Design Teams Present Grand Visions of a Transformed Olentangy River Corridor
The City of Columbus and Ohio State University are interested in strengthening the connections between Downtown and campus. With North High Street developing at a rapid rate, both entities have turned their attention to the other primary connection – the Olentangy River corridor.
An event last night at the Knowlton School of Architecture was meant to jumpstart a conversation about that corridor and to get people thinking big about what it could look like in the future.
With sponsorship from OSU, the city, Columbus Downtown Development Corporation, Columbus Partnership, Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission and Nationwide Realty Investors, this was much more than a just studio class throwing some ideas out.
Three professional design teams – featuring some heavy hitters both nationally and locally – were tasked with coming up with a comprehensive vision for the corridor, and each presented their concepts at the event. Some of the ideas stemmed from an October brainstorming session that paired the professionals with students from the Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and City and Regional Planning programs.
Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther and OSU President Michael Drake were both in attendance, and spoke before the presentations began about the importance of the corridor and the need for collaboration in planning for the future.
First up was the architectural firm NBBJ, with a plan that would “erase 315 as we know it today,” as Principal Ed Mickelson put it. By redesigning Olentangy River Road and extending Cannon Drive to the north and south, some of the need for a north-south highway could be relieved, he said.
The highway would be straightened and turned into a multi-modal corridor, forming a loop connecting campus with Franklinton and Downtown. This would open up “thousands of acres of land all the way up and down the corridor, for responsible development,” said Mickelson.
East-west corridors would also be created that would feature park space and paths for active transportation.
A key part of the calculus for NBBJ – and something that was echoed by the other presenters, as well – was a belief that the development of autonomous vehicles will lead to big changes in traffic and to a huge reduction in the need for large parking lots or garages.
“This is a tremendous resource, but it’s underutilized,” said NBBJ Partner AJ Montero. “A lot of what we have along the river is the back of something else…it needs to start being the front of something.”
Local firm MKSK teamed up with Berkeley-based TLS Landscape Architecture to develop their pitch. It was far-reaching, but also the most pragmatic of the three presentations, outlining a major upgrade to the greenway that they said could be implemented within five years, along with a transportation plan that could happen within ten.
“We looked at improving the connectivity of Olentangy River Road, which today breaks down in two places – Kinnear Road and Souder Ave, leading into Franklinton,” said MKSK Principal Chris Hermann. “If we can improve these connections, we can transform this corridor.”
A key part of that transformation would be a redesigned road with center lanes dedicated to either Bus Rapid Transit or light rail. Also accommodated in the design would be autonomous shuttles that would connect the corridor with surrounding neighborhoods – a great way for the city to “prove and show off all that we’ve come up with,” in the development of the Smart Columbus effort.
The new greenway would feature lots of new bike and pedestrian bridges to complement an overall upgrade to the aesthetics of the corridor. Key sites like the current Drake Union building and the area south of North Broadway, farther to the north, were also reimagined.
“We need to grow a great and beautiful forest,” said Tom Leader of TLS. “We don’t like that highway, but we think we can swallow it up, and we can double capacity of the network of trails by having them on both sides, and to bridge back and forth.”
The last presentation was from West 8, which has offices in Rotterdam, New York, and Belgium, and local firm Realm Collaborative.
“We thought very far afield, maybe a generation out,” said West 8 Principal Claire Agre. “What will the landscape identity of these new modes of transport be, and how do we make the greatest network for pedestrians and bikers in the world?”
“Once you build the greenway,” added Brian Bernstein of Realm, “obviously the density come up against it, and we see that as an opportunity to think new and innovatively about architecture.”
Ideas include a “Wexner Waterfront,” a quaint waterfront village nestled between the medical center and the river, and an actual “Oval Beach,” created by redirecting sediment so that it accumulates along the east bank of the river, in front of the stadium.
Like all of the presentations, this one also included a new plan for Confluence Park Downtown, envisioning a lively district with restaurants and bars.
Jay Kasey, Senior Vice President of the Office of Administration and Planning at OSU, closed out the evening with a note of optimism, telling students that they’ll be able to tell their kids they were there when these ideas were first proposed.
OSU will assemble the work of the three teams together in a book for future use, although there are no concrete next steps for any of the ideas that were presented.