The elevated pathway from a parking garage directly into the back of Music Hall was once a lifeline for patrons. Now though, that bridge is dying and along with it: the notion of old “urban renewal” projects. Yet, despite a renaissance for both the historic building and surrounding area, many want to keep what others see as a barrier between pedestrians and the city around them.
|- Scott Palamar poses within the synchronized lights and fountains at Washington Park. Palamar helped create and program the unique feature which debuted along with a totally renovated park in 2012. Previously, Washington Park had been deteriorating and ignored. As featured in the July 2012 QC/D story: OTR Love Story.|
These days, things have reversed. The largest nearby parking structure now actually sits beneath the park. Residents fill the manicured and landscaped grounds, light rail passes over the historic cobblestones out front, and most patrons walk into Music Hall the way it was intended: through its grand entrance. Washington Park is a large symbol of the urban renaissance taking place throughout Cincinnati, particularly in downtown and Over-The-Rhine. The nearby area that’s ignored and avoided now tends to be the bridge out back, the shortcut that bypassed having to acknowledge the urban surroundings. To be fair, when I attended an event there in the summer of 2015, many still used the parking garage and accompanying pedestrian bridge. I did myself, but only because Washington Park’s garage was full. When the opera was over, we were some of the youngest folks to use the rear entrance, while most visitors spilled out into the park out front.
|- Music Hall's pedestrian bridge at night as seen in June 2015.|
The bridge came sometime in the late 70s (1979 according to the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2016, but by at least 1976 according to the Enquirer back then). It was born out of an “urban renewal” project.
Urban Renewal had its aggressive zenith in the 1940s-80s when governments would often attempt to secure what were believed to be blighted areas and find new development projects. Concrete and vehicle-centric engineering were all the rage. To understand how the bridge and its adjoining garage came about, you have to go back to the city’s 1948 Metropolitan Master Plan. The plan called for large-scale demolition of the West End Neighborhood in order accommodate a new expressway that eventually became Interstate 75. I-75 split the large and dense residential neighborhood in half.
|- Cincinnati's dense West End neighborhood before the construction of Interstate 75. Image via Cincinnati-Transit.net.|
Bill Cappel lays out the history quite nicely on his Cincinnati Ideas blog. After the highway was built right down the middle of the neighborhood, most of the western half was redeveloped into a new neighborhood called Queensgate which exists today primarily as an industrial center. What was left was slated to be developed into “Queensgate II.” The “II” development was to focus on residential rather than industrial. In a 1976 Cincinnati Enquirer article, the Queensgate II development manager, James Twitty, speaks pretty candidly about the situation. He says things like:
“The question is if this [Queensgate II] is to be a neighborhood. One-Third of it is now public housing. It is going to remain so. That is not the city’s fault. You are not going to entice middle income families in. You may get a racial mix-that is no problem-but you are not going to draw in middle income families. It is not going to happen in my lifetime. It is going to be a poor neighborhood. There are no ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ about it.”
|- The Town Center Parking Garage, the bridge connecting to music hall, and the outdoor amphitheater/park are all remnants of the Queensgate II development.|
Even as the city planned to develop what remained of The West End into “Queensgate II,” their project manager seemed to believe it would remain the lower income area they had sought to lift up through “urban renewal.” Since 1970, the city had been using awarded federal funds to buy up abandoned property or buy out existing owners in a once dense neighborhood where property values seemingly plummeted after being surrounded by industrial facilities and an expressway. At 191 parcels of land, they ran out of federal dollars. By the time of the Twitty article, the city was still hoping to secure another $3 or $4 Million before it could start cleaning out entire blocks. In the meantime, it was left with boarded up buildings, and a few swaths of land that it turned into parking lots. By 1976, more than $35 Million had been poured into the initial Queensgate project as well as Queensgate II. Some progress was made though. Phase I of Queensgate II had been built, but went slightly awry.
