Thursday, June 5, 2003

Downtown challenges 'grave,' consultant says



Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Tear up the skywalk. Demolish Fountain Square's performance stage. Promote new housing and a bustling arts and culture district in the blocks ringing Over-the-Rhine's Washington Park.

Those are among Cincinnati's main challenges over the next five years as the city attempts to revive downtown's deteriorating economy and fix social troubles, according to John Alschuler, a New York consultant hired by the city and business leaders to craft a development plan for the region's core.

"I think your challenges are grave," Alschuler said Wednesday at a speech hosted by the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati and the Mercantile Library. "The key is picking things you can win and getting them done in the next five years."

Among Alschuler's "Center City" plan recommendations:

• Improve policing of Fountain Square and surrounding blocks and Over-the-Rhine. Otherwise, visitors and businesses will skip the city for safer suburbs.

• Polish the city's symbolic heart, the "profoundly mediocre" Fountain Square, by removing its skywalk links and stage, recruiting a diverse mix of hip shops and restaurants and improving lighting to create a warm, inviting place for all races and ages.

• Reclaim Over-the-Rhine's Washington Park with new apartments and condominiums for all income levels and relocate the neighborhood's social service agencies. Also, use Cincinnati Public Schools new School for Creative and Performing Arts as a magnet for an arts and culture district.

Unveiled in January, the plan developed by Alschuler and New York design firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners has been refined over the past four months following numerous meetings with downtown property owners and city leaders. Alschuler expects action over the next month or two as critical details such as cost and priorities are addressed. City Council, too, must approve.

At issue is Cincinnati's ability to transform into a "market-performing" city that can support new housing, shops and entertainment projects without millions of dollars in public subsidies. If problems aren't fixed soon, he warned Cincinnati could experience urban failures such as St. Louis and Detroit with empty stores, few downtown employers and little hope for revival.

He warned that Cincinnati's governmental and civic groups have been "too generous" in the past by supporting bad ideas. Just as important is deciding which projects not to fund, Alschuler said.

He called the Banks plan a "terrible risk" because it would steer limited public dollars away from a weakened Fountain Square. While mid-rise, riverfront housing can eventually be developed, he said new riverfront shops would detract from downtown's core retail district. He also said companies will continue to migrate to the suburbs because it's cheaper and more convenient. Downtown's goal is to retain "high-value employers" that pay lucrative wages and attract creative workers.

E-mail kalltucker@enquirer.com




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