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Design Digest: MKSK

Brent Warren Brent Warren Design Digest: MKSK
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Local firm MKSK has played a key role in some of the most transformational projects in downtown Columbus – from the Arena District, to the Scioto Mile and Audubon Metro Park, to the Downtown Strategic Plan.

Principal Chris Hermann was kind enough to share with us some fascinating back story on these projects, as well his perspective on planning in Columbus, how we stack up against some of our peer cities, and what he thinks we need to do to ensure that downtown continues to grow and thrive in the future. Our full Q&A can be found below:

Q: Can you tell us a little about the history of MKSK?

A: Sure. MKSK is a Columbus-based planning, urban design, and landscape architecture firm that resulted from the merger of two firms in November 2011. Those two firms were MSI Design (founded by Keith Myers & Tim Schmalenberger) and KKG (founded by Brian Kinzelman & Mark Kline). Interestingly, both MSI and KKG were founded in 1990 and grew their practices locally, working for both public and private clients and striving to provide exceptional planning and design. Each firm has had signature projects that have helped elevate the practice. For MSI Design, this includes Homestead Park, Strategic Plans for New Albany, the Nationwide Arena District, James Clarkson Environmental Center, the Downtown Columbus Strategic Plan, and the Scioto Mile. For KKG, this includes Genoa Park, the Franklin County Hall of Justice, the Rich Street Bridge, and the Scioto Audubon Metro Park.

We have had the honor of working for great clients on great projects and appreciate those opportunities. We have also been privileged to work with many local and national developers and engineering, architecture, and design firms. Today we have 60 employees with offices located in Columbus, Covington, Indianapolis, and Lexington. Our Columbus office here in the Brewery District is our home base.

Q: MKSK has worked on downtown plans for Louisville and many other cities and towns in the region (and of course you worked on the Columbus Downtown Strategic Plan). Can you talk a little about the current state of downtown Columbus and how you think it compares to some of our peer cities?

A: We are bullish on downtown Columbus and believe the city will benefit from the national trend toward improving and embracing central cities. The investment and attention the city and a handful of companies have made in downtown established a foundation that is now crossing the tipping point.

The three areas that come to mind where Columbus could use competitive improvement are downtown neighborhoods, public art & history, and transit. As your readers already know, the residential market in and around downtown is really taking off. As it does, hopefully we will see the creation of self-identifying neighborhood clusters within downtown, and retail nodes and pocket parks that serve them.

With this increase in downtown residential development, we are starting to catch up with our peer cities in this area. We have increasingly active streets like Gay Street extending to the north Discovery District and South High Street in the RiverSouth area. Let’s continue to build on this momentum. Downtown Columbus really does benefit from the strength of our great close-in neighborhoods and our active and involved districts and institutions. We need to continue to grow neighborhoods in our downtown core and engage and enable everyone in making our downtown and adjoining neighborhoods better.

Another area that we lag behind is public art and celebration of our unique history. While we have spent a lot of time discussing it, we have struggled to enable both grass roots art/sculpture and performances as well as large public art commissions to occur in our city. The “Finding Time” temporary art series for Columbus’ Bicentennial was a great start – let’s do more. As my friends and coworkers will tell you, I am still a fan of the Blue Snake concept on the Broad Street Bridge. Could you imagine if we had that today? Likewise, Columbus doesn’t celebrate its history or uniqueness to the same extent as some of our peer cities. We have a lot to celebrate. These are things that make cities distinctive and memorable. I hope our city, and particularly our downtown, rallies around this cause and works to add to our uniqueness and promote our history.

Our road system is effective and efficient compared to our peers. However, as others have mentioned, we really are significantly behind our peer cities when it comes to mass transit, particularly of the fixed rail type. We as a community need to understand that rail transit is not just about providing transportation alternatives, it helps to attract private investment and create the dense, walkable communities with the amenities and activities people desire. In fact local circulating transit (bus circulator, streetcar, and rail) is not a luxury; it is a basic necessity for a vital and competitive 21st century city. Our next generations are going to demand it of their city and chose to live where it exists.

And it really isn’t a chicken and egg thing: the transit lines come before density, in the same way that roads, water, and sewer come before development. Just think, if our community had approved the High Street streetcar, it would have opened in 2012. We would be riding it and people would be clamoring for expansion and new lines. I think that would have been the best Bicentennial present our city could have given ourselves.

Q: MKSK has been involved in planning for the removal of the Main Street dam – and the idea for a greenway originally came from the downtown plan – what do you think this project will mean for downtown Columbus?

A: It really is a transformative project. This will change the way people experience the riverfront and really make it our green outdoor living room. The Scioto Mile, North Bank Park, and Genoa Park have started this, but the Scioto Greenways will take it to another level. This in turn will hopefully spark additional investment and development – both downtown and on the Scioto Peninsula and in Franklinton. With more people attracted to living downtown, we hope this becomes even more of a gathering place for fun, events, and relaxation. It is also a visible above-ground amenity for the community to enjoy after we spend significant capital dollars on underground sanitary sewer/storm water separation that we can’t see. Ultimately, we hope the Scioto Greenways project will help change people’s views of our rivers so we see them as a series of connected parks to be experienced both along the banks and while paddling on the river.

Q: MKSK has worked on many high-profile projects in Columbus – from the Arena District to the Scioto Mile to the 70/71 split – taking a step back and looking at the big picture, how do you view the changes that have occurred in Columbus in the last 20 years or so?

