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Planning Downtown for the Future with Guy Worley

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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On Thursday, the second 2010 Downtown Columbus Strategic Plan public meeting takes place at Columbus State. The first meeting was a gathering of public ideas, and this second meeting will be a presentation of the concepts that have emerged from those ideas.

We sat down recently with Guy Worley, President & CEO of the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation/Capitol South, to find out more about the ideas that have been collected and to learn more about what we can expect to see at Thursday’s meeting.

Walker Evans: When we interviewed Mike Brown in February, he spoke a lot about the 2002 Strategic Business Plan, the goals we’ve achieved, where we’ve struggled, and why we’re ready for an updated plan. What improvements do you think have had the most significant impact Downtown since 2002?

Guy Worley: Well, keep in mind that the 2002 plan is not finished yet. It was a 10 year plan and we’ve still got another 2 years to finish it. So a lot of the projects that were identified in the 2002 plan are just now under construction. Some have been completed, such as the new baseball stadium, the newly renovated 700,000 sqft Lazarus office building and the two new parking garages. Downtown has remained the employment center for the region and vacancy rates have gone down significantly since that plan was adopted. We’ve also got a new RiverSouth neighborhood… but we’re not quite finished with everything. The Scioto Mile is under construction now, which will be complete on June 30, 2011. I think that project will have a significant impact on Downtown and the region as a whole. Also, our redevelopment of the City Center site is still under construction. The first phase will be finished at the end of this year. We’ll have a grand opening of Columbus Commons next spring with the park portion of that mixed-use development site. I think in many ways those things will help complete the 2002 plan over the next two years.

In the 2010 plan we’re going to identify some key principles that we’ll focus on over the next 10 years that will help us guide our investments from both the public and private sector, and keep us focused on what we should be doing Downtown. We need to be building on the momentum of the projects identified in the 2002 Plan. I think a lot of new catalytic projects will emerge through this process that we’ve been going through over the last several months. A lot of really good ideas have been mentioned by the community, the business leaders, public sector leaders and citizens and on April 15th we’ll presenting some of the concepts that have been be created through the gathering of all of these ideas. We’re interested in seeing what people’s thoughts are on these new concepts.

WE: The first 2010 Plan Public Meeting took place on March 2nd – How do you think that the event went?

GW: We’ve gotten over 600 comments from the online surveys, and from folks who attended the meeting. I think these ideas are very good and I’m very interested to know what people think. We need to find out if these concepts that the community can support and get behind. We want to know if we make them successful and make our Downtown even more vibrant in the next 10 years.

Some of our momentum with redeveloping Downtown has slowed in the past few years, especially in the way of housing. Our goal in the 2002 plan was to reach 10,000 residential units. We didn’t make it. No one foresaw that we’d have this national downturn that we had at the end of the decade. So that’s affected not just Downtown Columbus, but our entire region, our state and the whole country. We did reach 5,000 units. So I envision that will be an important component of the 2010 plan going forward. We need to continue to build on the residential base Downtown because we need more folks here in the evenings and weekends so that we can help bring back retail as well. Retailers are not going to come Downtown if there’s not a night-time and weekend population. So that’s one of those areas that was identified as important in 2002 and will be identified again in 2010. We need to keep focusing on it. Keep in mind that we are still growing those numbers right now with the Flats on Vine project that will be finished at the end of the year and the new Daimler project near CCAD, which will be under construction soon. The Lifestyle Communities Annex is now open and people are moving into RiverSouth. But we need to continue building on that momentum.

WE: As the public Input was gathered both at the meeting and online, did you notice any specific themes in the ideas that people were suggesting?

GW: I think one of the things that are definitely coming from the comments we’ve received is that transit is very important both for Downtown and for the region. Connectivity, connecting the adjacent neighborhoods to Downtown is going to be important as well, so I think there are many opportunities for that. So those are a couple of themes that will be shared on Thursday, and a couple of catalytic projects could come from that. Greenspace has definitely been a common theme. Many folks have commented that we need to improve on that as well. I think we’re making a lot of progress with the Scioto Mile and Columbus Commons. Residents are still very interested greening-up our Downtown.

WE: With a national renewed interested in urban spaces, do you find that Columbus is following national trends or leading the way in any areas?

GW: That’s a good question. From an economic perspective, I think that Columbus has fared much better than other Midwestern cities, especially within in the state of Ohio. Therefore the public & private sectors have been able to commit the resources to actually focus on having an urban development plan and focus a lot of investment on making Downtown a better place to work and live. So I think in many ways we’re ahead of other cities, but in many ways we’re also behind.

