, restaurants, bars, green space, walking paths, a carousel, and (sometimes) a giant Ferris wheel. It’s the most ambitious civic project ever undertaken here, requiring unprecedented teamwork from city and county leaders, their counterparts in state and federal governments, and private real estate interests. The “nothingness” has become something, to be sure, but after all this time it still isn’t finished.
The latest addition to this massive work in progress has the potential to be the most impactful since the stadiums themselves: the much anticipated and much debated Andrew J Brady ICON Music Center. It should give The Banks something the development has needed from the beginning: a way to attract people with money to spend when the Reds or Bengals aren’t playing.
The ICON Music Center will host 80 to 120 events a year, says Ed Morrell, who handles talent booking for owner and operator Music and Event Management Inc. (MEMI). That should mean another 200,000 to 250,000 visitors to The Banks annually. “This will bring people to The Banks who have not been here in a long time,” says Jean-Francois Flechet, who opened his fifth Taste of Belgium restaurant there in 2016. “If you’re not a sports person, chances are you haven’t been to The Banks in a really long time.”
The music venue is all but finished now and awaits the return of a world where it’s safe once again to gather shoulder to shoulder, dance, sway, and sing along to live music. When that time will be here isn’t certain, but MEMI leaders say they have shows ready to go. “We are preparing for a late spring, into summer, schedule of events at all of our facilities,” says CEO Mike Smith. (MEMI also handles bookings for Riverbend, the PNC Pavilion, the Taft Theatre, and Rose Music Center near Dayton.)
Also anticipating a return of crowds, Mayor John Cranley announced the city would make The Banks a Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area in the spring, allowing people to carry and consume alcoholic beverages in the streets. A portion of East Freedom Way near Great American Ball Park is to be closed to traffic permanently, creating a pedestrian plaza.
The story of The Banks is epic in scale, and the ending isn’t written yet. We discuss its winding, halting journey with key players, including four mayors who had a hand in the project, as well as the one person who knows more about it than anyone else.
With its five venues, MEMI, a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra subsidiary, is the region’s dominant music promoter. The new ICON Music Center will fill a live concert niche in its stable. Riverbend holds 20,000 people in a mix of reserved seating and general admission; PNC Pavilion next door holds 4,100, all in seats; and the Taft holds 2,500, all in seats.
“What the market didn’t have is that midsized live music experience venue,” Smith says. Now the market will have two of them, as PromoWest Productions, a division of one of the world’s largest music promoters, is building one across the river in Newport. More on that later.
Indoor-outdoor venues geared to young audiences that prefer to be mobile rather than assigned to a seat is a trend across the country, as Smith and his team discovered during field trips to other cities. Denver’s Mission Ballroom opened in 2019 with a capacity of 3,950. In Minneapolis, The Fillmore debuted at the start of 2020, as the world’s largest concert promoter, LiveNation, continued opening a chain of concert halls using the legendary Fillmore name, which it now owns.
Most of the new venues they toured were designed for general admission audiences, which create a livelier concert experience. They were particularly influenced by The Anthem, a venue in Washington, D.C., that opened in 2017 with a movable stage allowing capacity to flex between 2,500 and 6,000. “The industry has moved to these new facilities that are bigger than clubs and smaller than theaters, but with the vibe and energy of a club,” Smith says. “They’re a hybrid.”
With the expertise of GBBN Architects, MEMI designed a venue that can accommodate audience sizes ranging from 1,500 to 4,400. The main floor will hold 2,700 people in a general admission experience with no seats. That’s expected to be the setup for most concerts, but staff can also install cushioned, linked seats on the main floor if performers want them.
Two balconies will feature general admission on the sides and fixed seats in the center. That’s meant to create a close, energetic vibe, with the farthest seat from the stage being only 124 feet away, says Smith. “We created an intense amount of patron energy right next to the stage,” he says. “But we also wanted to create an experience for those people who want a fixed seat.”
“If someone who is filling arenas has a solo project they want to try, they can come in and try it,” says Morrell. “Adjusting the capacity is the key to boundless opportunities.”
Morrell won’t tip his hand on the artists he’ll try to book at the ICON Music Center, saying only, “We’ll entertain anyone who makes sense.” But some of the performers The Anthem in D.C. has rescheduled for dates in 2021 include Louis Tomlinson, former member of Brit boy band One Direction; electronic artist Kaytranada; Icelandic alt rock group Kaleo; and alt metal band Deftones.
