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Planning Downtown with MSI Design – Part 2

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.

(Click HERE to read Part One of our interview. Part Two is below.)

Walker Evans: One of the most widely discussed ideas on Columbus Underground after the public meeting was the Broad Street Revamp.

Keith Myers: Yeah, we read all of that feedback! Ha! Having someone on a bike in that rendering was actually a last minute decision. The rendering was already done and then we pulled it back out and said, yeah, let’s add a guy on a bike in there, and then I read all of the discussion that spawned from that and was quite amused. There’s been a really informed discussion about that actually, and I enjoy the debate and the back and forth. We weren’t proposing to build a separate bikeway with the Broad Street plan though. Frankly, this came from a comment that someone left at the first public meeting. It’s one of our favorite comments and it reads “When’s Broad Street going to go on a Road Diet?”. We love that comment and so we started digging into it. That’s when we found out that the average daily traffic on Broad Street has dropped over the past 10 years to where it’s now carrying as much traffic as Indianola at East North Broadway.

Andrew Overbeck: Indianola up there only has two moving lanes in either direction and a center turn lane.

KM: Yeah, so for Broad Street to still have eight lanes is ridiculous. The default action was to put in a center median, but we had some internal debate about how the businesses along Broad might not like it because it makes left turns difficult across the median and we’d also be creating a lot land in those center medians that nobody could really use… and land Downtown is priced by the square foot. So we dug up the old photographs of what Broad used to originally look like with the two side-medians. We weren’t really intending this to spur a bikeway or non-bikeway discussion, although I found the discussion to be fairly interesting, and I really liked some of the comments for alternate bike routes for secondary streets Downtown and some of the images that were posted. Those ideas are pretty cool.

AO: I think the idea of creating that additional usable public space could allow for more outdoor dining along Broad. There are a lot of different ways that space could be utilized.

KM: The point was to put the road on a diet. That was the point we were trying to get across.

WE: What really stood out for me during the public meeting was the visual of Broad crossing over 315. You said at the meeting that the difference in width was only a few feet, right?

KM: Yeah, three feet! When we’ve shown that to other audiences that always gets a strong reaction. From travel lane to travel lane, 315 is 83 feet wide and Broad Street is 80. Do we really need that going through Downtown? I don’t think that anyone thinks that we do.

WE: Do you think that this road diet problem with Broad is a part of a greater issue in how our Downtown roadway systems have been built out to accommodate the traffic during peak rush hour time periods which then leaves us with a large amount of wasted road space the vast majority of the other hours in the day?

KM: Oh, no question. In the 60s and 70s we set out to compete with the suburbs. The whole strategy was different. People were starting to leave Downtown in droves and we built these spiffy new malls at Northland, Westland and Eastland so the thought was that we had to compete Downtown. So we decided that we needed an abundance of surface parking that is cheap and we had to have wide roads that you can move quickly on like you could on Morse Road at that time, and that’s what we spent decades building. That’s not going to disappear over night. It’s going to take decades to undo that damage. But if we don’t get started, we’ll never get there. Broad Street is just one example of that right now. The crazy thing is, even with Broad being eight lanes wide, you still can’t turn because of restrictions which still makes it hard to navigate. We set these streets up to do something, and they are functioning exactly as they were planned, for better or for worse.

WE: Your comment earlier about people being resistant to change I thought is particularly interesting in relation to the High Street Revamp idea. The proposal is to reroute some of the buses off High and re-add some of the on-street parking. I think that the way High Street is configured Downtown right now was done so long ago that people may have a hard time imagining it going back to that. I’ve heard people concerned that adding on-street parking would slow down travel on High Street, but do people really use High Street currently when they’re in a hurry to get somewhere?

AO: Buses right now are taking up that curb-lane space, so most of the day you can’t even use those lanes anyway.

WE: There’s been a lot of discussion about bringing retail back to High Street over the past few years. Do you think that this type of plan could be the impetus that will actually accomplish that?

