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Planning Downtown with MSI Design – Part 1

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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The City of Columbus is looking to update the 2002 Downtown Strategic Business Plan with a 2010 plan that continues the trend of urban renewal in the core of our city. Twelve ideas were presented at a public meeting on April 15th and public input is being sought online through Friday, April 30th.

MSI Design is serving in the role of Project Manager for this community input process. We recently sat down with Keith Myers, Principal at MSI and Andrew Overbeck, Urban and Regional Planner at MSI, for an more detailed look at these ideas and what what the finalized plan may look like.

Walker Evans: Have you guys been pleased with the feedback and the community involvement up to this point?

Keith Myers: I think the process surprised us really. The level of engagement was more than we expected. Some of the ideas that we got out of the first meeting were great. The response we’ve gotten from the second meeting has been pretty remarkable as well. We’ve been very pleased with the overall response. It’s been heartening. A lot of people care about Downtown. Some very passionately.

WE: Was it difficult to distill so many pieces of Individual input from so many different people into these 12 ideas, or did things come together naturally?

KM: Well, some of the ideas have been around for awhile in different ways. Some of them were pretty self evident. Everybody knows there’s a problem on High Street. It’s not a secret. There had been discussions in the past about dams coming out. We simply expanded on those ideas and attempted to provide solutions and tie them all together. So in that sense, there wasn’t really a “writers block” moment trying to come up with ideas. There’s a lot still out there that could still be interesting.

Andrew Overbeck: We had almost 700 comments that we’ve gotten from the public meeting, the online survey and from emails. Going through those it wasn’t too hard to find a common story. It wasn’t that everyone had the same ideas, but there were a lot of similar comments.

KM: A lot of people shared the same concerns if not the same ideas for how to address them. It was easy to find threads.

WE: There’s been an ongoing push for Downtown to become a place to “live work and play” over the past decade or so. Does that lend itself into what people perceive as being essential for Downtown to be a place that can serve that multi-function purpose?

KM: Yeah, those themes are consistent and have been consistent for years. The challenge is creating an environment that encourages all three of those, and that challenge is still with us. We are making progress though. I was serious when I tried to give people some perspective at the second meeting when I tried to take them back 15 years to 1995. We’ve done a lot in the past 15 years. I tried to make the same point in the first meeting… really, the only thing that holds us back sometimes is ourselves. We sometimes get skeptical or pessimistic about our ability to foster change, and that’s unfortunate. We’ve done a great job in 15 years in helping to change our city. And we have a lot of other cities who come to see us too, because they all want tours of the Arena District or some other area or project. Those people understand that there are still a lot of challenges that we face, which by the way, aren’t unique to Columbus. We’re not the only city with a lot of surface parking lots that are trying to figure out solutions to that.

WE: One of the questions I asked Guy Worley before the second meeting was whether or not we’re leading in any capacity on these issues or if we are just copying what other cities have been doing well for the past few decades. Are we innovating, or are we just trying to collect “best practices” from elsewhere?

AO: I think when you look at the i670 cap, that’s certainly an innovation. That was the first cap built over a highway that had retail over top of it. The way that was set up was unique in the country. It may seem like a small thing, but that linkage was important in reconnecting Downtown to the Short North. Now we just need 10 more caps for the 70/71 split fix! So in that example, we can find our own “best practice” right here in Columbus.

KM: I think planning is a mixture of all of that. I think we’re innovating in some areas and behind in others. I think we’re also emulating cities in some areas, but hopefully we’re improving with each step. Every city does that. Every city goes somewhere to study what other cities do well. I do think Columbus does public-private partnerships better than any other city in the country. The City of Columbus has an excellent handle on their finances… way better than some of the other cities we’ve worked with. In some ways there are things that aren’t tangible, but are still areas where the City of Columbus and Franklin County are leading the way.

AO: Also, when you look at the fact that the population of Downtown Columbus has actually grown in the past 10 years for the first time since 1950… that’s huge. There’s a national trend for the return to urban centers, but I also think that the incentives put in place by the City of Columbus with the 2002 plan played a big role in that. The housing market has taken a hit since then, but even seeing the housing that is still popping up during a bad economic time I think is pretty impressive. There’s certainly more to come from that.

