Sunday, May 17th, 2009

Columbus: The New Midwestern Star

Columbus, Ohio is by far the best performing city in Ohio. In a state that has become a byword for the challenges and pain of de-industrialization, Columbus is a clear standout, with strong economic and population growth.

A lot of the analysis of what makes Columbus different from Cleveland, Toledo, Dayton, Youngstown, and even Cincinnati often starts out by noting all the advantages Columbus had. It is the state capital. Ohio State University is there. It was not a traditional heavy manufacturing center, and so did not have that legacy to overcome.

But what strikes me about Columbus is not all the advantages it has, but rather the handicaps it has when compared to other Midwestern standouts like the Twin Cities:

  • The Columbus metro area has only 15% of the state’s population, and thus does not form a significant voting block in the state house. Compare to say the Twin Cities or Chicago.
  • It is one of three major cities in Ohio (Cleveland and Cincinnati being the others), and is the smallest of them. There are also a number of mid-sized cities like Toledo, Youngstown, and Dayton. This makes Ohio an urban-friendly state, but also makes the competition for state resources intense. There is no other Midwestern state with anything like this.
  • Cincinnati and Cleveland both came of age early and were giants of their ages, which endowed them with an incredible built environment legacy and many absolute top quality high culture institutions. Since Columbus lagged, and since Ohio already had these things through Cincy and Cleveland, Columbus is comparatively lacking in both regards. It is especially notable that Columbus’ high culture institutions are very weak compared to most Midwestern cities.
  • Columbus does not have any of the top three professional sports team, again, probably because of the Cincy/Cleveland factor. People who think pro sports are overly key to urban success have to be able to explain away the Columbus example. It does have NHL and MLS franchises.
  • Columbus has a comparatively weak central business district. It has the typical office buildings and such to be sure. But its downtown mall, City Center, is closed and will be demolished. It is not a major convention destination. Nor is downtown a major entertainment district for the city.

So you can see that there are a number of structural weaknesses working against Columbus. But the one that I really think is the kicker is the name “Columbus” itself. It is just very generic and has no brand recognition. Columbus is probably the biggest city in America where the state is almost always given along with the city, i.e., “Columbus, Ohio” versus “Cincinnati”. Say Detroit, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, St. Louis and by themselves people know where you are talking about at at least something about it. But say Columbus and people probably think of a town named Columbus in their own state, like Columbus, Indiana or Columbus, Georgia. This is one area the lack of pro sports probably hurts the city badly, since cities with major league franchises are constantly getting their name on TV. (I have long endorsed viewing pro sports subsidies as basically a naming rights sponsorship, where the city pays to put its name on the team for marketing exposure. How much would it cost to buy all those TV impressions? A lot more than the cost of the team.) Heck, type “Columbus” into Wikipedia and you get back a disambiguation page.

In addition to just having a generic name shared with cities in various states, there is really nothing that would put Columbus on the mental map of the world. Louisville has the Kentucky Derby. No matter what else people may or may not know about Louisville, everyone knows the Derby and that it is in Louisville. It’s a similar story for the Indianapolis 500. But Columbus? Nothing.

I caused some pain for myself on a Columbus message board by suggesting that outside the United States, especially in Europe, Columbus, Indiana probably has better brand recognition than Columbus, Ohio and that among a certain social set if you just said, “Columbus”, the Indiana town is what would come to mind. This is because Columbus, Indiana has one of the world’s most important collections of modernist architecture by a who’s who of key architects. (It is an absolute must visit, incidentally, and be sure to sign up for the bus tour at the visitor’s center). It has an international reputation for this.

So I think in looking at Columbus, you need to be able to see its success in terms of the big headwinds the city faces in some respects. This renders its performance all the more impressive. Consider:

  • The Columbus metro population is growing at a rate of 1.1% per year, which exceeds the national average. It is the second fastest growing large city in the Midwest after Indianapolis. What’s more, its growth held steady last year in a time when most cities suffered declining performance. Indy’s growth rate has eroded the last two years running, so if trends continue, Columbus will be #1 in short order. The Columbus region is adding people at a healthy run rate of 200,000 per decade.
  • Columbus has net in-migration, including the rarity of domestic in-migration.
  • Columbus has been adding jobs at one of the strongest rates in the Midwest. While its economy has taken a hit recently like all others, it has held up much better than the Midwest. Its unemployment rate of 8.1% compares favorably to other traditionally strong Midwest economies like Indianapolis (8.7%), Minneapolis (8.4%) and Kansas City (8.2%)

Columbus’ economy is powered by many of the same things that have led other Midwest peer cities. Columbus has a very low cost of living, an increasing array of urban amenities, and very high quality of life with regards to such measures as traffic congestion. It does also have the benefit of Ohio State University, the largest university campus in the country, which has the effect of almost making Columbus America’s biggest college town. Normally a school wouldn’t make as big a splash in a city this size, but OSU is so huge, it does. This has many positive impacts such as skewing the population younger, driving international migration, increasing college degree attainment rates, and enabling research oriented spinoffs. (It probably does act as a drag on labor force as a percentage of population, however).

