SoapDish for July 29, 2008

Much of the proverbial Shakespearean “ado” has been made of the $42 million extreme makeover of Fountain Square, what with the predictable sniping of “we liked it better before/if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” butting heads with the “it’s a whole new city of dazzling wonder and blinding urbanist awe” brand of bubbly enthusiasm.  One point, however, that cannot be debated is that this is much “ado” about something (indeed, $42 million worth of “something”).  Not surprisingly, I fall somewhat into the latter camp of bubbly enthusiasts, as do, I suspect, the majority of other Cincinistas who have frolicked and cavorted on the Square during any number of its increasingly popular events.  I never quite understood the crusty complaints about the makeover, the most articulate of which seemed to boil down to something along the lines of “we used to be able to see the fountain while zooming by on 5th Street in our car….now we have to actually get out of our car, and we’re not happy about it.”   While some may quibble about certain minor points (e.g. an underwhelming, to this point, tree canopy that bears no resemblance to the lush Gramercy Park-style forestry depicted in drawings), there is really no debate that the Square’s makeover has been a resounding populist success.

At the risk of rehashing a point I made in an earlier “Soapblog,” one of the justifications for the added emphasis on redoing the Square was its prime role as a fixture in the center city, and that by refurbishing the Square, resulting developmental successes would ripple outward like a stone tossed in a pond.  Just ticking off the names of new bars and restaurants rippling outward from the newly redone Square, it is clear that the theory has been proven empirically correct.  Via Vite, Graeter’s, Potbelly, Morton’s, Boi Na Braza, McCormick & Schmick’s, Cadillac Ranch, Nada, and Oceanaire are just a few of those pond ripples emanating outward in surrounding blocks.  Word on the street is that Chipotle has recently applied for a liquor license at One Fountain Square plaza, thereby adding yet another culinary option.  Now if we can only get Joseph Beth to open up a bookstore and we’ll be set (for at least the time being). 

Moreover, the crack team of entertainment programmers headed up by Midpoint Music Fest panjandrum Bill Donabedian and his staff have been putting on events seemingly every day and night on the refurbished piazza, all of which have been both admirable in their enthusiasm and rewarding in the results.  I recently ventured down during one of the popular Indie Summer concerts on a recent Friday to check out a few bands, as well as investigate the locally-oriented T-Shirt fest which was also happening simultaneously.  The crowd was a veritable melting pot, to use an exceedingly tired but apt cliche, the demographics of which I’ll try to summarize as follows: downtown single residents and families mingling with couples from Wyoming; mingling with off-duty panhandlers and indigent downtown denizens enjoying some spirited barefoot dancing; mingling with a West Chester couple hoisting their infant up to see the band; mingling with rival Reds and Mets baseball fans from a recently concluded game; mingling with smiling police officers and equine comrades adjudicating friendly disputes between said baseball fans; mingling with just off-the-bus MegaBus travelers eager to roll the suitcases over for a quick post-journey beer (or three); mingling with St. X clergy checking out the scene; mingling with singer-songwriters eager to ply their trade at the late-night acoustic open mic; mingling with Northside hipsters eager to support their favorite band (or three); mingling with one member of the aforementioned band who took an unauthorized splashdown in the Fountain. The crowd really was an inexplicable amalgam coalescing together in the glowing spray of the Fountain, enjoying the best of the local music scene in one of downtown’s best settings (with the queues for both the beer and wood-fires pizzas growing increasingly longer as the clock approached 11:00).  This whole scenario plays out in a similar manner with the various other programming on Thursday nights (salsa), Saturday (gospel afternoon plus movie double features at night!) and Sunday (soul and R&B).

Not to be overlooked, the daytime lunch crowd is never at a shortage of entertainment options as well. As a downtown worker myself, the transformation in available lunchtime options has most certainly not gone unnoticed.  The positive buzz from Tuesday’s “Market on the Square” is palpable whenever I have checked it out, and if you ever need to find 3CDC major domo Stephen Leeper there’s a good chance you can find him on the Square at lunchtime, kicking the tires, checking to see if a speaker is working or acting as impromptu maitre’d to a mother and two toddlers (to use just two documented examples from last Thursday).

Bottom line, if you can find anyone still griping about the wisdom of investing $42 million in the Fountain Square makeover, my guess is they’re still trying to spot the Genius of Water while whizzing by at 35+ mph in their cloistered automobiles.

Photography by Scott Beseler

The Majo performing on Fountain Square

Matt Wyzenski takes a post performance dip in Tyler Davidson Fountain

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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.