Sunday, May 9, 2004

Fountain Square: Past, Present... Future?

Open up, unclutter region's premier gathering place

By Tony Lang
Cincinnati Enquirer

At noon on a perfect, sun-drenched May day, anyone on Fountain Square might wonder why Cincinnati would want to redo such an idyllic space. But come back at 5 or 10 p.m. or in November or February, and you have your answer. Cincinnati's "chief gathering spot" no longer is a destination at all hours and all seasons.

fountain square
Submit your ideas on remaking the square
Eats, arts, fun: suggestions for Fountain Square

Fountain Square needs more - and less. It needs more life, more excitement year-round, more access and openness - and less dead space, fewer walls, fewer steps and enclosures.

Cincinnati's new nonprofit development corporation, 3CDC, is holding public sessions around the region to ask for citizens' ideas: What do we want Fountain Square to be? What would bring more people to the square? What would bring you to the square and entice you to linger?

Design consultants hired by Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation will come back to us in midsummer with preliminary concepts. Although current sessions are mostly about public spaces, and other consultants are studying new retail to surround the square, it's all interconnected. Get the make-over right for the public spaces, and the square should enliven new retail throughout the nine-block district. Great retail will feed the square, and a great square will feed the retail.

It's already clear from public sessions that Cincinnatians are split over Fountain Square's skywalk. Some see it as a competitive asset for office workers and conventioneers and for dispersing World Series-type crowds. Others view it as poison for street-level retail. Some even defend the stage, at least some permanent fixture there, if not the humongous, Stalinesque arch obstructing most of the square's northeast quadrant. That stage is affectionately called the "guillotine." The bridge across Fifth Street to the Westin Hotel is even more of an eyesore.

John Alschuler, the city's chief consultant, wants to tear down the skywalk, and new owners of the 525 Vine building already signaled their intentions to open up a street-level lobby. Whatever its assets, the skywalk is obstructive, darkening and, most hours of the day, just wasted space. Even if the skywalk were reinvented as totally transparent, including the floor, it's not clear even that fix would resolve all the problems.

Public suggestions at the sessions have been wide-ranging and imaginative. Many want more cafes and people-watching windows onto the square. Bob Fitzpatrick of Price Hill suggested posting park ranger types in "Smokey the Bear" hats at all hours as a non-police presence that still communicates security.

3CDC's new director Steve Leeper said we need to look at the Fountain Square project both above-grade and below-grade: Many residents blasted the underground garage's dirty, scary stairwells and elevators. If the elevators are indispensable, make them glassed-in transparent.

Benita Tillman of Springfield Township suggested an artists' corner on the square where art of different cultures could be displayed and sold. Others proposed trained street musicians rather than downtown's one-note wonders. Some called for making Fifth Street pedestrian-only and capturing the public space in the Westin's barren lobby for activities linked with the square. One resident proposed making the winter ice rink encircle the fountain so people could skate around it.

Many asked for safer, simpler street-level access to the square from all directions. Brighter lighting and signs might improve the tunnel-like passageways from Sixth and Walnut streets, but such blind approaches cry out for a redesign genius. One suggestion at the Christ Church session Thursday was to cut a diagonal passageway through from the intersection of Sixth and Walnut, connecting the Backstage theater district with the square.

This Fountain Square makeover project is blessed in starting with more assets than most other great urban places that have undergone a successful transformation. As recently as 1988, urban design guru William H. White called Fountain Square "the finest square in the country." If we have the will, it can win such high praise again.


Tony Lang is an Enquirer editorial writer.

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