Columbus also seems to have benefited from longstanding enlightened leadership. Back in the 1950’s or so, one of their mayors made a key decision. He refused to extend water service to places that did not agree to be annexed. Thus Columbus was able to expand geographically where most Midwestern cities got hemmed in. So while it does not have a city-county merger in effect, Columbus takes up a huge amount of the county, with a population in the city proper of over 700,000 people. Ohio has very favorable annexation laws for cities that control utilities. If you get utility service from a city, you can’t stop them from annexing you – and you can annex across county lines, something that Columbus has already done. While it now does have cities like Dublin ringing it in some respects, there seems to be a recognition that there needs to be room for the city to continue to grow, and from what I’ve seen, annexation boundary agreements with suburbs continue to provide more or less unlimited possibilities for Columbus to continue expanding.

The corporate community is robust and engaged. Columbus seems to have a very strong economic development mindset, and a pro-business attitude. The local corporate community has been very active in things like the development of the Arena District, and has pumped a lot of money into the downtown. There can be complaints, probably with some degree of legitimacy, that development policies are overly corporate driven, but this is true everywhere. Columbus has also notably maintained a large white collar work force.

The government and citizen base seems to be supportive of fairly progressive public policies. I noted recently how citizens of the city have routinely voted for bond levies to fund various civic improvements. Even in this recession, there was just a vote for a parks levy that is partially to maintain operations, but also partially to expand the parks. Like many cities, Columbus has a lot of overgrown country roads that haven’t been upgraded, but it is trying. Last year Columbus spend $50 million on adding new sidewalks, for example. There have been other bond issues and many of them are focused on things like sidewalks and other projects to improve the quality of the overall city’s general infrastructure, not a handful of splashy mega-projects. As I’ve long said, the mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary spaces, not its special ones. Every small town in America makes its Main Street look nice. But the ordinary street is much more important. Columbus seems to get that.

The one thing that has failed in Columbus is light rail. It was voted down. Actually, I think that’s probably a good thing since while improved transit is certainly needed there, a very expensive light rail system probably isn’t a fit for Columbus.

Columbus, like most cities, has an urban core that has many challenges. There are a lot of areas of the old city of Columbus that are as decayed as any other place. But Columbus also has a lot of urban gems in its central city as well. German Village might well be the best historic district in the United States. It is truly incredible and a must visit. While the downtown isn’t that exciting, areas like the Short North and the entire continuous strip of urbanized development north along High St. through the University campus up to Worthington is impressive. There are a number of smaller Franklin County suburbs that are super-cool “old school old money” type places in their appearnce. Newer places like Dublin are starting to turn it on.

So what does Columbus need to do moving forward?

1. It needs to strengthen its brand. I wrote a lot about strengthening the brand of Indianapolis in this blog, but that city is one I know intimately. I don’t know Columbus well enough to judge what its essential character might be, but ultimately a real brand image needs to spring from the native soil. Columbus can’t be a world class city unless it is a world class Columbus. Great cities, like great wines, have to express their terroir. Trying to graft coolness onto a place apart from its essential character only looks pathetic. I think Columbus is still stuck in a insecure phase where it is engaging in braggadocio to make itself seem like it is one of the cool upperclassmen. The best example here is the city calling itself “The Indie Arts Capital of the World”. There is actually some goodness in this. I noted the city’s relatively weak high culture institutions, so focusing on indie arts makes sense. But is this brand likely to play in Chicago? I don’t think so. Nor do I think it works as a aspirational statement since it seems at odds with local character and difficult to achieve. This won’t be easy. The name Columbus itself is a bit of a millstone as I noted. But I think it can be done. It’s going to take a lot of digging deep and working hard, and finding an inner confidence in what Columbus is as a city.

2. Infrastructure is a problem. Columbus is growing and needs to expand its infrastructure to keep up and also improve and maintain its legacy infrastructure. The problem is that key portions of Columbus’ legacy infrastructure require very expensive upgrades that will likely suck up all available funds. This will hurt it if something creative isn’t found. For example, ODOT is going to spend over a billion dollars reconstructing part of the inner loop downtown. That is desperately needed since the road is unsafe, but is unlikely to add to Columbus’ competitive advantage as a city. And that’s a billion that can’t be spent on other things. Some locals want to put caps on the freeway to mitigate the “noose effect” it has on downtown. These are very expensive and have been considered too costly to include. This ought to be reconsidered. Yes, it won’t be cheap. But cutting out every “value added” element from a project to keep the cost down means you could ultimately end up with still an ultra-expensive project, but one that has little real boost for the city. If you’ve got lemons, you need to make lemonade. If you’re going to hold your nose and fix a problem like this, you might as well pinch a little harder and do the job right so that you get some actual value out of it.

3. Improve the quality of urban design. Columbus isn’t bad, but its built environment is rather generic. It needs to improve the quality of its architecture and public space, and what’s more use design as a way of expressing its brand. This is a huge opportunity area for cities like Columbus to create a differentiated physical environment at modest incremental cost. It seems to be something that doesn’t register with people, however. Indianapolis, as I’ve noted, has some simply superb examples of design in a handful of locations – but refuses to do anything with them. I am utterly befuddled by this. Even Chicago is backsliding on this front. It’s a big opportunity area for Columbus.

4. Tune-up the economic development engine. Columbus is doing well here – it’s hard to argue with the results. But I think a pro-active scan to find some specific niches where Columbus can create sustainable competitive advantage and get the benefits of being a first mover are would be good to do. I think the future is about micro-clusters made up of many small and medium sized businesses that in aggregate will add up to what say a single major HQ or factory might have had. Only looking at general mega-clustures like life sciences is not enough. Also, OSU brings huge numbers of outsiders to the area for four years. They probably had a great time. How can the city turn the OSU university alumni network into an urban alumni network?

