Since the Historic District boundaries were re-drawn last spring, I’ve seen it mentioned several times in the media that Lytle Park is the center of Western & Southern’s new “corporate campus.” Eagle Reality President Mario San Marco and Western & Southern CEO John Barrett have used that label many times. City Council member Amy Murray raved to an Enquirer reporter about what a beautiful corporate campus the park was going to be after development. And perhaps most disturbingly, park-genius and dear, dear friend Steve Schuckman, Superintendent of Planning and Design for the Cincinnati Parks, used that exact same terminology the last time we got together for an informal chat about what was going on in his world.
With all due respect to my esteemed fellow-Cincinnatians, I beg to differ and I beg to differ very loudly.
Lytle Park is not now nor will it ever be anybody’s corporate campus. Lytle Park is public land, albeit under-utilized public land that isn’t often visited except by those who live or work around its edges. And it’s a dangerous precedent to speak of it in any other terms, especially city administrators and elected officials.
Public space is crucial to a healthy, connected community. When they put that Jumbo-tron on the new and improved Fountain Square I was a grumbling critic, convinced more television was not what the city needed. The night that changed my mind I happened to be strolling home through the Square when my husband and I stopped to watch the last inning of a big Red’s game. The stranger standing next to me didn’t look like me, talk like me, think like me (he actually loved sports) or live in my neighborhood – and I’m sure we never would have met under any other circumstances – but he didn’t hold any of that against me and started a conversation. It’s one of my favorite downtown Cincinnati memories, that beautiful commonality we didn’t know we shared. The most exciting part about the rebirth of our downtown is the programming in our incredible public spaces – Washington Park, Fountain Square, the Riverfront – that invites all kinds of people to come together and share a common experience.
Of course, I can understand why it’s easy for everybody to get confused about Lytle Park. Western & Southern has long taken on a sense of responsibility that is usually associated with ownership. They pay for a private security firm to patrol the area after-hours. For over ten years they have written regular checks for the planting of the flower beds in the summer. And John Barrett has contributed a lot of his personal time to the redesign of the park after the ventilation fans for the I-71 tunnel are replaced next year, down to the shape of the proposed sidewalks and which light fixtures to use. If Western & Southern does not underwrite the $4,000,000 anticipated expenses for renovation, the city doesn’t have the money and we’re going to have to live with a mud pit until we find alternative resources.
But make no mistake about it. If John Barrett doesn’t pay for it, we’ll find a way. It may take a little longer and be more work, but $4,000, 000 is not enough to sell our collective civic souls. Because, you see, this $4,000,000 is not a charitable donation. It’s an incredibly astute business investment. Western & Southern recognizes the commercial value of the historic neighborhood where they have bought so many of the properties, especially after the success of their rehab of the Residence Inn in the old Phelps that now enjoys one of the highest occupancy rates of any hotel in the city. Without buying the land, paying property taxes on that land or doing any on-going upkeep – for a measly 4,000,000 tax-deductible dollars, customers at Western & Southern’s anticipated hotels and restaurants around the park will pay a premium for the privilege to experience one of our city’s most charming neighborhoods. John Barrett will pay for the renovation not because Western & Southern is a great corporate citizen. John Barrett will pay because he’s one of the smartest businessmen this city has ever seen and his money buys him the right to work one-on-one with the city designer to maximize the benefit to their for-profit businesses.
Words are powerful. Be careful about which ones you choose, Cincinnati. Don’t give away this park to a smaller vision than what it can and should be. Rather than limiting the idea of who will benefit from the broad green lawns, Abe Lincoln’s famous beardless statue and the stunning view of the Taft, we should be challenging ourselves to find more ways to invite a broader spectrum of our community to this jewel of green space, perhaps to meet a stranger or two who doesn’t think exactly like themselves.