It had brought about a 600 car parking garage and pedestrian bridge linking it to Music Hall. The building adjoining the then new Town Center Garage would become, and still is, the headquarters to WCET-TV. Additionally, an outdoor amphitheater was built and plans called for a deck to be built atop the parking garage in hopes of enticing a private developer to construct a tower above it, but that never materialized.
|- The pedestrian bridge features a glass rotunda which also serves as a balcony over the connected ampitheatre/park.|
The next round, a more ambitious phase, called for the city to buy up land and turn it over to a developer named Ben Schottenstein. Schottenstein had won the right to development after a lengthy court battle. He planned to build a ten story tower that would house a new location of his now defunct Ben’s Department Store, a new Greyhound bus terminal, and the corporate headquarters of Avco Broadcasting Corp (who owned WLW-AM radio as well as WLW-TV Channel 5). Residents and property owners fought back against the city who planned to seize the land and turn it over to Schottenstein. By the time Cincinnati finally acquired the land it needed, Schottenstein canceled his plans. Greyhound and Avco had backed out after the original court battle and delays over securing property. The city then turned the lots into surface parking which they initially leased for $10,000 a month. In the 1976 Enquirer expose´ a city official stated:
“Parking lots are so lucrative, if we weren’t interested in developing this block we probably would just leave it as parking, but we do want to move on it.”The aforementioned James Twitty bluntly blamed the Federal Government for a lack of progress and seemed mum on the development’s future:
“It’s up to the federal government to design programs (to solve this). But they don’t want to impact an area with low income families. It just won’t work.”Twitty was right in a way, the development did stall and the residential redevelopment never materialized. The article would later go on to describe the neighborhood’s remaining residents as “refugees” who were waiting for their property to be bought up or to be relocated. As the city razed buildings lot by lot in tandem with the federal money it received, many were left with even further destroyed property values and no hope for new, uplifting surroundings anytime soon.
|- The remains of Queensgate II development.|
There’s a lot more to be said about old school urban renewal programs and the Queensgate II project is just one small example. In the end though, a failed civic plan solely dependent upon federal money never brought Queensgate II to life. Despite all the grand plans and half of it becoming what's now known as Queensgate, The West End survives today. What did develop out of “Queensgate II” was a few new buildings, parking lots, a parking garage, a pedestrian bridge linking that parking garage to Music Hall, and an outdoor amphitheater/park that never seemed to see much use. Urban Renewal failed The West End when the highway was shoved through it, urban renewal failed the West End again with Queensgate II: the new neighborhood that never was.
Ironically, the bridge itself has become the kind of blight it once allowed concertgoers to avoid. On a recent visit to the area in the July of 2016, you can see the deterioration firsthand and catch glimpses of good intentions.
|- The pedestrian bridge's entrance from the top of the Town Center Parking Garage. The Queensgate II development plan called for a high rise building to be built above this parking deck.|
The design of the bridge's decorations shows its age. The colors, faded now more than ever, reek of past color palate preferences. The light bulbs lining the bridge were a nice touch. If you were going to walk into the rear of Music Hall and avoid it's beautiful facade, at least the lights tried to make things seem grand.
|- The pedestrian bridge structure as seen from the Town Center Parking Garage.|
All in all, even though it looks worse with age, it's a halfway decent attempt to spruce up what amounts to little more than a connection to a sterile concrete structure. It allowed pedestrians to avoid the city that boasts Music Hall as one of its Crown Jewels. Other parts of the garage feature a similar theme such as the apparatus which holds the heaters to keep ice off of the ramp:
The parking levels are connected by a set of stairs tucked between the garage and building. There's an elevator too, but it's out of service.
There's also a ramp that wraps from the top parking deck, around an outside courtyard, and empties out at the lower parking level. It ultimately directs pedestrians away from the street and back to the safe confines of the garage, but it also creates a hidden cultural center: the amphitheater and park that was also built.
In the center of the courtyard it wraps around, it sits hidden from the view of most. Even casually walking by on the street, you'd probably fail to notice it.
|- The ampitheatre as seen from the bridge's "balcony seating."|
There's tiered seating for performances made from brick and what could've been just a ramp to a parking garage, is actually a small city park, although it seems to lack an official name or designation. It's quite the clever design, but tucked away and hidden, cut off from the street.
|- Another feature of the park, this clock that can be seen when looking down from the pedestrian bridge above. It has ceased functioning.|
The landscaping and brick seating, as well as the curved ramp, inadvertently create a barrier. I'm not sure if this was ever used to host any performances, impromptu or planned, but the area doesn't see much activity today.
|- The pedestrian bridge's rotunda as seen from below featuring the same style of lighting that adorns the bridge.|
The facility is anchored by a rotunda and balcony above, both of which lend themselves to the amphitheater’s design. If a performance were to take place, you could stand and watch beneath the rotunda, or take a place in the stepped "box seats" from on high:
The amphitheater isn't just decorative, it's functional. No doubt it could've been used for informal productions or perhaps was envisioned as an area for Music Hall performers to practice while taking a breath outside. In an era where the park on the other side of Music Hall was left to deteriorate, this was somewhat of an attempt to connect the city with the structure’s of “urban renewal.”