On the whole, I think Columbus is rocking and rolling. Because of its weak name recognition and the fact that it is in Ohio, I think it flies almost completely under the radar. But this an impressive city and one that is arguably the best positioned of any Midwestern metro to really prosper in the 21st century economy. For those of you who haven’t been to Columbus, I strongly suggest a visit. This is not a Cincinnati or Chicago like place where you will be immediately wowed by the coolness of the built environment. But I think it will surprise you nevertheless. Before you go, drop by Columbus Underground and let the crew there tell you what you ought to see and do.

I don’t have pictures of all of the cool areas of Columbus, but here are a few samples for you.

Some scenes from German Village.

Here are some shots from the core of downtown. First the Ohio State House. Yup, no dome.

City Hall (I think)

Moving a bit north to the Arena District. I like to call this Columbus’ “Downtown 2.0”. They got it wrong bigtime the first time around by trying to spread major projects like City Center Mall around in order to act as anchors. The right approach is clustering multiple types of uses in a single district, which the city did right in the Arena District.

The downtown arena is named for Nationwide Insurance, which is the prime mover behind much of the downtown redevelopment.

The Columbus Convention Center. I’m not sold on the architecture, frankly, though they made an effort to do something other than the standard box.

Restaurants in the vicinity.

The Hyatt Regency Hotel. I’ve always thought buildings like this have a bit of an Orwellian aura about them. It looks like some Eastern Bloc country’s defense department.

Moving along to the north, we get to to a neighborhood called the Short North. The one photo I have of it in my archives doesn’t do it justice. Lots of arts related businesses here.

One of those old moneyesque suburbs I mentioned is Worthington in northern Franklin County. Here are a couple snaps.

The main street in north suburban Delaware, the eponymous county seat of the fast growing county in Ohio.

My take on more Midwest cities:

Chicago: A Declaration of Independence
Cincinnati: A Midwest Conundrum
Cleveland: What’s Wrong?
Detroit: Do the Collapse
Louisville: An Identity Crisis

Thoughts on branding from Indianapolis that are relevant to Columbus, as well as a concept brand positioning for Louisville

The Brand Promise of Indianapolis
Our Product is Better Than Our Brand
Louisville: Vice City

Thoughts on Urban Design that are relevant to Columbus

15 Quick, Easy, and Cheap Ways to Make a Big Urban Design Impact in Indianapolis

Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: Columbus (Ohio)

48 Responses to “Columbus: The New Midwestern Star”

  1. BryanCMH says:

    Great post. I’m 27 years old and have lived in Columbus for 5 years. I definitely agree with your views on the city — especially the need to brand itself better. Columbus is a great city that has a lot to offer. I just wish more people knew about it.

    One small correction to your photos though. The image you tagged as the headquarters for Nationwide Insurance is actually the Hyatt Regency hotel. Nationwide is the tall, thin building that sits across the street from the Hyatt.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comment – and the correction. I updated the article.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    I’m not sure that being just 15% of the state’s population is that much of a drag. The Triangle is 17% of North Carolina’s population and seems to be doing fine. I’m actually slowly building a database of metro populations by state, so that I can construct a metro fractionalization index for each state; this is more or less the probability that two randomly selected urban residents of a state live in the same metro area, where 1 means the state has just one metro area (e.g. Rhode Island) and 0 is an idealized case of infinitely many metro areas each comprising an infinitely small percent of the state’s population.

  4. says:

    I agree with quite a bit of that analysis including the fact that German Village is world class (and the Short North stands out as a top art/entertainment district in the Great Lakes/Midwest,outside of Chicago), but just to clarify, the old boundaries would put the population under 300,000 around 275,000. According to Wikipedia, back before Columbus went on its annexation rampage, we had 375,000 residents in our 50 spuare mile urban core, so we lost around a 1/5th of our population. Not so rosy. That figure includes the 30,000 residents Downtown in 1950 (at its peak) which fell to 3,000 in the 80s, a 90% population loss. Now you know why Downtown feels like something’s missing. On the bright side, that number is up to around 5,500, but development slowed down thanks to the economy, but also in large part because developers insisted on rehabbing existing buildings into condos that are isolated with nothing nearby. Too bad they didn’t understand what I do about reaching a critical mass in one area, with the exception of a couple of large-scale residential developments poised to do just that. Also not included in the overall population is the more recent gentrification of neighborhoods like Merion Village and Westgate

    The 700,000 figure is misleading since it includes lots of sprawling areas (totaling 212 square miles) and ignores the large amount of abandoned and razed homes. Hell, check out the large near-northeast side neighborhoods for the best examples, probably most similar to Indy’s near-east side. Which brings us to the branding issue. Indianapolis has “Indy”, Columbus has “C-bus”, so will that do?

    Now where I disagree to a certain extent is the light rail. I much prefer streetcars for mass transit since they are able to make a place walkable and attract development all along their route. Light-rail won’t allow you to walk to the Wal-Mart or to the light rail station from your cul-de-sac, most trips will still be by car and drain lots of oil. Not to mention the urban development they bring is only a small radius around each light rail station. Some of what I saw in DC looked dense, but it didn’t look like there was anything to walk to from those condos except for the station. I think Columbus should be pushing harder for DIY transportation whether it be scooters or bikes by putting cars in the backseat, at least in the urban core. That includes road diets, two-way conversions, slower speed limits, bike-boulevards and traffic calming where needed with a focus on our business districts and making it easy for residents and visitors to safely bike, scoot, walk or drive to get there.