KM: One thing I’m sure of is that if we don’t do something, we’re not going to have retail on High Street. It’s not coming by itself. If we do nothing, we’ll get nothing. In 1978 there was retail in Downtown Columbus. I don’t recall the exact date that our “transit mall” was built on High Street, but our retail died pretty much right after that. In the late seventies and earlier eighties there weren’t anymore people living Downtown than there are now. There were 100,000 people working down there and they’re still there. So something changed and these transit malls have proven to be unsuccessful around the country. We still have ours. I will say that the most passionate comments we’ve  gotten during this whole process is in regard to High Street. There are people who are angry about the current state of High Street. People are fed up with the state that it’s in. High and Broad are our two most significant streets and of the two, High Street is in awful shape. The buses are an issue. We’ve got almost every single route running on High Street Downtown.

AO: Another point about High Street that we’ve been hearing for a long time is that when people or companies are bringing people to town to convince them to move here, they have to choose carefully how to drive them around to show off the city. In a lot of ways, High Street is the front door to our city and there are a lot of stretches of Downtown that aren’t impressive. It’s the spine that links up every core institution, neighborhood and signature element that make up Columbus. High Street should look 100% from Worthington to south of Merion Village and it’s not quite there.

KM: We need to make a substantial change. We’re not going to subsidize our way into retail. It won’t work.

WE: I’ve heard many people say that retail is hurt by the bus stops themselves and the people who are hanging out at bus stops waiting for their bus to arrive. As an avid bus rider myself, I disagree with that, but do you think that maybe there’s some misplaced truth to that and the problem is less in the bus stops and riders and more in the giant wall of lined-up buses that create that disconnect between the street and the retail?

KM: First of all, we’ve had bus stops on High Street for as long as we’ve had buses and I’m not ready to say that transit is the problem with retail on High Street. I don’t think we should take all of the buses off High Street. No one is advocating for that. What we did back in the 80s was take away the parking on High Street and more importantly the “illusion of parking”. I’ll drive down Gay Street and there’s a chance that I might not get a spot right out front, but I’m committed to going to one of the restaurants there. If I don’t see a spot, I’ll park a block away and walk. But people don’t do that with High Street. There’s no illusion that you’re going to be able to find parking anywhere near a storefront, so as a consequence, people don’t go. I think the biggest problem isn’t that there’s bus stops or bus riders, it’s the congestion and the fact that we’ve taken the curb lanes and dedicated them only to buses.

AO: When we started to look into this issue we found that other cities of comparable size had the same problems with bus congestion stemming from transit malls. There are a lot of people hanging around who aren’t interested in shopping… they’re just waiting to get on their bus. This is all about humanizing the experience for bus riders as well. There are some places along High Street that don’t even have shelters. So cities who have had these transit malls have been moving away from them… Akron, Dayton, Nashville, Charlotte. They’ve all turned to Bus Transit Centers to solve that problem. Charlotte has 50,000 people per day moving through their bus transit center. The most telling comment that I got when calling up those cities was hearing that their transit malls fell out of favor in the mid-eighties, which is the time right when we built ours. It’s a perfect example of something we were on the back-end of innovation for. But it’s taken a lot of other cities a long time to take these systems out. There’s a lot of concern about what this could mean for COTA and what it could mean for bus riders. I think there’s just going to have to be a slight shift in how we use our system. We can keep this in the core of Downtown but we need to find a location that makes sense for bus riders who are both arriving Downtown and those who are looking to transfer.

KM: We started on this project back during the winter and we were driving up and down High Street and we’d see people sitting out at Broad & High waiting on that cold stone wall. The Statehouse won’t let COTA put in a bus shelter there and instead people huddle inside the parking garage stairwell until 6pm when they lock that and push everyone back out into the cold. We say that bus riders aren’t second class citizens, but we sure as hell treat them that way. At some point it becomes sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I don’t see why riding the bus has to be an awful experience where you’ve got to transfer at Broad & High be out in the cold or rain or snow for 15 minutes waiting. It doesn’t seem like the best system. Maybe the transit station isn’t the best answer either, but it seems like it works well in a lot of other cities. I’m not ready to say that what we have right now is so perfect that we should never change it.

WE: With a proposed location for a possible transit center being left up to the imagination at this point, do you guys have anywhere in mind for where it could potentially be placed? Maybe the grounds at Columbus Commons could work?

KM: It could. That’s an interesting idea. At some point we have to defer to people to plan transit for a living. From an urban design perspective we could pick out sites where we’d like to see a really wonderful new building, but we really have to have the transit planners weigh in and tell us where it makes sense for ridership and service.

