Monday, May 26th, 2014

Checking In On Columbus


Fountain in a park, Victorian Village, Columbus, Ohio.

I was in Columbus, Ohio for a couple days last week. I hadn’t been there since my late 2010 Columbus Metropolitan Club presentation, and so it was good to get to check in and see how they were doing.

I once called Columbus “the new Midwestern star,” noting that they were one of those Midwest cities that’s doing far better than the region’s reputation would suggest. It’s been growing at a reasonably rapid clip in both population and jobs, beating the US average significantly, though not measuring up to the Sunbelt boomtowns. Home to Ohio State, it’s educated to significantly above the national average, has a diverse white collar employment base, and is also an emerging logistics center among other good things.

One of their biggest sources of frustration is that they aren’t better known in the marketplace. If I were to sum it up, they’re sick of people always putting the “, Ohio” after their name. (As I’ve written extensively about Columbus, Indiana in my own home state, hopefully they’ll forgive me if I do so in order to reduce ambiguity). Part of the reason is that while they check all the boxes, they haven’t really gone beyond the checklist to create things that would be truly compelling in the external marketplace. Columbus is basically what I mean by the “best practices” city – they are implementing all the best practices in the marketplace, but haven’t yet developed a compelling, unique brand positioning. I wrote about this in a post called “Rebranding Columbus” and focused on it at length in that presentation above. I’ll soon be back with another round of thoughts.

Short North

But today I just wanted to share some photos of various things going on about town. Like a lot of places, Columbus has seen a sizable amount of housing construction of apartments in its urban core in recent years. According to Walker Evans of Columbus Underground, there are about 5,000 units recently completed, under construction, or soon to break ground. That’s not going to reverse suburbanization, but shows that the urban center is showing significant signs of a more healthy market.


New construction on High St. in the Short North, Columbus.

The majority of the construction appears to be happening on the near north side. The first neighborhood north of downtown is called the Short North and is a very nice retail district that sits between downtown and the Ohio State campus. The picture above shows the High St. spine of the Short North with its signature arches.

You’ll see buildings under construction on both sides of the street, both showing increased verticality versus the existing building stock. This illustrates the densifying trend in arguably the city’s most desirable district, which has been provisionally welcomed though not without controversy. The building on the right is a Le Meridien hotel. The building on the left is for offices. It will also house a two-story Anthropologie store, which is very controversial for this neighborhood that has successfully fended off most major chains, including Starbucks.

Victorian Village and Italian Village

Short North is not exactly a neighborhood per se, but rather a commercial spine that joins (or splits depending on your point of view), residential neighborhoods on either side, Italian Village to the east and Victorian Village to the west.


Street in Victorian Village

As the name might suggest, Italian Village was originally the more working class of the two. For a part of its length its only a few blocks wide because it’s pinned in by railroad tracks.

Walker Evans graciously gave me a tour of new development and I took a lot of snaps, but didn’t make notes so I’m going from memory as to where these are. Apologies in advance if I make a mistake as to location in these photos. Here’s new development in Italian Village:

This neighborhood also has a pretty large industrial brownfield site that a developer tried and failed to tackle some years back, which is now moving forward again with what will be quite a number of units:

Development in Victorian Village:

More:

Grandview Heights Area

Columbus is famous for having annexed a large amount of territory. One result is that there area handful of independent municipalities that ended up entirely surrounded by the city, including Bexley and Grandview Heights. Because these have their own independent school districts, they’ve retained a lot of housing value and have a pretty high quality residential stock. The closure of some industrial plants led Grandview to try to replace the lost tax base by redeveloping them as mixed use residential/office/retail. Here’s a picture under development:

