The Columbus Crew and a Downtown Stadium

Last week, it was announced that the owner of the Columbus Crew MLS team- Anthony Precourt- was considering moving the team. His reasons, whether one believes them to be true, include the idea that the current home stadium- Mapre- is outdated and in a bad location to attract the needed attendance to make the team financially viable. The stadium, which was the first soccer-specific stadium of its kind in the United States, is just 18 years old. However, being still relatively young, it is currently one of the most bare-bones professional soccer stadiums in the country, and it’s location at the Ohio State Fairgrounds is not particularly good. The stadium itself is surrounded by vacant and parking lots as well as a mish-mash of development that leaves the area feeling rather desolate. For years, there has been talk about building a new stadium closer to or in Downtown itself. The city, according to officials, have tried to talk with Precourt about either buying the team or trying to come up with a stadium plan, but were apparently rebuffed. This may be because Precourt had long-established plans to move the team to Austin, Texas, an out clause that he intentionally added to the contract when he purchased the team. So while the Mayor and others discuss the future of the team, there’s a practical matter to solve.

I don’t want to go too much more into the debate about Precourt, his motives or how likely it is that the Crew will stay in Columbus even with the promise of a new arena. Those subjects are already being debated on other sites, including the Dispatch and Reddit and other forums. So, what I want to do is to look at where a potential new stadium could even go. Let’s look at the potential options.

Scioto Peninsula
The Scioto Peninsula has long been underutilized and empty since its old manufacturing buildings were torn down between the 1970s and the early 2000s.
Pros: More than enough room for a new stadium as well as surrounding mixed-use development. Great location Downtown on the Riverfront.
Cons: This site has an existing mixed-use development plan already in place, and an Indianapolis company has recently been chosen to develop the Peninsula, with a potential construction start in Spring 2018. It would seem unlikely that those plans would be scrapped at the last minute.

Arena District Site #1
The Arena District is a thriving neighborhood that would be a perfect fit for a new stadium.
Pros: Already an established entertainment and sports neighborhood with stadiums for the Clippers and Blue Jackets, lots of local bars and restaurants, great location, enough space for a new stadium development.
Cons: As with the Scioto Peninsula, this site already has plans. Perhaps a new stadium could be incorporated, especially when the plan left a lot of open space with parking lots and retention ponds. The site is also split in half by railroad tracks that are still active. This would take some creative development to accommodate a stadium and any required infrastructure.

Arena District Site #2
Pros: Good location, enough space for a stadium, near bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues.
Cons: This site is owned by Nationwide. While no specific plans have been announced as of yet, they have stated for a few years now that they want to eventually do some kind of mixed-use development. Whether they would be willing to incorporate a stadium into those plans is unknown. The site is also somewhat separated from the rest of the AD by the railroad tracks on the east side. Another problem may be infrastructure. There is really only a single road- Nationwide Boulevard- in and out of this site. During games, this could be an issue unless it’s resolved or some kind of shuttle system is provided.

Cooper Stadium
Cooper Stadium, the original home of the Columbus Clippers before they moved to the Arena District, has sat empty and rotting since 2010. The surrounding area, while not exactly great, is a perfect candidate for revitalization.
Pros: Enough room for a stadium, and with the potential purchase of nearby properties, enough to create a mixed-use development around it. Still close to Downtown.
Cons: This site is owned by Arshot, a development company that has long planned a race track development here called SPARC. However, there has been no movement on this development whatsoever, and most now believe that the project is dead. Would Arshot be willing to develop a soccer stadium there instead? Also, given that the site is surrounded by a cemetery on 2 sides affect the possible development?

Abbott Labs
On the north end of the Central Business District, this site has very large empty lots that are mostly used to store semi trailers, when they’re used at all.
Pros: Plenty of space, as Downtown as Downtown gets, plenty of nearby restaurant and bar options to create a neighborhood experience.
Cons: Abbott Labs owns the land. While much of it is only lightly used at best, they may not be willing to sell it.

Jeffrey Manufacturing
The old site of the Jeffrey Manufacturing Plant, these vacant lots are in one of the most prime locations in the entire city.
Pros: Great location in the Short North/Italian Village, high levels of bars and restaurants nearby.
Cons: Most of the site north of Neruda Avenue has already been developed with housing. I’m not sure if there is enough space to the south for a new stadium and some kind of parking garage (parking is already very tight in the area). Again, this could be potentially solved with a shuttle or transit system from existing lots/garages Downtown, though. I’m also not sure if the current developers would be willing to sell it, and NIMBYism would likely be fierce from local residents.