AO: Yeah, there’s a lot of different things that factor into that equation. I think it has to be far more thought out by the transit planners. I think at this point we’ve identified an idea that has worked well in other cities to address the same sort of problems we’ve had.

WE: One other concern that I’ve been hearing is whether or not its necessary to build two stations as proposed with the idea for a 3C Rail Station at the Convention Center. Could the two stations be combined into one multi-modal station?

KM: Again, we’d have to defer to the transit planners to figure out what would make the most sense. The one thing we do know is that because of the viaducts that stretch over the tracks at the Convention Center, it’s always been a little difficult for transit station placement there. 20 years ago MORPC had suggested placement for a multimodal station at the site across the street at Nationwide & High where those three proposed brown buildings are in the rendering. We kept looking at that and thinking how it didn’t make sense because the tracks are curving there. We got some transit guys down there one day and we walked up the tracks with them and we said “what about here” under the Convention Center and they thought the tracks there looked great and were perfectly aligned for a station. You know why that is? It because that’s where the train station used to be! So the whole idea of having the commuter rail arriving at the Convention Center lends itself to having the existing retail right there, taxis there, and the ability to figure out how to integrate buses or streetcar or light rail coming down High Street. It all comes together pretty well right there.

AO: One thing that we didn’t really get to touch on at the meeting is that buses would play a role at this station in getting people to and from there. The other thing that we got a lot of feedback on was about bringing back the “COTA Link” shuttle that served Downtown a few years back. I think that we could have a bus link circulator Downtown that could link the rail station to a bus station and vice versa. That’s something that’s certainly a possibility. That could also link together with parking garages or other destinations.

WE: The idea about Bike Station Infrastructure wasn’t too surprising as Capital Crossroads has already announced some of these types of structures as something they’re working on implementing in the near future. Was this an idea that just sort of piggybacks on that concept?

AO: Well, there’s two parts to this one. There’s the Capital Crossroads SID project, which we’ve helped them on, that kind of looks at those end-of-ride services and infrastructure and places to park bikes. They’re looking at whether or not they should do one main bike station or to spread it out and do smaller bike services at as many employment centers as possible and get biking out in front of as many people as possible. So their focus sounds like they’re moving towards trying to spread the wealth, and I think that’s a good first step because we need to have a broad infrastructure before we can have a pie-in-the-sky kind of bigger ticket idea. I think what they’re doing fits in perfectly with this. And if you look at the Bicentennial Bikeways plan, it recommends a larger bike station Downtown, so I think this is the next step. We’re trying to make sure that people don’t get too complacent. We’ve done a better job of putting in more bike racks and working on sharrows, but we think we can take things up a notch with a station that can offer showers and lockers and the ability to rent bikes.

WE: The Field House idea was one that caught me completely off guard. I’m not a big sports guy, so I wasn’t aware of the current sporting event usage going on at the Convention Center.

KM: Yeah, the numbers on that were really compelling. A few years ago I took my daughter to a volleyball tournament at the Convention Center not expecting much, but I walked in and was stunned. There were 60 courts in there. There were four teams per court, 10 girls per team and their parents and siblings filling the place. I was talking to some of the parents who were staying in Delaware because all of the Downtown hotel rooms were booked for this event. And there’s similar events for gymnastics and cheer leading and everything else. We talked to the Sports Commission and found out that it’s a pretty big business for the Convention Center. But the idea behind everything is that what we’re doing should serve multiple purposes. It’s good that this could fill up on weekends and pack the hotels when the business travelers are gone, but during the week this could be a facility that people who live in the area can use. Basketball leagues, volleyball leagues… whatever they want. This could be one more amenity for Downtown living.

WE: Similar to seeing Berliner Park filling up with baseball and softball teams on weeknights?

KM: Yeah, we’ve got to be the softball capital of the world. It’s crazy how many people are down there playing during the summer.

AO: The other opportunity that this gives us is that it creates another edge on Nationwide Boulevard east of High Street. That area is sort of challenged from a streetscape perspective and I think it could help turn some attention to that end of Nationwide and even spur some interest in improving that piece of the Downtown streetscape.

Part three 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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