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3 Speculative Projects That Could Change the Face of Columbus

These three projects could have major impacts on our city, changing Columbus as we know it. But how close are they to reality?

A Secondary Downtown at Easton

Easton Town Center, via Facebook

Back in 1999 when Easton Town Center first opened, it was still somewhat of a radical concept. Open-air malls had been around for decades, but were the exception rather than the rule. In Columbus, the prominent examples were Westland Shopping Center and The Continent. Westland, which had opened in February, 1969, was the only example of Columbus’ “directional” malls to feature an outdoor promenade that connected its 40 original stores.

In the 1970s, The Continent took the concept a few steps further by throwing in 600 apartments, offices and entertainment venues to the shopping mall concept, while also keeping some of the shopping outdoors. Neither example lasted long, with Westland being enclosed by the 1980s and The Continent proving to be too diffuse too disconnected and perhaps too ahead of its time to be a successful example of the mixed-use center idea. Today, both have long largely succumbed to regional competition.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, enclosed malls were still considered the safe bet, and the Columbus area had its last two enclosed malls built at this time- Tuttle in 1997 and Polaris in 2001. However, the market for this type of retail was already showing signs of souring, and many questions were raised concerning continuing the enclosed design, especially by the time Polaris was built. The “lifestyle center” idea was growing in popularity, instead, and Easton became one of the major pioneers that changed the way brick and mortar retail was viewed.

AMC Theatre at Easton Town Center
Part of Easton’s earlier phases.

Easton was an almost immediate huge success, though it was arguably a step back from The Continent in that it had almost no mixed-use elements to it. There were no offices or residential units built connected to the original complex, so it was essentially just an outdoor retail mall with some restaurants and a movie theater. What made it unique to The Continent and Westland was that the early phases were compact, well-designed and much more walkable. Walking out in the cold during winter didn’t seem to bother customers as much as it had with Westland, because the small-town setting, lighting, landscaping and other features made it a more pleasant experience.

Essentially, it didn’t have the feel of shopping at a mall. Indeed, part of the selling point was its small-town look, like shopping on Main Street, USA. Still, there was criticism that the design just didn’t go far enough to create a true lifestyle center with people shopping, living and working within the development. Easton Crossing, the only apartments in the area, were built across the busy Easton Way. Area hotels were also not connected to the development.

Since the initial phases were completed, Easton has gone through several expansions. When Easton Gateway was first announced, some were hoping that the expansion would bring just that- a more mixed-use format. Alas, it was not to be, and it disappointingly ended up much more similar to a standard suburban shopping center with large parking lots and strip centers.

Renderings of The Yard at Easton, the latest expansion

Easton is currently underway with its latest expansion, and for the first time, this phase will include residential that is tied directly to the rest of Easton Town Center. The 750 units, including 300 in a 7-story building, will be twice the number built in the previous two decades combined.

So what’s next for this ever-growing development? This past summer, on the 20th anniversary of the opening, the future of Easton Town Center was a point of discussion. In an article on the event, it was revealed that the development team behind Easton had game-changing plans for the not-so-distant future.

There are still hundreds of acres within and surrounding the shopping center, and the plan is to create a new, dense neighborhood with skyscrapers reaching up to 40 stories. These towers would contain thousands of residential units and hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space, among other amenities.

Lenox Square in Atlanta, a possible prototype for the next phases of Easton?

Exactly how many towers would be built wasn’t part of the discussion, but should such buildings actually go up, they would be the first skyscrapers at this height anywhere in the city outside of Downtown. Even Ohio State has nothing that tall on campus, so this would be like creating a secondary, suburban downtown within the Columbus city limits. This would not only change the look and feel of the Easton area but potentially the direction and character of much of the East Side.

The time frame for such a huge endeavor around Easton is not known, so a lot could easily go wrong with this. Indeed, this could end up as nothing more than promotional hype. That said, if we have seen anything from the owners and interests of East Town Center, it’s that they are willing to spend the time and money to keep it updated and fresh while other shopping centers in the region languish. What better way is there to keep up with that momentum than to have future phases reimagine it once again?

Rapid 5 River Connection Project

The Columbus area includes 5 main river systems- Scioto, Olentangy, Alum, Big Walnut, and Big Darby. Four of these rivers run directly through parts of the city itself, while also flowing near or through several major Metro Parks, including Highbanks, Three Creeks and Scioto-Audubon, among others. The Metro Parks and river systems are somewhat connected by a more than 200-mile multi-use trail system, the most popular and well-known being the Olentangy Trail, the Scioto Greenways, and the Alum Creek Trail. The paths are popular with bicyclists, runners, and others, though the existing trail system has several issues.

Camp Chase Trail via Facebook

One of the main complaints is that there are virtually no east-west trail connectors across the city. Currently, there is just one- the Camp Chase-Scioto Greenway-I670 Bikeway combo- but even that is technically incomplete as a standalone, off-road path. Users must still take to the street through Downtown in order to follow it, and without any dedicated bike lanes, the risk of traffic accidents is higher. All of the other trails run north-south, which follows the paths of the area’s rivers. As even the north-south trails have street sections or are missing sections altogether in places, most users are concentrated along the longest complete sections, making them occasionally overcrowded during peak times in warmer months.