Columbus State Parking Lots
On the northeast side of the Central Business District, Columbus State Community College’s land includes one of the largest areas of surface parking lots anywhere in the city.
Pros: Great location, plenty of space to develop.
Cons: Columbus State owns the land and has long-term plans to develop these. It’s doubtful that they’d be willing to incorporate a stadium here and lose valuable expansion space.

Unconventional Possibilities
Westland Mall
Westland Mall hasn’t been functional for many years, and its last and original tenant- Sears- recently abandoned the site as well. There have been no plans announced for the mall and it otherwise rots and prevents the improvement of the Far West Side.
Pros: The defunct mall site is enormous. A new stadium and new mixed-use neighborhood could basically be built from scratch. It also has excellent access to the Outerbelt.
Cons: Not Downtown or even close to it, so it wouldn’t solve the complaint about being too far from the core of the city. This area is also not particularly nice, and may suffer the same perception problems that the current stadium site has.

Mt. Carmel West
Mt. Carmel West, a long-time hospital in Franklinton, will be moving most of its operations to Grove City.
Pros: Close to Downtown, potential to create new entertainment district.
Cons: The site has many existing buildings that would have to be torn down or repurposed to fit a stadium and mixed-use development. Mt. Carmel has plans to create a mixed-use development eventually, anyway, but this would be one of the most difficult to remake.

Harrison West
Part of the Short North, Harrison West is a largely residential neighborhood. Off of 5th Avenue is a large parking lot and empty land that Battelle is selling off for redevelopment.
Pros: Great location, should be enough space.
Cons: There is little extra room for mixed-use development, and neighbors would pull the same kind of strong NIMBYism that the Jeffrey Manufacturing site would face. There are also already tentative development plans, and it’s unknown if a stadium would work.

Ohio State Campus
Pros: While not exactly Downtown, Ohio State is already a destination in many ways- certainly for sports. There is land available, and the surrounding neighborhoods are much nicer than the current stadium location.
Cons: Ohio State has long-term plans for practically every square inch of land it owns. Would they be willing to part with enough for a stadium? And could an attached mixed-use development come into play?

So there you have it, my list of potential Crew Stadium locations. What do you think? Am I missing any good ones?

Oh Clintonville… The Queen of NIMBYism




Clintonville has long been making news for its near hysterical opposition to any change whatsoever. The fight over the North Broadway turn lane has become something of legend, and the neighborhood freak outs over everything from the Indianola Avenue road diet to the Olympic Pool saga have become nearly standard procedure.
This week, Clintonville’s notorious NIMBYism once again popped its ugly head in the news, this time about Columbus’ plan to install rain gardens in the neighborhood.

The story is a classic.

First, let’s look at some of the backstory to this outrage. All the way back in 2005, Columbus submitted a plan to the Ohio EPA called the Wet Weather Management Plan. The gist of the plan was the actions the city would take to reduce sewage overflows into rivers and streams during heavy rains, as well as reducing pollution runoff. For years, heavy rains would cause sewers to back up into the Scioto and Olentangy rivers, as well as causing pollution runoff from streets, parking lots and other surfaces. At times, this pollution would cause very unpleasant odors throughout the Downtown area, as well as along the rivers themselves. Coinciding with the city’s desire to create a more inviting riverfront (which it would later do with the Scioto Mile and Scioto Greenways projects), it had to create infrastructure to solve the pollution issues.
One of the biggest ways this was accomplished was by drilling a 5.4 mile tunnel under Downtown that would fully prevent all of the sewage overflows. Begun in 2007, the project took 8 years and $371 million to complete. You can read a bit more about that project here: http://www.dispatch.com/article/20150912/NEWS/309129781
In 2015, when the overflow problem was solved, the city came up with an updated plan called Blueprint Columbus. This plan continued to address runoff problems, specifically with the creation of a network of rain gardens throughout the city. If you’re unaware, rain gardens are basically special, landscaped ditches that function as water filters. They block runoff and help prevent flooding, and would potentially save the city millions of dollars in the long run. Check out the Blueprint Columbus plan here: https://www.columbus.gov/utilities/projects/blueprint/ There’s a ton of information there, including the locations of many of the proposed rain gardens… which brings us back to Clintonville. In 2016, Clintonville found out it would be hosting as many as 500 rain gardens in the initial pilot rollout that will eventually include 17 areas of the city: http://www.dispatch.com/article/20160110/NEWS/301109834
Almost immediately, the complaints began to pour in. At meetings during the summer of 2015, residents had already begun the fear-mongering outrage. It wasn’t until this year, however, that Clintonville really began to earn that long-standing reputation. Construction of the rain gardens began over the summer, and they not only were built in the grassy easements in front of houses, but some were built right into the street, removing parking spaces and creating zones where traffic would be forced to slow down. Residents were apoplectic.