  5. Ernesto says:

    I have lived in Columbus for nearly three years, transplanted from Boston. I miss home, but Columbus is a great place to live and it has grown on me tremendously. To the point now where I might have to convince my wife that we should stay here and take advantage of the lower cost of living.

    I am curious about your mention that light rail is not a fit here. Can you elaborate as to why? I still don’t know what to think about light rail here and would like to hear your take so that I can have an informed opinion. There is a part of me that wants it but I think the city might be too spread out for it to have a serious impact.


  6. Andrey says:

    Very interesting and detailed article, I truly enjoyed reading it. For my 2 cents I would add another disadvantage (the major one in my humble opinion) – geography/landscape. Cleveland has the lake, Cincy has the river and beautiful hills, and Columbus got a flat boring plateau (I don’t count the body of water that runs thru the downtown as a river – it’s not navigable). don’t get me wrong, I love Columbus, but to me it’s one of the few negative traits of the city.

  7. David says:

    Great stuff. I’d echo Columbusites’ general take.

    On light rail/streetcars and the like, quickly.

    As I see it, in a perfect world, Columbus could support a cheaper more modern version of Philadelphia’s mass transit system. With heaviest investment in the axial component (Broad and High). However, there are key suburbs at the four corners of the county that could take full advantage of transit systems that act more like much of the D.C. system and essentially collect commuters and take them to the core (Westerville, Dublin, Grove City, Reynoldsburg, et al.). The key for those lines would be speed to the core rather than any serious circulation aspect.

    In terms of identity, OSU is the dominant player (this really is the key difference between Cbus and Indy). Columbus still is a town in mindset. It has big city towns, rural towns, suburban towns. I would say that a lot of Columbus’s energy comes from absorbing the best and brightest of Ohio’s many smaller cities and towns, especially as a state power and influence has grown usually to the detriment of county seats and regional mercantile centers.

    It does have a very vibrant foreign immigrant community. Evidence, the Latino and East African parents cheering their kids on at the same soccer game I rode by this afternoon.

  8. Walker Evans says:

    Great analysis, ARenn! I agree with a lot of what you’ve said, and it’s great to see so much information all in one place on this topic.

    The whole annexation thing is a very tricky issue. While Columbusite is right that it can be misleading because a lot of what we’ve annexed it sprawl that has fled from the core of the city, it has kept our population and tax base steadily growing instead of losing all of those people to the suburban communities as so many other cities have. And just as you point out that Ohio is an oddity with multiple large cities competing for funds, I do think it helps in the region that Columbus doesn’t have too large of suburban communities fighting for those same types of regional resources.

    But yeah, otherwise I agree that name recognition and branding are big problems (that dont’ seem to have an easy answer) and that our history as a planned capital city gives us both a cultural and historical disadvantage as well as a “blank canvas for the future” advantage.

    All in all, I think it’s a pretty exciting time to be living in this city. 😀

  9. Paz says:

    Excellent post, though I was under the impression that it is the largest city in Ohio. Columbus has got a peculiar, Omaha-esque thing going on that is not like anything else in the Midwest.

    On my end, I’d be curious to see what a Cleveland-CBus-Cinci intercity train would do for the city. Strickland has really been talking it up, and Ohio has long been recognized as the critical hub for connecting east to Midwest in terms of intercity rail. I’d really like to see how that puts CBus on the map.

  10. JG says:

    I have been to Columbus and find it lovely to an extent. German village and the area along North High around the University are top-notch. The Central Business District is a disaster.

    The number of buildings and quality of architecture is sufficient; however, the area is so incredibly spread out. The number of parking lots and lack of green space make this a terrible spot for new residential or commercial development. It’s horrible but does not have to be so – Columbus residents deserve better.

    Possibly I am too tough on they city for Indianapolis has similar problems north of the AUL and Capitol buildings. Still INDY has a very dense 16 to 20 block core around the monument with few vacant/parking lots. INDY also has an abundance of parks within a mile of downtown (which always confuses me when folks say downtown INDY needs more park space.) Columbus does not have this.

    It’s a larger arguement that parking lots in CBDs worsen and invite blight and hurt economic development. Four city blocks of parking lots can be consolidated into a 1/2 block parking garage (2 levels below ground, 6 above) opening up space for development. Furthermore, investors who hold onto these lands in hopes of big payouts stiffle economic development. Maybe property taxes in CBD should involve a rate increase dependent on the amout of parking on site. Maybe caps on sale price should be enacted.
    Still, I am sympathetic to the rights of land holders, as long as they are sympathetic to the rights of the citizens to create a livable city.

  11. John says:

    “Louisville has the Kentucky Derby. No matter what else people may or may not know about Louisville, everyone knows the Derby and that it is in Louisville. It’s a similar story for the Indianapolis 500. But Columbus? Nothing.”

    I have to take issue with that. Everywhere I go in the country, OSU seems to be the identity of Columbus. Some people may not like that, but the Buckeyes are Columbus and Columbus is the Buckeyes.

    Otherwise, it was interesting to hear an outsider’s perspective on the C-Bus.

