There is a lot of talk about downtown after decades of backsliding and neglect. In fact, a plan of big ideas about the center city will be submitted to Columbus City Council later this month. But while the debate over the dreamers’ dreams goes on, plenty of action will be happening on the ground. The area is alive with construction projects of all kinds. Within a mile of the Statehouse, new parks and bridges are weaving through new and renovated government, business and residential structures. The price tag for them is a healthy $521 million.
Of course, downtown has had significant developments in the recent past. The new COSI out of the old Central High School. The Arena District replacing the old Ohio Pen. The Greater Columbus Convention Center followed by its extensive addition. But as that construction was going on, every department store abandoned downtown for outlying shopping complexes and City Center slid into oblivion. Downtown became a bunch of functional islands too distant for an easy connection.
Now, with 22 percent of the workforce located in the center city and more than 5,000 people living in downtown condos and apartments, the energy is palpable. Kyle Ezell, a certified city planner who teaches at the Ohio State University Knowlton School of Architecture, says that five years ago parking lots took up
48 percent of downtown. Now, he says, that’s been cut in half. Downtown “is not just for cars anymore,” he says. “It’s for people and buildings, too.”
He says that the numerous projects are making Columbus “a shining star” among Midwestern cities. This accolade is especially remarkable in the current period of slow population growth and the continuing recession. Ezell says that only those cities still experiencing significant population growth, such as Charlotte, North Carolina, Nashville, Tennessee, and Portland, Oregon, have rejuvenated their downtowns more extensively.
There still is much missing from downtown before it can be considered fully thriving. Retail of all kinds, from department stores and supermarkets to specialty shops, has yet to return. And Ezell decries the city’s lack of passenger rail. “It’s an embarrassment,” he says. “The absence of trains is a failure.” Columbus is the only city of its size in the U.S. without passenger train service. Its recently shelved plans for a streetcar line also put the city out of step with such places as Seattle, Tampa, Florida, and Little Rock, Arkansas, where downtown lines have been built since 2000. Currently, 40 other cities are planning construction of these “urban circulators,” which provide efficient, energy-saving mass transit.
Still, the progress is significant. Kevin Wood, a board member of the Downtown Residents’ Association of Columbus, says that the new parks and pedestrian-friendly streets are making the center city “more like Easton, which is a fake downtown.” And Mayor Mike Coleman, who has pushed for a renewed downtown since he took office in 1999, is buoyed by the advancements. “We have much left to do, but we are now seeing the seeds we planted for a vibrant new downtown starting to bear fruit,” he says.
What changes, specifically, are taking place? Here is an inventory of nine important projects. While the list isn’t comprehensive, and the projects are in various stages of completion, it gives a strong indication of the vitality pulsing through downtown.
PROJECT: Scioto Mile, a park running along the east bank of the Scioto River from the Arena District to the Whittier Peninsula.
Significance: Bringing the waterfront to life with a variety of places for walking and relaxing, with the river on one side and the city streets and buildings on the other. Destined to become the green backbone of the city.
Cost and source: $44 million, shared among numerous corporations, community organizations and foundations.
Current status: Completion is anticipated in 2011, after three years of construction work. The reconstruction of Civic Center Drive, begun in May 2008, was finished last June. The Promenade and the improvements to Bicentennial Park, begun last summer, are scheduled to be finished in June 2011.
Cool factor: A unique 15,000-square-foot fountain in Bicentennial Park containing more than 1,000 water jets and such pop-up water features as five large fountains with cold-steam halos and a blossom fountain with a jet that shoots
79 feet in the air and steam thick enough to project a movie onto. Additionally, the riverfront Promenade will have card and chess tables, swinging benches and free wi-fi. Bronze sculptures of the River Redhorse (a fish found in the Scioto River) will be in the fountains. A renovated, all-season performance area in Bicentennial Park will host concerts. Construction began in March in the park on a restaurant cafe with 3,000 square feet of indoor dining and kitchen space that will offer one of the best views of the city. The restaurateur will be selected by fall. “The Scioto Mile will be a jewel for our region,” says Guy Worley, president and CEO of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp. & Capitol South.
