Can FC Cincinnati convince West End a stadium deal will work?

Posted at 9:38 AM, Feb 23, 2018

A month ago, FC Cincinnati General Manager Jeff Berding first revealed plans to build a $250 million stadium in the West End were getting more serious.

Since then, a chorus of West End neighbors who say they don’t want the stadium there has grown louder, and their demands have become more blunt.

“We don’t want you here. Please stop coming here,” one West End resident begged Berding, in front of a crowd of 150 people at the West End Community Council, Tuesday night.

Her pleas were met with applause.

In recent days, hundreds of people – some of them residents of the West End, others not – have attended public meetings to speak out against or in favor of the stadium proposal. Most of the comments have been negative.

The meetings have exposed the difficulties surrounding Berding’s pitch to construct a 25,000-seat soccer stadium in the heart of a neighborhood that has been diminished by bad development deals for decades.

Left: In 1934, new buildings and homes stood in the West End along the road now known as Ezzard Charles Drive. Photo courtesy of University of Cincinnati’s Digital Resource Commons. Right: The same spot of Ezzard Charles in August 2017, blocks from where FC Cincinnati might build an MLS stadium. 

More than 6,000 people -- many of them black -- call the historic West End home.

“This is going to be tough – on both sides,” said Michael Glynn, a 48-year-old whose family hails from the West End. “No matter how it goes, somebody’s going to be disappointed, I think.”

If FC Cincinnati earns a Major League Soccer bid, the team will build a new soccer stadium on one of three sites in either Newport, Oakley or the West End. 

In recent weeks, FC Cincinnati has focused its stadium efforts in the West End. The club wants to build its new stadium on the current site of Cincinnati Public Schools’ Willard R. Stargel Stadium, next to Taft High School. 

Berding has promised to ditch the West End plan if a majority of the community doesn’t want the stadium there.

The team’s wealthy owners have made a handful of guarantees – building a new $10 million high school stadium, affordable housing promises, and free residential parking, for example – to win over residents and push the stadium plan forward.

The offers may sound generous to some, but Berding will have to fight against decades of the neighborhood’s history to get the deal done.

All the streets are gone

Glynn grew up in Avondale, but he knows West End stories well.

“If you were African American in Cincinnati, that’s where you started,” Glynn said. “For most of our parents, this is where they started.”

His dad talked fondly of the days he spent with his former coach Willard Stargel at Taft High School. His mother would share stories of growing up in the West End’s Laurel Court housing complex.

And if Interstate 75 had not cut through the neighborhood 60 years ago, forcing the demolition of nearly 7,000 houses, Glynn might have West End stories of his own to share.

But today, he only knows what his parents told him about the West End. They were two of thousands who moved out of the neighborhood since 1960.

Left: Left: In 1959, passersby could stop in the West End's Barr-Linn Cafe to grab lunch. This was one of the buildings cleared to make way for an Interstate 75 entrance and exit ramp. Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Museum Center's archives. Right: Pictured in 2017, the area where Barr-Linn cafe once stood, is now a highway entrance, surrounded by gas station and fast-food restaurants. 

“(My dad) just said it was amazing to watch a place you grew up come down all around you,” Glynn said. “All the streets he lived on, they’re all gone.”

Others are still aggravated over the roughly 2,000 apartment units, once called Lincoln Court and Laurel Park, which were demolished in the early 2000s to make way for roughly 1,000 mixed-income residences. And some of the new homes promised for that site – including the homes Citirama was slated to build years ago – never went up.

That’s made many distrustful of FC Cincinnati’s stadium plans and promises to build more housing if the stadium does come there, said 30-year-old West End resident Christopher Griffin.
“It’s an emotional topic,” Griffin, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, said. “People have lived their whole life down here, they want to stay here.”

When Griffin first heard that FC Cincinnati was getting looking into the West End stadium site, he counted himself as one of the skeptics.

Left: In 1934, new buildings and homes stood along the road now known as Ezzard Charles Drive in the West End. Photo courtesy of University of Cincinnati’s Digital Resource Commons. Right: The same spot of Ezzard Charles in August 2017, just blocks from where FC Cincinnati plans to build a MLS stadium.

But then he attended a few public meetings about the stadium and began researching other deals around the country.

If the West End can work out a good community benefits agreement with the team, the stadium might present new opportunities for him and his three children.

The team’s owners – some of the most powerful businessmen in the city – can partner with the schools to offer new programs for kids, Griffin hopes. Maybe, he added, the team can offer electrical or masonry apprentice programs for West End workers to help build the stadium.

“We need something to stabilize our community,” Griffin said. “We have a chance to do something real special. It’s best for us to listen.”

What’s next?

But how can FC Cincinnati leaders convince West End stadium opponents to listen?

They need to at least show off more detailed renderings of what the stadium and the possible development surrounding it might look like, says former Cincinnati City Councilman Jim Tarbell.

“They’re missing a plan,” Tarbell said. “If somebody had shown me where the most sacred section of the West End – where the most people are living right now – was all going to be protected (but) I haven’t see one iota of that plan.”

The team has no plans to demolish houses to make way for the stadium or parking, Berding told crowds at meetings this week.

Two decades ago, Tarbell championed a plan to build a new sport facility in a Downtown neighborhood that needed a facelift. 

Back then, the neighborhood was Pendleton – which also abuts Over-the-Rhine – and the sport facility was the Cincinnati Reds’ new ballpark. The ballpark, he had hoped, would be the launching pad for Downtown and OTR revitalization.

That proposal failed, however, when it went to the voters in 1998.

But Tarbell sees echoes of that ballpark plan in FC Cincinnati’s stadium proposal.

He worries the site the team has selected is too dense, and points to other West End areas that might work better. The team also needs to protect and grow West End’s housing stock, he said.

Still, he thinks the stadium belongs in that neighborhood.

“It could be wonderful,” Tarbell said. “From day one, my thoughts went to the West End, in terms of what a wonderful opportunity it would be for soccer and the neighborhood.”

The team’s leaders made missteps early on and didn’t reach out to neighbors soon enough, Tarbell said.

“They finally made contact with the neighborhood – I would continue doing that,” Tarbell said. “I’m perplexed that that wouldn’t have happened a year ago.”

At a West End Community Council meeting last week, former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory acknowledged the team’s outreach on the issue had been weak.

“It was not the best effort,” Mallory, who is working on stadium outreach for the team, told the crowd.
Berding and Mallory have worked to turn that around in recent days.

For two weeks, the pair has sat in public meetings, answering questions for hours. Berding diligently scribbled notes as dozens of speakers took turns roasting the West End stadium idea. The team has commissioned a private firm to survey West Enders on their doorsteps.

“We haven’t heard from all of them,” Mallory said of the team’s next step, after Tuesday’s community council meeting.

The team did not respond to questions about how many residents would be surveyed.

But Berding said more public meetings are on the way, including a ‘Meet FC Cincinnati’ event on March 4 for West End residents at the Carl H. Lindner YMCA.

None of FC Cincinnati’s other owners, which include American Financial Group CEO Carl Lindner III, Cintas CEO Scott Farmer and George Joseph of Joseph Auto Group – have attended a public meeting on the West End stadium yet.

Griffin, the West End dad, offered the team’s owners the same advice he’s given to his fellow neighbors.

“It’s OK to listen,” Griffin said. “A lot of people are kind of tired of listening to Jeff (Berding). We need something significant. They want to hear from the owners. They need to do something.”