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Never Built Columbus: Stadiums and Arenas

Brent Warren Brent Warren Never Built Columbus: Stadiums and Arenas
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The last year of uncertainty surrounding the future of the Columbus Crew SC has led to plenty of speculation about where it might make sense to build a new soccer stadium, and has even inspired at least one very specific proposal for a site downtown.

When the news broke on October 12 that a new ownership group was in talks to buy the team, and that Major League Soccer (MLS) was “committed to keeping Crew SC in Columbus,” the stadium discussion was suddenly back on the front burner. No longer just a speculative exercise, a decision about where to build a new stadium – and how to pay for it – is now officially on the agenda for Columbus.

As discussions about a new stadium continue to unfold, we thought a historical perspective might provide some lessons for the latest generation of city leadership to tackle the issue.

With our Never Built Columbus series, we take a look back at some of the most interesting local projects and proposals that never quite made it off the drawing board. When it comes to stadiums and arenas, Columbus has had a lot of proposals that fall into that category.

Even before the announcement in 1994 that Columbus had been awarded one of the first ten MLS franchises – which was followed by the announcement in 1997 that Columbus would be getting a National Hockey League team – there was no shortage of plans floated for new stadiums and arenas.

At the time these proposals were often framed as a chance for a growing city with no professional sports teams to shake off its reputation as a college town (as well as its own, frequently expressed view of itself as a “cowtown”).

The first installment of the Never Built series looked at the artist Todd Slaughter’s Serpent Mound Canopy proposal, while the second examined the long history of plans for the Scioto Peninsula. As an underutilized piece of land just across the river from Downtown, the peninsula inspired all kinds of ideas, including at least one arena concept.

Arena proposal for the Scioto Peninsula, from the 1986 Riverfront Strategic Plan.

Even more tantalizing for arena schemers and dreamers, though, was the 23-acre Ohio Penitentiary site. Columbus residents who have arrived in our city in the last 20 years may not realize that the heart of the Arena District – a quadrangle of land between Spring Street, Neil Avenue, Civic Center Drive and West Street – was once completely occupied by a stone-wall-enclosed complex of former prison buildings.

That piece of land – as well as many adjacent parcels that were similarly abandoned, underutilized and/or vacant – attracted lots of ideas for redevelopment and adaptive reuse before it was eventually sold to a development group led by Nationwide Realty Investors (NRI).

One of those proposals was from local architect Richard Ohanian, who wanted to build a towering, pyramid-shaped arena on the site that would hold about 25,000 spectators.

From February of 1989.

Although nothing came of the pyramid plan – it was one of several reviewed by the Ohio Penitentiary Development Commission in 1989, but was never pursued – Ohanian’s idea about how to pay for it had a lot more staying power.

He proposed a private financing mechanism that had not been tried before – pre-selling the rights to a certain percentage of seats in the arena to the public before it is even built. There is some dispute about the true origin of Personal Seat Licenses – which have since been used to finance many stadiums around the world – but Ohanian’s letter to the Columbus Dispatch in 1987 outlining the concept was likely the first public explanation of the idea.

Ohanian’s pyramid idea followed a pair of proposals that both had the full support of the city’s power brokers yet failed anyway. The first was the 1986 Columbus New World Center, which called for building a 65,000 seat stadium where the current convention center is. Voters rejected a plan to pay for it with a sales tax increase.

Then came the 1987 Christopher Columbus Convention Facility plan, which retooled the idea by adding more convention space and calling for a 20,000 seat arena instead of a larger stadium. Ohanian’s letter outlining his “ticket bond” idea was actually in reference to that proposal, which was also voted down (the Greater Columbus Convention Center was later built using hotel taxes).

One final Ohanian brainstorm that never made if off the drawing board – a plan to put a roof on Ohio Stadium and submit a bid to host the 1992 Super Bowl there.

The cover of a report submitted to the City of Columbus Sports Development Committee in April of 1988.

The Crew comes into the story in 1996, the first year of the team’s existence. The team played its home games at Ohio Stadium, but that arrangement couldn’t extend past the 1998 season because OSU was planning major renovations to the stadium. Cue yet another round of failed stadium proposals.

The first one called for a 30,000-seat soccer stadium paired with a 21,000-seat arena on the Ohio Penitentiary site. In May of 1997 voters rejected a plan to pay for the $285 million project with a sales tax increase.

The plan for a soccer stadium and arena that voters rejected in 1997. Image courtesy of Steve Sirk.

Plan B called for building a 25,000-seat, partially sunken stadium on a piece of just land off of Cosgray Road near Dublin. Dublin voters would need to sign off on the plan, which involved the City of Dublin buying the land and building the public infrastructure to make a stadium possible. They rejected the proposal by a large margin – 59 percent to 41 percent.

The 1997 proposed Dublin Crew Stadium, image courtesy of the City of Dublin.

Crew owner Lamar Hunt quickly pivoted to a third plan – building a privately financed stadium on 15 acres of land south of Hudson Street and west of I-71. The Crew would lease the land from the Ohio Expositions Commission, and Hunt Sports Group would cover the $28.5 million cost to build it. The inaugural game at Crew Stadium was played on May 15, 1999.

A rendering of the original proposal for Crew Stadium, note the press box and other elements that were not included in the built design. Image courtesy of Steve Sirk.

Meanwhile, Nationwide Area opened in September of 2000 on what used to be the Ohio Penitentiary’s parking lot. A $150 million project, the new arena was privately financed by Nationwide Insurance. In 2012, though, with costs to maintain the building rising and with the threat of relocation looming for the struggling Blue Jackets, the company sold the arena to the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority.

Waves of development had followed the construction of Nationwide Arena, though, including a new stadium for the Columbus Clippers. Huntington Park opened in April of 2009 at the corner of West Nationwide Boulevard and Neil Avenue (the Franklin County-owned stadium cost $70 million to build and was financed primarily with revenue bonds).

The Clippers’ move to the Arena District left their old home empty, but big plans were already in the works for Cooper Stadium. The stadium and surrounding parking lot (47 acres in all) was sold to Arshot Investment Corporation in 2012. Arshot by that time had already developed a plan to build a multi-purpose racetrack on the site. Part of the Cooper Stadium grandstand would be retained, and the surrounding land would be filled with a hotel, research facilities, restaurants and retail.

A rendering of the SPARC proposal, released by Arshot Investment Corporation in 2012.

The proposed development, called SPARC, has remained in the Never Built category despite multiple announcements of new partners and revised timelines over the course of the last ten years. A new feature on SPARC indicates that the project may officially now be dead.

In August, the Save the Crew organization released a set of “aspirational” renderings showing a new stadium and practice facility at the end of Nationwide Boulevard, west of Huntington Park. Although that location does appear to be an early front-runner in the latest stadium derby (MLS officials have reportedly visited the site), there is still a lot we don’t know about plans for a new soccer stadium in Columbus.

Will the next set of renderings released – perhaps by the new ownership group, after a deal to buy the team has been signed and the transaction is official – show us the new home of the Crew, or the next entrant in the archive of Never Built stadiums?

There has been no public discussion about how a new facility would be financed. Given the city’s long history of voting down tax increases to pay for stadiums and arenas, the plan for paying for it may end up being more important than what it looks like or where it is located.

Special thanks to the City of Columbus Planning Division for providing access to its archives.

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