“When you’re talking about a category of music, with 1,500 to 4,400 people, generally it’s going to be new music, a younger demographic,” says Smith. But the venue’s flexibility will allow for artists who appeal to an older crowd, too. “At the other end of the scale, when we put fixed seats in, it turns into a 2,700-seat house, maybe for a Bonnie Raitt or others who aren’t doing the big shows anymore.”
Two semi-private lounges will be available for an upcharge. One holds about 60 people, with views of the river and the Roebling Suspension Bridge, and the other about 40 with a private bar and a one-way, wall-sized window into the backstage area.
Adding to the venue’s flexibility will be an adjacent park featuring an outdoor stage and artificial grass in a space that can handle up to 8,000 people for outdoor concerts and multi-day festivals. The space is owned by the Cincinnati Park Board and will be managed and operated by MEMI. Patrons attending outdoor concerts will be able to use indoor restrooms at the ICON Music Center, and the outdoor stage can be serviced from the building—limiting the need to bring in portable toilets and trailers.
Beyond its state-of-the-art design, outdoor stage, and picture postcard views of the Suspension Bridge and the Ohio River, what may be most impressive about the new music venue is that it was finished at all. Slowing its completion were some of the same controversies that have nagged The Banks since the beginning: disputes between city and county leaders; competition with the more nimble environment in Northern Kentucky; and the Cincinnati Bengals’ ever-looming presence and county obligations to its ownership.
Riverfront development was an idea that had percolated for decades. But there were big obstacles to even turning the first shovelful of dirt.
The mighty Ohio River, grand as it is, escapes its banks on a regular basis. In the last 60 years, the river has crested above flood stage more than 70 times, according to the National Weather Service. Businesses and homes along the river are constantly in jeopardy.
The solution was to create one big parking garage and build the streets and commercial properties on top to lift them above most floods. That solved another perennial downtown issue, parking, by creating more than 8,000 new spaces. Most of the money generated by the garages ($14.7 million in 2019) is used to finance future phases of development at The Banks, says John Bruggen, assistant county administrator.
The other big obstacle was 10 lanes of interstate highway called Ft. Washington Way. Conceived in the car-happy era of the late 1940s and completed in 1961, the mile-long stretch was meant to distribute traffic into downtown and serve as a floodwall to protect downtown businesses. “The Bottoms,” as the riverfront area south of Third Street was known, would be left to the river’s whims. With its many ramps and exits, though, Ft. Washington Way became one of the most accident-prone stretches of highway in the country.
It also was a noisy chasm of concrete that divided downtown from the riverfront, making a leisurely stroll to the river a dangerous proposition, if not nearly impossible. Ft. Washington Way is still there and still divides downtown from the riverfront, but a massive project begun in 1998 deepened the roadway, got rid of most of the exit ramps, compressed its width, and created attractive pedestrian-friendly overpasses. That project, largely paid for with state and federal grants, freed up more than a dozen acres of riverfront for redevelopment and made it much easier and safer to walk there from downtown.
The freed-up land made the construction of Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park possible, using money from an increase in Hamilton County’s sales tax. With the stadiums serving as anchors and bookends, city and county leaders planned to develop the land between them. Early in 1999, they appointed a group of 16 business leaders, the Riverfront Advisors Commission, to come up with a plan. It was, wrote its chair, Jack Rouse, “a once-in-many-lifetimes opportunity to re-create our extraordinary riverfront as a magical centerpiece for our region, a new ‘front door’ for our city, a new hub of activity, a place that connects people of all backgrounds, whether neighbors or visitors.” But for years after the plan was laid out, The Banks existed only as a good idea.
Charlie Luken was mayor in 1999 when the riverfront plan was presented. “The project really was not going anywhere,” he says. “It was going to take a great deal of patience.”
City and county elected leaders could not agree on how the project would be paid for, who should pay for what, and what should go where. It seemed no one was in charge, so nothing happened.
Meanwhile, a pair of office towers rose in Northern Kentucky directly across the river from the empty lots in Cincinnati. Developer Bill Butler soon added another office building, luxury condominiums, and a couple of hotels, creating a riverfront development in Covington while Cincinnati’s leadership dithered.