Another current issue is that the rivers themselves are underutilized. Trails run along them, but there are few direct access points like boat launches and fishing locations. Additionally, low-head dams prevent significant travel or recreational use along them, particularly on the Scioto and Olentangy rivers. The city did remove two of the dams on the Scioto in recent years- at 5th Avenue and at Main Street. These removals have helped return the river to its original condition in these areas, and the faster flow has helped improve water quality and aquatic habitat. The remaining dams, however, represent an impassible and potentially deadly obstacle to serious river use.

The Rapid 5 map

Enter Rapid5. While the project has not been officially announced, and won’t be until sometime in 2020, there have been some hints that it could truly be transformational in scope. The exact details are unknown, so we are left to speculate to some degree. A YouTube video release and project website reveal almost nothing, except to give the impression that the project would involve creating direct connections between Columbus’ major parks and rivers, while also making the rivers navigable to the point that people could commute to work on them should they desire.

The map on the website looks very similar to the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission’s long-term plan. It shows some proposed trail routes in the area, but says nothing about plans for the rivers themselves, so what those connections might look like is anyone’s guess. The most likely scenario would involve building the proposed large, new network of multi-use paths, particularly east-west across the city. It will likely also include completing existing trails. The Scioto Greenway, for example, ends at West 5th Avenue on the north side and at a dead-end just north of Frank Road on the south side. MORPC and other organizations have long wanted this path to be extended north to and beyond the Columbus Zoo and south to and beyond the relatively new Scioto Grove Metro Park outside of Grove City.

As for the possibility of commuting by river, that is an arguably far more ambitious endeavor. Not only would it require the removal of the low-head dams, but direct river access would have to be vastly improved across the entire 5-river system. There are at least 5 low-head dams within I-270 on the Olentangy and Scioto rivers alone, and it would not be cheap to get rid of them, such as the one-off of Dublin Road, also carry utility lines.

There is also the question of funding and a timeline. Since a larger trail system has long been a plan, does the Rapid 5 project mean that we’ll see an expedited timeline? Only modest trail expansions have occurred annually, and at the current pace, the project as mapped would take decades to complete. Has that changed? More importantly, is there funding in place to make it happen, or will its future be determined by a sometimes fickle public vote?

There are just too many unanswered questions at this point. Hopefully, the official announcement, whenever it comes, brings more than just vague ideas and promises, but tangible, realistic goals.

The Removal of Rt. 315

Of the three projects discussed, this one has the smallest chance of ever happening, but would also arguably have one of the greatest impacts on the city.

From the time it was first proposed in the 1950s until its ultimate construction, the Olentangy Freeway, or Rt. 315 as it is mostly known as today, was highly controversial. I-71 was already in the works, serving as the main north-south freeway for the city, so many felt that 315 was redundant. Beyond that, though, the proposed route ran roughshod overtop the Olentangy River. Many felt that an expanded Olentangy River Road was a better option, while also creating a series of river parks along the Olentangy itself to protect and enhance the natural beauty of the waterway.

Meanwhile, pro-freeway groups argued that the North Freeway, or I-71, was not sufficient enough to carry all north-south traffic for the city’s growing population, and because the Olentangy corridor was not highly developed at the time, the proposed route would have a smaller impact than in other locations.

Due to the opposition and route questions, it took a long time to complete 315. The Worthington section was one of the last completed in 1980. Parts of the river were moved in order to preserve some parkland, but it amounted to less than 100 acres overall.

Since its completion, 315 has served its purpose as an alternative to I-71 North, and essentially a bypass to the 70-71 split through Downtown. In recent years, however, some have begun to question its future. Cities across the nation and world have started to seriously consider, and in some cases actually completed highway removal.

Highway removal has become a hot topic of late because city leaders have recognized that having their neighborhoods sliced up by highway trenches has had more negatives than not. They make for an easier escape out of the city, but they’re terrible for neighborhood cohesiveness, pollution, noise and other issues.

Rt. 315 as it winds past Ohio State.

Columbus has never removed a highway to date. In fact, it was still building them in the 2000s when I-670 was completed. Currently, ODOT is rebuilding 70-71 through Downtown. Columbus leadership originally pushed for a cap across the Downtown highway trench to reconnect Downtown with the Near East and Near South sides, but ODOT balked at the idea as being far too expensive, as if spending a billion dollars to rebuild a few miles of existing highway was being fiscally responsible.

In any case, Columbus doesn’t have a track record of removing roadways.

Rt. 315 is the most obvious candidate, and local developers and organizations seem to recognize that. In 2017, at the behest of the city and several local organizations, several ideas were put together about the future of the 315/Olentangy River valley, and at least one of those ideas included tearing the highway down and replacing it with other transit options and corridors.

The Olentangy without the highway, as proposed by NBBJ.

Unlike the other ideas mentioned in this article, 315’s removal would bring about a significant fight, not just from the public that might object to the removal of a convenient highway, but also from ODOT, which fully controls the highway. ODOT has repeatedly made the argument that 315 is a vital corridor through Columbus, and that removing it or any part of it would put more traffic on other roadways, creating dangerous conditions. Of course, such dire predictions rarely come to fruition. In cities that have already removed highways,, there were no subsequent trafficgeddons, and the new highway-free corridors have proven to be boons for new development.

Columbus is one of the nation’s best-served cities with its highway system, with some of the shortest commute times nationally. Could it handle 315’s removal? The answer is probably, if not likely, but there may not be nearly enough public support or political will to make it happen. For now, the idea sits in the same basket as the Hyperloop and local rail travel- fun to think about, but still just fantasy.