Downtown Kroger project makes good first impression with 'interesting and subtle' design

Architect: It's for the future, not the past
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jul 17, 2017

CINCINNATI - Designers of the Court and Walnut project use words like rhythm, freshness and connections to describe the $90.5 million project that will include a new Downtown Kroger store.

All of those words could matter when GBBN Architects Inc. seeks design approvals from the Cincinnati Historic Conservation Board on July 24. The southern half of the building sits in the Court Street Historic District, where the city can halt development if new construction doesn’t fit the fabric of the surrounding neighborhood.

GBBN made sure the building’s lower levels matched the scale of nearby structures. It also set the height of the 18-story tower at roughly the midpoint of Kroger’s headquarters building to the west and the Hamilton County Courthouse to the east – creating a stair step approach for the Central Parkway streetscape. 

Court and Walnut’s window notches come in clusters of two and three, same as the surrounding buildings. Although it’s modern, GBBN thinks the building repeats patterns found in surrounding blocks.

“The way we set up the modularity of it, the rhythm of it, the height of the building, we think we’ve taken an intentional approach to how we interpret the guidelines,” said GBBN principal Steve Kenat. “We’ve done that with other modern buildings like Cincinnati Shakespeare, which people were really questioning, ‘On the edge of Washington Park, why would you do such a modern building?’ It’s a building that’s for the future. It’s not for the past.”


Court and Walnut

Experts weigh in

The design is getting good reviews from historic preservation activists.

“Cities need to keep reinventing themselves to be vital and alive,” said Paul Muller, executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association. “So, you’re going to have portions where modern buildings need to go into historic areas. And the Kroger design does it in a really interesting and subtle way.”

This view from Walnut Street shows how designers try to invite views into the store. Provided by GBBN

Muller said the Court and Walnut design “picks up the patterns” of Court Street without mimicking its neighbors.

“The setbacks work very well with respecting the sight lines and the scale on Court Street,” he added. “The transparency and openness at the sidewalk really contributes well to the life of the street, which is very important for historic areas.”

Over-the-Rhine activist Mike Morgan said “any project in the Central Business District that doesn't ‘require’ demolishing more of the historic building stock starts out with my general support.”

That’s a reference to the demolition of the Dennison Hotel building this year and two buildings on Main Street last year for Downtown development projects. The Court and Walnut site has been a parking lot for decades, so no demolition is required.

Morgan, an attorney and president of Queen City History and Education, said Court and Walnut is the first building in decades to address a 1920s vision for Central Parkway as “the embodiment of urban modernity.” Built on the route of the failed Cincinnati subway and the former Miami and Erie Canal, Central Parkway was intended to be a grand boulevard lined with important civic and commercial structures.

“When the American building was constructed in the '20s, it was designed to have basement access to the new subway,” Morgan said. “I'm not telling you that I like the (Court and Walnut) design. I think it's uninspired architecture, but there's a valid argument for it. Intellectually at least, you could say that it's the first building to fulfill the vision for Central Parkway that has been built since the American Building.“ 

A second-floor bar and food hall has outdoor seating for about 250, overlooking Central Parkway. Picture by GBBN

Multi-purpose design elements

GBBN principal Chad Burke said Court and Walnut’s design flowed from its expected role as an eco-system that connects Over-the-Rhine to Downtown with an urban grocery store and residential tower. Its 550-car garage will accommodate courthouse workers in the daytime, shoppers and apartment dwellers at night. Five streetcar stops within a block of the property, an 18,000-square-foot food hall and a beer and wine bar with second-floor seating that overlooks Central Parkway should keep the place hopping with lunch and dinner crowds.

That’s one reason the Kroger store’s entrance is a four-story glass tower.

“We’re creating a pretty grand entrance to the store and the parking to encourage people that walk between floors as they go to their car to walk down the stairs and do their shopping,” Burke said. “We also think it’s going to be a pretty amazing view itself on the third and fourth floors looking down Walnut Street.”

But the entrance also serves other purposes. It roughly matches the height of nearby buildings, contributing to the scale that defines the Court Street business district. And it houses an elevator that Kroger customers will need to get their shopping carts to their cars.

Main entrance at the corner of Court and Walnut. Picture by GBBN.

The slivers of glass and precast concrete that dominate the building’s upper floors also serve multiple roles.

“The thing with the (apartment) units was to keep the corner as glassy and open as possible to take advantage of the views,” Burke said. “That was the starting point. The rest of the windows are kind of arranged in a way that gives a certain rhythm that relates back to some of the other scales and rhythms of the other buildings in the Court Street area. But it’s also staggered in a way that gives some uniqueness to the individual units so every unit that’s stacked on top of each other isn’t the exact same one after the other. By shifting around the windows, each unit is going to be slightly different.”

This is how the 18-story tower will look from Central Parkway and Main. Picture by GBBN.

Residential developer Tony Hobson appreciates the nuance.

“The corners are going to be fantastic,” said Hobson, a partner at North American Properties, one of three companies building 139 rental units on Court and Walnut’s top eight floors. “The roof deck is going to be fantastic. I think the symbiotic relationship between the apartments, the garage and the Kroger store is fantastic. The unit mix and things we’re doing, they’re the result of all our knowledge and experience. So, we’re planning for it to be as good as anything in Cincinnati.”