Fountain in a park, Victorian Village, Columbus, Ohio.
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.
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.
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
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
One new thing since my last visit was a new city logo:
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.
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.