This is the last of my entries prompted by my recent trip to Columbus. I’ve noted before that Columbus and Indianapolis are twin cities in many ways, though with some important differences.
One of those differences is that the civic discussion in Indianapolis today is heavily driven by the urgency of reversing the decline of Marion County as the city of Indianapolis increasingly loses out demographically and economically to its suburbs. In Columbus, by contrast, I didn’t sense nearly the same concern about suburban competition. While again I only have limited data points to go by, what conversations I did have if anything suggested to me that the city of Columbus thinks it’s holding most of the cards in the region. I suggest letting Indianapolis be a cautionary tale, and that Columbus should be much more focused on how to manage future suburban competition than it presently seems to be.
By the late 1960s Indianapolis had, like most cities, been steadily losing ground to suburban development. The response was a city-county merger called Unigov* that in effect annexed all important contemporary suburbs are well as most of the empty land that would be urbanized in the next two decades. This allowed Indianapolis to capture that suburban tax base and avoid many of the problems that plagued other older cities during the 1970s.
Fast forward to the present and it’s clear that the Unigov model is out of gas. Marion County is now largely full apart from some areas in the southern parts, and has a fairly flat growth curve in population. Most the growth is now in the collar counties. What’s more, there’s been a huge employment shift as well, with the city losing 41,000 jobs since 2000 and the suburbs gaining 78,000. I gave an overview of the dynamics in a previous post.
Today Indianapolis has a serious problem on its hand. How did this happen? It’s pretty simple. Unigov bought he city 40 years. But what did it do with that time? It built up its downtown to one of America’s best, a legitimately impressive and important accomplishment. But beyond that it was basically business as usual. Unfortunately, the 5.5 square miles of downtown can’t carry the rest of the city’s nearly 400. The city should have been aggressively preparing for the day when Unigov would reach exhaustion. But it did not.
Columbus utilized a similar technique to Unigov by aggressively annexing suburban development. And it had fairly similar results, doing well and avoiding the problems. But it seems to be widely accepted in Columbus that the city is nearing the end of its growth by annexation phase. While unlike in Indiana, Ohio makes it fairly easy to annex across county lines, and Columbus extends into multiple counties already, annexation has slowed to a crawl. In part I’m told that they are now reaching into territories that have other sources of water than the city of Columbus water utility, and thus the city has less leverage to annex than before. While technically not hemmed in, Columbus has less room for growth than before. This raises the question of when the dynamics of decline will set in within the newly stagnant city.
Columbus appears to be in better shape than Indy right now. I’d say this is for a few reasons. First, Franklin County, Columbus’ home base, is geographically bigger than Indy’s Marion County, giving Columbus a larger area of natural historic dominance. Columbus is also home to newer office/retail suburban development than Indianapolis. For example, Indy’s Keystone Crossing area is based on edge city and power center templates that are dated, while the corresponding Easton area in Columbus is newer and built to a lifestyle center type template that’s a bit more up to date. Columbus similarly has the relatively new Polaris area inside its borders.
What’s more, Columbus’ suburbs are comparatively underdeveloped and thus aren’t rivals as of yet. Indianapolis has five suburbs with more than 50,000 people – two of them with more than 80,000. Columbus has none. Only Dublin, which has 43,000 people, 9.5 million square feet of office space, and major downtown development ambitions, appears to be a full scale competitor at this point. Most other suburban municipalities are much smaller (e.g., New Albany has less than 10,000 people) and/or enclosed by the city of Columbus and thus limited in growth. Favored quarter suburban Delaware County has 185,000 people (some of which are in the city of Columbus) vs. nearly 300,000 for analogous Hamilton County, IN. What’s more, Hamilton County is far ahead in infrastructure vs. Delaware County. Delaware County has next to no upgraded east-west or “crosstown” arterials. Two reservoirs there make developing them difficult, with one of them separating I-71 from the developed parts of the county. Thus the county is even lacking in north-south “radial” movements.
These factors and others have essentially kept Columbus from facing any significant suburban competition. But unless the city wants to somehow double down on annexation and try to restart that engine, at some point these dynamics will change and the city of Columbus will find itself physically constrained and competitively disadvantaged vs. newer and now more powerfully developed suburban entities. Dublin is likely a preview of coming attractions.
I don’t have any particular policy suggestion in mind here, nor am I saying that anything the city is doing is necessarily wrong. But given what has happened in Indianapolis, I would certainly encourage the future prospect of suburban competition to be top of mind. The city of Columbus should be aggressively scenario planning for how this will play out, and use the runway that it has left to be preparing for the era of more intense intra-regional competition to come. Better to err on the side of paranoia, because the risks of waiting until you’ve got a serious problem on your hands are too high to ignore.
* Unigov also ensured a white majority in the city