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Urban Design Review Board

By Laura James · April 18th, 2007 · The Big Picture
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  The Banks was always envisioned as this region's
The Banks was always envisioned as this region's "front door," but will its architecture reflect its significance?



In 1964, Cincinnati knew that world-class architecture was crucial to a city's evolution. That year, city officials formed the URBAN DESIGN REVIEW BOARD (UDRB) to comment on public developments in the central business district and on the riverfront. The five-member board currently is chaired by bankruptcy attorney Larry Keller and includes UC Professor of Architecture Jay Chatterjee, Jim Fitzgerald of the design firm FRCH, Paul Muller of Muller Architects and John C. Senhauser, A.I.A.

In 2001, after a lawsuit filed by The Cincinnati Enquirer, the Ohio state sunshine law required the UDRB to make all of its meetings public so that regular Cincinnatians would have the opportunity to know what's happening with large-scale developments that often involve public financing.

That same year, DAVID NILAND, professor emeritus of architecture at UC, lost his position on the UDRB after speaking out against the poor design of Great American Ball Park, which he calls a "mélange of mediocrity."

"No real reasons were given (for his dismissal)," Niland says. "Euphemisms. But it was weak and obvious."

He's convinced the city fired him because he criticized the stadium design.

Skip to 2007 and the hotly debated, much delayed, often maligned and equally applauded BANKS PROJECT. Since 1996 local officials have been touting The Banks as an opportunity to generate attention and money for the region. The prime real estate -- tucked between Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium -- was to be Cincinnati's "front door" for the next 100-plus years, giving our town a signature look as well as providing tax breaks to those who invest in the project.

The Banks has languished for years, but in the past several months it's been chugging along at top speed.

The UDRB advises the Banks Working Group, which ultimately will make recommendations to Hamilton County Commissioners and Cincinnati City Council -- though neither body is required to heed its advice.

Kudos to the Banks Working Group for finally engaging minorities, as Kevin Osborne reported in last week's CityBeat ("Secret Plans for The Banks," issue of April 11), but none of the now-seven group members has any specialized knowledge of architecture. The Banks suddenly is a fast-moving architectural development, but we haven't heard a peep from the UDRB.

The architects aren't talking. One can't help but wonder if they're afraid of losing power, as Niland did.

"No Urban Design Review Board should have power," Niland says, adding that power is far removed from assessment. "Architecture is substantive. ...

It's functional. There are criteria that must be followed. The UDRB advises and critiques. ...

If they had enough paper, they could itemize each and every criteria of good design."

Recently retired Taft Museum of Art Director PHILLIP LONG knows the importance of good architecture in a city.

"It was all contemporary at one time," he says about the best buildings in Cincinnati, such as the Taft Museum. "It's imperative now that we aim high."

Long admits he's not a specialist in the field of contemporary architecture, but he points to someone in town who is: Aaron Betsky, the Cincinnati Art Museum's new director.

"Someone like Betsky would be a very interesting person to have involved (in the dialogue)," Long says.

Indeed, Betsky, who served until 2006 as director of the world's largest architectural museum, the Netherlands Architectural Institute, is internationally recognized as an authority in the field. He did not respond to my inquiries regarding The Banks.

Niland is among those concerned that the Banks Working Group will rush through designs proposed by the project developer, Atlanta-based AIG/Carter, because The Banks has languished so long without ground being broken. Key players might be persuaded to be satisfied with an OK design just to get the project started, he says.

"Anyone with proprietary involvement can't speak out," Niland says.

Especially politicians, and especially after the fact. No one wants to admit they invested poorly, he says -- and taxpayers have already invested $300 million.

So why should Cincinnati care if The Banks turns out to be a mediocre-looking money machine or a world-class architectural wonder?

The answer is simple: Whatever we build will last hundreds of years. The Banks is our front door, remember.

What do we want our legacy to be? Another "mélange of mediocrity" or a renowned, original work of art?