Keep in mind, these are some examples of a typical rain garden:

Not so bad, right? And if they help clean the water, reduce flooding costs and beautify the neighborhood, what’s the problem? Plenty, according to Clintonville residents.

http://stagenc.build.dispatch.com/news/20171016/some-residents-dont-like-them-but-columbus-says-rain-gardens-are-working
In the Dispatch article, residents called them everything from “unsightly” to “toxic dumps”, while another article, http://www.thisweeknews.com/news/20171016/over-my-dead-body-rain-garden-rage-continues called them an outrageous example of big government overreach, as well as a potential danger to toddlers.

My favorite comment, however, was this one:
“That’s a real problem, that this is an experiment,” he said. “If they want to do an experiment, do it somewhere else — not on these homes. I am seriously considering moving.”

If that isn’t the epitome of irrational NIMBYism, I don’t know what is. Ironically, should that resident move, he’d have absolutely no trouble selling it. Clintonville is an urban neighborhood in a growing, desirable city. Given the record low housing inventory for sale in the area, he’d probably get top dollar for it.

As for why Clintonville is so irrationally opposed to any and all change? Perhaps because it has long been an insular community. Demographics there have been one of the steadiest in the county, let alone the city. It is among the least diverse and has one of the highest median ages of neighborhood populations in the city by far, even including suburbs. Things simply don’t change there, and many seem to vehemently want it to stay that way. However, change is always inevitable. Perhaps Clintonville should save its energy for *actual* nefarious practices, not imagined ones.

Housing Trends of Columbus

***Originally Posted May 23, 2014, updated with 2014 data 9/18/2015 and again on 5/29/2016 with 2015 data***

I posted a graph recently showing housing permits for Franklin County to show how construction was trending. Today, I found more long-term data for both the city and county that continue to show some interesting trends.

First, let’s look at just the city of Columbus.

The chart above goes back through the mid-1990s. The first thing to notice is the housing boom from 1999-2002. Both single-family and multi-family construction was booming. The very good economic conditions, or seemingly good ones, during the 1999-2000 period is probably most responsible for this. What’s most interesting is that the boom seemed to last through at least part of the mild recession experienced in 2001-2002. After that, housing of both types started to decline through the late 2000s. This shows that construction in the city began to decline as early as 2002-2003, before the peak of the general housing boom in the mid-2000s.

Another interesting fact is at the end of the period. Multi-family units have recovered and are back in boom territory. This boom, however, is much different than the one that occurred more than a decade ago, as shown by the below chart.

During the 1999-2002 housing boom, multi-family housing averaged 59.3% of all the units constructed. In the current boom, which began in 2012, multi-family housing has averaged 81.4% of all the units constructed. The average difference between the types 1999-2002 was just 18.6 points. In the current boom, the difference is almost 63 points! In that regard, there really is no comparison between the housing boom a decade ago and the current one. Multi-family construction is in MUCH higher relative demand now than it was at any time in the last 20 years, including during the last housing boom.

But what does this tell us about where the housing is actually being constructed? Well, for that, we have to look at the entirety of Franklin County. Is the county also seeing a similar multi-family boom, or has single-family construction recovered there more than in the city?

This chart, in some aspects, is the opposite of the one for the city. While in the city, multi-family units consistently outnumbered single-family, the opposite is true for the county as a whole. This is likely because the county takes into account all the suburban areas, most of which are dominated by single-family housing. In only a few instances did multi-family housing units outnumber single-family before 2010. After 2010, it’s clear that the multi-family boom is hitting the rest of the county and not just Columbus itself. This may actually represent an even greater shift in housing construction. While it appeared that single-family construction was gradually rising since 2011, it once again fell off some in 2015 while multi-family went up. It appears that the new reality is, at least for now, holding steady.

