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An Open Letter to Columbus: Save The City Center

 Corey DiRu
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Parks are incredible spaces. Their lawns lend themselves to picnickers; their trees’ shade provides asylum to loungers on a hot summer day; their fountains and other features provide wonderment to people of all ages; most importantly parks provide space for us to escape pressures of life and relax alone or with friends. We are easily drawn to parks and they have the power to shape and define us; a birthday party spent in a pavilion, skipping rocks in a creek bed, chasing birds through a field, playing basketball with perfect strangers that later become best friends, learning to double-dutch with neighborhood kids, getting married, or any other infinite combination of small events can impact our lives immensely. Parks are among the most intoxicating forms of public space. They exist to provide a variety of functions, and when designed correctly, can support many types of activities year round. They are a forum for public interaction and a place for many to meet on common ground. A good park can make a great city.

Columbus is a city of excellent parks. The Parks and Recreation department, as well as the safeguarding provided by the City and its residents, has cultured a system of parks—75 to be exact—of every shape and size. They cater to activities as diverse as canoeing, bocce ball, horseshoes, basketball, archery, and ice skating. Many of these parks are embedded within even stronger neighborhoods, and are surrounded by residents that would lay down in front of bulldozers to protect them, should the need arise. Columbus is a city of excellent parks, located within excellent neighborhoods, protected by excellent residents.

For this reason, the time is not right for a park in downtown Columbus.

Demolishing City Center, and constructing a large urban park right now, all financial issues aside, is doing a disservice to Columbus residents. In a city which already has many downtown parks, several band shells and concert venues (both indoor and outdoor), the addition of yet another downtown park will do nothing but dilute the existing, underused, stock.

Advocates suggest that a park like this would provide much needed outdoor recreation space, but for whom? The trouble with City Center Mall was that its income and use relied on a population that did not live nearby. So will this space, except that it won’t even provide places to eat or buy for a decade, minimum. Additionally, thriving parks— the kind that people love and embrace—exist between points A and B for both drivers and pedestrians. This park only sits between A and B for a commuter crowd: an 8-5, one lunch-hour-per-day, weekday crowd. The rest of the time, people will likely defer their outdoor relaxation time to parks closer to their homes.

These types of gems are all over the city, and most embedded within existing dense residential neighborhoods: Goodale Park for the Short North and Victorian Village, Schiller Park for German Village, The Oval for Campus, Whetstone Park of Roses for Clintonville/Beechwold, Sharon Woods for Westerville… the list goes on and on. The proposed park, however, will function marginally better than the landscaped zones around suburban commercial office parks because it, if you look at the zoning- and use- maps of downtown Columbus, is essentially a park surrounded by commuters and office space.

Historically the idea of a “commons” was a place of and for residents. It was a common green for people to graze their livestock and socialize. It had purpose, and provided useful space to a variety of people; from farmers looking to fatten their cows, to butchers looking to buy stock, the “Common” was an area used at many times of the day by many types of people. And so we should be wary of such a plan for downtown Columbus.

While the longer term projections for residential and retail to bracket the space are optimistic, we should question what types of diversity and activity this plan will really facilitate. High-cost housing, while great for tax rolls, is terrible at bringing the variety of people and correlating businesses needed to create a sustainable community. Imagine a neighborhood inhabited by bankers, insurance execs and Wall Street stock brokers. Should disaster strike the economy, for example, this neighborhood would be hit hard. Now imagine a neighborhood filled with a mix: Dentists, grocers, lawyers, teachers, mechanics, bankers, plumbers, undertakers, nurses and salespeople. If economic disaster strikes, this neighborhood is insulated by diversity: people will always eat sweets, break their cars, clog their toilets and get sick (though not necessarily in that particular order).

