The New Downtown: West Side Story

Eric Lyttle
Columbus Monthly
The National Veterans Memorial and Museum rises on the west bank

The COSI trustees did Frederic Bertley a favor of sorts before he took the reins as CEO of Columbus' Center of Science and Industry on Jan. 1. They filled out the “to do” list for his first year on the job.

Two months before Bertley was plucked from the prestigious Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, COSI announced big plans—a first-of-its-kind partnership with New York City's American Museum of Natural History. The result will be two new galleries. One will house a massive imagination-stoking exhibit of AMNH's renowned dinosaur collection, featuring loaned remnants and interactive displays, which is slated to open in November. And just in case you get sidetracked by the giant swinging pendulum upon entering, a life-sized model of a toothy Tyrannosaurus rex will make sure you know this is not the same old COSI.

A second gallery will feature a rotating sample of exhibits curated by AMNH, beginning in February with Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World,which will explore the innovations, art and culture that moved across the Silk Road from China to the Middle East through artifacts, textiles, a re-created night market and more. The exhibit will remain at COSI for about six months.

Together, the two new galleries will occupy a total of 22,000 square feet on COSI's first-floor concourse. To turn the partnership with the world-renowned American Museum of Natural History into a reality necessitated a $5 million line item from Ohio's legislators and a $2 million gift from Les and Abigail Wexner.

But COSI's new galleries are only the beginning. While the towering T. rex appeals to our fascination with the prehistoric past, outside of COSI's doors, a long-simmering future awaits. Under the direction of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp.—the same nonprofit group of public and private partners who shepherded the transformation of the Columbus Commons and the Scioto

Greenways—a development plan is in place that finally will allow Columbus' Downtown to jump the river that for a century or more has hemmed it in.

Throughout the summer, the beeping and belching of earth-moving machinery has marked progress on either side of West Broad Street. Just outside of COSI's entry, a new 638-space, two-story underground parking garage is nearly ready to greet the anticipated influx of peninsula visitors—a project that Bertley jokingly referred to as COSI's free, outdoor engineering exhibit as it was being excavated and constructed during his first months on the job. Atop the garage, a new city park is being planted, nearly identical in size, shape and function as the now-bustling Columbus Commons. And like the Scioto Mile fountains at Bicentennial Park, which the CDDC also orchestrated, this new park will include a water feature cutting across its center—17 feet wide and 62 feet long, shooting arcing streams into the air at periodic intervals. “Greenspace is the catalyst for urban development,” says CDDC's president and CEO Guy Worley.

Across Broad Street to the north, a National Veterans Memorial and Museum is in the finishing stages, its eye-catching architecture seemingly corkscrewing out of the ground in ribbons of concrete, replacing the bland, boxy, beige Franklin County Veterans Memorial that was known more for baseball card shows and bodybuilding conventions than the accomplishments of military heroes. And like COSI's partnership with the American Museum of Natural History, L Brands founder Les Wexner has been instrumental in the creation of the national veterans' museum, from inviting the late John Glenn to help define its mission to donating $25 million to help cover its construction. And on an even grander scale, the busy CDDC is looking to turn a 21-acre rectangular strip of surface parking lots just west of COSI into a high-density, mixed-use, pedestrian- and tourist-friendly neighborhood that would include more than 1,500 apartments alongside offices, restaurants and a 240-room hotel.

This entire Scioto Peninsula vision was already in place before Bertley could unpack his favorite lab coat in January. As the gateway to this entire “Westward Ho!” adventure, next month's opening of the Dino Hall will provide the first glimpse of what's possible as Columbus planners and developers turn their crosshairs to the long-neglected west riverbank. With the keys to the front door now firmly in his hand, Bertley knows his entire agenda for 2017 could fit on a single Post-it Note that says, simply, “Don't fail.”

In a March interview, with not even three months at COSI's helm under his belt, Bertley already recognized his place in the local social order, even if he hadn't quite learned the subtlety of delivering the message. “If [the AMNH partnership] succeeds,” he said, “people will say it was testament to Les Wexner's vision. And if it doesn't, it's on Frederic Bertley.”

The development of the Scioto's west bank has been inevitable for decades. “Anybody who can read a map saw it coming 20 years ago,” says Jim Sweeney, the former director of the Franklinton Development Association.

For decades, Franklinton was seen as a desolate floodplain of abandoned surface parking lots, public housing projects and poverty. In many cases, perception was reality. “Franklinton was a jab in the side of Downtown,” Sweeney says.

What attracted Lucas Sullivant to establish the area's first settlement on the west bank of the Scioto River—the fertile soils of the river's floodplain—was ultimately its Achilles' heel. As Franklinton grew, those periodic floods became hazards. The infamous Great Flood of 1913 swept homes, businesses and people down the river. It was the worst of the Franklinton floods, prompting the city to take actions that included widening the river and creating high concrete embankments. But flooding continued, albeit somewhat abated, and the threat of natural disaster, coupled with the high cost of flood insurance, was an anathema to big-dollar development.