Here’s the % of total chart for the county.

So it’s also clear that the county is seeing most of its construction in recent years be multi-family units.

“Missed Opportunity”: The New Columbus Buzzwords

Okay, so ever since the urban movement resurfaced in the last 10 years or so, I have been patiently waiting for Columbus to get with the program. In some cases, it has… and here is pretty much the entire list of examples of the city being forward-thinking, or at the very least, following established urban development principles:

1. The Scioto Greenway and Scioto Mile
This project, completed in 2015, removed the low-head dam south of the Main Street Bridge. This lowered the water level of the Scioto River through Downtown, allowing for the creation of more than 30 acres of new park space. Walking and biking paths, landscaping and public art was included in the project, which also improved water quality in the Scioto and allowed for a more natural flow.

Scioto Greenway river restoration.


Scioto Mile

2. Getting rid of the City Center monstrosity for Columbus Commons park.
The 1989 City Center Mall, built in the typical suburban style that lacked any real street-level interaction, died a slow death due to competition. It was demolished in 2009 and Columbus Commons replaced it, complete with landscaping, restaurant space and a carousel. The park has been popular for warm-month events, and new development has sprung up around it.

Before.


After.

3. CoGo bike-share.
What started as 30 stations with 300 bikes a few years ago has grown to more than 40 stations, with future expansions planned.

4. Adopting the Complete Streets infrastructure program.
The concept of Complete Streets is the idea that public infrastructure should think about more than just cars. It allows for the principles that all roads should have pedestrian infrastructure, and where possible, multi use paths and bike lanes.

5. The CBus.
The Downtown circulator bus has been very popular, particularly because it is free to all.

I literally couldn’t think of any others, but perhaps someone can help me out with other examples? In any case, this part will focus largely on Downtown, with the next installment focusing on other areas of the urban core.

Back in 2002 when former mayor Mike Coleman helped initiate the first Downtown plan, it was built around the idea of a strong urban center, which Columbus hadn’t really had in decades, the Short North and German Village notwithstanding. His goal was to add 10,000 new residential units to Downtown by 2010. The city offered incentives like tax abatements to help make it happen. Unfortunately, the housing market in Columbus, like in just about every city, was severely impacted by the double recessions during the 2000s and Downtown ended up with less than 1/4th of the goal by 2010. While the economy was not Coleman’s fault and he was in fact fighting the good fight, the effort still ended up fairly underwhelming. Consider the very sobering facts about Downtown Columbus. In 2010, Downtown had 7,416 residents according to the Census report called “Distance Profiles for US Metropolitan Areas 2000 and 2010”. In the report, population profiles were given for each mile out from “City Hall”, or basically the center of each city’s downtown. Mile 0 measured the CBD, and Columbus’ 7,416 total was shockingly low for a city its size. In fact, of the 92 Midwestern metro areas of any size, Columbus’ downtown had the 15th lowest population. Out of major cities, it ranked dead last. The only bright bit of news was that it was just one of 22 Midwest downtowns that saw population growth between 2000 and 2010 (oh, and that the #15 worst ranking was actually an improvement from #8 worst in 2000), perhaps the only tangible result of the 2002 plan. I’ll get back to the population problem in a bit.

The lack of reaching 10,000 units during the 2000s was not the only casualty of the recession years. Coleman also revived the discussion about bringing rail to the city, but he did so in the form of streetcars, which seemed somewhat like a half-measure attempt. Ultimately it didn’t matter anyway. As soon as the economy crashed in 2007-2008, the plan was shelved without even getting on a ballot. Rail discussion has come and gone several times since then, but only in the context of multiple studies on potential routes and costs, but there have been zero serious discussions since 2007 about rail being something that is on its way to the city. Columbus remains the largest US city in the nation without passenger rail service of any kind, even as the economy has returned to normal and many other cities continue to expand or begin building systems of their own.
But rail is not the only transit misfire of recent years. Let’s talk about BRT. Dubbed the CMAX, a proposal to put Columbus’ first BRT (bus-rapid-transit) line on Cleveland Avenue was announced a few years back. The problem? It really isn’t BRT. BRT traditionally has dedicated lanes, fewer stops and bus stations that more closely resemble train platforms than the traditional bus shelter. Because of this, these buses typically run up to 50% faster along routes than a normal bus. With the CMAX, however, no dedicated lanes are planned whatsoever. Instead, the buses are supposed to get “signal priority” rather than separated lanes. This ensures that the bus will inevitably get stuck in traffic, and studies done on BRT systems overwhelmingly make the case that BRT in mixed traffic doesn’t significantly reduce route times or increase ridership. Technically, it isn’t even BRT. Oh, the stations will be fancier, as shown below, but fancy stations don’t actually make for a BRT system. Why transit leadership would make such a stupid mistake is beyond me, especially when there are already plenty of examples of better systems out there.

