Want to Protest? Ask 3CDC
Cincinnati officials Wednesday gave control of the permitting and scheduling of events at the city-owned Fountain Square plaza to a private development corporation, prompting some people to fear that political protests there might no longer be allowed.
In a 7-2 vote, city council relinquished the job to the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC), which previously was given the rights to operate and manage the square. Currently, the plaza is closed for a major renovation and will reopen Oct. 14.
When city council approved 3CDC’s Fountain Square redesign plan in June 2005, several residents who spoke before the group worried that 3CDC would purposefully fill the square with an abundance of programmed events to block political demonstrations, which are now common there.
“I oppose the privatization of Fountain Square in any form,” said activist and Bond Hill resident Brian Garry at the time.
Those concerns were renewed Wednesday by council members Laketa Cole and David Crowley, who voted against giving event scheduling to 3CDC.
“I’m uncomfortable that Fountain Square, which has always been the public’s meeting space, is going to be handed over to a private entity,” Crowley said. “The elected leadership of city council should play a role to ensure there remains free speech and equal opportunity in the permitting for the square.”
Bill Donabedian, 3CDC’s Fountain Square director, said the corporation would follow the same general guidelines for issuing permits that were used by the city.
“It hasn’t been privatized or anything like that,” he said. “We won’t refuse events based on content. This is being done to help facilitate the scheduling and planning of events.”
Fountain Square only was used an average of 150 times per year in the past, Donabedian said. 3CDC hopes to increase usage, both for entertainment and other purposes. With the changes to some rules, the square will be able to accommodate more events, he added.
In the past, any event which 15 people or more were expected to attend required a city permit; that has been changed to 50 people or more. Also, the square now can be sub-divided to allow multiple events to occur at the same time, and permit applications will be made available over the Internet, Donabedian said.
“All in all, when it’s all said and done, people will find it more accessible and it will be more open than before,” he said.
During the past decade, the city found itself embroiled in several lawsuits over attempts to block the Ku Klux Klan from erecting a cross there during the Christmas season. Officials tried unsuccessfully to block all displays during the holidays, to ward off the Klan.
Four years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens weighed in on the question about the proper uses of Fountain Square. In rejecting a stay issued by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and upholding the district court’s earlier decision, Stevens criticized the city’s efforts to ban the Klan’s crosses, Jewish menorahs and other symbols from the square between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
“Given the square’s historic character as a public forum … I think the district court correctly enjoined the city from enforcing those portions of the ordinance which give the city exclusive use of Fountain Square’ for the next seven weeks,” Stevens wrote.
— Kevin Osborne