Sunday, February 15, 2004

Great start on remaking square


The new owners of Cincinnati's 525 Vine Street office tower downtown may take the early lead in this city's push to reinvent Fountain Square. Pittsburgh-based McKnight Development Co. plans a $5 million overhaul of the tower, including a new street-level lobby with shops. That is exactly the sort of redesign the city's consultants want to bring life back to Cincinnati's most important public space and its central business district.

"We want to open things up," said John Markey, McKnight's asset manager. Markey was speaking of the tower, whose second-level lobby now is accessible only by the skywalk or by an escalator and blunt stairs facing Fountain Square. But his words could equally apply to hopes for Fountain Square and blocks beyond. Many of the grand squares of Europe are breathtakingly open. We need to open Fountain Square up and make it again a great destination for our entire region.

Cincinnati's new public-private redevelopment group 3CDC is working on a plan for Fountain Square "precinct," as well as for Over-the-Rhine and the central riverfront. The group, headed by Procter & Gamble chief executive A.G. Lafley, is still months away from rolling out detailed strategies, but consultants have sketched out, in broad strokes, the likely direction. The city's lead consultant John Alschuler already has called for removing the overhanging skywalk, the inaccessible barrier walls around the perimeter and the Stalin-

esque, fixed stage obstructing a big chunk of the plaza. Alschuler envisions a mix of restaurants, cafes and exciting retail ringing all four sides of the plaza. When McKnight restores first-floor retail to its tower, the Western edge along Vine will be in great shape, but the other three edges of the square and the plaza still await a lively makeover.

Reinventing Fountain Square is about more than one downtown block. Done right, it not only can become again the city's grand gathering spot and draw crowds downtown from all demographic groups, but it also can radiate new development outward block by block, including more downtown housing. Lehr Jackson of Baltimore-based Williams Jackson Ewing is the latest consultant to join 3CDC's team, and his mission is to find the right mix of retail, arts and entertainment to do for Fountain Square what he's done in Baltimore, New York, Boston, Washington and other cities.

Jackson thinks the square should be simplified as "clean space," with new retail on all edges, and thinks part of its problem is it's "overdesigned." Urban planner William H. Whyte in his 1988 book City: Rediscovering the Center called Fountain Square "the finest square in the country," but even then he skewered the Westin Hotel's cavernous lobby as "10,000 square feet of nothing."

We need to fix such mistakes and remake the center. "If we have the courage and will and put the talent in place, we will find the money," said Jim Zimmerman, retired chairman of Federated Department Stores and 3CDC vice chairman. Do it right, and the crowds will come.

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