But wait, there’s more! Without rail, and with half-assed BRT that is still years away from being built on a single road, those wishing to use transit in Columbus have to rely on COTA and its bus system. Long using the outdated spoke system from Downtown, COTA finally decided it was time to redesign its system, which will include adding more express routes, extending hours and rearranging existing routes to better serve areas where people actually live and work. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it is still COTA will all its problems. You still need actual money to ride, as there is no rechargeable card, something cities across the country have used for years, and there is no live tracking system to show where buses are relative to bus stops. COTA actually paid a firm to design such a live tracking system, but it failed miserably and they were forced to go back to the drawing board. So far, there is no word on when or if a 2.0 version will arrive.

So let’s face it, transit sucks in Columbus. The city has long had a reputation as a car-first city, and it is hard to argue otherwise. This brings me back to Downtown and the urban core in general. Once upon a time, Downtown and adjacent neighborhoods were some of the most dense in Ohio. Population peaked by 1950 around 30,000 just in Downtown alone, but then followed several disastrous decades of “Urban Renewal”. I can’t say for a fact that UR affected Columbus more than most cities, but it is hard to argue with the results. Block after block after block of densely-built historic buildings were demolished for parking lots, most of which still exist to this very day. The population Downtown plummeted to barely 2,000 by 1980 before beginning its slow ascent again to the still pathetic 7,416 in 2010. This indiscriminate destruction was compounded by the highways that were deliberately plowed through urban neighborhoods, something which even Eisenhower, proponent of the national highway system, was appalled by. The Near East and Near South communities like German Village and Old Towne East were suddenly cut off from Downtown. While the historic German Village did better given that it had a dedicated group of proponents to revitalize the area, OTE and King-Lincoln saw their populations collapse. Thousands of historic homes not destroyed by the highways were left to rot, and many of them succumbed to the Urban Renewal wrecking ball eventually. The bottom line is that the urban core was hurt badly, and for a long, long time, no one understood the consequences of that.

By the mid-1980s, Downtown alone had over 65,000 parking spaces, but as I said above, very little population. It had become a place for office workers to abandon after 5pm on weekdays, and weekends were a ghost town. City leaders had long been discussing ways to bring life back to the core, but in a classic Columbus folly, thought the best way to do that was to build a suburban enclosed mall in the middle of Downtown. To do so, blocks of historic buildings that had managed to survive nearly 4 decades of destruction were demolished. When City Center and its monster Capital South Parking Garage were opened in 1989, it lacked the necessary characteristics that encourage pedestrian activity. People literally drove into the garage and went into the mall without ever stepping foot onto a sidewalk. Not surprisingly, Downtown retail not associated with the mall collapsed and the area ended up even more dead than before. Exactly 20 years later, in 2009, the mall itself came down after failing to compete with newer suburban malls. Some people mourned its loss, but not me. Unfortunately, the city-block sized parking garage remained. As mentioned above, City Center was replaced with a park, Columbus Commons.

The park plan received a LOT of negative feedback. Many were convinced that it would just become a place for the homeless to squat in or piss on new landscaping, or for criminals to lurk behind bushes waiting to strike. It was all pretty silly, and ultimately, none of that happened. The park, with the help of a robust schedule of yearlong activities planned by the city, became an almost instant success. A new stage on the north end allowed such events like Picnic with the Pops, from the Columbus Orchestra, to move Downtown from elsewhere. Also, even before the construction of the park, part of the new land was set aside for mixed-use construction. It was assumed then that it might take a decade to fill in the sections along High Street or the corner of 3rd and Rich. However, the new park being the success as it was, combined with the new Scioto Mile a few blocks away, made this area attractive to new development. All good so far, right? Here is where things took a turn towards “missed opportunity” in a big way.

