Dream weaver: John Barrett shares his vision for downtown Cincinnati

CINCINNATI - Picture this: The sun sets over Roebling bridge. You admire the view from your 30th floor condo in the quiet southeast corner of downtown. It’s a short walk to the spot where Jean Robert de Cavel opened his best restaurant in 2015, where your daughter was married in 2018, where a new office building, bigger than Queen City Square, is now under construction.

You’re not living in Cincinnati exactly.

You’re living in John Barrett’s dream world.

“I hope what we do here makes a difference,” said Barrett, CEO of Western & Southern Financial Group Inc. in an exclusive interview with WCPO.com. “I love the business we’re in. I love the people I work with. I have the incredible love and support of my wife (Eileen Ward Barrett). So, every day with me is just a dream. Most people just give up. They go home tired. I don’t go home until I’m tired, you know what I mean?”

Barrett is CEO of one of Ohio’s largest private companies, Western & Southern, a 125-year-old insurance company that diversified into real estate, investment management and other financial services during Barrett’s 25 years of leadership. Barrett, 65, is the son of Dr. Charles Barrett, a Cincinnati business legend who ran Western & Southern in the 1970s and ‘80s. After a 16-year stint with the Bank of New York, John Barrett joined Western & Southern as chief financial officer in 1987. He became president in 1989, CEO in 1994 and chairman in 2002. The 4,000-employee company has $67.5 billion in assets owned or managed, more than 10 times its $6 billion total in 1990.

The company controls a significant chunk of downtown real estate, including much of the land around Lytle Park and Cincinnati’s largest office building, Great American Tower at Queen City Square. The 41-story tower cost $322 million, but Western & Southern managed to build and fill it with tenants in the middle of the Great Recession.

Now, Barrett is fixing his gaze on the next big thing. Almost nothing seems out of bounds. A downtown grocery store? His guys are working on it. Carew Tower renovation? He’d like to be involved. He sees three new potential sites for office buildings. One more for a 30-story condo tower.

“I’m always thinking of new stuff,” he said. “As soon as we accomplish something, I move on. I want to do the maximum amount possible with my time.”

Some ideas will pan out. Others won’t. But even a 20 percent completion rate would leave a lasting impact on downtown, as evidenced by this week’s announcement that Jean Robert de Cavel will open a 7,400-square-foot restaurant at Queen City Square. It’s the first of several restaurants planned in the Lytle Park area.

“Five to six years from now, downtown will be a place where you can live a more compact lifestyle,” Barrett said. “Wonderful work opportunities, wonderful entertainment of all sorts and all the necessities within a walk as opposed to a long drive.”

John Barrett's vision. Select any marker on the map for more information about Barrett's plans.

These are among the projects Barrett is turning over in his brain these days:

  • A luxury condominium tower of up to 30 stories could rise from northeast corner of Third Street and Broadway. The site now holds an 850-car garage with a giant spinning Western-Southern clock. The company has previously identified the site as being available for residential or office use, but Barrett said condos make better use of the land than apartments because owners are less transient than renters. “That crowd in Mt Adams, that is now no longer young people,” he said. “It’s well-to-do empty nesters. That’ll start happening downtown. But they’re only in apartments until they find a condo. The downtown condo market is very small right now. Give us five to eight years on that.”
  • Western & Southern has added more than 150 jobs to its downtown campus in the last 18 months and Barrett expects to add dozens of new jobs annually for the foreseeable future. Even more jobs could be added through acquisitions, he said. Now with 2,000 employees, the company’s downtown campus is running out of room, he said. The solution could be a new office building at the corner of East Fifth Street and Lawrence Street, across from Procter & Gamble Co. headquarters. Barrett said the building would replace a parking deck behind Western & Southern’s 1914 headquarters building. It wouldn’t rise above P&G’s twin towers but it would be big enough to accommodate future growth, including acquisitions.
  • Another alternative is a multi-tenant tower that could be bigger than Queen City Square. Barrett wouldn't identify a site for the new tower, but confirmed he's pitched the idea to potential tenants. “Wouldn’t that be cool? Not without tenants,” he said. “That’s only if the economics are right and it’s only if we can bring some out-of-town stuff in. We’re working it, working hard.”
  • Another potential office building site lies a few blocks north of Western & Southern headquarters, where the company acquired a 1.1 acre surface lot in 2010. Barrett envisions parking garage of more than 1,500 spaces with “affordable parking” and a possible office building above. He said the project awaits firm commitments from parking tenants, but he would not be surprised if construction started by 2016. “I really thought that would be a dynamite site for Dunnhumby,” he said. “I would have built a pretty glass building that would have been on Broadway but would have had great facing on the interstate.” If no office tenant emerges in the next few years, Barrett said the garage would likely include structural supports for future office construction.
  • Barrett said his team at Eagle Realty is pursuing an independent grocery store for downtown that would offer prepared foods and grocery items but would not be affiliated with a national chain. He wouldn’t identify their prospective site, but said it was west of the Western & Southern campus, closer to the center of downtown. “More like a Whole Foods or something, where you could get a good meal and be back at your apartment in 10 minutes,” he said. “The site we have in mind we do not own, but the guy who does is interested.”
  • Barrett is interested in partnering with the new owner of Carew Tower on a residential conversion of the 46-story building. “I would love to see that building turned into condos,” said Barrett. “It could be awesome. Or a combination of condo and apartments. You could have some great living units.” Barrett said he recently “exchanged pleasantries” with new owner Greg Power but has no specific deal in the works. Power is local real estate broker who acquired the Carew Tower complex when he bought a controlling interest in the company that owns it. Belvedere Corp. was previously controlled by the family of developer Alex Warm. Power and Warm did not return calls seeking comment.

