Tuesday, March 4, 2003

More young ideas for Main Street


Luken, Cranley want to make it entertainment destination

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Last Friday, more than 400 people descended on the Main Street area for "Final Friday," a gallery-hopping tour of Over-the-Rhine. Next weekend, Bock Fest will bring beer lovers to the same area.Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken and Councilman John Cranley want to see that energy on Main Street every weekend, and they're floating some radical ideas to accomplish that.

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Young patrons enter Jefferson Hall Friday night in the Main Street entertainment district.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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They include:

• Closing Main Street to vehicular traffic several nights a week.

• Allowing open containers of alcohol outdoors.

• Installing outdoor sound systems and cobblestone streets.

• Encouraging more sidewalk cafes, late-night diners, art galleries and shops.

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Luken and Cranley have asked City Manager Valerie Lemmie to appoint a committee to study those changes.

"Cincinnati needs a Beale Street," their memo to Lemmie said, referring to the home of Memphis blues that has been described as "a cleaner version of Bourbon Street" in New Orleans.

"Everyone talks about creating exciting spaces," Cranley said. "Nothing in Rookwood Commons or Newport has the kind of exciting spaces that the historic Main Street has, and it can't be duplicated."

To push the idea, Luken and Cranley appointed two twenty-something legislative aides - Brendon Cull in Luken's office and Elliot Ruther in Cranley's office - to head up the committee.

Cull, 26, and Ruther, 29, were picked for the assignment because they're "closer to the demographic" that the city hopes to attract with a more vibrant nightlife, Luken said. They've also recently moved downtown and have spent many evenings on Main Street - though neither one will discuss just how many evenings.

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Elliot Ruther (center) and Brendon Cull (right) talk with Jefferson Hall owner Tony Cafeo.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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"The overarching goal here is to make Main Street more than a loose-knit collection of shops and bars, but to make the Main Street district just that, a destination," Cull said.

The Main Street district - which spans 69 buildings from Central Parkway to Liberty Street - is mostly known for its nightlife, but its economy also depends on an eclectic mix of bars, boutiques and technology companies.

It's an economy that's arguably the most successful in Over-the-Rhine, and it happened mostly without support from City Hall.

The district is struggling, though. Foot traffic hasn't completely recovered since the 2001 riots. Some businesses - including the landmark Diner on Sycamore - have closed. A poor economy has slowed new investments. The dot-com bust has put a hold on technology start-ups.

"The concept is good to foster an entertainment district. We're a little late at it," said Julie Fay, trustee of the Main Street Merchants Association. "For years, they weren't willing to embrace it and support it as such. They were embarrassed by it. And now we have entertainment all over the region. There's a lot more competition from Norwood and Newport on the Levee, but the bigger problem than that is the perceived safety for suburbanites coming down."

Luken's initial proposal is deliberately vague. He said he doesn't want to move forward with the changes until Main Street businesses and residents buy into the concept.

"I don't have any concept about how big this should be or what other amenities need to be with it," Luken said. "You can't just put up some ugly barricades and say, `OK, now we have this pedestrian area.'"

Cranley's ideas are more specific. He'd like to see the district zigzag and circle through Over-the-Rhine, possibly including an area from Clay to Sycamore streets and 12th to 14th streets. The city should also invest in cobblestone streets, signs or other physical improvements that would define the boundaries of the district.

Cranley has been discussing the idea quietly with people on Main Street for a year, but is pushing the idea forward now that Cincinnati Tomorrow, a group committed to making Cincinnati more attractive to young professionals, put out a report last month with many of the same ideas.

"We don't take any of the intellectual credit, but we're thrilled that we were able to give a push to some of these ideas," said Cincinnati Tomorrow founder Nicholas Spencer. "I think it's really important that we're bringing the focus back to Main Street. It's not really an entertainment district yet. In an entertainment district you can walk around."

Closing off Main Street is only part of the answer, Spencer said.

"What we have are art galleries and bars. The arts galleries are open certain hours, and the bars are open certain hours, and almost never at the same time. There's only one thing to do at a time. It's not a neighborhood yet. There's not enough places to shop. There's not enough different things to do."

In addition, Cincinnati Tomorrow pitched the idea of a bus or trolley that would shuttle Main Street partygoers from off-site parking and other venues, and outdoor sound systems to accommodate street concerts.

"I would be dumbfounded if it didn't work," said Jim Moll, an Over-the-Rhine developer and property manager.

"Cincinnati loves beer festivals. Call it Taste of Cincinnati. Call it Oktoberfest. People like to walk around in the streets with food and a beer in their hand."

Shawn Mummert, a 29-year-old software engineer for Main Street's Bluespring Software Inc., sipped a Bass Ale Monday at the Courtyard Cafe on Main, one of the few spots open Monday night.

"I think it's a great idea," he said. "To create more of a festival environment, to give people more space - if you come down here on a Saturday night, there's no more room. The sidewalks are packed."

One of the keys to Mount Adams' success, he noted, was the convenience of walking from place to place.

Some are more skeptical.

"The one elephant that's in the room is safety and security," said Bill Baum, whose Urban Sites partnership is credited with turning around Main Street. "That goes without saying. We lost a lot of people after the riots. There are some real urban pioneers who have been unfazed by all this, and there are others who we lost and can get back. But we have to convince them it's safe."

Cranley said it can be done.

"The key to making it work is a cop on every corner. There must be a complete sense of security inside the district," he said. "But if it works - and I think it will - it's the kind of thing that could totally remake the city."

E-mail gkorte@enquirer.com




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