A: It is pretty incredible to think of all we as a community have accomplished in the past two decades. I think part of it was/is convincing people, agencies, officials, businesses, and developers along the way that it is a different day, that times are changing and downtown is worth investing in. I still remember in 2002 as we were working with Nationwide Realty Investors on the first residential projects in the Arena District, local market experts were telling us that downtown could absorb only 20 units per year going forward! Glad we didn’t listen. A few years later, a group of local retail experts discussing the demise of City Center predicted that it would be 100 years before retail returned to the downtown. Hopefully we are learning that what is important is creating the community we want to be, not the one we are told by others we are limited to.

Each successful piece seems to build momentum for the next group. The Short North showed the community how to revitalize a commercial corridor in an organic, authentic, and community-based way. Now Gay Street and others are following suit. The Arena District demonstrated locally and nationally the potential of a mixed-use district downtown that integrates a mix of uses, entertainment venues, pedestrian environments, green space, and structured parking. The success of the Arena helped make the Huntington Ballpark happen. North Bank Park opened up a portion of the Scioto Riverfront for the enjoyment of the city; and built support for the Scioto Mile and Bicentennial Park. The successful conversion of Gay Street from one-way to two-way paved the way for a growing number of one-way street conversions. The High Street Cap and I-670 improvements led to more careful consideration of the I-70/71 project and how it could better compliment and connect the surrounding districts. Soon the Spring Street Bridge and Long Street Cap will be opening on the east side to better link the King Lincoln Bronzeville District with downtown. We are watching as River South grows from infant to toddler and Columbus Commons and High Point develop from the ashes of City Center. Next we hope to see the Scioto Peninsula and East Franklinton follow suit, building upon COSI, the Scioto Greenways, and the new bridges across the Scioto River.

These are just some examples. It is an incremental process that builds upon our successes, and when viewed as a whole is quite impressive.

Q: Do you see good things happening in the next 20 years? From a design and planning perspective, do you think Columbus is on the right track?

A: Yes I do. I think we all can feel the positive momentum that together we are creating. If we keep infilling downtown with development and building back our density, create and maintain great public spaces, carefully consider and design all of our right-of-way, encourage first floor retail on our primary streets and neighborhood corners, strategically insert parking structures to free up development ground, expand our transit system including loops and circulators, develop streetcar and light rail corridors and nodes (and intercity high speed rail connections!), continue to enhance our bike network, and build upon our authentic character and strengths, we will achieve a potential we only imagine today. The important thing we all need to understand is that none of this is outrageous, undoable stuff. Let’s take advantage of opportunities and not be afraid. Think about how much we have achieved in 20 years!

In terms of planning and design, I think there is an opportunity to be more contemporary with our new architecture – not brutalist concrete designs, but metal and glass and light. I think most of my architect colleagues would agree. I think we can push density as long as we solve the parking issue – which likely means a combination of more integrated parking garages and improved/expanded downtown transit systems.

Having worked on a number of street and highway projects, I can’t stress enough the importance of carefully considering the design and use of our streets from building face to building face. Context really matters, and designs for suburbs, rural areas, or highways are not appropriate downtown. It also matters how our buildings address and engage the street, particularly at the first floor level. Let’s continue to focus on the fine details of everything we build. It is very important, from our buildings, to our parks, to our streets, because it is these details and the interesting and inviting experience of place that enhances our everyday downtown experience and gets us out of our cars and enjoying and exploring our city.

Q: Are there any other exciting new projects that you’re currently working on, or looking forward to in the near future?

A: After working on the project since 2004, I’m excited to see the Spring and Long Street Bridges completed over I-71 as part of Phase 1 (early Spring 2014). I hope the community enjoys them and finds they create better bike and pedestrian connections, screen the interstate, and serve as neighborhood gateways. There are still 12 more bridges to be rebuilt as part of this project over the next 8+ years, so stay tuned… maybe even a sister to the High Street Cap.

It will be interesting to watch the potential transformation of Southeast Downtown that could result from the new interstate access, as well as the continued redevelopment of the Discovery District and Creative Campus area. I’m excited about the upcoming removal of the Main Street dam and creation of the Scioto Greenways as well as the redevelopment of the adjoining Scioto Peninsula as a great mixed-use district/neighborhood.

I look forward to more parts of the Columbus Downtown Strategic Plan being implemented (Broad Street, Topiary Park area, Pedestrian Bridge, etc.), as well as the East Franklinton Gateways and Pearl Alley improvements. I also think there is great potential for Livingston Avenue to become a wonderful downtown area street (two-way, on-street parking, bike lanes, built on both sides) once the 70-71 project is complete and the ramps are removed and the vertical retaining walls are in place.

Q: Anything else we should know about MKSK?

A: We continue to share the great projects and background of Columbus’ transformation with other cities such as Louisville, Lexington, and Indianapolis as we work on projects there. We enjoy thinking and talking about planning and urban design with the Central Ohio community and are always open to discussing ideas on how to make it better. It is worth noting that we follow Columbus Underground and appreciate the forum it provides and dialogue it sparks. It is one of the authentic and creative parts of Columbus. Keep up the good work!

More information can be found online at www.mkskstudios.com.

All images, photos and renderings via MKSK.

From September 23rd to September 29th, Columbus Underground is Celebrating Local Design Week, brought to you by the Hamilton Parker Company. With a 15,000 square foot showroom located just outside Downtown at 1865 Leonard Ave, the Hamilton Parker Company has been your go-to local resource for home and business improvement projects of all sizes and budgets. Find out more at www.hamiltonparker.com.

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