KM: We’re also good at growing areas organically. The Short North is a tremendous success story. When I was in college you wouldn’t go down to the Short North on a bet. Some of that’s now happening on Gay Street, so we’ve got examples of both of those kinds of development Downtown. We’ve got the big civically-minded corporate-citizen weighing in to change part of the city, and we’ve got the “bootstraps up” approach. We’ve got both and I think that will help. We’ll need them both because we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

AO: We’ve had a lot of increase in Downtown housing in the past decade, but we haven’t had a lot of increase in creating actual Downtown neighborhoods, so I think that’s part of our challenge now. The incentives have been great for encouraging private investment in Downtown housing, but it hasn’t been a very concentrated effort. One of the things we’re trying to do is figure out how to create more of those types of nodes of activity, and build upon that critical mass of residential that will lead to more retail.

WE: One of the benefits to the revitalization of Gay Street is the fact that it still had a lot of historic building stock, so it made it easier for entrepreneurs to move into an area with cheaper rents. Do you see any other areas Downtown with that kind of potential, or are we going to have to need more of the larger-scale build-out, and the higher rent that comes with it, and not end up with as much of that entrepreneurial spirit in those areas?

KM: That’s an excellent question. We’ve been asking ourselves “Where’s the next Gay Street?” for awhile, and we’ve looked at Town Street from time to time as an area with a similar potential. I think maybe the next Gay Street is High Street. It needs a lot of work, but there is still a lot of building stock there… with a few notable exceptions… but there’s a great chance for that type of retail to come back to High Street. We need High Street to come back. It’s our most important street.

AO: I think what Cleve Ricksecker is doing with the Capital Crossroads SID and what Kacey Campbell is doing with the new Retail Recruitment position is really important. They have some really interesting ideas for Pearl Alley to serve as a retail incubator. There’s been at least 3 or 4 businesses already that have spun off from the Pearl Market in the past 18 months that have moved into full time retail locations. That’s the kind of thing that we need to encourage.

WE: The first idea presented for potential use in the plan is the Southeast Gateway, sort of an office/mixed-use neighborhood development in the south-east section of Downtown. It sounds like a very “meat and potatoes” piece of the puzzle… something that’s not that flashy and exciting, but something that’s definitely necessary. Would that be fair to say?

KM: What we were trying to do is shine a light on a particular area in Downtown that’s generally pretty forgotten, but is about to undergo a lot of change. Children’s Hospital is expanding with multiple new buildings, Grant Hospital has expanded recently, Franklin University has plans to expand, and the 70/71 split is going to change that area significantly because it’s literally going to become the new eastern gateway into Downtown.That whole area is going to undergo some radical change. We want to point out that there’s opportunity there and it’s a little underdeveloped at the moment. What we’re hoping to do is draw attention to it and see it in a different light.

AO: I think there’s a Gateway opportunity there for people entering Downtown, but another opportunity that spreads to the north in that Main & Rich streets won’t serve as highway feeders anymore. Those are pretty wide streets that can be turned back into neighborhood streets. Mound and Fulton will be revamped as brand new streets that will also be redone in a very neighborhood-friendly fashion.

WE: There have been some concerns that the new Mound & Fulton feeders may wind up being redone in a manner that aren’t very pedestrian friendly. Could that be a possible detriment to retail development in this area?

KM: If they’re a detriment to retail, it’s only because they’re one-way. I do think that what they will allow for is Main Street to become a stronger retail corridor and convert back to two-way. Perhaps Rich Street as well. These two new feeders are only three lanes wide with parking on both sides, they’re not even going to be built to the level that Third and Fourth or Spring and Long are right now. I’m not too concerned that they’ll be extensions of the freeway through Downtown. We’re reasonably convinced that they can be good urban streets through Downtown.

WE: The second idea presented is located just north of all of this: the Topiary Park Infill. How feasible do you think this is to have Motorists Mutual Insurance Company develop their parking lots into residential?

KM: I don’t know if Motorists is interested in developing or not. Right now that area is in an economic equilibrium, like it or not. The parking that is there is owned by an insurance company that needs it for their daytime use. Short of something interrupting that equilibrium, it’s going to stay like that for awhile. What we’re suggesting is that perhaps the careful insertion of a parking structure could free up some of the surface spaces to allow for development. One thing is for certain… we’re going around building parks to create real estate value and to create places where people want to live. What should be evident to anyone is that we don’t have to build the Topiary Park… it’s already there and it’s a great park! We just need to leverage it. It’s the least leveraged park in the Downtown area.

