Failed Project #4: The Big Darby Creek Reservoirs




The Big Darby Creek watershed is one of the best natural areas of Franklin County. Designated a national and state scenic river, Big Darby Creek is one of Ohio’s most pristine waterways, and is home to several endangered species. Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park has grown to become the crown jewel of the Metro Parks system, encompassing more than 7,000 acres of forests, waterways and prairie.

The river’s history, however, has not always been so tranquil.

All the way back in 1943, Ohio State University zoologist Milton Trautman discovered a tiny catfish in Big Darby, the Scioto Madtom. The fish only exists in the Big Darby, and was an early clue as to the biological diversity that can be found there, now known to be home to more than 100 species of fish and more than 40 species of mussels.

By 1950, a small park of 34 acres had formed, the beginning of what would become the Battelle Darby. Development pressures, however, were already threatening the system. I-70 cut through the middle of the system in the early 1960s, and the construction of I-270 allowed for the suburban explosion. Without significant intervention, the watershed would’ve been inevitably developed. Ironically, a plan to largely destroy the Big Darby ultimately helped saved it.

While most major rivers and streams in the state had been dammed or altered for flood control by the 1960s, Big Darby remained free-flowing. Two separate proposed projects would’ve changed that irrevocably. The first was a proposal by the Army Corps of Engineers to build what would’ve been called the Lower Darby Dam, in west-central Franklin County, near the heart of the current Battelle Darby park. The high dam proposal would’ve flooded at least 3,000 acres of land, and the Corps began to buy the land in preparation for the project. This was in the late 1960s, coinciding with the beginning of the development boom in western suburbs like Hilliard. Instead of prime real estate along the river being developed with single-family housing and strip malls, the dam plan had the opposite effect by making the land essentially unmarketable and off limits to developers. A coinciding proposal by the City of Columbus to build another dam, the Upper Darby Dam, had the same effect on areas at that proposed site in Brown Township further to the north. The 2-dam proposal had effectively removed the majority of Franklin County’s Big Darby Creek off the market.

As development pressure was removed, environmental groups rose up to stop the Lower Darby Dam project itself. This fight was waged until 1973, when the plan was finally abandoned by the Army Corps of Engineers. They still owned the land, however, and with uncertainty of the dam project resurfacing someday, development interests continued to stay away. Three years later, in 1976, Columbus Metro Parks received a $1 million grant from the Battelle Memorial Foundation, which was then matched with an additional $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior Land and Water Conservation Fund. Suddenly flush with cash, Metro Parks began a land-buying spree along the Big Darby, particularly targeting the land that the Corps had set aside for the reservoir, pushing the size of the park from roughly 400 acres in 1976 to about 3,000 acres by 1984.

That year, on June 22, 1984, 82 miles of the Big and Little Darby creeks were designated as state scenic rivers. The designation more or less ended any remaining plans for the Upper Darby Dam. It had been shelved since 1979 when the Department of Natural Resources and environmental groups managed to stop that dam project as well. Just 4 years after the scenic river designation, during the extremely dry, hot summer of 1988, the idea of the dam was revived. Former Columbus Service Director Walter “Hap” Cremean, whose name today is on some city facilities, considered the Big Darby key to Columbus’ future water needs. The city was searching for a source of water that could provide the city with an additional 30 million gallons of water a day by 2000, not a small task. Cremean himself had been the city’s service director at the time that Columbus was pushing for the dam project in the 1960s.
On July 12, 1988, Cremean was quoted saying, “In 1968, we instituted the acquisition of property along Big Darby. We were spending $1 million a year for what we considered the next major reservoir site for Franklin County,” Cremean said. “In my opinion, it is impossible to talk about full development of the West Side without (Big Darby).”

The search for new sources of water for Columbus continued into the early 1990s, but by 1990, the Big Darby reservoir option was losing favor due to its long history of opposition. The city had drafted a study called Water Beyond 2000, which was finished on September 26, 1991. At least 20 options for expanding water sources had been on the table, including the Big Darby reservoir, but the study had narrowed down the choices to just 7. Among the choices eliminated from consideration was the Big Darby plan, an option that the study concluded was going to be one of the most expensive, at $280 million. For all intents and purposes, the idea of a Big Darby reservoir was finally dead… or sort of. While a reservoir directly on the Darby was off the table, a reservoir in the watershed using the Darby’s water was still very much on.

Through the rest of 1991 and into the first half of 1992, residents waited for the list of 7 options to be narrowed down further. On July 6, 1992, that final list came out. The Big Darby option was eliminated completely. No reservoir would be built anywhere near it. In the end, the Columbus Upground Reservoir was built just to the southeast of Richwood, along with new wells drilled along the Pickaway-Franklin County line. Combined, they provided more than enough water to serve the city long into the future.

Columbus Upground Reservoir

The following year, in 1993, the Big and Little Darby were given National Scenic River status, the highest designation a US river can receive. Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park has continued to expand beyond 7,000 acres and will continue to grow even larger in the future, with the ultimate goal of having the entire 75 miles of Big Darby as part of a continuous park. Development pressures remain in the area, and in recent years, there have been the occasional fish and mussel die-offs, suggesting that the Big Darby is still under threat. What we do with this beautiful natural resource is up to us. Though dams are no longer in the picture, other dangers lurk.
In the early 1990s during the height of the water search, the Big Darby was not the only waterway under threat. A similar dam project was under proposal for the Scioto River in Delaware County. My family was moving at the time and we looked at a house near the small town of Prospect, not far from where the proposed dam would’ve gone. On the trip there, a series of roadside signs caught our attention, and I still remember the rhyme:
A flooded valley,
We don’t deserve,
Because Columbus,
Can’t conserve.
The rhyme was referring strictly to water conservation, but it seems to me that saving water- and indeed all natural resources- does not just mean using less. The Big Darby, along with all our waterways and natural areas, deserve our lasting protection. Had better heads not prevailed, Battelle Darby would’ve been under 50 feet of water today, and Columbus- and Ohio- would be without one of its best natural areas.

