Friday, May 9, 1997
A fountain of ideas
for the square

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The couple from Taiwan stood in my living room taking snapshots.

''Smile,'' said the husband, Chen-Hsing Kuo.

His wife smiled. Click!

''Move closer to the fountain,'' he said. She stepped sideways and smiled again. Click!

Mr. and Mrs. Kuo were visiting Fountain Square.

''It is pretty,'' he said, nodding toward the Tyler Davidson Fountain. ''Our square at home just has a big head of the president.''

Yuli Lang, the couple's friend and interpreter, brought them to the square, ''because it's the heart of town. I told them: Look at the fountain. This is Cincinnati.''

I didn't have the heart to tell her Cincinnati's best-known and most-photographed public space is limping toward a $2.1 million face lift scheduled for next spring. But while city rulers are at it, I'll tell them to go one step further.

Rather than a face lift, the square needs major reconstructive surgery. Changes should be made with an eye toward drawing crowds, giving the square a new look while making sure it's a comfortable gathering place well into the next century.

There's no doubt basic repairs must be made. The square's cobblestones are coming loose. The concrete is crumbling. Rainwater seeps into the underground parking garage.

Rust cakes the fountain's skeleton. The rusty steel bones are splitting the bronze skin of the fountain's statues.

Though I love the square, I'm a big-city columnist paid to ask the tough questions: With everyone home tending virtual fires in the global village via the Internet, do we really need to spend 2 million bucks fixing up an old square with a rusty fountain?

''Absolutely,'' answered Dennis Mann. The professor of architecture at the University of Cincinnati has had a lifelong fascination with public places. As a kid, he marveled at Fountain Square as he rode by on the bus from Bond Hill. As an adult, he studies what makes squares work.

During Dennis Mann's childhood, Fountain Square was an island surrounded by little shops. He remembers the Planter's Peanuts store with the vending machine outside.

''It was shaped like Mr. Peanut. You'd slide a dime into a slot in his top hat and peanuts would slip into his hand.''

Though he's a dedicated Internet user, the professor insists Cincinnati needs a Fountain Square. It is a public place where neighbors who are strangers can see one another, come together to voice opinions, celebrate or enjoy a balmy night.

Make it perfect

So as long as they're going to rip up the square, they might as well do it right.

Little shops should surround Fountain Square. Thursday's news that a Tiffany boutique will open across the street in the new Lazarus store is good first step. But city planners need to think smaller.

Set up food carts on the square. Redesign the lobby of the Fifth Third Center and fill it with a variety of tiny businesses.

The square needs street-level neighbors to generate steady foot traffic. They should be little stores that do a big in-and-out trade - sandwich shops, bookstores, newsstands, a place that sells Cincinnati souvenirs. Bring back Mr. Peanut!!!

And let's try a little demolition: The square's concrete performance pavilion must go. It's a bulky eyesore where open air should be. (Who's idea was that anyway?) It has all the charm of a bridge abutment.

The Fifth Third Center - the old Dubois Tower - needs an upgrade. Dennis Mann charitably calls it a ''big, dull, boring building from the '60s.''

Lose that zebra-striped window pattern. Rip off the bars that run up and down of the building. Give it a look that goes beyond a bar code.

Fountain Square is our city's living room. It should look its best when company comes to town, whether from Terrace Park or Taiwan.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.


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