The Defining Decade: Downtown Gets Greener

Suzanne Goldsmith
The Scioto Mile

Park your folding chair on the grass at the John F. Wolfe Columbus Commons as the crowd gathers for a sold-out, summer-evening Picnic with the Pops concert—or a free performance by The Floorwalkers or Shadowbox Live—and it's hard to believe that this high-rise-ringed square of green, with its carousel, covered stage and fleet of food trucks, was not always here. A stroll along the nearby Scioto Mile can evoke the same feeling, although the slender trunks of the trees by the riverbank reveal how recently this inviting waterside ribbon of green was created.

Just a decade ago, the Downtown stretch of the Scioto River was a brownish, sluggish, silty, smelly waterway, separated from the civic center by a road and a massive floodwall. And squatting on the site that's now Columbus Commons was a boxy indoor shopping mall, a 1.25-million-square-foot, three-level fortress designed to attract shoppers from the suburbs who could park, shop, return to their cars and exit the city without even breathing its air. Worse, at just 20 years old, the mall was dying, with only eight small stores remaining open in 2009.

But the death of City Center mall was an opportunity for Columbus. Plans had been in the works since 2004 to redevelop the waterfront along the east side of the Scioto. After city leaders tried and failed to find a new use for the still structurally sound mall, the only option was to knock it down—and the plan that emerged was to replace it with a park.

Read the rest of Columbus Monthly's Defining Decade series.

Funded through a public-private partnership led by the city along with private partners AEP and Nationwide Insurance and overseen by the nonprofit Columbus Downtown Development Corp., the Columbus Commons plan retained the underground parking garage beneath the mall and created above it a 9-acre park designed to shrink as its edges were developed. Construction began on the park in 2010.

“The idea was that the green-space would be a catalyst for development around it,” CDDC president Guy Worley told The Dispatch in 2016, “with the park itself providing the energy and activity that attracts people to live and work in the area.”

The Scioto Mile, 175 acres of riverfront parkland (33 of them created in a second phase of the project by the 2013 removal of the Main Street dam, which had swelled the river and impeded its flow) opened in 2011—the same year as Columbus Commons—creating a new space for evening strolls and community festivals, complete with a dramatic, interactive fountain, a waterside restaurant and miles of paths dotted with benches and swings and even sculpted deer in humanlike poses. “Both of these developments have expanded the public realm,” says local historian Jeff Darbee. “These are spaces for everybody in the city, no matter who you are.”

The plan also sparked residential development. Since the parks opened, a dozen new apartment buildings have gone up in the vicinity, and the Downtown residential population has more than doubled.

But at about 9,000 residents, Downtown still lacks residential density. Will restaurants and retail fill the many gaps in Columbus' Downtown streets, complementing the magnetic energy of the new greenspaces? That's a question for the coming decade.

Like what you're reading?Subscribe toColumbus Monthlymagazine so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.

January: With the city bleeding jobs, the Columbus Partnership launched Columbus 2020, a new regional economic development effort.

February:The city of Columbus agreed to a $950,000 settlement with Derris Lewis, who was wrongly accused of killing his twin brother, Dennis.

November:John Kasich won his first of two terms as Ohio governor in a Republican sweep of statewide offices.

Other 2010 Moments