  12. Jefferey says:

    A historic point: Columbus was an industrial city like other Midwest cities. This is mimimized now as it doesn’t fall into the modern narrative of the place. Yet manufacutring was an important part of Columbus’ economy.

    Whats interesting is that the city apparently did manage to move to a more diverisfied economy during the post WWII era.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I think the point about manufacturing is that Columbus was not really a heavy industry town and not significantly dependent upon such old industries like Cleveland, the rest of Northeast Ohio, as well as Toledo and to a lesser extent Cincy.

    I agree with the post that OSU is what Columbus is identified with. It really is like a very large college town and that’s fine in many respects, but I can see how some would find that to be a bit much.

    The city does have a lot of parking lots downtown that could be turned into apartments and offices.

    For a growing population, when was the last significant downtown building to go up?

    I think the diversity of business has also helped the city in addition to the growing stability of OSU and the state gov – the Limited etc is not exactly the type of major employer that most cities have.

    I also do think between the student base and perpetual Columbus economy being better than the state as a whole will always make the city be a destination for in migration.

    After all, in migration seems to perpetuate more jobs, growth and in migration, but yes the city really is under the radar in terms of the country in general I think outside of college football fans.

    Rapid transit should be considered. I am not sure why it “doesn’t make sense?”

    Overall Columbus is doin well, but should actively work on getting to the next level.


  14. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone – I really appreciate the feedback.

    A couple things.

    When I say Columbus is the smallest of the 3C’s, I’m talking metro area population, not city-specific. I think that is a more relevant measure.

    Regarding light rail, my article Why Rail Transit is a Bad Idea for Indianapolis basically sums up my rationale. Virtually all of the arguments apply equally well to Columbus. I fundamentally think light rail is a “me too” type of endeavor rather than an honest look at what the region needs.

  15. Randy Simes says:

    German Village is probably the best urban neighborhood in Ohio. That is until Over-the-Rhine is further redeveloped, and when that happens nothing will come close to Cincinnati’s OTR…it will be right up there with the best urban neighborhoods on the east coast.

    Columbus has been a pleasant surprise for me though overall. I enjoy myself more than I would expect and they have several well maintained urban neighborhoods like German Village, Victorian and Italian Village, Short North, etc. They’re all great…gotta love the North Market.

  16. thundermutt says:

    A correction on the sports angle, Aaron: the NBA and NFL never went to Columbus because they couldn’t compete with the pro teams in football and basketball already there at OSU.

    How many NFL teams always sell out an 80,000+ seat stadium?

    Disclaimer: dad and two uncles are OSU grads.

  17. Alon Levy says:

    The 3C’s route is likely to do more for Cleveland and Cincinnati than for Columbus. In fact, on the Midwest HSR fantasy map, Columbus is by far the biggest Midwestern city without a direct connection to Chicago, followed by Dayton and Youngstown.

  18. David says:

    I’ll quibble on the winner in 3C. Relatively speaking, more folks will take half a trip on 3C than a full trip (i.e. Cbus to Cincy or Cleveland to Cbus). So many Cbus-ites have family still in other parts of the state, I foresee heavy usage both ways.

  19. says:

    I have to point out how lack of wayfinding signage hurts this city from a visitor standpoint. Notice how the Urbanophile stuck entirely to High St. While it is the centerpiece of our city, there is so much great stuff off of High St. that no outsider would know about, because there’s nothing to let them know it’s there. Going up High from Broad, what’s there to point you to business districts on Gay St., 5th St., E. Long St, Nationwide, W. 3rd, Grandview Ave., W 5th Ave, King Ave, Summit St, and Indianola? Nothing. Aside from W. Broad in Franklinton, south of Broad there’s Parsons Ave., Main St., 3rd St., Front St., E. Whittier St. and Thurman Ave. Nothing to point you there either except for a handful of small brown signs to German Village aimed solely at drivers coming off the highway. This measure would put C-bus far ahead of other Great Lakes cities, not just the other Cs, and would certainly pay for itself.

    I’ve scoped out business districts in Indianapolis for an upcoming photo tour (what casual visitor would do that?) and also did not notice any signage on streetview for visitors. While Downtown looks impressive, there should be signs pointing you to all of the healthy neighborhood business districts in all directions. Otherwise, neighborhoods like Butler-Tarkington, Falls Creek Place, and Irvington might as well not exist for visitors.

  20. Tray Hunker says:

    Columbus is a major convention city, though not for major conventions. People in Columbus need to get their minds right for progress. What’s been built and saved from destruction can only inspire people. Nonetheless, are you suggesting one can only get excited about “number one cities” and 3rd or 4th cities are burnt toast? I think the spirit needed to spread to smaller and smaller cities.

  21. Alon Levy says:

    David: Columbus is too close to both Cleveland and Cincinnati for rail to have a significant advantage over driving. True high-speed rail, with speeds of 150 mph or more, will take some people out of their cars, but still the largest market share will be with the Cleveland-Cincinnati city pair, which is close enough that rail can beat air and far away enough that it can beat cars. Even in Japan, even at 160 mph, intercity rail isn’t competitive with cars for distances of under about 170 miles.

  22. daddio says:

    Interesting! Your comments on Columbus, IN remined me of this from the Modesto Art Museum (

    “For decades through the mid 20th century, Modesto was on the cutting edge of modernist architecture in California. Art deco, Bauhaus or International Style, Googie, and mid-century modern are all well represented, and local and world renowned architects designed buildings for Modesto.”