However, things began changing quickly. In 2002, then-Mayor Mike Coleman introduced a Downtown strategic plan that called for the development of 10,000 new residential units in 10 years. The plan also called for narrowing Civic Center Drive and opening it to two-way traffic to make room for a mile-long promenade linking Bicentennial Park to the south with Battelle Park to the north. And to implement the whole plan, Coleman created the Columbus Downtown Development Corp., a nonprofit public-private partnership run by a board that includes the top CEOs in the city.

In the decade that followed Coleman's plan, with the CDDC riding shotgun, the mayor spearheaded a transformation of Downtown. The Scioto Mile turned the river into something to be enjoyed instead of a clogged artery hidden behind skyscrapers. The City Center mall gave way to the Columbus Commons, which itself gave rise to more than $350 million in private development—most of it residential.

In 2013, just four months after the Scioto Mile was dedicated, the Main Street dam was demolished. In one stroke, the Scioto River narrowed by almost half and began to flow again. As a result, 33 acres of new riverbank was exposed and planted on both sides of the river. “When we narrowed the river, we narrowed the gap,” says Amy Taylor, the CDDC's chief operating officer. “You could look across the river, and it didn't seem so far. It felt like Downtown.”

The city's attention began shifting to the west side of the river. The seven-mile, $134 million Franklinton floodwall—completed in 2004, five years after COSI relocated to the Scioto Peninsula—took the restraints off development in the floodplain long referred to as The Bottoms.

When the $32 million Rich Street Bridge opened in the summer of 2012—connecting the Scioto Mile to the Scioto Peninsula— Franklinton resident Ken Mollica erected a Las Vegas-style sign to the side of a boarded-up Town Street home he owned on the bridge's west end. “Welcome to Fabulous Franklinton, Ohio,” it read.

The city and its CDDC partner didn't step timidly across the river. On Aug. 13, 2013, Coleman—flanked by John Glenn and all three county commissioners—unveiled a plan for a “cultural mile” along the Scioto Peninsula. The plan, a year in the making, included replacing the old Vets Memorial.

It also proposed building a 50,000-square-foot, multilevel Columbus Zoo indoor attraction on a riverfront site just south of COSI that, along with the science center and the veterans museum, would anchor the cultural mile. The three institutions would be tied together by the 7-acre park atop an underground, two-story parking garage. To the west of that, the construction of a dense, mixed-used development was proposed that included housing, hotel accommodations and office and entertainment space.

Like the Arena District nearly 20 years earlier, however, the plan hit a snag when the public was asked to help chip in. When the zoo put a permanent tax levy on the ballot the following May to help pay for its riverfront expansion, voters overwhelmingly rejected it. Plans for that third cultural site still remain undecided, though Wexner's business partner and friend, Jack Kessler, says recent discussions have centered on the installation of a public aquarium. Worley confirms that an aquarium was one of a handful of options being discussed. “There are lots of ideas about what that third cultural site might be,” he says, “and I won't deny that's one of them. But right now, we're not focusing our efforts on that just yet. We're trying to finish the plans currently in front of us.”

Foremost among them is the $70 million, 55,000-square-foot National Veterans Memorial and Museum, expected to open next summer. While initially there was pushback from some veterans' groups about tearing the old Vets down, it was hard to argue with the mission of the new museum—especially when Ohio's most respected and beloved veteran, John Glenn, was largely the man behind it.

Kessler recalls traveling with Wexner to Glenn's Miranova home to present the former World War II ace, astronaut and senator with his idea of replacing the old Vets Memorial with a new one—one that would be much more than a memorial in name; one that actually told individual veteran's stories and experiences throughout history. Kessler says Glenn “was on board immediately.”

For the next year, Glenn, though more than 90 years old at the time, traveled the state gathering input from various veterans' groups. He chaired about a dozen veterans' committees, Worley says, “and the plan just kept getting better.”

“We didn't have to replace Vets Memorial with another memorial to veterans,” Worley says. “But it was important to John Glenn and to Les Wexner, and it was something that hadn't been done before—a truly national museum dedicated to the 22 million living veterans, telling their stories and the stories of winning the freedoms that we all enjoy as Americans.”

A worthy mission needed a worthy home, and the National Veterans Memorial and Museum is an architectural marvel—literally a sculpture made of concrete, steel and glass, says Nigel Carter, Turner Construction's senior project manager on the site. “This is one of the most complex buildings we've ever seen, with three concentric concrete rings, forming Xs where they intersect, with no two radiuses repeated throughout the building. I worked on the James Cancer hospital. That took six and a half years. But the complexity of this building dwarfs that.”

The inspiration for the design, Carter says, came when architect Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works in Portland and New York City drew a swirl in the sand with his finger. “It turned into this—a swirl of concrete,” says Carter.

