If You Build It, They Will Come

Newly renovated Washington Park hearkens Cincinnati's urban heyday

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ouple of years ago, Washington Park wouldn’t have been much of a spot to have a picnic. 

In a few months, though, the fountains in the water park will be turned back on after a long winter and children will clamp their feet over the pop-up jets and watch the clear blue water trickle between their toes. Dogs will romp across the dog park, the gazebo lights will be twinkling by dusk. Frisbees will be tossed, benches will be filled and picnics will be had.

Those eight acres will be alive.

Alive like they were 100 years ago, before the park felt the ripples of urban decay percolating across the nation, before it became a haven for drug use and prostitution; the neighborhood’s shadowy elephant graveyard.

Ensconced by Music Hall, the new School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA), Memorial Hall and an up-and-coming Gateway Quarter, the park used to be an arid, stagnant relic of vivacity past, years behind the urban renewal stirring around it.

“You didn’t come down here. I mean, you just didn’t. Even when people were going downtown and going to Main Street, you didn’t come here,” recalls Marvin Hawkins, now a sponsorship manager for Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation (3CDC). He’s also a former SCPA student and Over-the-Rhine resident who remembers trekking through the park from school to Music Hall for opera training during the late ’80s and early ’90s, when it was in the throes of decades-long atrophy.

Of course, that’s not what it always looked like. Originally a cemetery, the city of Cincinnati purchased the land in 1855 and converted it to a city park. Hawkins recalls anecdotes from elders in the area who remember a vivacious, thriving area in the 1900s, one with music looming from the bandstand, occasional visits from the symphony, a pond and a healthy green lawn.

Ignore the aura of modernization and it’s not too difficult to envision a day in this same greenspace during the first incarnation of its heyday as not all that different from what it is now. Several historical relics are in place, and Hawkins, who’s also involved in 3CDC’s event programming for the park, brought back live music, from Jazz to Bluegrass to Soul and R&B — paying careful attention to coordinate the programming schedule in a way that appealed to its entire target audience.

It took the power of an influential private redevelopment nonprofit, 3CDC, and the Cincinnati Park Board to step in and take the reins with a $48 million renovation plan that, ultimately, has converted the area into an anchoring civic space that breathes life into the entire community around it — one more powerful than they could have fathomed.

The Cincinnati Park Board and 3CDC worked in tandem to develop the plan, a process that involved grassroots efforts to determine what the community wanted to see in a neighborhood park.

That also meant initiating partnerships with surrounding community anchors like Music Hall and the SCPA, both of whom now hold regular events at the park.

Every nuance in the park’s design was deliberate and well-researched, says Steve Schuckman, superintendent of planning, design & facilities for the Cincinnati Park Board, who was involved in the plans since they began formulating around 2006.

“One of our principles is to be guided by our history and our culture so what we’re doing fits,” he says. “In Washington Park, all the buildings down there are part glass and limestone, and you see a lot of limestone in the neighborhood. That park has a lot of glass for visibility, but also for simplicity. We didn’t want to compete with the beautiful architecture around us. If you look at the playground, the climbing wall and the tower that contains the spiral slide, it’s all based on Cincinnati architecture.”

Because of the colossal nature of the project, it was somewhat of a balancing act for the Park Board and 3CDC to appease constituents when coming up a design. And the renovations weren’t without controversy — the absence of a swimming pool in the renovation plan was particularly contentious.

Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls says some of the naysayers have felt appeased since seeing the final product.

“I’ve run into people in OTR who will say to me, ‘I opposed the renovation of Washington Park, but now, though, I see what it has done and all the different people who are enjoying it, including the members of the community. It’s a great thing,’ ” Qualls says.

She argues it, too, is a sign of a city willing to embrace change; in the past year, the downtown Cincinnati landscape has also witnessed the nascence of Smale Riverfront Park, The Banks, 21c Museum Hotel and the Horseshoe Casino.   

This spring and summer will bring a renewed catalogue of colorful programming to the park, including the return of weekend movie screenings and some new additions, such as an evening farmer’s market similar to the Strauss & Troy Market on Fountain Square, says Hawkins. It’s also the venue for City Flea, a monthly, curated urban flea market, and a slew of cultural and family-friendly festivities.

Now an urban oasis, the plot is one that’s undergone extensive and sometimes tumultuous change; it’s probably done with most of its maturing, although park operators will stay in tune to the evolving needs and wants of the community, according to Hawkins.

“We always need to keep in mind that the work we do can affect a lot of people. And we always try to make it a very positive experience that’s memorable. A lot of times, all people have to hold onto is their memories… We want people to feel all warm and fuzzy and we want them to come back.” ©

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