Nevertheless, if you wanted to use it, you'd have to find it first. It's not apparent from street level, doesn't appear to have a name or signage. It's just a hidden outdoor theater, one that can only be forgotten if anyone remembered it in the first place.
|- The overgrown "box seats" and surrounding structure.|
While the amphitheater and parking garage were what gave people the option to avoid the homelessness and poverty formerly on Music Hall’s other side, these structures have now become shelter for several displaced citizens:
As the revitalization of OTR has spread out from the city center, many argue that the bridge should be torn down. It's the same argument that's been made for removing the downtown skywalks: encourage pedestrians to be on and connect with the streets. In fact, as Music Hall planned to close for 2015 while it underwent a $135 Million renovation, the plan was just that. The crumbling bridge would meet the wrecking ball. Intended or not, a byproduct of that would be: anyone who parked on that side would have to go to street level, use the sidewalks, and cross one street. Some people I spoke to hoped this would calm traffic on Central Parkway, others hoped it would encourage developments which could link OTR and the West End.
Some wanted to keep it.
|- View of Music Hall's rear side, District 1 Police Headquarters, and where Ezzard Charles Dr. connects with Central Parkway.|
As this May 2016 Cincinnati Enquirer article notes, the group in charge of Music Hall’s renovation didn’t anticipate that tearing down the bridge would cause much of a stir. A renovation or replacement wasn’t factored into the budget, in fact, there weren’t even plans for a rear entrance into the venue.
A February 2015 city analysis labeled the structure as in “poor” condition. Cost estimates from the same report suggested a $700,000 fee to tear down the bridge, while a replacement would be upwards of $4 Million. Temporary repairs would only put off one of the two inevitable options. While initial renovation plans included at least keeping the bridge, City Manager Harry Black had recommended just using the renovation timeline as an opportunity to do away with it. An alleged "explosion of reaction from patrons and donors" lead to the compromise to at least keep Music Hall’s rear entrance.
|- Once seats to overlook the performance area of the amphitheater/park, vegetation has taken over most of the surrounding area.|
Ultimately, the bridge and the parking garage it connects to are the financial responsibility of the city, who hasn’t yet determined what to do. One letter to the Enquirer called demolishing the bridge “irresponsible,” and actually levied an interesting concern: the Washington Park parking garage is often at capacity simply by serving the demands in Over-The-Rhine with its ever expanding options of restaurants, bars, attractions, and nightlife. However, demolishing the bridge doesn’t cut off access to the garage or Music Hall, it just eliminates a shortcut over street level, one that only allows people to bypass one crosswalk. My own conjecture here, but it feels overly typical of Cincinnati to have the opinion that this lowly concrete bridge be preserved while real historical gems such as The Dennison Hotel are more "questionable."
In the end, those who support removing the bridge see it as a chance to calm traffic on Central Parkway, a wide boulevard that enables a casual observation of the speed limit. Removing the parking garage as well (or re-doing it to include street level retail) could remove a physical barrier to spreading development further into The West End. As we’ve seen with the recent opening of new hotspot Queen City Radio, the renaissance of Over-The-Rhine and downtown is starting to spread to other spots of the city. Maybe it's time that the city encouraged pedestrians to interact with the streets, to flip the mentality of old urban renewal. We could start by not having to spend millions on a new bridge where the only benefit is you don't have to wait for a signal in the crosswalk. We could redevelop a parking garage (one in major need of repair) to provide more than just parking. We could even take things a step further and build a truly protected bike lane on Central Parkway. This bridge, while seemingly insignificant, is at the crossroads of Cincinnati's evolving development. The loss of this bridge wouldn't be “irresponsible,” it wouldn't even be an inconvenience. Rather, it’s a chance to breathe a little more life into a part of town that's been neglected for decades.
The bridge represents an interesting little piece of history, but maybe it's time for it to become part of the past as well.