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Wasted Space: Surface Parking Crater in Downtown Columbus

Brent Warren Brent Warren Wasted Space: Surface Parking Crater in Downtown ColumbusPhoto by Walker Evans.
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The High Street corridor Downtown has witnessed a steady stream of development the last few years. The 12-story 250 High now sits where a parking lot once was, historic renovations are bringing the Citizens Building and the former Madison’s Department Store back to life, and the largest remaining “missing tooth” along the corridor — parking lots on the west side of High between Gay and Long, featured in our Wasted Space series two years ago — is about to be filled in with a six-story mixed-use development.

The next major thoroughfare to the east, though — Third Street — tells a completely different story. Funneling a large amount of traffic from I-670 and Summit Street, North Third serves as an important entryway to Downtown for both work commuters and out-of-town visitors arriving from the airport.

“From the aspect of creating an impression of an urbanized, vibrant downtown, it certainly is not a very appealing front door,” says Jason Sudy of urban planning firm Side Street Planning.

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A large convention center parking lot is visible from the North Third ramp leading into Downtown, and surface parking lots dominate the landscape as travelers head south. Many of the buildings along the corridor don’t add much in terms of walkability or vibrancy. Some are empty, like the five-story former Westwater Supply building at 154 N. Third, and others are auto-oriented, like the Goodyear and Firestone service outlets at the corner of East Spring Street.

The group of parking lots between Hickory and Long streets also share two characteristics that add to the feeling of emptiness along the corridor, according to Sudy. They tend to be used almost entirely during the day time, and they lack any significant landscaping or “edge treatment,” like decorative fences, trees or bushes.

“There are not many people coming and going from these lots at night,” says Sudy. “It’s pretty much a giant chasm to cross on foot after the work day, with a lot of ugly things to walk past… it’s just too many blocks in a row.”

The barrenness of the streetscape makes the lack of buildings even more glaring, says Sudy, pointing out that North Fourth Street offers a useful contrast. Fourth is seeing some real signs of life, with businesses like Elevator, Wolf’s Ridge and Pins Mechanical Co. bringing investment and energy to the corridor. Although there is also surface parking along Fourth, the lots are landscaped around the edges, and more historic buildings remain and have been restored on Fourth than on Third.

“No one would argue, from the perspective of the fundamentals of urban planning, that having buildings on these sites is going to have a dramatic impact on how the corridor is conceived,” adds Sudy.

Mark Lundine, the city’s Economic Development Administrator, generally sees potential in the remaining surface parking lots Downtown, even while acknowledging the need to “figure out transit and parking” to ensure that building on surface lots doesn’t result in a larger parking shortage.

“Surface parking lots going away is positive for Downtown,” says Lundine. “There’s a higher and better use in the market, and Edwards has shown that repeatedly with the success of Neighborhood Launch.”

Schottenstein Property Group (SPG) is the largest single property owner along the North Third Street corridor. In addition to owning the Westwater building and surrounding lots, the company also controls nearly all of the parking on the west side of the street between Hickory and Long.

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North Third Street properties owned or controlled by Schottenstein Property Group are highlighted in yellow.

SPG is the real estate arm of retail magnate Jay Schottenstein, the CEO of Value City Furniture and Chairman of both American Eagle Outfitters and DSW.

Dirk Greene, Vice President of Leasing for SPG, says that the company is “at the beginning stages of a development plan,” for the block east of Third and north of Long. Also included in that group of parcels is the two-story brick building holding Spoonful Records and 134 E. Long, a four-story building that dates to the late 1800′s. Greene declined to comment on what, if any, plans the company has for the parking lots on the west side of Third.

Many different factors play into why certain parcels get developed and others don’t — a big one is the revenue that they can generate as parking lots. Parking still represents a steady source of income for land owners Downtown, and that income is actually increasing as other lots are developed and the demand for parking (mostly driven by office-users) increases.

Sudy points to the rise of autonomous vehicles as another variable that could have an impact on future development.

“You’re going to see a massive shift in parking demand and usage in concentrated urban areas, so if the economics aren’t enough to motivate landowners to develop surface parking lots now, as demand for parking in the urban core diminishes over time, they will find it becoming much more lucrative.”

All other photos by Brent Warren.

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