 

Building hotels, hunting for headquarters

The next big downtown project on tap for Western & Southern is the Anna Louise Inn, which the company agreed to purchase for $4 million last year after a controversial fight over relocation of inn that for years has provided affordable housing for women. The company has announced plans for a 106-room hotel on a site that includes the inn and a smaller office building at 311 Pike Street. Barrett said the hotel complex is likely to sport an upscale Marriott flag and an outdoor venue that will be similar to the rooftop terrace at the Phelps building, which Western & Southern converted to a Residence Inn in 2011.

An Italian restaurant is planned in a former Broadway Street police station that Western Southern acquired in 2002.

“I have a name for it but I don’t have any more to say,” said Barrett. “We have a plan. We first have to have the restaurants established at Queen City Square and the plan approved for the hotel.”

Barrett’s vision for Lytle Park is a restaurant and hotel district where downtown visitors can park, then decide where to dine, drink and mingle.

“You can walk to the office building, to the hotel, the police station. You want to go to the hotel rooftop, great,” he said. “So, you have all that. It becomes the pre-eminent location for a wedding. Rehearsal dinner here, reception there, corporate board meetings, the Taft museum, it all becomes so cool.”

 

John Barrett, CEO of Western & Southern Financial Group Inc. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

 

Barrett said his over-arching goal is to reposition Cincinnati as a place where people want to live and work.

“We want the city to be a place our children want to come back to,” Barrett said in the roughly 90-minute conversation. “Two of mine have come back. I mean, it was a pipe dream ten years ago. But they came back to a vibrant town and the jobs we brought in. People can’t forget the importance of jobs. They pay the taxes. Taxes pay the bills. All this infrastructure isn’t possible without the grease.”

That’s why Barrett tried to bring Archer Daniels Midland to Cincinnati in 2013. The world’s largest corn producer opted for a Chicago site to house 50 to 75 top executives in December, 2013. It has yet to announce its site for a 100-job tech center, according to a company spokeswoman.

Not surprisingly, Barrett had some ideas on how to meet both needs. In 2006, Western & Southern bought the former Camp Marydale property in Boone County for $25 million. The 230-acre site is minutes from downtown and the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport. Barrett’s vision is a twin-campus concept in which top executives work from a downtown high-rise and back-office operations are housed in Northern Kentucky.

“Over time, gridlock in the 12 biggest cities will make them untenable when you want to hire people,” he said. Confronted by those big city problems, company leaders will take fresh looks at Cincinnati’s low cost of living, quality of life and easy commute times, Barrett predicts.

Lots of talk, but can he do it?

Big ideas are one thing. Having the clout to pull it off, quite another. Barrett has both, said Jim McGraw, a Keating Muething & Klekamp partner who works as a national consultant for economic development clients.

McGraw ranks Barrett among the city’s most influential business leaders, along with North American Properties CEO Tom Williams and Cincinnati Reds owner Bob Castellini.

“All three of those guys have big networks, not only here but nationally,” said McGraw. Of the three, Barrett controls more local real estate and has a bigger Cincinnati payroll.

“John has a lot more financial horsepower to get things done,” McGraw said. “His interest in not only Lytle Park but in downtown pretty much surpasses everybody else. He is our greatest champion for downtown.”

Western & Southern could soon have additional capital to redeploy on real estate projects as it courts potential investors in Queen City Square. Barrett is willing to sell up to 49 percent, but adds investors seem to be more interesting in buying the whole building. He'd rather not sell than lose control of the property.

“We’ve had offers but to get the deal you want is a long way,” he said. “There isn’t a deal on the table (but there is) lots of talk.”

And that appears to be a constant when it comes to John Barrett. Former Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken said Barrett talked to him for years about Queen City Square.

“I’d look at him like, ‘Really?’ And yet, there it is,” said Luken. “There appears to be no boundary to what John is willing to take on. Cities just need people like that. You need people that love the place, will invest in it and think big.”