  23. Anonymous says:

    I haven’t been to all of the Columbus suburbs but Dublin seems to be Columbus’s Carmel. A review of Dublin and what they are doing right would be a good complement to what you’ve done in your series on Carmel.

  24. JG says: I agree considerably with the idea of cities adopting better signage to direct people to specific neighborhoods, etc. Rather inexpensive when you look at large single projects cities spend money on and would high-light great but developing neighborhoods. Indy has attempted to “brand” and market culturally relevant neighborhoods and districts with fliers and some signage around town. I would argue it has been successful, but could be taken further.

  25. thundermutt says:

    With so much wayfinding information available online, why invest in physical signage?

    Why not invest in Wi-Fi hotspots, or iPhone apps?

  26. Alon Levy says:

    JG: cities dont need city-approved neighborhoods. The official neighborhood boundaries and names usually follow how the city and the developers who are close to it would like the neighborhoods to be like, rather than what the neighborhoods are actually like. It can also create misunderstandings, as the tourists want directions to a neighborhood that the locals know by a different name.

  27. JG says:

    ALON: Yes, I think see your objection. Often times people in city hall fail to see what actually exists on the ground. Where do the boundaries of a neighborhood “really” end? What do the residents on a street really identify as their neighborhood? Still in my city several neighborhoods with roots going back over 100 years exist with their own centralized districts, named schools, libraries, etc. I see nothing wrong with the larger city partnering with the neighborhood for better public identification.

    COLUMBUS-ITE: Nice blog. I am glad to see your last post on the downtown residential infill project. I have to agree that a parking garage with no ground floor retail or office space is unacceptable. Should never have been allowed.

  28. Jim Russell says:

    “But the one that I really think is the kicker is the name “Columbus” itself. It is just very generic and has no brand recognition. Columbus is probably the biggest city in America where the state is almost always given along with the city, i.e., “Columbus, Ohio” versus “Cincinnati”. Say Detroit, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, St. Louis and by themselves people know where you are talking about at at least something about it.”

    On the contrary, this is a brand asset. C-bus doesn’t have the stigma attached to it that other more recognizable Rust Belt cities struggle with. I think Paz is on point with the comparison to Omaha. People don’t know what to expect and that can be a good thing.

    For me, Columbus is a much bigger Madison. Or, if you like, look at the economic health of Morgantown or Ann Arbor. Having a major research university tied to the city is a huge boon.

  29. Alon Levy says:

    JG: at least in New York, it’s not about ignorance, but about a conscious effort by the city and by developers to replace names they associate with urban decay with names they associate with gentrification. Thus the Lower East Side became Alphabet City and then the East Village, Hell’s Kitchen became Clinton, and the Lower West Side became TriBeCa. Not content to change names, they also considered some ghettos to be parts of nearby upscale neighborhoods: for example, much of East Harlem is now labeled as part of the Upper East Side.

  30. JG says:

    ALON: Got it. I totally see your point regarding gentrification. The idea in NYC that the Upper East Side is somehow north of 110th St. is laughable – probably the attempt of unscruplous developers and landlords (along with politicians) to gouge renters. Even above 96th on the Eastside, from what I know, is mostly considered Spanish Harlem.

    This might bring up another discussion on how you define a neighborhood. Harlem for instance (according to Wiki) had a population of 101,000 in 1990 and has grown about 16% since that time. Clearly 120,000 people is more on par with a city and not a neighborhood – and I am not suggesting anyone said it was – but rather in dense urban areas a neighborhood might be a single block or two or three… And back to original discussion, these, I think as you and I might agree, are hard to define from 10,000 ft – or down at city hall.

  31. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks again everybody for the great comments – I really appreciate you checking out the article and contributing.

  32. Anonymous says:

    The discussions of neighborhood / district identity and marketing are worthy of a post of its own.

    I returned recently from a visit with friends in Kansas City, another Midwestern city that might be considered a rising star. The weather was perfect, and the city looked very appealing.

    KC has labeled (I refrain from using the word “branding”) a number of districts and neighborhoods, north to south, starting the with the City Market District between the Missouri River and the core downtown area. Country Club Plaza, the venerable shopping destination, was the last area that I visited on a tour given by my friend. I believe we drove through at least seven different clearly identified districts and neighborhoods.

    I think that, over time, this will help the Kansas City market itself to visitors and investors in the global economy, even if some districts are today more promise than fully functional destinations.

    I recall seeing Charleston, SC promotional literature a couple of years back with clearly defined districts around its historic core that were being used to market the city to visitors. I can’t vouch for the validity of the district boundaries, but they did help provide a top-line understanding of the city in a Kevin Lynch sort of way. My guess is that the marketers picked up on the formula that the great Richard Saul Wurman’s used for his ACCESS guide books, which broke down the great cities of the world into digestible parts.

    Cities like Charleston and KC are, of course, not the only ones that are trying to identify and market districts and neighborhoods. One of the more interesting outcomes of the post-Katrina planning endeavors along the Gulf coast was the number of plans for different cities that attempted to define neighborhoods in terms of the classic 1/2 mile / 10-minute walk. I’m not sure how these plans aligned with previous neighborhood boundaries or how practical this approach has proven to be, but it would be very fascinating to hear from those who participated in these planning endeavors–or residents of the cities themselves–as to how useful this approach has proven to be.