Consider existing examples of the type of park proposed for the City Center site: ones surrounded by residential/commercial and built within the last ten years in an urban area. The vast majority are filled with upper middle to high income professionals (better known as DINKS – double-income-no-kids). It’s difficult to come by families or even dog owners. The parks tend to be marginally occupied, and full of anti-homeless furniture, so even if you had “business” being there you couldn’t stretch out comfortably on many surfaces. One such example is nearby McFerson Commons in the Arena District. From the urban planning perspective this is a beautiful park. Well landscaped, set within a dense developing neighborhood and in walking distance to a lot of amenities. Yet, 90% of the time the park is empty. What little housing you find around it costs upwards of $220,000 for the smallest of units. The residents (pardon the mild generalizing) are well-paid professionals and tend to work during the hours of the day when parks are most welcoming to human habitation. You might find a crowd at lunch or some sporadic sporting events, but other than that, it sits empty. There are close to zero children living within a stone’s throw of the park. Many of the closest families live in the Short North and prefer Goodale Park. If you want more regular inhabitation, you need many types of people working and living within walking distance. Not just the 8-5ers, but also the second- and third-shifts and the retailers that work evenings and on Saturday mornings. In this way, you have a population with overlapping free times. People that don’t work until 3pm pass through the park in the mornings, while the families with children are able to rush into the park, following the ring of the school day bell at 2:30.

Nearby schools bring incredible vitality to parks. True, correlation doesn’t always equal causation, but consider that schools need recreation space, for sports or outdoor lessons; for community involvement or a public gathering space on a scale that may not be available within their existing facilities. Schools need parks as much as parks need schools. There are only a few schools to speak of downtown.

There population of downtown is also very limited currently, this means very few people to occupy and safeguard the space. Yes, you can program this park with infrequent festivals and events. Yes, a downtown park will probably see a regular crowd of people for lunch during the week in nice weather, and a smattering of hardier people in less friendly weather, but other than that, any occupation will come at the cost of extra effort on the part of the park go-er. The park will be mostly empty, most of the time, and this will likely run the risk of developing an ‘unsafe’ reputation.

Downtown Columbus, the City Center site, is not ripe for a new park just yet—but it is ready for residents.

Thinking ahead

For the sake of suggesting alternative strategies, and generating open discussion on the subject, I’d like to draw attention to a few things. First is to point out the existing blighted park on the corner of Rich and High street (at the SW corner of the City Center site). This 1.6 acre park, dubbed the Centrum, wasn’t always neglected. For decades it was an ice rink and public gathering place; it enjoyed a short relationship with the mall, and was eventually removed due to liability concerns. After its removal the remaining small grassy area sat with the malls back turned to it for two decades. Since the arrival of City Center this space was intended to be the new home for the 4th anchor tenant; much to the malls dismay that tenant never showed. The Centrum’s design makes it uncomfortable; the shrunken plaza, the blind corners created by the ludicrously large blank walls (the mural goes a little way in softening this problem but when you realize the real skyline is just feet away, and much more interesting to look at, the effect evaporates); the awkwardly placed trees provide little enclosure and the lack of any place to sit, aside from the ground, deters people looking to linger.

Centrum: Existing state

Centrum possibility: Day-time lounging supported by adjacent cafes and shops

Centrum possibility: Night and evening events, benefit the park and the area businesses

This park, if you can call it that, the one we already have is just what we need. For starters it’s startlingly close to the size proposed in the final phase of the Columbus Commons development; only the existing space has direct access and lines of sight to High street. The existing has trees on their way to maturity that will soon be able to provide useful shade. The lack of detail, development, and activity on the City Center walls facing the park should be embraced with open arms! This blank canvas lends its self to any form you can throw at it. Remove the walls from the first floor (the non-structural, easily removable walls) and you can insert coffee shops, restaurants, book stores, and other programs that cater to a lunch crowd. For other times in the evenings you could project movies on any one of the massive walls, or hold concerts on a semi-temporary stage set. The accompanying awnings, tables and visitors help activate the area and the shops generate profit while the city incrementally opens up, and redevelops the mall-structure behind it (see images).

Further down the line the Centrum is also well-suited for transformation into a configuration similar to Chicago’s Millennium Park-like program wherein you insert a transit hub (light rail perhaps, or electric buses) at the ground level and a construct a park on the roof structure above. Because the park space tapers down 12 feet from side walk to building, the excavation necessary is already half complete, and people would likely be able to walk directly into the park/roof without going up or down steps. This transit hub would be located directly on High street and very heavily used by commuters, further activating the shops and amenities on the Centrum. The transit insertion is a more long-term projection, but the park-and-shops idea is something that could realistically occur in the near future.

These are simply ideas driving at a larger intent: Columbus we must shore-up our existing investment, the building and site, and entertain less invasive, smaller creative solutions that use our current resources, not spend money eradicating our assets and built resources.

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