Originally introduced to the city in 1996, the project bounced around between developers, never really receiving buy-in from the city and county until a series of auspicious events occurred beginning in 2008. That’s when the Riverfront Advisors Commission delivered a solid plan, Cincinnati Parks received funding for development in the area, money became available to move Mehring Way and developers received $24.7 million in federal funding — all elements that needed to occur almost simultaneously for the project to become a reality, according to John Deatrick, The Banks’ project executive.
“All the legs of the table had to be even and they had to be able to support the project,” he says. “We have been incredibly lucky and truly blessed — it’s done really well. We’ve been fortunate to have some really good people involved, and the resources were there when we needed them.”
To get a feel for the project’s initial success rate, just stand beneath the Current at the Banks apartments and look up. Developers boast of an occupancy rate between 90 and 100 percent since opening, according to Libby Korosec, spokesperson for The Banks. She says the apartments leasing from $850 to $2,000 “went like hotcakes,” far exceeding their initial expectations. On the retail side, she says the current commitment stands at 80 percent, with a few spaces left to lease, two of which reside on coveted corners.
“We’re still working on leasing those, but we’re in active discussions with almost every available space,” Korosec says.
The venues already open at The Banks include eateries Johnny Rockets, Holy Grail and Toby Keith’s I Love this Bar & Grill, as well as the Police Welcome Center, home to the Special Events Unit for Cincinnati Police.
Opening later in 2012, Korosec lists national chain Ruth’s Chris Steak House; The Wine Guy, a wine shop/eatery; Crave, an Asian/Mediterranean inspired restaurant; Tin Roof, an eatery/music venue; and Mahogany’s, a Southern cooking/soul food restaurant. She says the current restaurants have been extremely well-received, exemplified by the two-hour wait to get into Toby Keith’s on Saturdays. While popularity may be apparent now, she emphasizes taking business away from other venues is not the ultimate goal.
“In our world, a rising tide lifts all boats,” Korosec says. “The goal is not to beat out anybody — the goal is to add to the overall vibrancy of downtown and create a great destination for people to come to. I think at this juncture with what we have open and what we have signed, we are meeting or exceeding our expectations.”
While technically not part of The Banks, Smale Riverfront Park remains intrinsically connected. Located directly south, between The Banks and the Ohio River, the park will transform from its current concrete construction site appearance to a fetching display of greenery, water features and architecture just in time for summer, according to Deborah Allison, business services manager for Cincinnati Parks. Features and exhibits opening as part the official ribbon cutting May 18 will include Schmidlapp Event Lawn, home to future concerts and events; the Black Brigade Monument, a monument to African-American volunteers during the Civil War; the Labyrinth, a maze constructed entirely of greenery; and the Tree Grove, a bucolic space to relax and recharge. Allison says the most elaborate feature will be the Walnut Street Steps and Fountain, with its interactive water jets and cascading waterfalls enhanced by LED lighting. Visitors will be able to take in the site from the glass platform above.
Bike commuters will be excited about the opening of the Visitor’s Center also scheduled for late spring. Besides renting bikes, the center will feature bike lockers where commuters can store their bikes, along with locker rooms and shower facilities where they can change and then walk to work. Allison says besides being breathtakingly beautiful, the park is designed to be practical — a space for residents to enjoy and interact.
“This is going to be the new front yard of the city of Cincinnati and the state of Ohio, really,” she says. “People are just going to be amazed at what’s in store for them and how different and unique this park is, not only to the city of Cincinnati but to the entire country.”
Deatrick says The Banks’ recent positive buzz is encouraging. He says he’s often tickled when people tell him they drove downtown to look and couldn’t find The Banks. He says the development ironically blends so well into the urban fabric of the neighborhood people don’t even realize they’re driving through it or that there’s a garage just below keeping it out of the flood plain.
When the new developer came on board in 2008, Deatrick says they toyed with the idea of changing the name to shed any negative connotations associated with the project. To be certain, he says they polled residents online to get their feedback.
“They had voting on the Internet and it came out strongly in favor of keeping the name The Banks.” Deatrick says. “So I’m not quite sure what that tells you, but here we are.” ©