Maybe the answer was to bring Butler over to Cincinnati and have him develop The Banks. That’s what Hamilton County leaders did, but they made the decision without consulting their counterparts at City Hall. They “hijacked” the process, as Luken says.
But even Butler couldn’t make it work. “It sat there for a few years,” recalls Luken. “It was not a collaborative thing with the city. It just wasted time.”
By the time Mark Mallory was elected mayor, the project had almost become the punch line of one of those “that’s so Cincinnati” jokes. “When I came into office in 2005, nothing had been going on at The Banks,” says Mallory. City and county leaders had retreated to their respective camps and weren’t coming out.
“The Banks was an embarrassment, and it became a symbol of how Cincinnati couldn’t get anything done right,” Castellini said at the 2014 groundbreaking for the project’s Phase II. “The relationship was fractured between the city and the county,” says Mallory. “There was such animosity that it was difficult for the two sides to come together.”
But early in 2006, the city and county reached agreement on how to get the project moving, a deal brokered by Castellini, an old-school produce seller and Reds owner with little patience for political posturing. Mallory remembers one particularly contentious day in Castellini’s office at Great American Ball Park, negotiating with the county team, then led by Commissioner Todd Portune. They were hammering out the fine print on how the project would be financed and who would control which development parcels.
“We went through it piece by piece and negotiated these out and got to a point of impasse where we were separated by less than half a million dollars,” says Mallory. “This was going to be a billion-dollar development, and we were a half-million apart. I said, This is crazy.” Mallory asked Portune to come out into the hallway. “I said, We gotta get this done. He said, I agree. The only thing people are going to remember is we either got this done or we didn’t get it done.”
In Mallory’s retelling, the two made a commitment in the hallway to see the deal through. “We shook on it, and went back to the room and basically announced, We’re done.”
More than a decade later, Commissioner Portune, who died in January 2020, reached a handshake agreement with another Cincinnati mayor, John Cranley, when the city-county working relationship seemed ready to implode again over the ICON Music Center and other issues.
After Mallory and Portune made their hallway pact, the Carter company of Atlanta was named master developer for The Banks with a heavyweight financial partner, Wall Street giant AIG. But AIG backed out of the project in mid-2007, and a year later it had to be bailed out by the federal government during the financial crisis. Carter partnered with another Atlanta firm, the Dawson Co., and Carter Dawson served as the development team for the next 10 years.
Ground was officially broken in 2008 on the project that the riverfront advisory commission had launched a decade earlier. “That shouldn’t be surprising if you’re thinking about the scale of this development and the resources required,” says Roxanne Qualls, who was mayor when voters passed the half-cent sales tax increase in 1996 to pay for the stadiums. “It’s a compliment to my colleagues and the folks who came after me that they kept plugging away at it.”
Rouse’s view of the delay is not as rosy. “We still haven’t finished what we all agreed was the most important part of saving downtown Cincinnati,” he says. But it’s come a long way. A Marriott hotel has been built, along with two apartment buildings totaling about 600 units, a global operations center for General Electric, and the 45-acre Smale Riverfront Park. About a dozen eateries and drinkeries are there to provide sustenance, including Moerlein Lager House, Yard House, and Holy Grail. But many have come and gone, too, including Johnny Rockets, Mahogany’s, W.G. Kitchen & Bar, and Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill.
A music venue was not contemplated in the original Banks design. Near the current site for the ICON Music Center, planners had recommended a boardwalk that would stretch to the river, an anchor attraction with restaurants and other entertainment.
Sometime in 2015, concert promoter PromoWest proposed building an indoor-outdoor music venue there, similar to what the company had done in Columbus and Pittsburgh. That began a five-year saga that replayed some old debates: Who will build it? Where? And what will the Bengals say?
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra proposed its own plan for a venue to be operated by its MEMI subsidiary. Cranley pushed for PromoWest instead. “PromoWest had a track record of getting bands that would really appeal to young people and young professionals,” he says. “I thought they deserved some credit because they came to us with the idea.”
In 2018, the Banks Working Group (since renamed the Joint Banks Steering Committee) recommended awarding the land to the Symphony and MEMI, and city council and county commissioners unanimously ratified the choice.