CONTACT LAURA JAMES: ljames(at)

  The Banks was always envisioned as this region's
The Banks was always envisioned as this region's "front door," but will its architecture reflect its significance?



In 1964, Cincinnati knew that world-class architecture was crucial to a city's evolution. That year, city officials formed the URBAN DESIGN REVIEW BOARD (UDRB) to comment on public developments in the central business district and on the riverfront. The five-member board currently is chaired by bankruptcy attorney Larry Keller and includes UC Professor of Architecture Jay Chatterjee, Jim Fitzgerald of the design firm FRCH, Paul Muller of Muller Architects and John C. Senhauser, A.I.A.

In 2001, after a lawsuit filed by The Cincinnati Enquirer, the Ohio state sunshine law required the UDRB to make all of its meetings public so that regular Cincinnatians would have the opportunity to know what's happening with large-scale developments that often involve public financing.

That same year, DAVID NILAND, professor emeritus of architecture at UC, lost his position on the UDRB after speaking out against the poor design of Great American Ball Park, which he calls a "mélange of mediocrity."

"No real reasons were given (for his dismissal)," Niland says. "Euphemisms. But it was weak and obvious."

He's convinced the city fired him because he criticized the stadium design.

Skip to 2007 and the hotly debated, much delayed, often maligned and equally applauded BANKS PROJECT. Since 1996 local officials have been touting The Banks as an opportunity to generate attention and money for the region. The prime real estate -- tucked between Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium -- was to be Cincinnati's "front door" for the next 100-plus years, giving our town a signature look as well as providing tax breaks to those who invest in the project.

The Banks has languished for years, but in the past several months it's been chugging along at top speed.

The UDRB advises the Banks Working Group, which ultimately will make recommendations to Hamilton County Commissioners and Cincinnati City Council -- though neither body is required to heed its advice.

Kudos to the Banks Working Group for finally engaging minorities, as Kevin Osborne reported in last week's CityBeat ("Secret Plans for The Banks," issue of April 11), but none of the now-seven group members has any specialized knowledge of architecture. The Banks suddenly is a fast-moving architectural development, but we haven't heard a peep from the UDRB.

The architects aren't talking. One can't help but wonder if they're afraid of losing power, as Niland did.

"No Urban Design Review Board should have power," Niland says, adding that power is far removed from assessment. "Architecture is substantive. ...

It's functional. There are criteria that must be followed. The UDRB advises and critiques. ...

If they had enough paper, they could itemize each and every criteria of good design."

Recently retired Taft Museum of Art Director PHILLIP LONG knows the importance of good architecture in a city.

"It was all contemporary at one time," he says about the best buildings in Cincinnati, such as the Taft Museum. "It's imperative now that we aim high."

Long admits he's not a specialist in the field of contemporary architecture, but he points to someone in town who is: Aaron Betsky, the Cincinnati Art Museum's new director.

"Someone like Betsky would be a very interesting person to have involved (in the dialogue)," Long says.

Indeed, Betsky, who served until 2006 as director of the world's largest architectural museum, the Netherlands Architectural Institute, is internationally recognized as an authority in the field. He did not respond to my inquiries regarding The Banks.

Niland is among those concerned that the Banks Working Group will rush through designs proposed by the project developer, Atlanta-based AIG/Carter, because The Banks has languished so long without ground being broken. Key players might be persuaded to be satisfied with an OK design just to get the project started, he says.

"Anyone with proprietary involvement can't speak out," Niland says.

Especially politicians, and especially after the fact. No one wants to admit they invested poorly, he says -- and taxpayers have already invested $300 million.

So why should Cincinnati care if The Banks turns out to be a mediocre-looking money machine or a world-class architectural wonder?

The answer is simple: Whatever we build will last hundreds of years. The Banks is our front door, remember.

What do we want our legacy to be? Another "mélange of mediocrity" or a renowned, original work of art?

CONTACT LAURA JAMES: ljames(at)citybeat.com

The Banks was always envisioned as this region's "front door," but will its architecture reflect its significance?

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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