From a transit perspective, I think there are other cities that are much farther ahead than we are. We have much room for improvement in that area. As far as Downtown housing goes, I think there are also other cities that are much father ahead than we are. But our Downtown in many ways is kind of unique. It’s one of the largest Downtowns geographically in the country at 966 acres. You could fit both Cleveland and Boston’s Downtown inside of our Downtown. We have a lot of empty space right now, so we’ve got a lot of infill opportunities. 24% of our Downtown is made up of parking lots. Other major cities of like size don’t have so much empty space. So in many ways that’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity. There’ s plenty of space for us to develop in our Downtown. Other cities would have to tear something down in order to build something new.

WE: Are you finding that the public input is more “big ideas” or “small ideas” and do you see one or the other having a greater impact over the next 10 years?

GW: I think through this planning effort there will emerge several catalytic projects that are significant in nature that are large scale projects. But I don’t think there’s the financial wherewithal in our community to only fund large projects. I think there needs to be an entrepreneurial spirit Downtown. If you think about the Short North and what a great success it is for our city and our region, and how it came from small business owners… I think if you look at Gay Street, it’s developing very much the same way. The public sector has provided the infrastructure in making it a two-way street, which significantly helped and encouraged that development on Gay Street. I think there’s definitely going to be a need for that to continue through Downtown. I think there’s also an opportunity to development new RiverSouth-type areas. There’s a lot of public-private sector development there as well. The RiverSouth District came from empty parking lots. So it was a pretty large-scale massive effort. In the Short North the infrastructure was already there, so the small business owners could more easily redevelop each individual building and individual block. I think there are more streets like Gay Street that could be redeveloped similarly to the Short North, but I also think there are places Downtown that are geographically larger and could be developed in a similar manner to RiverSouth.

WE: Certain national indicators show that Columbus is posed to recover from the national recession fairly quickly over the next few years. Are you hearing from developers that are readying for that comeback and already planning their next steps Downtown?

GW: I think there’s some long term opportunities and there is a lot of optimism that will reemerge as the national economy improves. I think this is a great location to develop in our region because we’re building such great amenities Downtown. We’ve got Huntington Park, the Scioto Mile, Columbus Commons, and other new amenities for Downtown residents to take advantage of. I think having those amenities will continue that development momentum in the long term.

In the short term, frankly, in talking to developers, there’s not a lot of financing available for them to build right now. Not that there’s not necessarily a demand for it, but folks can’t get loans to purchase condos and developers can’t get construction loans to build projects. Until those financial markets start lending money again, I think Columbus’ Downtown will mirror the rest of the country and it will be slow until those financial markets start lending. So in the short term, I think it’s going to be a slower pace. I’m optimistic that the economy is going to turn around, but I think that the economy is turning around before the banks are starting to lend money. So the banks are kind of lagging behind the optimism.

WE: Is there a challenge in developing a strategic plan that walks the line between shooting for the stars and remaining realistic and setting achievable goals?

GW: I think what we put together should be a combination of both. It needs to be realistic, and we shouldn’t set expectations for things that can’t be done. We should shoot for slightly more than what we think we can achieve so that we can stretch ourselves as far as possible. But it does need to have a sound grounding in reality. This is a tough economy right now, but the public and private sectors have worked really well on the projects we identified in 2002. And keep in mind that this is also a 10 year plan that we’re putting together in 2010. So just because we’re in a tough economy right now doesn’t mean that we will be in 5 more years. So I think we should stretch ourselves because we have 10 years to accomplish our goals. We should attempt to do as many great things as we possibly can.

WE: The second public meeting takes place this week on Thursday, April 15th. Tell us why you think everyone reading this should attend.

GW: Because Downtown is important. It’s important to our region. We need to have a strong Downtown, and we need to keep building the momentum that was started in 2002. We got a lot of public input in 2002, and we want a lot of public input for the 2010 plan as well.

I also don’t want people to feel as if they attended the first meeting that they don’t need to attend this second one. We gathered input and ideas from the first meeting and now we’re going to be presenting the actual strategies that came from that, which we feel are going to accomplish the goals that we talked about in the first meeting. So it’s just as important for folks to attend this meeting because we’re going to take comments from this one and that’s what’s going to help shape what will be in the final plan.

We’re looking for great ideas, so the more folks that attend this meeting, the more input we’ll get, and we’ll have a better plan as a result.

2010 Downtown Columbus Strategic Plan Public Meeting #2 takes plce on Thursday April 15, 2010 from 6-8 pm at the Columbus State Conference Center located in the 4th Floor Ballroom at 315 Cleveland Avenue.

More information can be found online at www.downtowncolumbus.com/plan.

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