    Similarly, it would be very interesting to hear from Midwestern bloggers how their respective cities are using district and neighborhood designations for marketing purposes… and whether or not these efforts are thought to be successful.

    Perhaps Lynch’s 50-year old concept of “imagability” is more relevant than ever.

  33. Anonymous says:

    Did you happen to visit Easton Town Center?
    I know it’s not the most impressive place in the midwest, but I felt that it should have been mentioned.

  34. Anonymous says:

    Aside from the fallacy of building an indoor mall downtown, city center would likely still not only be alive but doing well if one in a market retail etc were not later added into massive shopping destinations later created north of the city. Maybe now, the city can create street level retail and an eclectic destination downtown…?


  35. ryan. says:

    Very interesting post! I was just in Columbus this past weekend, so many thoughts are fresh on my mind. I grew up in Columbus and I am also an urban designer so I often have my own praise and criticism for the city. I totally agree with you on the image, name and branding issues. I can’t count how many times I have been asked where I am from and I have to clarify Columbus with an Ohio. I even noticed at airports how the flights always say “Columbus, Ohio” but never “Cincinnati, Ohio”. It is an issue that the city should tackle, but I think just improving the overall quality of life can be a great start.

    I do however, disagree with the light rail sentiments. Rail transit will work in ANY city, regardless of how sprawling. The inherent point of building a system is not just to move people without cars, but to help reshape the physical environment. Areas around new stations typically see sky-rocketing land values and can all be redeveloped into walkable urban nodes. If Phoenix, San Diego, and Los Angeles can do it, then Columbus certainly can. People in Columbus need to get out of the mindset that rail transit just “won’t work” there. I’ve never quite understood that.

    Lastly, downtown is noticeably improving! I like the conversion of one-ways to two-ways, and the RiverSouth project is filling in some huge gaps. There is still a long way to go, and I have always felt that Columbus’ pro-growth annexation policies are working against their desire to redevelop the downtown. As long as new land is cheap, plentiful and serviced with water and sewer, developers are going to flock there. An urban growth boundary would be a swell idea for a city that has no geographical restrictions to sprawl.

    Columbus’ heart is in the right place usually. But hopefully they can catch up with the rest of the world pretty soon in terms of development, design, and transit. Here’s hoping!

  36. John says:

    Regarding the new downtown parking garages without any retail (there are two), they absolutely shouldn’t have been allowed. It is expressly prohibited in Columbus’ own zoning code:

    Section 3359.25 Transparency overlayThe purpose of the transparency overlay is to enhance the economic and urban environment, by limiting blank walls on the ground-floor level to encourage continuity of retail and pedestrian consumer service uses; to provide a pleasant, rich, and diverse experience for pedestrians by visually connecting activities occurring within a structure to adjacent sidewalk areas; to restrict fortress-like facades at the street level; and to avoid a monotonous environment.
    (A) Affected Areas. The provisions of the transparency overlay shall apply to frontages along streets, excluding alleys and other small streets dividing a full square block as indicated on the official city zoning map and as illustrated on Map 3.
    (B) At least sixty (60) percent of each building facade, between the height of two (2) feet and ten (10) feet above the sidewalk grade shall be transparent.
    (C) Uses which can be seen from the sidewalk inside the building within the required transparency area shall be occupied space and shall not be devoted to parking areas, truck loading areas, vehicular access ways, or storage.
    (D) The required transparency area shall not apply to sides of buildings having residential units located adjacent to the sidewalk; buildings of historic significance as determined by the Columbus Register of Historic Properties designation criteria contained in C.C. 3117.05; churches, synagogues or other buildings of religious worship; and buildings with plaza areas, set back from the right-of-way line of a public street more than forty (40) feet.
    (E) With the approval of the downtown commission display windows or display window boxes affixed to building walls may be substituted to meet the transparency requirements of Section 3359.25(B).

  37. thundermutt says:

    So Indianapolis isn’t the only downtown where development standards are not uniformly applied…

  38. baz_mcm says:

    You’ve got me eager for a trip to Columbus. Have only driven through. Never stopped. Must change that.

    Always appreciate your insights. You are a daily read on my blog tour.



  39. Scott Russell says:

    I love German Village. There’s an enormous old bookstore there that’s filled to the brim of hard-to-find items. Plus there’s Schiller Park, which is one of the only parks I’ve found in the Midwest named after a German poet. Oh, and Columbus has an MLS team despite not having a pro baseball, football or basketball team, which gives them a million cool points.

  40. The Urbanophile says:

    baz_mcm, thanks for the nice note. I did not check out MCM in Columbus, but I’m sure there is plenty to be found.

  41. jjg says:

    I find thundermutt’s idea of a wireless network downtown that automatically loads a wayfinding page or an Indianapolis cultural district widget for mobile phones intriguing. Even providing free wireless internet just on the mall or on the circle would have major benefits for usage of those areas. (Especially the mall.)

    On another note, I think it would be an excellent topic for discussion of why you think that if we do high speed rail in Indiana we should do it by using truly first rate technologies, while you believe Indianapolis’s foray into rail transit is ok using old technologies. (You may have addressed this previously and I may have just forgotten.) Why does top of the line apply in one case and not the other if our infrastructure is going to be one of our greatest selling points now and in the future?

  42. Kadim says:

    I have a bone to pick with your entry.

