June’s Missed Opportunity of the Month




Columbus, as recent estimates show, is clearly becoming a real player on the national stage in terms of its rapid growth and increasing name recognition. There’s a lot to be proud of for a city located in what many people think is just the Rust Belt. But as with every city, Columbus doesn’t get it all right all the time. A while back, I wrote how Columbus could sometimes be a city of missed opportunities when it came to development, and that remains true. For every great project in the Short North, there’s an equally terrible development going up somewhere else. In what I want to be a semi-regular series, I’m going to highlight some projects that simply miss the boat in terms of good urban development. Some are merely not reaching their potential, and then some, like today’s example, is an out of left field example that seems to be trying so hard, only to fail equally so.

That project is the redevelopment of the University City strip mall off of Olentangy River Road.

Aerial view.

As you can see from the aerial, the site is your typical strip mall. Built in 1961 when such developments were seen as community shopping destinations rather than the dying suburban sprawl they have become, University City is completely nondescript and looks no different than hundreds of others dotting the landscape. Anchored by a Kroger, the strip mall held other stereotypical establishments- a salon, bars, a Chinese restaurant, etc. A handful of out lots contain a McDonald’s, gas station and a bank.

Most of the site, of course, is taken up by enormous amounts of surface parking, most of which sits empty more often than not.

Olentangy River Road is not exactly an urban street. Most of it is lined with hotels, restaurants and offices, all set well back from the road and in a generally unfavorable configuration to encourage walkability. So when it was announced back in June of last year that the strip mall would be redeveloped, hope for something substantially different seemed possible. The initial renderings showed a 6-story mixed-use building on the site instead of the strip mall.

MUCH better, right? Of course, saying it’s much better is a low bar compared to the current situation, but a 6-story, mixed-use project is truly urban, and one of the first of its kind on Olentangy River Road. So why, one might ask, is this a missed opportunity?
To answer that, we have to look at the proposed layout of the entire site.

Comparing the proposed layout to the current one is a little confusing, because they look extremely similar. It seems that the 6-story project will only replace the current strip center, but most of the parking and all of the out lots will remain intact. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of suburban and urban elements that just looks really weird. There is no interaction with any of the nearby roads, and not even a resident pathway from the main building to the multi-use path that was built a few years ago along Olentangy. It’s all still catering to cars.
In the most recent rendering of the main building, seen below, there appears to be only 1 patio space for what is clearly a very large project. The view for customers from there, of course, is still just the parking lot, with its noise, pollution and lack of any shade. In fact that’s basically the view out of every window in the building- parking lots.

I suppose that some surface lots and outbuildings could eventually be redeveloped at some point, but as it stands now, there’s a lot to be desired. The main building is decent, but the overall layout and connections are terrible and it makes the whole project just look like a much larger version of the strip mall that’s already there. Maybe that’s a harsh assessment, but I don’t think it’s an unfair one. Casto, the developer, basically invented the strip mall, so they’re clearly playing to their strengths here. They’ve done some really good projects at times, like the renovation of the Julian building on South Front Street in Downtown, and I applaud the effort to go more urban in this location, but I think so much could’ve been done better in this case. No doubt that this development will have no trouble finding tenants to rent the apartments, just due to the lack of housing anywhere in the core, but I question just what this development offers that better ones don’t.

In the end, it is a good example of how Columbus needs more true urban developers that are comfortable and willing to push the envelope on this style of development. Trying to have it both ways, where suburbia reigns in an urban location, gets us nowhere.

Ongoing Project #2- 1999 to Present- Easton Town Center

Post Update 7/10/2013.

Easton Town Center

Easton Town Center
Easton Town Center was in the planning stages as far back as 1990. The area where Easton would be built was mostly undeveloped land at the southwest corner of Morse Road and I-270. Les Wexner of Limited Brands fame imagined a large mixed-use development for the 1,300 acre site, to be anchored by a central retail complex. Some of the intial designs resembled more traditional malls, but as planning evolved, the retail complex emerged as an outdoor town-center style shopping experience. While some parts of the large site were developed as early as 1996, such as Easton Market, Phase I of the town center most recognized as simply “Easton”, did not open until 1999, with Phase II opening in 2001. Easton Town Center was eventually nationally recognized for its design and has since been copied around the nation. Today, Easton remains successful and continues to evolve and grow with new shops and fashion names.

Easton Town Center Stats

Start of Construction: 1997
Opened: 1999
Current Status: Under Construction
Cost (1999-Present): $1.0-$1.3 Billion
Stores: 240+

In this aerial, the land that will become Easton is mostly farmland and scattered buildings.

