CINCINNATI — Less than two years ago, little more than a giant parking lot occupied the half-mile between the stadiums of the Cincinnati Reds and Bengals along the Ohio River.
With the Reds returning to the National League playoffs, baseball fans from around Ohio and beyond will find a much different Cincinnati since the last time the team played in the postseason in 2010.
After more than $600 million in new development between the two stadiums, there are now six distinct bars and restaurants, a popular riverfront park and high-end apartments that are touted as being "Cincinnati's premier live-work-play destination" and charge rent in the thousands.
A few blocks over is a new $322 million, 41-story office tower that's the tallest building in the city, and a 20-minute walk away is the trendy Over-the-Rhine historic district that used to be best known as a haven for crime and the site of the city's 2001 race riots. Now dozens of bedraggled buildings in the district have been renovated into popular bars and restaurants and a once crime-prone park has undergone a $48 million makeover to become one of the city's best venues for concerts, outdoor movie viewings and flea markets.
"When you look at the changes over the last two years, it's night and day," said Mike Willis, 62, who was born and raised in Cincinnati and is a longtime Reds fan.
"What used to happen is you'd park at the game, walk to the game, get your food and all your stuff there, watch the game, and then you'd go get in your car and drive home," said Willis, who has been going to Reds games since he was a kid and now blogs about the team.
"But not anymore," said Willis, who now takes his wife to get a bite to eat near the stadium before the game and likes to stick around afterward.
Willis is trying to snag tickets to one of the Reds' playoff games. The team begins its playoff run Saturday and Sunday in San Francisco and returns for the first home game in the five-game series on Tuesday.
Since the late 1990s, the city and Hamilton County have been working to reclaim Cincinnati's riverfront from about 200 years of manufacturing and commerce, and turn it into a destination where people can live, work and play.
The biggest development between the stadiums, known as The Banks, drew plenty of skepticism from locals as the project was delayed repeatedly amid infighting by local leaders and deals with developers that fell apart. As the years passed, the area became known as "the mud pit."
When Mayor Mark Mallory first took office in 2005, the wheels on the project began turning much faster. The city and county teamed up and got two developers on board and began figuring out financing, which comes from a combination of private money, tax dollars and some federal stimulus funds.
"We weren't going to let petty differences keep the project from happening," said Mallory, who said he made the project a priority to boost morale in the city.
"You have to understand where we had been. You had a long period where a company would leave downtown Cincinnati and go to northern Kentucky or a business would close up shop," he said. "When you went downtown, you got the impression that the core was dying, and that's a morale-killer. We needed to be able to show that we were focused on turning that around."
The annual economic impact of The Banks is projected to reach nearly $92 million a year, according to a study released in May by the University of Cincinnati's Economics Center that was commissioned by the developers of The Banks.
The study said that amount is expected to increase to about $276 million a year once other phases of The Banks are finished, for a total of $2.7 billion in economic impact between 2011 and 2020.
Among other changes coming to Ohio's third-largest city is a new $400 million downtown casino set to open in the spring and a streetcar slated to open in the summer of 2015 connecting the riverfront, downtown and Over-the-Rhine.
Still to come at The Banks are more apartments, a hotel, shops and an office tower. The city also recently began accepting design concepts to overhaul a somewhat-jarring area in between the riverfront and downtown known as "the decks," which are four bridges over a busy street.
The city wants to connect the gaps between the bridges to build a clean slate for a brand-new project that could mean more green space, more shops or more living spaces, or a combination of all those things, depending on the ideas that come in.
Rachel Freytag, a 25-year-old in marketing who was born and raised in northern Kentucky just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, said she hardly ever visited downtown until the last year or so.
"I used to be a little afraid of downtown, especially Over-the-Rhine," said Freytag, whose home in Covington has a view of Cincinnati's skyline. "Now there's much more development. People are flocking to the area."
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