Fountain Square: Hurry Up and Wait?

For anyone who ventures out to Fountain Square’s grand opening Saturday, as you look around at all the unfinished features and avoid cordoned off areas keep one thing in mind: Apply a healthy dose of skepticism whenever a politician says an issue is so urgent that it requires “immediate action.”

To refresh the memories of readers, the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) urged city council in spring 2005 to quickly act on approving a deal to let the private development agency assume operation and management of the square and begin a $42.6 million redesign, just two weeks after 3CDC unveiled the plan. The action was needed, 3CDC said, to make better use of the square, revitalize retail space around the plaza and help boost rents in surrounding office towers.

3CDC wanted city council to decide before the group took its summer recess, so construction could begin that August. It actually began about a month later and was supposed to last 10 months. Project backers said it was crucial to limit the disruption that construction would cause downtown and make sure Fountain Square was closed for only one holiday season so it wouldn’t harm retailers too much.

After the opening date was pushed back three times, 3CDC settled on a firm deadline of Oct. 14 and began calling the event “a rolling opening” because some major features of the revamped square — such as elevator enclosures, some sidewalk paving, tree planting and construction of a new restaurant — won’t be completed for a few more months.

Setting aside the issue of whether such delays could have been avoided and also whether the project itself is needed, a larger issue emerges. Time and again, elected officials create artificial emergencies to justify quick votes on pumping taxpayer dollars into major projects. The incidents frequently involve the use of terms like “critical” and “tipping point” and imply that if the project doesn’t get started now all is lost.

We’ve seen the tactics time and again, ranging from projects like building new stadiums for the Reds and Bengals to expanding the downtown convention center to giving tax breaks to companies like Convergys and Kroger.

Did these items really require quick action by elected officials? For example, based on information made public since Hamilton County commissioners approved a plan for raising the sales tax and building the stadiums in the mid-1990s, we now know that it’s highly unlikely that the Bengals would have moved to Baltimore as they were threatening .

Most things aren’t such pressing emergencies that they require immediate action by public officials except in matters of life and death, like setting policy for the Iraq War. Under that criteria, matters like providing more convention space don’t quite measure up.

In Fountain Square’s case, then-Mayor Charlie Luken and other project supporters — who, incidentally, didn’t include current Mayor Mark Mallory — worried that the longer the proposal languished before city council the more likely it could become derailed by nitpicking. Sometimes, however, a slower pace is better.

In fact, the vote was conducted in such a hurry that city council almost approved the wrong legal agreement to allow 3CDC to manage the square, one that didn’t include an important concession won by council. The deal that went before council would have given 3CDC a 50-year lease for the plaza and its underground parking garage instead of the 40-year deal later negotiated by some council members.

Also, the city’s Urban Design Review Board got its first in-depth look at the proposal one day after Cincinnati City Council approved the $42 million plan for redesigning Fountain Square, a reversal of the usual approval process.

Elected officials and the public should keep this in mind the next time a project comes begging for public dollars.

— Kevin Osborne

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3 Comments on “Fountain Square: Hurry Up and Wait?”

  1. Sean Says:

    I wonder what will happen if downtown doesn’t experience the resurgence that was touted as one of the tipping points.

    The Banks project would be an example of the wait and see mode of thinking, but regardless of the tact, whether it be fast or slow, the powers that be in this town still don’t seem to get it. They don’t do things for the right reasons they only do them for reasons that benefit a few people – it’s a very parochial way of looking at things.

    Based on the deal that 3CDC got and the taxes I am paying for at least one stadium (GABP) that fans don’t feel the need to show up at, calling Cincinnati Porkopolis seems imprecise. A better term would be Porkbarrelopolis.


  2. As one of the specially, select thousand faces you’ll be seeing up on the scoreboard above Macy’s, I carry some weight on this subject. (Also be on the lookout for my excellent Indian buddy, Avi “Bobble-Head” Gill, with the sweetest breath, up there wearing his ever-changing baseball cap with deely-bobbers and the carefully inscribed headlines.)
    Headlines? hee hee

    The Genius of Water is not a genius when it comes to disposing of her excess treakling down all over, creating quick sand, almost. She needs Depends on her hands?

    Like the eternally puddling ice rink, the dribble factor is the equivalent of servers spitting into your yum-yum right before your eyes.

    Deal with the dribble!
    If we could build the Panama Canal, can’t we deal with the steenking dribble?


  3. Instead of saying I carry some weight on this subject, and, although I have some weight to spare, I should have said I have a stake in this subject. Freudian slip.
    Be that as it may, my mentor, Monsier Gill, who has no weight to spare, is featured over at the Beacon. (He IS a stake.)
    Check him out!
    In another three years, when the time for the One Thousand Faces comes up for renewal, I hope to be pictured holding hands with Avtar.


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