On the Columbus side of the border there’s also related development, though out of mercy to the city I won’t show it, as it includes a gigantic strip mall. I believe this area is all being developed by Nationwide Realty. Nationwide Insurance is HQ’d in Columbus and employs over 10,000 there. One thing insurance companies do is invest premiums collected in order to earn a return, and real estate is a popular choice. Nationwide just happens to be willing to bet a significant amount on its hometown. That’s a huge benefit to Columbus. They previously led the efforts to develop the successful Arena District downtown, and this is their latest foray. As with the Arena District, it appears to be solid, though not in any way distinctive, perhaps in keeping with an insurance company’s conservative mindset. This is part of the Columbus “reasonably best practices but not innovative or externally compelling” approach. It all has a vaguely “Sim City” feel, something that is by no means unique to Columbus. This development is far from complete:

Easton Town Center

I’ll make a brief diversion to a suburban type location (albeit within Columbus’ sprawling city limits). This is the lifestyle center Easton Town Center on the Northeast Side. It’s Columbus’ most upscale mall and also some to some associated apartments and a bit under three million square feet of office space. This gives the appearance of having been a completely master planned development. While it’s nice, it’s also sterile – “Stepford” as my one friend might call it – and also exudes the “Sim City” effect.


An interior street of the Easton Mall.


Parking lots only steps from the interior street above.


The extensively landscaped main access road at Easton, with new urbanist style apartments in the background.

Downtown

Columbus has a number of great and thriving urban core neighborhoods like Short North and German Village. Its downtown, by contrast, has been on the dull side, a stereotypical government and finance center. I didn’t see that a huge amount had changed since my last visit. Indeed, most of the development in the core seems to be outside downtown.

One exception is the site of the now-demolished City Center Mall. When the city scrapped it, I was not a fan of the idea of replacing it with a park, saying:

There seems to be a reverence for green space in cities bordering on the religious. But green space is only useful to the extent that it functions well in the urban fabric. If you take two blocks and grass them over like this, what you are really doing is just institutionalizing a vacant lot. Now a plaza or square of the European style is quite nice, but it is quite nice because those places are able to draw people. If 1.3 million sq. ft. of shops wouldn’t draw people, why will this park? That’s the great unanswered question. Plazas work in Europe because of the density of offices, retail, residential, and tourists. The activity on the plazas draws more people to be part of it, which forms a virtuous circle, but unless there is critical mass of activity to begin with, the spark will never strike. The intensity of development here is just not going to make it. In effect, this is another build it and they will come plan. What’s more, the city is permanently taking the land off the tax rolls and since, unlike a mall, it’s a non-revenue producing asset, there is a significant operating tail to fund as well.

City officials are correct that cities have to get their public spaces right. But the key part of a public space is the public. If you don’t have people, you haven’t built a true public space. I suspect that they will be forced to program events there near continuously to fill up this space.

My prediction appears to have been entirely vindicated. Here’s the park they built:

Looking the opposite direction:

This was an overcast but not especially gloomy weekday afternoon. I expect this to be close to the normal state of the park when programming is not in progress.

On the other hand, this is one area that has seen development. Only part of the site was reserved as a park. Various other sections were penciled in for development, which has been occurring. Here are some apartments that have attracted quite a bit of urban design criticism locally, but I find notable as being erected by an out of town developer, showing the increasing attractiveness of the local market for national investors:

The adjacent intersection of High and Rich also has significant development going in on all corners. All told, there will be about 1,000 units just in the area of this intersection. Fill up every intersection with that kind of density, and perhaps the park will be more regularly used sans programming.

Sadly, some of this involves demolishing historic buildings. I believe the site above was demolished and the buildings below will be as well. This is disappointing, but I do think there are value conflicts that can’t always been resolved neatly. Destroy and replace has been part of what it means to be a city forever. The judgement of history is whether the balance of preservation and redevelopment is right.

I was told the building at the corner has serious problems that this photo doesn’t do justice to.

Riverbank Restoration

One other interesting thing going on downtown involves changes to the Scioto River. Previously the city had redone the existing banks of the river with parkland and trails called the Scioto Mile that is quite nice. We had drinks at a tavern that overlooked the river in a way that was both urban and scenic.

However, sometime in the past the river had been dammed. Nobody is quite sure way, but the best guess is that it was to widen the smallish, non-navigable Scioto to make it more impressive. The result is that the river ran through a channel within retaining wall through downtown. Trails and such were built along the top of that wall.

