A lack of foresight may have robbed Columbus of a vibrant neighborhood

Once an area full of possibility, Mound and Fulton streets extending from Downtown now serve as utterly forgettable highway ramps

Brian Williams
The long white "flyover" ramp in the center is the new Interstate 70 westbound to Mound Street ramp designed to provide quick access for morning communters to downtown. This entrance improved safety in the area by eliminating the weaving of traffic at the old 4th St. exit.  At left is E. Main Street over I-71; at right are the westbound I-70 lanes.  (Columbus Dispatch photo by Doral Chenoweth III)

About a decade ago, I stumbled upon a sleepy little rundown neighborhood just south of the redeveloped Main Street “Market Exchange District.” Fulton and Mound streets, east of Grant Avenue, had an odd mix of nonprofit offices, parking lots, light industry and the remnants of an old neighborhood with scattered houses and shuttered storefronts.

I remember thinking it would be a great, low-cost place for a bigger cluster of small nonprofits and small-scale commercial and residential redevelopment.

Alas, the sleepy but walkable streets are now crowded with highway traffic at rush hours. Formerly two-way, Mound Street is now a westbound off-ramp from I-70 to the Franklin County Courthouse. And Fulton — one-way westbound for decades — suddenly became an eastbound one-way on-ramp to I-70 a few months ago, even as drivers continued heading west two weeks after the change.

In reality, the change wasn’t very sudden.

Seeds were sown in 2003 when ODOT planners and engineers began a series of outreach meetings on the reconstruction of the I-70/I-71 convergence. I wrote about some of those initial meetings as the transportation reporter for the Dispatch. What was touted then as a $500 million project that would begin in 2008 has become a $1.4 billion project that began in 2010 and won’t be completed until 2026. It was focused on reducing crashes and lane changes on the complex Downtown I-70/I-71 interchange.

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I recall from those meetings, and from Metropolitan Club forums about the project, that many community activists raised questions about how a 3-C rail line could reduce long-distance traffic through the interchange, and how the opportunities for local-transit improvements, increased pedestrian and bicycle activity, and population growth Downtown and in nearby neighborhoods, could reduce local traffic on the highways. They argued that instead of designing for current traffic and expected increases, ODOT should comprehensively plan for future options and an integrated network.

ODOT had hundreds of hearings over five or more years and considered options from rerouting I-70, digging a tunnel beneath the current highway and building a deck over the current highway. Columbus officials insisted on models that reconnected Downtown with neighborhoods to the east and south — with some success east of I-71, but not south of I-70.

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In the end, Columbus is getting the sort of model criticized by Charles L. Marohn Jr., author of Confessions of a Recovering Engineer and founder/president of Strong Towns, a website and national movement.

“What you’re seeing is a confusion over what creates wealth in a community,” Marohn said recently, observing Mound Street on Google Street View in a Zoom call. Moving commuters quickly through Downtown may make the city more palatable to them. “But when you do that, you make the city less attractive,” Marohn said. “And you make life a lot more difficult and less enjoyable for people living in the city. It’s a tragic tradeoff.”

Marohn’s book, published in September, stresses streetscapes that are designed to be “livable” — navigable sidewalks and neighborhoods that are comfortable and active — but also less deadly to pedestrians. That is the heart of the book, which begins with the sad story of a 7-year-old girl, her cousin, and her mother, who were hit by a drunk driver’s car as they crossed the street from the public library to the parking lot at the edge of downtown in Springfield, Mass.

The 7-year-old died from crossing a street that was re-engineered to accommodate commuters in cars going into and out of downtown. The street is a type prominent in cities large and small: stately “old money” homes on a prominent corridor, converted to busy commuter thoroughfares that devalue the surrounding property.

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In his first book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity,  from 2020, the iconoclastic Marohn argued that a city’s roads, bridges and pipes are not really assets, but liabilities that will need to be maintained for many decades. The city’s asset is the tax dollars generated once the infrastructure increases the value of the surrounding land. Thus, “Streets are platforms for building wealth.”

“If we focus on how we create the most wealth and value in the core of the city, you’ll find traffic flowing through is the antithesis,” Marohn said. The wealth is maintained only if the city maintains the infrastructure and nurtures the neighborhoods — which includes ensuring safety in the streets.

Mound and Fulton streets looked forlorn, yet full of possibility, a decade ago. Today, with even fewer buildings and more vacant spots, it looks utterly forgettable — nothing worth looking at, so commuters can zip on by. And with one-way streets and fast traffic, the “Freeway Ramp District” is unlikely to be a vibrant neighborhood in the foreseeable future.