With the local favorite chosen, PromoWest took its plan across the river to Bill Butler’s Ovation development in Newport. Its venue, also finishing up this spring, is similar in size and design, holding up to 2,700 patrons indoors and 7,000 in an outdoor setting. It has booked concerts “on hold” for late spring, but is more likely looking at July or early fall for its first shows, says CEO Scott Stienecker. “We’re ready to start doing shows in May if the world allows it.”
The Ovation Pavilion, as it’s called, will heighten the local competition in an already competitive concert business. PromoWest is owned by Los Angeles-based AEG Presents, the world’s second-largest concert promoter. “It’ll be a competitive environment, most definitely,” says Stienecker. “We’ll both come up with our niche as we move forward.”
“They’re going to get some, we’re going to get some,” is how MEMI’s Smith sizes up the PromoWest presence. “What I like about what we’ve built is there isn’t anything like it—with this flexibility, this quality—until you get to maybe D.C. or maybe Chicago. We’re in the front of the line now. We’re going to fight for every possible act, and we’re going to bank on people coming to the venue.”
The ICON Music Center and its outdoor park are built on two lots just east of Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals’ 20-year-old contract with the county gives the club veto rights over any development on lots next to the stadium, and the team wanted to keep those lots empty for game-day parking and tailgating. That set off a complicated chess game of finding a new spot for Bengals tailgaters at the 17-acre Hilltop concrete facility just southwest of the stadium, then locating a new home for the concrete company and paying it to move.
That arrangement reignited the war of words between city and county officials. “The city and the county were supposed to be 50-50 partners on The Banks,” Cranley says. “Behind our backs, [Tom] Gabelman [the attorney representing Hamilton County] is cutting a deal with the Bengals that affects city property. Partners don’t do that to each other.”
Over the years, The Banks has come under the purview of four mayors and at least 10 county commissioners. Attorney Tom Gabelman has been there through all of them, working on the project on behalf of his firm’s client, Hamilton County, for 24 years. It’s likely no one has a deeper understanding of its complexities. “It’s not possible for Hamilton County to make any secret deals,” he says. “Everything we do is public record.”
Hatched in secret or not, the deal with the Bengals and the concrete company was made and OK’d by city and county officials, allowing the music venue to move forward. County Commissioner Denise Driehaus voted for it because the Bengals agreed to amend their stadium lease and give up some payments the county was obligated to make to the club, concessions that made the purchase of the Hilltop property possible. “That’s a pretty good deal,” she says.
It’s likely more disputes will crop up as development continues. “It’s definitely part of the landscape,” Gabelman says. “But whenever the city and county have come together and found common ground, it has worked extremely well.”
“I’ve been involved in local politics since 1981,” Luken says. “I can’t remember a period when it’s been sweetness and light. There’s always going to be competing interests, and the political leaders will fight for their constituencies.”
The 2019 agreement between Cranley and Portune may guide the next steps. Several parcels still remain to be developed, and the city and county agreed to divide them up equally. “It’s almost like a peace treaty in a war,” says Luken. “You take this country, and I’ll take that country.”
But the two sides need to work together to finish the project so the end result is cohesive, Driehaus says. “Let’s make sure we’re doing it in a collaborative way and make sure we’re not doing things that are redundant and don’t make sense next to each other.”
Qualls, who helped birth The Banks, agrees. “There’s a lot of prime real estate left,” she says. “Maybe it’s time to look more holistically at what’s left. Maybe the city and county could come together again on a planning process that could be effective.”
The next addition looks to be a 15-story office building, currently being called 180 Walnut, that the county has targeted for a lot just east of the Freedom Center. Dallas-based Lincoln Property Co., one of the nation’s largest commercial developers, is planning it at a time when unemployment is 6.7 percent and working from home has become the new normal.
Another idea, a visionary one contemplated since the beginning, is the construction of decks, or pedestrian plazas, over top of Ft. Washington Way to create greenspace and improve the connection between downtown and the riverfront. It would be an expensive proposition, requiring a way to pay for it and teamwork between city and county leaders.
The idea seems almost outlandish. But 20 years ago, so was the thought of creating a brand new riverfront district out of a mud pit. We’ve waited this long. Why stop now?