How the Downtown Action Plan will Change Columbus: Part 1
In 2010, a new plan for Downtown development was assembled through multiple public meetings, brainstorming sessions and leadership meetings. This plan calls for a wide variety of actions from the construction of new convention center facilities to public transit upgrades to a green makeover to the Scioto River. To execute some of these initiatives, a working document known as the “Downtown Action Plan” was assembled to guide the public infrastructure projects that fall under the helm of the Columbus Department of Public Service. That includes the conversion of one-way streets to two-way, the strategic implementation of new parking meters and other changes to land use development patterns.
We spoke recently with Randy Bowman the Division of Mobility Options Administrator at the Columbus Department of Public Service to find out more about the Downtown Action Plan and how it will guide development in Downtown Columbus over the course of the next decade.
Walker Evans: Thanks for sitting down with me today Randy. To start, can you tell us a bit about what exactly the Downtown Action Plan is, and what you’ve already been working on this summer.
Randy Bowman: It’s all about the 2010 Downtown Strategic Plan. I hope people are reading that. It’s more than just transportation stuff — there’s a lot of expectations for land use, and other civic investments. Of course, public service is focused on the transportation side of the plan. There’s a lot of short term transportation initiatives and some long term transportation initiatives in the strategic plan. We are looking at the full spectrum of short term to long term with the Downtown Action Plan. The first up of that is the High Street metering. We analyzed what traffic is looking like right now as well as the future, following the expectations for land use development patterns in the 2010 plan. The 2010 plan is also a more refined and contemporary strategy for Downtown development. It builds on the strategy that Mayor Coleman set, just a year or two after he started his first term, with the 2002 Downtown Business Plan.
That plan had a lot of objectives and a lot of initiatives, many of which were accomplished. As far back as 2002, the Business Plan was saying that we need to convert as many one-way streets to two-way, make our streets more livable, and plan for more Downtown living. We want our streets more livable and walkable.
WE: It seems like a lot of those transportation and public infrastructure projects completed in the last 10 years were complementary of adjacent private development — Gay Street was upgraded to complement the Neighborhood Launch development from Edwards, Fron Street was upgraded to compliment the LC Annex development — would you say that’s accurate?
RB: Definitely. When I talk with constituents, or even with Planning Grad Students at OSU, in my experience they all say that transportation is inexplicably interwoven with land use. You can’t change one without needing to know what the impacts are on the other. Just as we see with changing the duration of parking meters. That can have a big impact on businesses. It’s important that when we think about one, we always think about the other. That’s the good thing about the 2010 Strategic Plan, it contemplates both. It continues building on the 2002 Business Plan.
Of course, what we ask is, what’s doable now and what’s doable in the future, based on the initiatives that were outlined in the plan. How do we get from today to tomorrow. And what might impact us being able to realize the vision sooner. One big thing we’re all aware of is the I-70/I-71 Split Fix project. We have traffic modeling programs that attempt to predict what traffic patterns are going to be in that area after the dust settles. But models are models and they are just a tool to predict. Just as we try to forecast our household budgets every year, it’s really more of a plan that you work from and you change as you go.
We also have to be thinking about what the traffic patterns are during the freeway construction. What we don’t want is a lot of backups and commuters that can’t get out of Downtown. We have commuters that commute to Downtown, and we’re going to continue having that. We’ve got to get them in and out safely.
Sometimes there’s the question of how fast they should be able to get in and out, but safely certainly is the key. How unsafe do you make a construction site by not thinking about the impacts to traffic? ODOT and the City have worked on tweaking the maintenance of the Split Fix and that’s just going to continue as ODOT completes the project.
I think with the example in the Riversouth district, the initiative to bring in all of the residential down there certainly impacted how the city prioritized its improvement plans for Front Street and Main Street. As developers come forward, the city has to react and leverage those opportunities and say, okay, now’s the time to do Street Improvement X or Street Improvement Y.
So we have a plan of attack, but if a private developer comes in then we need to look at how that impacts what our plans are. It’s a very living, breathing plan of attack.
Getting back to High Street, that is our first priority. We had a very good public meeting on the topic and we got some very good input from a broad spectrum of interested parties. We prepared work orders for city forces to install the parking meters and should be seeing installation begin this week. There’s a lot of moving parts to installing parking meters because you have to abide by the law which says you have to stay so far away from fire hydrants, crosswalks, and all of the other things that are out there in the public right of way, as well as potential basements or vaults. There’s a lot of things that are competing for space within the public right of way.
COTA is also upgrading its bus stops along High Street, we’ve got to coordinate with them. Some of their bus stops may not be relocated before we’re done with our metering, so we may have to hold off on a few meter locations, until they’re done installing. We don’t want to put meters in front of a bus stop. So there’s some coordination that will remain on this metering of High Street through next year.
If you recall, we talked about a potential second phase of meter installs, particularly around Long and Broad Streets. What we’ll have to do is monitor if the buses get in and out of traffic okay during the day. If they’re trapped too long then that means they’re off schedule and people can miss their transfers. But if they’re not missing transfers, or there’s no problem with the buses maintaining schedules, then we’ve identified some additional spots closer to Broad Street to fill in the gap between Broad and Gay Streets or Gay and Long.
Just knowing how we all tend to be creatures of habit, myself included, it’s going to take people awhile to adjust to the traffic patterns and if we need to tweak something, we’ll certainly tweak it as time goes on.
WE: Going back to the Downtown Action Plan, you mentioned that it’s a plan that you tweak as needed. Is there going to be any presentation of the plan to the public, or is it a working document for internal use at Public Service?
RB: I think it’s both. As subsequent projects start to gel, I think you’re going to see more opportunities for public involvement. The LeVeque Tower has taken down its scaffolding, and they have proposed plans for the streetscape in front of the building, to take advantage of our ability to squeeze down the number of through lanes on Broad Street. They’re on a timeline that they’d like to maintain. Meanwhile, we have all of Broad Street that we’ve been looking at. I think once we have something that we feel comfortable with, we want to take that to the public and share that and get public input on it.
WE: So the series of individual projects are what make up the larger Action Plan?
RB: Yes. We had to choose a name for this project and we called it the Downtown Action Plan. It’s not like a bound booklet. It’s a series of tasks. First was High Street, second was Front and Marconi going two-way. Since it’s tied to LeVeque and Broad Street, Front and Marconi are were projects 2a, 2b and 2c. So that’s next up. We’re to begin the conversion of Front and Marconi next year. There’s a lot of underground infrastructure that’s going to need to be installed at Front and Marconi. Our goal is to get as much converted next year as possible. We’re also going to be upgrading the signals along Front and Marconi to the new standard. That’s a long lead time to order that equipment. We can’t for sure give a completion date yet for that project. But our goal certainly is to complete as much as we can before the end of next year.
With Front and Marconi, the city has been upgrading its connectivity to all the thousand or so signalized intersections we have around the city. We’ve been receiving a lot of federal money to help us, either to connect everything through fiber optics or wireless systems. We’re improving the signals Downtown and their connectivity to our master control center.
That plays into how long it’s going to take to schedule the construction for the Front and Marconi two-way conversion. So there’s a lot of moving parts. It’s amazing the amount of coordination that it takes to get these things out to construction. And then once it’s under construction there’s always the likeliness that we find an abandoned well that we didn’t know was there. We actually found one at the corner of Main and Fourth about ten years ago. We were building a wheelchair ramp and we pulled up the concrete and boom, there was a circular brick well right at the corner. It had all sorts of historic things at the bottom. You never know what you’re going to find once you start digging.