The circular design includes a walkway from Broad Street, winding around the building to a rooftop terrace that can accommodate 1,000 people. “Imagine a Veterans Day parade processional winding its way up here,” the CDDC's Taylor says. “It will be very special.”

Glenn died almost a year to the day after construction of the veterans' memorial began. Worley says he gave Glenn and his wife, Annie, a tour of the site not long after ground was broken in December 2015. “I think he was impressed,” Worley says.

With the National Veterans Memorial and Museum plans well in hand, the CDDC turned its attention to the proposed high-density, mixed-use development on 21 acres just west of COSI. A market analysis and economic feasibility study conducted by Hunden Strategic Partners in September 2016 concluded, “The City of Columbus has identified the Scioto Peninsula as a primary focal point for the future growth and prosperity of the city's Downtown. The addition of two new bridges across the Scioto, combined with the successful Scioto Greenways Project, the existing Center of Science and Industry and the future Ohio Veterans Memorial and Museum have presented an opportunity for a catalytic development on the Scioto Peninsula. Any mixed-use development will not only be engulfed in the cultural and educational hub of Downtown, but it will also offer Downtown skyline views, easy access and a walkable Downtown environment that can maintain a neighborhood feel. A mixed-use development has the potential to generate significant visitation, activity, spending and employment in Downtown Columbus, as well as extend the vibrancy of Downtown to East Franklinton, an area of the city with great potential for additional growth and investment.”

Given the all-systems-go sign, the CDDC in February issued a request for qualifications for a master developer of the Scioto Peninsula, along with a draft design guidelines document that spelled out in 68 pages of specs and drawings exactly what Columbus' development corporation was looking for: “Based on market study, the fully built-out project should include 3.1 million square feet of space, including 1,575-1,800 apartments, 560,000-840,000 square feet of office space, 180,000 square feet of restaurant space and up to 240 hotel rooms,” with a target commencement date of spring 2018, it said.

Worley says the request was sent to 170 developers around the country. Seven proposals were received by the March 27 deadline, and by April, the team had narrowed its choices to three. Among them was a proposal from Easton co-developer Georgetown Co. that partners with local real estate firm Kaufman Development and the Daimler Group. The plan included the required housing/office/hotel/entertainment elements, as well as a nod to Columbus being named a $50 million Smart City grant recipient with its proposed “Smart City Exposition Center” where demonstrations of “Smart City” technologies, including autonomous vehicles, would be an educational attraction.

Another finalist was Crawford Hoying, the developer of the ambitious Bridge Park project, a huge, dense, mixed-use development being built in Dublin at Route 161 and Riverside Drive. Two sources, however, confirmed that Crawford Hoying was no longer in the running in the Scioto Peninsula project.

The third finalist was the Buckingham Companies of Indianapolis, which seemed to place its emphasis on affordable housing and a nod to the organic, hip arts community that's developed further west in Franklinton. “Scioto will be the cultural district for Columbus, with a focus on art displays, culinary cuisine and local entertainment,” said one part of the largely redacted Buckingham proposal obtained from the CDDC. “We envision a tenant mix that will compliment [sic] the lifestyle and enhance the neighborhood.”

Elsewhere in the proposal, Buckingham stated, “We have a passion for creating positive change and workforce housing, community and economic development, as well as the arts and culture of our communities. We agree that in order for Scioto to be truly successful, it must be inclusive to the growing demographics of Columbus, both from an income-range standpoint as well as creating opportunities for age diversity based on design.” The CDDC was expected to announce its final selection in September, sometime after this issue of Columbus Monthly went to press.

Columbus development director Steve Schoeny believes that whoever is selected needs to understand that the proposed development is not only an extension of Downtown but an extension of Franklinton, too. Last spring, Schoeny hosted a community meeting in Franklinton, in which about 50 neighborhood residents attended. He says one of the main concerns voiced was that the development create a blend, and not an edge, so that “residents aren't suddenly looking at glass and steel skyscrapers that turn their backs on Franklinton,” he says.

Additionally, he says, “They want to make sure the development speaks to the arts, incorporates the arts, has space for public art. And they want affordability—some space for what we call workforce housing.”

Schoeny, who is a member of the CDDC's selection committee reviewing proposals, says he relayed Franklinton's concerns to all three finalists. “These are very complex decisions, with a host of factors,” he says. “You look at the projects, and you look at the people, and you determine what is the art of the possible? Where are you on that spectrum of good enough and perfect, where good enough is not good enough and perfect doesn't exist? If you do the process well, the decision makes itself. I believe this one will play out that way.”

“I'm guardedly optimistic that the artistic vibrancy and creative community that we've created over here can stay in place,” says Sweeney, who helped guide Franklinton's fortunes for 15 years. “I think there are creative ways in which people here would be interested in participating [with the proposed development]. There's a level of coolness here that a developer would be foolish not to embrace. It's authenticity.”