Business: Splendor in the Grass
In their first year together, Columbus Commons and Scioto Mile have transformed the Downtown economy inside and out
In July 2009, when Danos Tiano took ownership of the glass-walled skyscraper at 175 S. Third St., he didn’t know what to call it.
Formal names for the structure in the shadow of an empty City Center had changed over the years—175 South Third Building, U.S. Bank Tower and others. Many who had business there would adopt more casual titles. “That building by City Center,” for example.
Though towering mightily above a prime section of Downtown’s commercial district, it had an identity crisis.
That is, until May 26, 2011, when a nine-acre public park opened next door.
Columbus Commons was shocking in its simplicity and beauty, its sheer size and relative emptiness. It made people curious about Downtown and brought them in. Its green grass, colorful flowerbeds and whimsical carousel swept away the last stinging memories of a dilapidated mall that had symbolized a business district on the decline.
Tiano unearthed a new and better name for his building, which was practically picnicking on the grass: 175 on the Park.
“It was the absolute best name I could go with,” he explained. “Everyone knows where Tavern on the Green is. With the park being here forever, it’s something that’s absolutely great for Downtown.”
Inspired by the potential that it represented, Tiano saw the park as a namesake and a catalyst able to attract more than office tenants. His bright sign was an early symbol that Downtown’s bold new green space was changing the way people did business.
“When I bought the building in 2009, there was nothing around,” he said. “As soon as they made the announcement [about the Commons], we had a couple more restaurants open up. After everyone sees the activity this summer, I think you are going to see another six restaurants open up within the next 12 months.”
Tiano might be right.
In their first year, Columbus Commons and Scioto Mile have changed what people see, do and enjoy in the central city. Just as radically, though, a giant field and a manicured riverfront strip are fueling an economic transformation that developers had promised but many thought would be years down the road.
“We have so much investment occurring Downtown,” said Amy Taylor, chief operating officer for the Columbus Downtown Development Corp. and Capitol South Community Urban Redevelopment Corp., the sister nonprofits that built both parks. “Those things are building upon one other, and the synergies are coming together.”
Heads spun in April when monumental improvements to Columbus Commons and Scioto Mile were announced on consecutive days, plans that aimed to build on a pair of parks not yet a year old.
On April 3, Mayor Michael Coleman pledged $18 million in city funds to remove the Main Street dam and develop 33 acres of parkland along a narrower version of the Scioto River.
The following day, the city heard that Atlanta-based developer Carter planned to build two six-story buildings on two acres of the Commons. The $50 million project would include 300 apartments and 23,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space.
To many, these game-changers proved that parks could leverage significant investment in a district once known for parking lots, dated government buildings and empty storefronts.
Yet, in a way, the large-scale development plans weren’t the biggest story Downtown, only a response to it.
The big announcements overshadowed the quieter impact that the new green spaces were having: They were attracting small businesses, creating a neighborhood vibe and igniting what for decades was a ghost town outside of the 40-hour work week.
“There are big projects going on, but there is a lot of little stuff, too,” said Kacey Campbell Brankamp, who recruits retail businesses for the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District. “From 2010 to 2011, we saw a nearly 20 percent increase in the number of signed leases Downtown.”
Of the 27 businesses that opened in 2011, she noted, only a handful were large corporations or chains. For every new Tim Hortons branch that popped up, the central business district also grew a Capitol Cup Coffee and a MoJoe Lounge a few blocks away.
Brankamp mentioned that parks are aesthetically pleasing, offering pretty sights and inviting places for customers and employees to relax and eat lunch. They also draw the foot traffic integral to many retail models.
The philosophy that business follows people has governed much of the public-private development push in Columbus, and it’s played out successfully in a landscape renewed by green space.
“The parks have definitely drawn attention to that area in Downtown,” Brankamp explained. “Business owners that I talk with, who are looking for spaces Downtown, are looking for spaces around the park.”
Last year, about 300,000 people visited Columbus Commons and roughly 500,000 came to Scioto Mile, said Taylor. Crowds included joggers, readers, yoga students, kickboxers, theater fans, diners, drinkers and an increasing number of those who love food prepared in trucks. The parks have also attracted some of the city’s signature events, including Race for the Cure, Columbus Arts Festival, the Columbus Symphony’s Picnic with the Pops and Pelotonia.
So far, last year’s buzz has only increased in volume: More than 100,000 people came to the Commons in May 2012 alone.
“The parks are working as they were designed to work—and that’s together,” Taylor said. “The pieces have just fallen into place. It’s creating that 24/7 environment.”
That’s one reason Jan Antauer opened Java Jan Gourmet Coffee in September along the east side of the Commons. She relocated only two years after launching her business in Dublin and left behind an established clientele and a mile-long commute for a chance to be near the park.
“I felt like I had more opportunity here in the big picture,” she explained. “It’s the Commons—that’s what really made it attractive.”
She isn’t the only one who sees opportunity in open space.
Since 2011, businesses like De-Novo Bistro & Bar, BDF Grille, Pizza Shack, Market 65, Milestone 229 and Coldwell Banker King Thompson have opened in or within view of the parks. The effects have rippled throughout Downtown, where people are drawing business and business is drawing people.
“I think it’s fairly well-established that green space can add value to any urban neighborhood,” said Keith Myers, senior principal with landscape-architecture firm MKSK. “It’s a good model and a good tool for us when thinking about revitalizing other areas of the city.”
At a recent conference, Myers attended a talk on what was billed as a radical new theory: Transforming a sagging retail property into green space would help boost the performance of properties that exist along its edge. Myers politely held his tongue.
“That’s a great concept,” he said. “We just did it in Columbus. I think it’s going to keep happening, too. Columbus is emerging as a great story nationally in what it has been able to do.”