An Atlanta-based developer, Carter, and Moody Nolan proposed a 6-story project called HighPoint at Columbus Commons for the entire section of the park along High Street. The problem? High Street is arguably the city’s most prominent urban commercial corridor. The city had, not long before that, instituted recommended standards for High Street Downtown that called for minimum 10-stories. Worse, the design for HighPoint was terrible. The materials were cheap, and it was basically just a large box with tiny windows. The 300+ residential units (in 2 buildings) were a plus, as was the ground floor retail, but the scale of the project was simply too small for such a large site. The bad design just made it worse. Initial excitement over development coming to the Commons so soon after its construction faded pretty quickly with such a mediocre proposal. Unfortunately, the project received all the variances it needed and was built pretty much as proposed. It looked even worse in reality than it did in proposal form. It is now considered one of the worst projects built in the core in the last decade. Worse still, the retail sections have struggled to fill, and only very recently has there been any news on the spaces being filled.

HighPoint as was originally proposed.


HighPoint as completed.

HighPoint wouldn’t be Downtown’s only recent development missed opportunity. With such low Downtown population, one would think going for the most underwhelming result shouldn’t be the goal, or at least following recently adopted guidelines would be a priority, but that has proven to not be remotely true. While great developments like the Commons, Scioto Mile and the Scioto Greenways have activated RiverSouth construction, more often than not, the proposed projects have been vastly underwhelming for their Downtown locations. Before getting to the missed opportunities, let’s talk about the few RiverSouth projects that have bucked the trend.
At the northeast intersection of S. High and E. Main, a parking lot had existed since the late 1980s, when construction of the adjacent Capital South Garage was completed for City Center. The narrow lot had once had a proposal for a 4-5 story apartment project around 2003, but that never got very far. The 12-story, 250 High project was announced in 2013. The mixed-use project would contain 156 apartments, office space and ground floor retail. Completed in 2015, the project has been very successful with high demand for its office space in particular.

Another decent project for the area is the LC at RiverSouth project at S. High and Town, which consists of an 8 and a 10-story mixed-use building with over 200 residential units and ground floor retail. Construction has been extremely slow on this project, but finally may be going vertical over the next few months.

Finally, we have the Julian, a 90-unit renovation of a former factory building at S. Front and W. Main.
Before

After

3 solid projects. Moving on to the problems though, there is a project in the RiverSouth that came about during the 2000s that is every bit the missed opportunity that later projects in the area would be- The Annex at RiverSouth. Lifestyle Communities, or LC as it is commonly known, took advantage of Coleman’s tax incentives to propose a condo project on two giant surface parking lots between W. Rich and W. Town along S. Front Street. These sites had been transitioning to parking since at least the 1950s and all buildings had been demolished by the 1980s. They remained this way through the mid-2000s, when LC, which had largely focused on building suburban apartment complexes previously, decided to enter the Downtown market with the Annex project. The two lots were pretty much some of the most prime real estate in all of Downtown, as they were just a block west of High and a block east of the river. A project of height could’ve taken advantage of some fantastic views of Downtown and the riverfront, as there were mostly low rise buildings between the site and the river itself, and the large sizes of the lots- the largest left west of High Street Downtown, were perfect for signature development. Instead, LC decided to bring suburbia into the city. It proposed a 4-story condominium development. There were no mixed-use elements, such as retail, associated with the project in any way. Yet again the Downtown Commission let the project fly through approvals with nary a change from the original proposal. To be fair, the design of the Annex is significantly better than HighPoint, but the scale was and is massively undersized for the location. Its lack of retail meant that anyone living in the complex had to go elsewhere to shop and eat. This would really be the first project that the Downtown Commission would ignore its own development guidelines to approve. HighPoint was next… and then there were a lot more.

LC somewhat redeemed itself a few years later with the proposal of the LC RiverSouth project mentioned above. Similar name, but a much different development from the Annex, so perhaps LC learned a few things in year years between them. Or maybe not, considering its most recent proposal for the northwest corner of W. Main and S. Front. Named The Matan, the proposal would include 117 apartments and retail. Unfortunately and once again, the 5-story proposal is far too small for its prime location.

The Matan.


Now, for some, the prospect of this project is a major positive, because it replaces a surface lot and adds population density and retail to a part of Downtown that needs it. This is not a missed opportunity because of those factors, but because it does so in the most bare minimum of ways, much in the same way that HighPoint or the Annex did before it. Adding something where nothing currently exists is of course a positive, but it is also setting the bar as low as it can possibly go in terms of development. Consider the proposal for just across the street, at the southwest corner of W. Main and S. Front.
The 75-unit, 5-story apartment building, as yet unnamed, is even worse than the Matan. Besides also being far too small for the location, it also completely leaves ground floor retail out. Instead, the first 2 floors will be, what else… parking. So rather than building pedestrian level momentum on Front, which severely lacks it, the Downtown development commission is allowing projects to move through without encouraging even mixed-use elements. Why?

