Sunday, May 30, 2004

Tread lightly on square; rebuild skywalks

Parking, panhandlers should be real focus

By Dick Cline
Guest columnist

Once again, the "experts" are being brought into Cincinnati - at no small expense, I'm sure - to ponder over another quick fix for downtown. This time the target is the skywalk and Fountain Square, two facilities that have been serving their intended purposes quite well for a long time.

However, over the past several years, the entire downtown area has continued to deteriorate. At night, it's a virtual ghost town. The public has wised up to the fact that they can stay in the suburbs to shop, dine and be entertained without having to pay through the nose for parking plus be hassled on every street corner by panhandlers. And until those two problems are solved, the public will continue to stay away in droves.

This brings me to the much-touted solution being proposed by the "experts" - tear down the skywalk to force pedestrians to street-level shops. If we are to accept that premise, then we should also divert Fort Washington Way traffic onto Vine Street, forcing it to drive past all those (empty) stores. Maybe, just maybe, someone will pay to park and shop in one of those stores. A ludicrous concept, but it is the same logic being cited for removing sections of the skywalk.

The idea is that if pedestrians are forced to street level, they will buy more merchandise in the stores. Hogwash! I've worked in downtown Cincinnati for 24 years. Nearly every day at lunch, I walk and shop, using the skywalk where possible since it's quicker than the street and it protects me from the elements in foul weather. Without the skywalk, I'd probably skip the walks when it's cold or rainy, preferring to do my shopping at stores I drive past on the way home.

From the numbers of pedestrians I encounter on the skywalk daily, thousands of others in downtown have the same inclination. I've also had out-of-town conventioneers approach me on the street seeking directions to some place in particular. And they almost always point up at the skywalk and ask how to reach it. They see this as a unique facility, and see its benefit of tying all of downtown into one big retail center.

Toward that end, we need to rebuild as soon as possible the main section of the skywalk between Lazarus and the Four Points/Millennium Hotel, and the branch from there over to Saks and the Hyatt, thus restoring the route from the expanded convention center and hotels eastward to the main shopping and dining venues. When the Fifth and Race Tower was demolished several years ago, that connection was temporarily severed. A restored connection must be incorporated into any new building planned on that block.

As for revamping Fountain Square, it would be a tremendous waste of money to do so. Articles published recently in the Enquirer included statements made by urban design professionals in 1988 citing Fountain Square as "one of America's great public spaces." No substantial changes have been made to the square since then, so it should still be considered a great public space. If anything, its popularity has increased.

You would be hard pressed to find a place to sit on the walls around the perimeter of the square on a warm summer day while enjoying your lunch; the place is packed. If that isn't proof as to its functionality, what is? Granted, it is empty in the evening, but so is the rest of downtown. Glitzing up Fountain Square isn't going to change that situation.

This city has a habit of shooting itself in the foot. Removing the skywalk would be just another example of this practice. Unfortunately, I predict that the "experts" will prevail, the skywalk will be demolished, and downtown will continue to deteriorate unabated. The demolition of the skywalk will become another entry in our urban history books under the category of shortsighted decisions. Meanwhile, our officials will throw their hands into the air and ask, "What went wrong?"

Chasing the panhandlers and providing cheap parking are the solutions that would being people back downtown, which in turn would provide the incentive for new shops and restaurants to open.

We could spend millions of dollars to revamp Fountain Square. But that expenditure would be about as useful as putting a taffeta tutu on a razorback hog - until we deal with the systemic problems of downtown found under those new clothes, nothing will improve its future.


Dick Cline is a professional civil engineer who lives in Delhi Township.

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