The city recently blew up the dam in order to restore a more natural riverbank and greenery to the Scioto. Although in this case “natural” clearly involves a lot of restoration work to help.

You can easily see the retaining wall in that pic and the resulting expansion of green space that is going to result from this.

Franklinton

Visiting Columbus you might be tempted to ask, “Where’s the urban blighted part?” Candidly, I’ve seen remarkably little of it compared to many cities I’ve visited, and I tend to go looking for it.

One exception is a neighborhood just west of the Scioto River called Franklinton that is the thing that has almost everybody I talked to most excited.

Franklinton has a classic Midwest post-industrial wasteland look, but this includes plenty of high quality older buildings. One of them has already been converted into something like 100 artist studios – all full as artists are getting priced out of their traditional home in the Short North. Another has been turned into a large “maker space.” I saw a brewery under construction. Apparently the majority of the land in the area is under “friendly” control, and The Powers That Be have christened this the next It Place. Results already appears to be happening, and the historic building fabric that exists suggests this will be different in style than the Sim City developments I highlighted earlier.

Bike and Care Share

Columbus now has a downtown bike share up and running, though I didn’t actually see anyone using it. It appears to be industry standard type stuff. They also have a car share system, this one from an outfit called “car2go” that I wasn’t familiar with. It’s apparently owned by Daimler Benz, so naturally features Smart Cars:

This has some neat features. Cars don’t have to be picked up and dropped off at fixed points. You find one with your smart phone based on GPS, and drop it off anywhere in the service area you can find a spot – even at a meter. These cars aren’t required to feed the meter so you get free on street parking while using them. I was told this system was put in place on a market basis without subsidies – and that the vendor actually pays the city for the use of the meters.

Bicentennial Brand

One new thing since my last visit was a new city logo:

I’ve got to confess this threw me for a loop when I saw it. The different color of the “US” was clearly intended to convey something. My first thought was it meant United States. My mind went directly to the “Cincinnati, USA” brand and I thought maybe this was the city’s way of trying to get that “, Ohio” monkey off their back. The star over the U made me smile, thinking of the umlaut over the N in Spinal Tap, but obviously as a state capital, it made sense, and the forward positioning doubly highlights the “US” as well as suggesting forward progress.

Or so I was congratulating myself for having figured out. Apparently this logo was created for the city’s bicentennial, which had a theme of self-celebration called “The Story of Us.” There was even a book with that name issued (along with a commemorative coin, CD, and other celebratory things). The highlighted “US” is actually the pronoun “us.”

While I think this works great as a bicentennial theme (and also explains the red white and blue, even though those aren’t the city flag colors), it renders the logo unparseable to anyone on not on the inside, i.e., everyone not from Columbus. Especially foreigners are unlikely to make the connection. Unfortunately, basically every major civic group has adopted variations of this for their own materials. The graphic uniformity is admirable, but it’s a confusing graphic.

Conclusion

I hope this gives a bit of a feel for what’s going on in Columbus, though it’s by no means complete. The city continues to grow at fairly robust levels. Construction in the urban core looks healthy. But there hasn’t been any upward inflection point in the trajectory that I see. Nor have they cracked the code on brand, marketplace recognition, and transcending the best practices city model. I’ll share some thoughts in coming posts that will hopefully help with the latter items.

55 Comments
Topics: Architecture and Design, Demographic Analysis, Economic Development
Cities: Columbus (Ohio)

55 Responses to “Checking In On Columbus”

  1. Kendall A says:

    On all the “MidSouth” comments, I actually see a pretty strong I-75/Appalachia/Ohio River connection between Pittsburgh PA, Wheeling and Huntington WV, Portsmouth, Columbus and Cincinnati OH, Columbus, Bloomington and Evansville IN, Louisville and Lexington KY plus Knoxville and possibly Nashville TN.