Possible obstacles: Weather delays.
Estimated finish date: Mid 2011.
PROJECT: Annex at River South, 186 S. Front St.
Significance: The Lifestyle Communities development occupying several city blocks of former parking lots features more than 200 town homes and flats renting from $750 to $2,010. The development caters to young professionals and empty nesters, and it aims to establish an exciting residential neighborhood in the new River South district. The location could not be more downtown, with most places of interest within an easy stroll.
Cost and source: $30 million, financed by Huntington National Bank.
Current status: First move-ins to Annex West (town homes) last November. First move-ins to Annex East (flats) began in April. Nearing total occupancy at present.
Cool factor: The architecture and feel of Georgetown or Beacon Hill. Terraces give great views of the riverfront.
PROJECT: Columbus Commons, a nine-acre park.
Significance: Gone is the white monolith of City Center. In its place will be green space in the heart of downtown. The park, similar to recent parks built in St. Louis, Detroit and Houston, will offer both a quiet escape and a variety of activities and events in the hub of the city. Planners expect that in time the park will attract development of retail and office space around its perimeter.
Cost and source: $15 to $20 million from federal, state and local grants and corporate sponsorships.
Current status: Demolition of City Center, begun last September, was finished in April. More than 109 million pounds of debris was removed from the site, with more than 80 percent of it recycled. Constructing the transition slab (the foundation of the park) is scheduled to finish by mid summer. Creating the park proper will begin in August or September, with landscaping and the planting of 45,000 trees, shrubs and seasonal flowers to commence in spring 2011.
Cool factor: Inspired by Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens and New York’s Bryant Park, Columbus Commons will provide the refuge and serenity of nature in the midst of the downtown skyscrapers. A pedestrian path will meander over to Town Street. It’s part of a green corridor from the Scioto Mile to the Topiary Garden in the Deaf School Park. Musical performances will take place in a crescent-shaped band shell facing the grand lawn than can accommodate an audience of up to 10,000. An outdoor cafe will be built across from the Lazarus Building. A farmers’ market will appear regularly in a corner of the park. Columbus Commons also will include a classic carousel, outdoor reading room and places for kickball, yoga and movie screenings.
Possible obstacles: Weather delays.
Estimated finish date: Spring 2011.
PROJECT: Franklin County Courthouse
Significance: Replaces current courthouse, built in 1979. It will be the first gold-level LEED certified courthouse in Ohio, a designation given by the U.S. Green Building Council to structures incorporating extensive energy conservation systems. Its east-west orientation will flood its floors with daylight and the expansive use of glass along the façade of the building symbolizes the theme of “Transparency of Justice.” All the public areas will feature new furniture and fixtures.
Cost and source: $105 million from local, state and federal funds.
Current status: In its fourth year of construction, it is now 80 percent complete. Currently, landscaping and sidewalk work is underway.
Cool factor: Large expanses of glass across the building’s façade (to harvest daylight and save lighting costs), a rooftop rain garden (to divert storm water from going into sewers) and bicycle storage and showers (to encourage using alternative forms of transportation) will contribute to an estimated annual savings of energy and utility costs of $130,000. Certain courtrooms will be capable of videotaping proceedings, enabling jurors to review the body language of witnesses as well as their testimony. County administrator Don Brown says, “This is a sea change for the Common Pleas Court.”
Possible obstacles: Construction delays and more time than the scheduled 30 days to remove construction dust from the building before moving in.
Estimated finish date: Late 2010 or early 2011.
PROJECT: Main Street Bridge
Significance: A dramatic addition to the Columbus skyline with its graceful arch inclined at a 10-degree angle and spanning the banks of the Scioto River. Replaces the art-deco bridge in service since 1937, but closed in 2000 because of structural deterioration.