In this aerial, the land that will become Easton is mostly farmland and scattered buildings.

Easton aerial in 2002.  This shows the explosion of development at the site, with the Town Center in the center of the image.  The 270 Easton exit ramp has also been constructed.

Easton aerial in 2002. This shows the explosion of development at the site, with the Town Center in the center of the image. The 270 Easton exit ramp has also been constructed.

The area has filled in a bit more in this 2011 aerial.  Phase III is supposed to be built on the northeast corner.

The area has filled in a bit more in this 2011 aerial. Phase III is supposed to be built on the northeast corner.

Fenlon Square Expansion
Fenlon Square was recently completed on the northwestern side of the main Easton Town Center complex. Aimed to be Easton’s most family-oriented area, Fenlon Square includes several new stores such as doll-crazed American Girl and a new concept Build-a-Bear. Other tenants include clothing stores C. Wonder, Children’s Place, Flip Flop Shops, Hot Mama and Stride Rite Shoes. Food stores/retail include Le Chocoholique and Fuzziwigs Candy Factory.

Easton Gateway, or Phase III…
Easton Gateway, or Phase III, will be built on a 54-acre site just south of 161 to the east of the main complex. The Gateway will add 542,054 square feet of new retail space and parking for nearly 3,000 vehicles. Some tenants include REI, the outdoor store, and Costco. Construction will begin later this year and be completed in 2014.

Easton Gateway


In-Planning Project- 2014 and Beyond- Scioto Peninsula

The history of the Scioto Peninsula in not really all that positive. Bounded by 315 to the west and on all other sides by the Scioto River directly across from Downtown, this area currently contains Veteran’s Memorial, COSI and not much else. Even as far back as the 1950s, a large chunk of the peninsula, especially around Central High School (which still exists as COSI), was just vacant land. Otherwise, what existed were warehouse buildings and other commercial buildings. What people lived there were mostly confined to a few public housing projects. Being so close to the Scioto River, the area repeatedly flooded over its history, especially in the Great Flood of 1913 and to a lesser extent in 1959. This prevented much development here and in Franklinton in general. Federal standards were actually in place that banned most new construction or even renovations to most types of buildings. This allowed all of Franklinton, including the Peninsula, to stagnate and go through steady decline.

Help was coming, however, in the form of a giant floodwall. Conceived as far back as the 1980s, the Franklinton Floodwall would not be completed until 2004. It took another 4-5 years before people began to seriously look at the area for redevelopment and then for that development to actually start taking place. Eastern Franklinton, so far, has been the focal point of that redevelopment, and a big project to help tie in Downtown with the neighborhood is the planned redevelopment of the Peninsula.

Almost all the buildings that existed in the ’50s are now gone, even the housing projects. COSI uses much of the land for parking, as does Veteran’s Memorial. The rest is grassy lots primed for redevelopment. Some projects have already taken place. The two new Downtown bridges at Main and Rich Streets provide a nice access onto the Peninsula, along with the Broad Street bridge. A 4th, a planned pedestrian bridge, will be located on the north end crossing from Vet’s Memorial to North Bank Park in the Arena District. This bridge is probably still a few years off, as there is another, large project planned. The low-head dams along the Scioto River in the Downtown area are going to be removed, starting sometime next year. This will lower the river level and create a more natural flowing waterway. It will also create acres of new riverfront parkland that new paths and landscaping will be added to. This will create an inviting, park setting to both sides of the river.

The Peninsula has been planned for redevelopment several times in the last 30 years, but there was a lack of momentum for urban projects for decades and no serious plans ever seemed to emerge. That was until the last 10 years, starting in 2002 with the first Downtown development plan by Mayor Coleman and the city. A new version was released in 2010 and contained a dozen projects planned to help Downtown become a destination again. While the Scioto Peninsula was not specifically mentioned, fixing the riverfront was. That’s where Scioto Mile park came from and is now a very popular spot for residents. With all this momentum, the Peninsula needed a serious plan. Right now, meetings are taking place and a development plan is now in the early stages. Some early ideas include a lot of residential, retail and entertainment space, along with a more interactive riverfront and even a transit station for light rail. The first draft of the plan is likely to be released in 2013 and construction could begin as early as 2014.

This is the area for redevelopment, bounded by the railroad tracks to the west and the river to the east.  The large skinny building is COSI, and the large building to the north is Veteran's Memorial.

This is the area for redevelopment, bounded by the railroad tracks to the west and the river to the east. The large skinny building is COSI, and the large building to the north is Veteran’s Memorial.