Casinos are generally designed to lure people inside and then keep them there. The exit is always harder to find than the entrance. You have to walk through the slot machines to get to the bar. Everything you need – a bed, breakfast, the ATM – is within one structure, and it’s hard to see outside even if you wanted to. For all these reasons, casinos don’t make for great urban neighbors.
Cincinnati, however, is trying to re-imagine the truly urban casino. A ballot measure passed in 2009 is bringing casinos for the first time to Ohio, with downtown locations planned for Cincinnati and Cleveland, and two more in Columbus and Toledo. The statewide ballot measure was unusually specific about the site location in each city, and Cincinnati will be getting a 350,000 square-foot casino on a former parking lot in the urban core that abuts the central business district and four residential neighborhoods.
“No one had paid much attention to this location right at the doorway of our downtown, because it had been a parking lot for so long and it’s adjacent to five different neighborhoods,” says Stephen Samuels, a local urban planner who led early efforts to organize the community to plan for the casino’s arrival. “The truth was no one had the ball, because it was in everybody’s back yard but nobody’s front yard.”
Samuels has since created a community nonprofit, Bridging Broadway, that has worked with the University of Cincinnati Community Design Center on a report commissioned by the city to study how the casino could be used to spur development of the entire area without inundating it with the side effects no one wants.
"Everyone either has their hands out looking for the casino to give them money," Samuels says, "or they’ve had their hands up to try to protect themselves from what they think is going to be this big influx in crime and prostitution."
Casino developer Rock Gaming, which also operates the novel downtown site in Cleveland, has promised a consciously urban design that will invert the traditional casino beyond what’s been built in New Orleans and Detroit. The Cincinnati complex will have multiple entrances and a transparent exterior, and its restaurants will be accessible from the outside by visitors who don't care to set foot on the gaming floor. The developers have also pledged not to build their own hotel for several years, or until those in the area get closer to capacity.
Residents nearby have meanwhile sketched out new parks they’d like to see put in, alongside expanded housing, a grocery store and revitalized street corridors connecting the area’s detached entertainment and arts destinations to each other and the casino site.
“The driving principle here is avoid the casino island effect, and the developers understand that as well and have been speaking our language,” Samuels says. “That is a big thing for us. We cannot have this casino in our downtown and utilize these streets to just border it in. They’re expecting 4 to 6 million people [a year], and they have every reason for those people to park, utilize their facilities and stay there. But we want to come up with something that’s complimentary to what they want to do of course – we’re not anti-development – but that’s part of the downtown context.”
Adding to the complexity of the challenge, the casino is surrounded by vastly different communities. Across from what is planned as it’s main entrance sits the local jail and Justice Center, with downtown and Fountain Square city center beyond that. To another side are the low-income neighborhoods of Pendleton and Over-the-Rhine, a focus for city revitalization that includes the largest collection of 19th century architecture in town (but also many of its abandoned buildings). Across Interstate 71, some of the highest-income neighborhoods in Cincinnati also overlook the site.
“This casino could really be a terrific catalyst, that’s where we’ve always operated from,” Samuels says. “But it has to be done right, and we’ve got to think ahead.”