    There is a dictionary definition of Midwest which, unfortunately, includes Ohio due to historic circumstances.

    The modern connotation for “Midwest” has shifted further West and become much more rural than Ohio is.

    I like to say that Ohio is the bastard love child of New Jersey and Tennessee. It is very northeastern in parts, very southern in parts, very Appalachian in others. Columbus is the odd place where these different cultures meet.

    A responsible Governor would ban the word “Midwest” from the state employee’s handbook, put signs at the Indiana border welcoming people to the “Eastern United States” and doing whatever else needs to be done to do re-brand Ohio…well, honestly, anything else other than the Midwest. The word has become such a loaded pejorative.

    Please…use something else. :-)

  43. Alon Levy says:

    Kadim: the problem with rebranding Ohio as Eastern is that its connections to the BosWash corridor are terrible. Economically it ties in well to the freshwater economy centered around Chicago and Detroit. Its cities are dominated by manufacturing, not finance (which is less of a curse than you think it is – New York’s finance monoculture makes city fortunes too unpredictable). It has good highway and rail links to both areas and could in principle get good HSR access to Chicago, if Amtrak weren’t stuck in a 110 mph mindset.

    Culturally, Ohio is not Eastern, either. It’s really two countries – the Inland North, and the Midland. The Inland North consists of the areas settled by the Erie Canal – the Erie Canal towns in Upstate New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee. It has a distinct accent that just doesn’t penetrate the more conservative cities to its south, like Columbus and Indy; meanwhile, St. Louis, which is very liberal, has adopted this accent pattern even though it’s on the Mississippi.

  44. Anonymous says:

    I really think that Midwest is a little too broad. Ohio is not Eastern, even Northeast OH in Cleveland, the accent is northern Midwestern. And actually by Northern Midwestern I mean Great Lakes which is how I see Ohio and the eastern and Northern Midwest states to be which is not the same Kansas. Yes Ohio, Michigan and IL have farms, as does NY, PA, CA, MA, and every other state…


  45. Jim Russell says:

    “The modern connotation for ‘Midwest’ has shifted further West and become much more rural than Ohio is.”

    Much more rural?

    The Midwest is full of cities built by manufacturing. Isn’t Indiana still the most industrial state?

    The cultural and economic geography of the Midwest is too often bastardized. That said, debating the borders of the Midwest is fun. At least, I think it’s fun.

    Don’t get me started on the cultural archipelagos of St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Those three cities defy regional labels.

  46. T Wyatt says:

    couple of things about your column that are actually incorrect… you may need to check your references. Number one: Columbus is actually the biggest city in Ohio. Actually if you take the population of Cincy and Cleveland combined you then have near the total of Columbus proper population. Secondly, The Ohio State University is, like you said, huge. However unlike what you said, it doesn’t “skew” the population of Columbus in any way whatsoever. The population of the university, around 60,000, isn’t included in population numbers for the city. Because its’ students are not “permanently” living in the city, they are NOT included in population numbers! I actually have a few more things to say about some of your other “facts” but don’t have time to get into them now. I will soon!

  47. Michelle says:

    As a Columbus native now living in Indy I find your posts on Columbus fascinating. I must admit my visits "home" these days are usually quick trips spent mostly with my family, not exploring parts of the city, so my perceptions may be a bit skewed.

    After reading all the comments, though, here's my two cents:

    – OSU is definitely the closest thing to a brand that Cbus has (besides the nickname Cbus, which is cute but not much else). As someone else said, Columbusites are Buckeyes whether they like it or not. Growing up there, I never watched pro football, only college. The campus is beautiful in spots, and wonderfully grungy in others, like you'd expect. I've always been a fan of the grungy bits. And as far as culture goes, the Wexner center is fabulous.

    Dublin IS Cbus' Carmel. A comparison would be interesting.

    Easton, I think, is one of my most loathed parts of Columbus. I've often described it as the Disneyland of malls. It makes me sort of ill to be there for too long. I think a lot of it has to do with the architecture. They've gone a long way to make it look "nice" and pretty and colorful, but it all feels very temporary, like a movie set. Maybe someone more versed in city development would be able to tell me why I feel that way.

    I agree that the Arena district, is, by comparison, one of the most successful new additions to the city. I hope that downtown continues to grow more vibrant, like Indy's is.

    Besides High St, Grandview is a fun area for independent business and nice restaurants.

    I wish that Columbus would make more effort to highlight all the little neighborhoods or districts they have, as Indy has done with its cultural districts. As noted in the post, this needs signage and other marketing, like visitor maps and business directories.

    The convention center is nothing short of ugly; my father always called it The Architecht's Nightmare. My biggest gripe is that it looks okay, interesting, whatever, from the street, but from above (as you see it from the highway) or the back it looks like airplane hangers – awful.

    I hope that new architecture and/or developments in the city are, above all else, AUTHENTIC. Be bold and crazy in design, but don't try to imitate – do your own thing. Or, be concious of local history and reflect on that. Better yet, just improve on what's already there. I would hate to see the city turn into a homogeneous landscape of faux "towne centres" trying to be something they never will be.

  48. The Urbanophile says:

    Michelle, thanks for the insightful perspectives – and I agree with you on the authenticity point.

    The Carmel-Dublin comparison would be interesting. I'd have to do more research on Dublin though, and I'm not sure I'll ever get the time to do it.

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