Cost and source: $42 million from federal, state and city funding.
Current status: Major construction has been completed. Currently, the Ohio Department of Transportation is laying out the two-way traffic lanes across the bridge.
Cool factor: First inclined, single-rib-tied arch bridge in the U.S. Based on a design by Spiro Pollalis, professor of design technology and management at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and a consultant for Boston’s Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, in operation since 2003. Both bridges are remarkable engineering structures that have a sculptural appeal with their soaring, simple lines. The Main Street concrete and steel bridge features a wide walkway for pedestrians and bicyclists elevated above the roadway.
Possible obstacles: Delays in final inspections and certifications.
Estimated finish date: July or August.
PROJECT: Rich Street Bridge
Significance: Replaces the Town Street Bridge, built in 1917 and demolished in March 2009. Connects Rich Street on the east bank of the Scioto River to Town Street on the west. Makes downtown directly accessible from Franklinton, a move that city officials hope will revitalize this first Columbus neighborhood.
Cost and source: $32 million from local revenues ($9.14 million), American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 ($2.1 million) and additional public funding.
Current status: Construction began in March.
Cool factor: Brick sidewalks, planters, benches and bike routes on the bridge. New bike paths, street lighting, landscaping and retaining walls in West Bank Park and new sidewalks, curbs, street resurfacing, lights and signage on Washington Boulevard between Rich and Town Streets.
Possible obstacles: Construction delays.
Estimated finish date: August 2011.
PROJECT: Town Street redevelopment.
Significance: An engineering and aesthetic upgrading of the three blocks from High Street west to the Scioto River, with pavers replacing the asphalt surface and new sidewalks, curbs and street lighting.
Cost and source: $4.94 million from federal earmarks ($4.2 million) and city funds.
Current status: All work completed.
Cool factor: The street pavers, recycled from the old Town Street Bridge, blend well with the Lazarus building on the north side and the Annex at River South on the south.
PROJECT: New Hilton Hotel on North High Street across from the convention center.
Significance: Will add 534 rooms, greatly improving the city’s ability to attract bigger conventions. According to the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority, it will generate $22 million of direct spending and $13 million of indirect spending annually, increases of 14 percent and 24 percent over current convention figures.
Cost and source: $160 million from the city of Columbus, Franklin County and Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority.
Current status: Design development is completed; construction will begin in August.
Cool factor: Dramatic, open atrium with four levels of public spaces, fitness center and swimming pool, 30 suites.
Possible obstacles: Construction delays.
Estimated finish date: Fall 2012.
PROJECT: Lazarus Building.
Significance: New life for the former flagship department store, with space for 2,500 office employees. A cornerstone in the downtown redevelopment drive. Currently, tenants in the 700,000 square feet of office space include the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, Columbus Downtown Development Corp. & Capitol South and numerous city, county and state departments.
Cost and source: $83.5 million in state, city and Columbus Downtown Development Corp. funds.
Current status: Renovation completed in April 2007. Approximately 40,000 square feet of retail space available along High Street and in the Town Street Galleria. Along its High Street side, planters, trees and landscaping have just been added to create a Michigan Avenue effect.
Cool factor: An inner courtyard at Town Street and South Wall Street featuring Art Deco design and lettering. The Ohio State University Urban Arts Space on the ground floor presents exhibitions of art and dance and music performances by OSU students as well as workshops and lectures open to the public. Placards along the Town Street side give paragraph histories of the fabled department store from its beginnings in 1851 to its end in 2004. The familiar onion bulb water tank with the huge “L” remains on the roof, now surrounded by a garden of more than 60 plant varieties covering one-third of an acre.
Possible obstacles: Recruiting retailers in a tough market.
Estimated finish date: Retail space remains unfinished.
Dennis Read is a freelance writer who contributes frequently to Columbus Monthly.