    I think Chattanooga and Memphis are more connected to Georgia and Louisiana, while Indy is more connected culturally to the Great Lakes rim, particularly Chicago, albeit I can see Columbus OH or Nashville TN getting grouped with either the Great Lakes or deep South respectively.

    I think there’s a common connection between these cities as a heavy mix of manufacturing, health and knowledge based economies (universities play a big role in most of these cities) and a common cultural connection between their combined German and Southern heritages. They don’t have as much of the Scandinavian/Dutch influence you find a bit more to the North.

  2. Jeremy says:

    My response to the posting of this article over at UrbanOhio.com :

    Did anyone actually read the article? He was kind of dismissive of Columbus and most of the compliments were backhanded. The worst part was when he visited Columbus Commons park on an overcast Afternoon in the mide of the week and basically said “See!! I wrote 5 years ago that no one would use this park and I was ‘vindicated’ (his actual word) in my prediction!”
    Yeah man. You visited a park for 15 min on a slow Tuesday. Thanks for doing a little research about the programming that actually happens there that brings huge crowds. He came off as uninformed and clueless.

  3. Carl Wohlt says:

    My apologies to Aaron – didn’t mean to kidnap the Columbus narrative with the MidSouth concept. But such is the nature of provocative blogging at some times.

    @ Rod Stevens

    You raise good questions. The mega-region concepts advanced by Richard Florida suggests that a MidSouth economic identity is wide open with possibilities – but only if it is analyzed and leveraged. There are some really dynamic cities and universities that today do not identify as a collective entity. I’m suggesting they should think about how they might do so in order to challenge and compete with adjacent mega-regions. Cities like Columbus and Indianapolis have nothing to lose – they are already identified with the Chi-Pitts manufacturing legacy. They are also gateways to a distinctive geographic region to their immediate south, which has not been acknowledged or leveraged.

    @ Jord

    I was not savvy enough to bring in the Appalachian angle, which of course is true. My understanding is the Appalachia shares many cultural connections with Dixie culture, but is also decidedly very different (hence, West Virginia).

    The cohesive MidSouth regional elements are two:

    The first is that the region largely comprised of the westward extension of the Eastern Highlands, including the Ozarks –, right up to the doorstep of Tulsa and southeast Kansas. All of the cities along its periphery are gateway cities – Columbus, Indy, St. Louis, KC, Wichita, Tulsa, Little Rock, Memphis, Chattanooga, Knoxville. I did not think of Pittsburgh, but concede it could be included as an eastern gateway.

    The other connection is climate. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it has fewer weather extremes of than does its Great Lakes and Deep South neighbors. I grew up there (mid-Missouri), so I know from whence I speak. Chicago summers are glorious, if short. MidSouth spring and autumns are likewise glorious, and they often last longer. It’s just a great area weather-wise, which is why northwest Arkansas has become a desirable retirement destination for Midwesterners who want to remain within a days drive or so from their more northern family roots.

    In the end, the MidSouth is a marketing concept. It could be taken up at great effort and risk by the cities and states that comprise its geography. So, it’s not likely to happen.

    But the great value of blogs like Urbanophile is that stuff like this can be thrown out there and vetted.

    That’s something that should not be taken for granted…

  4. Jord says:

    @Carl Wohlt,

    I guess I can agree with those points. And I guess if the cities wanted to use the marketing concept, they could. I just see it as a bit forced. I think these (culturally very significant) maps help illustrate why:

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a7/Census-2000-Data-Top-US-Ancestries-by-County.svg
    http://www.valpo.edu/geomet/pics/geo200/religion/church_bodies.gif

    West Virginia and Missouri appear to be the most blended states, while the others show fairly clear boundaries.

    Totally off-topic: I find it very interesting there are German Catholic areas of Texas.

  5. Chris Barnett says:

    The German settlers in the Hill Country and along the Colorado River of Texas are like those everywhere in North America, divided between Lutheran (protestant) and Catholic. They immigrated during the German unification upheavals of the early 1800s. ( of my Ohio German Appalachian aunts married into a Texas German Lutheran family.)

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