AO: In a sense, this is probably the simplest idea presented. I think it’s a no brainer. That land facing the park should be residential. But it is a little tougher to figure out how to crack that nut: how exactly do you put in that parking garage? At the first meeting we had a lot of people going to that spot first and saying that area should be used for residential development.

WE: So this parking garage could potentially serve not only the office workers by day, but also park visitors and residents?

KM: Well, a garage doesn’t necessarily have to be on that exact site, but shared residential and office use are perfectly symbiotic and that would work well. But we also have to consider that you have the Library and other cultural institutions in the area, so you’ve got reason to think about the need for a public structure down there. The Downtown Library is one of the most visited libraries in the region. They get close to a million visitors per year, which is about the same amount of traffic as a movie theater. Anyway, there’s probably reasonable enough basis for exploring a garage down there that could then lead to residential development. There have been developers who have tried to work with Motorists over the years, but they haven’t been able to solve the parking problem.

WE: Going north of that, the same sort of parking lot issues persist with the Creative Campus idea. Do you see parking garages also being a part of the impetus for redeveloping some of the land in that area?

KM: I think we have to be willing to explore that. What’s interesting about that area is that we have these huge institutions like Columbus State and CCAD and a neighborhood that works together better than any other neighborhood we’ve worked in. State Auto is great and they’ve been quietly helping the Columbus Art Museum for years, allowing them to park on their lots during evening & weekends. I think there’s a great opportunity there to solve a Downtown problem and come up with a solution that not only addresses the needs of all of those entities but also allows for the ability to create a great new neighborhood and campus. Columbus State is a little tougher piece of the puzzle because they do have some restrictions on what they can and can’t do by the State of Ohio.

WE: I have heard recently about those guidelines that Columbus State is subject to, but also heard that there’s some potential in looking into the possibility of changing some of those guidelines, or having exceptions made at the state level to allow Columbus State to develop or co-lease their land for residential or retail development.

KM: From what I’ve seen over the years, changing laws in the State of Ohio isn’t all that difficult. Sometimes we even write casinos into our laws! In all seriousness, I think that if there’s a greater public purpose there, I don’t think it would be impossible to do. Certainly it’s in the interest of the city for Columbus State to be able do something with their land that benefits both them and the city as a whole.

AO: That’s really the critical piece of making Long Street a critical Downtown Street again. On the surface it seems like you have to build some garages in the short term to free up some of this land, but in the ideal world we’d have a transit system that was extensive and we wouldn’t have to play this “garage game”. In the short term though, until we get additional transit, garages will be a critical piece in remaking some of these neighborhoods where you have that parking pressure.

KM: The economics of parking is what sort of led to what we have Downtown today… the whole exercise of building tall towers without enough parking and then razing other buildings for parking lots. That whole economic cycle is what led us to this, so we have to find a way to back out of it the same way. We have to deal with the parking first and then hopefully add more transit… sooner rather than later.

WE: Do you know if Chris Boring or anyone else has ever conducted any retail studies along the Grant/Cleveland corridor through the Discovery District? I imagine that between all of the tens of thousands of students in the area that they could support at least one coffee shop or one restaurant.

AO: I don’t recall any specific studies being done recently.

KM: It’s always struck us as unusual. There’s 22,000 students there, and I know they come and go during different times of the day, but you also have hospital workers at Grant and patrons of the Library in that mix.

AO: We have seen some progress on that front recently. Columbus State building their new bookstore facing Cleveland Avenue has been a good step, and Franklin is potentially interested in something like that. CCAD has certainly started to activate the street with their newer buildings. The energy is moving in that direction.

KM: It’s interesting to think of Grant and Cleveland as this north-south connection because where these streets intersect at Main, Rich and Broad provide corners that present a retail opportunity that makes a lot of sense for the amount of traffic they serve.

AO: Many people don’t really think about how Cleveland & Grant are a pretty critical north-south corridor and find it kind of hard to navigate. I think adding that greenspace square in the middle will be a critical piece to highlight the corridor and help to link up with some of the energy coming down Gay Street with Neighborhood Launch.

KM: It also provides a public park in an area of Downtown that currently has nothing.

Part two of our interview can be found HERE.

More information about MSI can be found at www.msidesign.com

More information about the Downtown Strategic Plan can be found here.

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