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News: Square Deal

Fountain fight symbolizes larger development controversy

By Jay Antenen · August 18th, 2004 · News
Stephen Leeper, president of Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, and Marie Gemelli-Carroll, who facilitated a public input meeting, discuss proposed changes to Fountain Square.
David Sorcher

Stephen Leeper, president of Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, and Marie Gemelli-Carroll, who facilitated a public input meeting, discuss proposed changes to Fountain Square.

The inner fears, dreams and hopes of the city have burst out this summer in discussions over Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation's (3CDC) plan to renovate Fountain Square.

From older residents' calls for improved safety to challenges from upstarts in the mythical creative class, interest groups are positioning themselves for a fight over the future direction of Cincinnati.

Well, not quite. The challenges and debates are not direct or forceful. The 3CDC fountain proposal is being used as a punching bag to avoid confronting larger questions.

Drawing on a series of interviews over the past three months with a diverse array of Cincinnati residents, a picture begins to emerge of a growing movement of voters fiercely interested in local politics yet skeptical of the politicians who are supposed to serve them.

Some believe developers unduly influence city officials; others fret over how proposed changes to downtown will affect the poor and homeless. All want to see changes in city council's priorities.

Fountain Square might be the current flash point, but debates over development are happening across the city.

Pushing out the little guy
Urban renewal brings both promise and peril. If developers' and city officials' plans work, the community is blessed with exciting streets and entertainment that bring in increased tax revenues. If plans fail, millions of dollars can be wasted and small businesses devastated.

In Clifton Heights, the struggle between small businesses and the city is playing out over property along Calhoun Street. Joe Kennedy, owner of Acropolis Chili, and several other business owners are locked in an eminent domain battle with Cincinnati.

The city wants to force Kennedy and his father-in-law, Tom Mirkos, owner of the Acropolis property, to give up the restaurant so the University of Cincinnati can begin work on a new urban village south of the campus. The Clifton Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corp. envisions $150 million in new investment and market-rate condos with views of downtown.

Kennedy maintains the city doesn't have the right to take away his business without fair compensation. He's angry that city council voted to approve an eminent domain seizure of his land.

"Fair is fair," Kennedy says. "You don't want me in your little thing? Fine. UC is sitting on a $900 million endowment, but they get the city to steal people's livelihood."

Kennedy sees council's actions as evidence council members don't support small businesses.

"Have you ever heard of city council voting unanimously on anything? Never," he says. "For that they voted unanimously. The first time I've fucking ever heard of it, to steal my business away."

Other residents also worry the city pays too much attention to large developers at the expense of small businesses.

Bill Donabedian, co-founder of the MidPoint Music Festival, says the city and corporations need to help sponsor smaller arts events like the Fringe Festival and MidPoint. He says small grants from corporations can go a long way to improving the quality of life in the city for young adults by supporting new theaters, music and arts venues.

"That's what's so attractive to people in Toronto, Portland and Austin," Donabedian says. "That's the thing that makes the town cool. It's cool bars that open up. Cool shops that open up. And the people that open those places -- they're into all that kind of stuff. I understand the city is going to try to motivate larger businesses to come here, but there is a second type of development that takes place."

Leeper-ing to conclusions
Even the small development Donabedian proposes is controversial. Social activists like Brian Garry and Vera Zlatkin worry development meant to attract the creative class will come at the expense of poor people in Over-the-Rhine. They fear development will raise property values and drive out residents who can't afford to pay market-rate rents.

Eight blocks north and four blocks west of Fountain Square, Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine has become an emotional battleground between activists who want to preserve the park as is and developers led by 3CDC (see "Taking Over the Park," issue of July 14-20).

Zlatkin says the city and 3CDC are working to take away Washington Park from poor people and turn it over to the more affluent.

"The people should be able to say what happens to Washington Park," she says.

Steven Leeper, head of 3CDC, consistently makes the point that development in the city needs to be looked at as a collective whole. When discussing Fountain Square, he says, the Banks and Over-the-Rhine also need to be considered. Of course, Fountain Square is 3CDC's apparent top priority.

It's no surprise that Leeper, 3CDC's public face, suffers the brunt of criticism directed at developers. At the Bold Fusion Young Professionals Summit July 23, Nick Spencer, founder of Cincinnati Tomorrow and former city council candidate, deemed him an arrogant and condescending hack (see "Square Not Hip," issue of July 28-Aug. 3).

To be fair, 3CDC has indicated that the current Fountain Square plan is conceptual and subject to change based on public feedback. Another round of public hearings will be held in the fall, when an updated plan will be presented to the public.

Still, public perception matters. The attacks might be blunt, but that doesn't mean they're misguided.

When discussing his plans with the public, Leeper has a tendency to become overbearing. At last week's public information meeting in Price Hill about Fountain Square, he told residents looking at 3CDC's charts, "It's difficult for you to visualize" the new plan.

Someone yelled, "Why is there no skywalk?"

"Let me finish," Leeper replied, then continued.

"What happened to the beer place?" another person asked.

Leeper kept talking.

"Does everyone understand what I am saying?" Leeper asked the crowd.

There was no time to respond. He pressed ahead to the next portion of the plan. ©



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