Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Experts, boosters agree: It's time for a makeover

Plan is to create a people-friendly atmosphere

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

On one goal, development experts and civic boosters agree: Fountain Square is in desperate need of a makeover. One downtown developer goes so far as to call the square "cold and brutal."

But a multimillion-dollar renovation is about to shape a warmer, more people-friendly future for the square. It's based on this theory: If Cincinnati makes Fountain Square an inviting, walkable urban space - such as Chicago's North Michigan Avenue - its success will radiate out into the rest of downtown.
New look for Fountain Square

Among the recommendations for Fountain Square's new look that are expected to be discussed this morning at Mayor Charlie Luken's economic development task force meeting:

• Eliminate the skywalk that joins Fountain Square with the Fountain Place block anchored by Lazarus and Palomino restaurant.

• Remove the hulking performance stage obstructing the center of Fountain Square.

• Tear down walls bordering the square and build steps to make downtown's centerpiece easier for pedestrians to walk across.

• Hire a private retail-leasing firm to lure shops and restaurants to the square. This firm would work under a newly created, nonprofit group overseeing development of Fountain Square, Over-the-Rhine and the Banks riverfront district between Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park.

The chief advocate for a new look and mix for Fountain Square is John Alschuler, the New York consultant hired to draft a downtown plan in tandem with design firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners.

Alschuler has focused on the square because he thinks a hodgepodge of blockbuster projects - the Aronoff Center, new Reds and Bengals riverfront stadiums, new museums and convention center expansion - have failed to create a notable destination.

By creating a "Fountain Square Precinct" including the plaza and its adjoining block, Alschuler aims to accomplish that goal - along with plenty of shopping and dining.

The consultant is advocating "a holistic approach," said David Ginsburg, president of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., a nonprofit group that advocates for downtown and provides services to property owners.

What's wrong

Although the Tyler Davidson Fountain was restored in 2002 at a cost of $2.2 million, other aspects of the square - specifically its design and store mix - are lacking.

Fifth Third Bank takes up much of the plaza's frontage with its banking offices and retail securities brokerage. A mobile-phone dealer, a men's clothing shop and sign shop at the plaza level of the bank's tower largely cater to office workers.

The rest of the plaza is dead space - blocked with cement, wooden boards or drawn blinds. Many downtown observers say the blank walls dull the square for pedestrians, who often cut through the cobblestone-covered square rather than linger, shop or dine. When people don't linger, the space can seem forbiddingly empty and even unsafe.

There's only one restaurant, Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, directly on the square. The Westin Hotel's vast lobby facing the square is largely unused. The federal courthouse east of the square and empty storefronts west of the square give pedestrians few reasons to walk by.

"People talked about the need to humanize the square by creating the right interaction between public space and retail edges," Alschuler said.

Fifth Third would be willing to lease out some retail space it controls along the square. But when the bank shopped around for users two years ago, "there wasn't a lot of people banging on our door to lease the space," said Bill Moran, senior vice president of facilities for Fifth Third Bank.

That's why the bank decided to use a large retail space near Rock Bottom for a securities office. A nearby space on the north side of the square is a "blank" wall - holding offices with blind-covered windows.

Finally, in addition to eliminating the stage and putting more retail on the square, Towne Properties partner Arn Bortz advocates better lighting.

"The square is cold and brutal," said Bortz, a former Cincinnati mayor.

Stores face inward

Part of the problem many see is the retail-heavy blocks south and west of the square are geared for downtown's skywalks and interior mall, Tower Place. Shoppers can stop at various shops or department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue or Lazarus without setting foot on a sidewalk.

Some stores facing the square have no street entrances. Shoppers must enter through Tower Place Mall for Lerner or the Westin Hotel to get to M. Hopple & Co., for example. This may boost security, but it deadens the street.

While Alschuler sees removing skywalks - especially the section over Vine Street - as a key toward restoring active street life, national experts aren't convinced that such a fix has worked elsewhere.

"It's not clear that it is a silver bullet," said Michael Beyard, senior resident fellow of Washington-based Urban Land Institute.

Yet many developers say that above-ground tubes are an urban design trick of the past. Madison Marquette, which controls the vacant McAlpin's building across the street from Tower Place Mall, doesn't anticipate stressing a skywalk that connects its building to Tower Place.

"We are definitely looking at street-front retail," said Rob Acker, development director for Madison Marquette. "In an urban setting, that tends to work better than an enclosed setting."


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