CINCINNATI — Three residents of a historic Cincinnati neighborhood have filed a lawsuit in federal court over a newly renovated urban park in the area, saying that its rules were designed to exclude the homeless and poor people and were written behind closed doors.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati on Tuesday, cites rules that banned people from dropping off food or clothing, and rummaging through trash and recycling bins at Washington Park.
"The intent of the rules is to exclude a certain class of people from the park," according to the lawsuit.
The once run-down, crime-prone Washington Park serves as a gathering point in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine district, a neighborhood in the middle of a major transition as the city and a nonprofit developer known as 3CDC renovate bedraggled historic properties and attract trendy new restaurants and bars.
The park is the flagship of their efforts, reopening in July after a $48 million renovation that included adding a dog park, interactive water features and an intricate playground.
The park now holds free events that have attracted hoards of people, including movie nights, flea markets, and concerts, and just finished hosting a major beach volleyball tournament that drew some of the sport's top players in the world, including three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings.
But while the gentrification of Over-the-Rhine has pushed out some of the crime and attracted yuppies, hipsters and families, it also has others feeling left out.
Among them are Jerry Davis, Andrew Fitzpatrick and Agnes Brown, the three Over-the-Rhine residents who filed Tuesday's lawsuit against the Cincinnati park board and parks Director Willie Carden Jr.
The lawsuit alleges that the park's rules were the result of email exchanges among the superintendent of Cincinnati Parks, a police captain and 3CDC representatives, and weren't debated or up for discussion at any public meetings.
Davis said that since the rules were put in place, police officers have asked him to leave the park when he tried to distribute newspapers about homelessness, while Fitzpatrick and Brown said that the rules have discouraged them from spending time in the park like they used to.
All three say the rules violate their free speech and assembly rights, and open-meetings laws. They're seeking unspecified damages and attorney fees, and a permanent injunction to stop the rules from being enforced.
City solicitor John Curp said that for months, the parks board had been involved in a "collaborative" discussion with the attorney that filed the lawsuit on behalf of the area residents, and that the board took down the rules on Aug. 23, nearly two weeks before the suit was filed.
"Their issues have already been addressed and that's why we're surprised about the lawsuit," Curp said. "Their demand was to take down the rules and we did. The rules are not in effect."
Curp declined to discuss the process by which the rules were reached but said that the board will decide on new rules at an open meeting in the future.
He said the rules under scrutiny in the lawsuit were designed for safety and sanitary issues, "and not, frankly, targeted at kicking the homeless out of the park."
Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, said that his group helped get the lawsuit filed to make sure the park "does not play into this master plan of gentrification and displacement" in the neighborhood.
"Obviously anybody can look at the park and know that it looks nice, but we spent $50 million on two square blocks while we have families and individuals sleeping outside," he said. "That is clearly not a balanced set of priorities."
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