Southwest corner of Main and Front.

RiverSouth is hardly the only area seeing underwhelming projects Downtown. Take a look at some others.

Northwest corner of Gay and High:

Unnamed project at Gay and N. High.


This 230-unit, 3-building project will be just 6 stories on some of the very last surface lots on High Street Downtown, once again in a corridor that adopted standards stresses a minimum of 10 stories. And while the design itself is not terrible, and there is retail, the design setbacks only enhance the fact that the project is far too small in scale for an entire block of High Street.
Southwest corner of Front and Long:

This 8-story city office building is, once again, underwhelming in scale and design. Its design actually looks very similar to the Franklin County Courthouse building constructed a few years ago. See below:
Very similar, right? Also, the project also includes a new parking garage on the northwest corner of Long and Front. Front currently has more than half a dozen large parking garages already. Not a single one of them has any mixed-use elements, such as residential or office above, or retail on the ground floor. This new garage will also not, creating one more dead zone when the city could’ve been more forward-thinking.
Northwest corner of S. 3rd and E. Rich:

Original Two25 proposal.


The southeast corner of Columbus Commons was originally proposed to be developed by something 20 stories or above. When the proposal for 17-story Two25 first came out, it was already a little disappointing. The news release, however, suggested the mixed-use project could go higher depending on demand. However, it was recently announced the Two25 would instead have its height cut by 5 full floors and would only be 12 stories. No real explanation was given, beyond the developer claiming that Columbus had not reached adequate $-per-square-foot returns for the larger project, despite extremely high demand for Class A office space and high 90s occupancy rates with residential. So basically, the developer didn’t buy into the idea that there was enough demand, despite every other mixed-use project, including 12-story 250 High, filling up rapidly.
Northeast corner of E. Long and N. Fourth:

An as yet unnamed 10-story proposal is a missed opportunity for a few reasons. Originally, this was supposed to be 5 stories taller and for some reason, in what has become an all too familiar story, was reduced. Further, a good chunk of the site will be yet another parking garage for Downtown (there are now almost 30 garages and nearly 300 surface lots- think about that for a minute). The parking garage will not have retail on the ground floor, but rather office space for the developer. So instead of putting the offices on the 2nd floor of the garage and having retail/restaurant space on the ground floor to activate the street, this section of Fourth will remain a dead zone. Worse still, the garage will be the prominent look at the intersection, rather than the residential. Rather than address these flaws, the Downtown Commission caught the vapors and swooned in approval.
Basically all of Neighborhood Launch:
Okay, so I am going to get some flack for this, but hear me out. Overall, I do like this development. The quality of construction is there, design is good and it is replacing several surface lots and creating a much more vibrant area. However, there are some flaws that need to be mentioned. First of all, it is simply too small in scale, like many other developments Downtown. While there are a few 5-story buildings, most of it is 3 stories. The height/density is less of an issue, though, than the complete lack of mixed-use elements in a development that has several hundred units. Even in the 5-story buildings on E. Long, there is no retail. Part of creating an urban neighborhood is not just about getting people to live there, but also giving them amenities, and Neighborhood Launch lacks those amenities. There seems to be little to no regard for giving residents something to do. Even a corner café would be something, but just like in the Annex at RiverSouth, residents currently have to go elsewhere.

A condo building in Neighborhood Launch.

While in this post I have focused largely on Downtown, this is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is going on around the rest of the city, and the situation may actually be worse elsewhere *coughClintonvillecough*. If Columbus wants to be a major, vibrant city, it has to act like one and not simply pay the concept lip service. Things like expanding transit should be a priority and development should not only match demand, but in order to reach the potential of what could be, it should be encouraged to push the envelope of what is possible rather than merely meeting the bare minimum of standards, or sometimes not even meeting them at all. Columbus should not be a city of missed opportunities, but rather one of exceeding expectations whenever possible. When its downtown is already one of the least populated of nearly 100 Midwest peers, it seems clear that going bare minimum is not going to get the job done. You can do better Columbus.

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.