Check out other Columbus-area failed projects here:
Ohio’s Atom Collider
Gay/Front Office Tower
1984-1985 High Street Road Diet




Failed Project #3: The 1984-1985 High Street Road Diet




Believe it or not, 32 years ago and long before the urban revival began in earnest, a paid study of High Street in 1984 by a Barton-Aschman Associates of Washington, DC, made the ahead-of-its-time suggestion of a road diet of High Street through Downtown.  High Street had been studied over and over again since 1972 in order to figure out how to reduce traffic, but this was the most radical one to come out of them all- at least until 2010.

When the 1984 study was released, it contained the following suggestions:
-Reducing High from 6 lanes to 4.
-Restricting traffic to buses, taxis and emergency vehicles Monday-Friday from 7am-6:30PM.
-Rebuilding the street to include pedestrian/bike friendly infrastructure and new landscaping.
-A new transit mall.
The changes would’ve included 11 blocks between Fulton Street and Nationwide Boulevard.

Inexplicably, the $25 million plan was endorsed by just about everyone at first, from the City of Columbus, COTA, local business owners, the Chamber of Commerce and other community leaders. There was even funding for it, through a mix from COTA and the US Urban Mass Transit Association. The plan was hailed as transformative and was thought to be a plan to create a “world-class” street. At the time, very few cities had done anything like this.

But then what always seems to happen in Columbus… happened again. Slowly, opposition built up. First, city leaders didn’t really like the 30-year commitment required for the transit mall. Then Les Wexner, a prominent and very influential member of the Chamber of Commerce at the time, publicly spoke out against the plan, which gradually convinced more and more to oppose it. It seems no shock that Wexner was opposed to such a forward-thinking urban plan considering that his dream community he would be primarily responsible for exploding- New Albany- largely eschews such concepts even to this day. The final nail however may have been the departure of James Reading, who was the general manager of COTA at the time. Reading would accept a job in Santa Clara, California, and since he was considered the “glue” that held the project together, things fell apart thereafter. Reading’s departure would have a much more widespread impact on Columbus’ transit future than just the High Street project, as he had also been a big proponent of rail transit. Early-mid 1980s proposals to bring rail to the city also largely died after he left, as his replacement shared little to none of Reading’s vision. Instead, his replacement, Richard Simonetta, largely focused on getting COTA’s bus service out of the red instead of spending time and energy on potential transit expansion. It’s hard to speculate what could’ve been, but there is a distinct possibility that High Street and transit would be very different in Columbus had Reading stayed in the city. Santa Clara today has more than 80 bus lines, 3 light rail lines and is building a dedicated-lane BRT system.

In any case, the Chamber of Commerce officially pulled support for the High project in July 1985. No alternative plan existed at the time, and for the next few years the city struggled to come up with something else with little to show for it. Ultimately, High Street pretty much stayed as it was. It was not until 2010 that the road diet idea would show up again, but this was focused more for Broad Street than High. The diet plan was officially adopted in 2012, but as of this writing, there has been no movement on the project.

Broad Street road diet as imagined in the 2010 Downtown Strategic Plan.

Take a look at other failed projects here:
Gay/Front Office Tower
Big Darby Creek Reservoirs
Ohio’s Atom Collider




Failed Project #2- Gay/Front City Office Tower




Beginning in 1984 and continuing into 1985, a parking garage/city office project was being tossed around to house an increasing number of city office works. Space had become tight and many existing buildings were more than 50 years old and required extensive renovations. The Daimler Group started construction on the 10-story garage part of the project at the southeast corner of W. Gay and N. Front in late 1984. The 16-story office project that would’ve been built on top (for a total 26-story building) was just one of 3 options the city was considering to alleviate its office problems. The other two options consisted of a $75 million civic center about a block north of City Hall, or simply renovating the existing buildings.

In the end, it was deemed that there were too many other problems to spend public dollars on. At the time, there was quite an issue with road maintenance funding, and the city deemed that it was not the right time to build a brand new tower for city workers. By April 1985, the project was dead, although the garage was finished and remains to this day.


The garage in 2015.

Ironically, within a few years, the city would have several much larger office towers. 5 new towers were built between 1986 and 1991, though not all were specifically built for city offices. Renovation of existing buildings has been ongoing since.

Read up on more failed projects here:
Big Darby Creek Reservoirs
1984-1985 High Street Road Diet
Ohio’s Atom Collider




Random Columbus Photos #2

Photo Date: Unknown, Pre-1910
Location: The southeastern corner watchtower of the Ohio Penitentiary site.

The old Ohio Penitentiary first opened up in 1834. The most iconic building of the complex was that which lined West Spring Street and built during the Civil War. It can be seen in the background of the photo as the light building. The Ohio Pen had an interesting, and occasionally disastrous, life. On April 21, 1930, a massive fire broke out that would kill 322 inmates and become the worst prison fire in United State history. At its peak in 1955, the prison held over 5,200 inmates. After that year, the prison population steadily declined, and in 1984, the prison transferred its final inmates to other facilities, effectively ceasing operations. About 12 years later, a portion of the outer wall collapsed onto some cars, and the city began to aggressively plan a new life for the site. In 1998, despite some protests to save some of the historic buildings, the entire complex was demolished to make way for new development as part of the Arena District. Today, the only reminder of the prison site is that the eastern edge of McPherson Commons park runs along the same line as the original outer wall.