Urban design: Columbus, Ohio—Indy’s peer city—has thrown down the gauntlet

Tom GallagherA recent visit to Columbus, Ohio, validated what I’ve been speculating—that Columbus has vaulted past us in terms of downtown vitality and refinement.

Though I have lived in Indy for about half my life, I grew up in Columbus and I’ve seen the changes in both cities, particularly as they matured over the last 30 years.

I used to say that Indy had a stronger downtown and that Columbus had many robust historic urban neighborhoods; together they would make one great city. Now, in my observation, Columbus has made up the gap in its downtown while making its neighborhoods even stronger.

Drawing comparisons between Indy and Columbus has always been easy and useful to the extent that they are similarly sized Midwestern cities with nearly matching climates and cultures. That means that whatever advantages one enjoys over the other are the result of specific actions. Columbus appears to have made a few worth noting.

First, Columbus has capitalized on the Scioto River. Like the White River in Indy, the Scioto, being too shallow for commerce, has over the years been dammed, dredged and shaped, contained by levees and subject to combined sewer overflows. However, city planning led to a more direct involvement of the Scioto in the civic life of Columbus, even if only visually.

Now, the river district’s new bridges, promenades, riverside parks and plazas, and enhanced access to the river’s edge are significant and continue to stimulate development in adjacent neighborhoods.

A few other projects stand out: the Arena District and South Campus Gateway (just Gateway today), both of which are significant catalysts for their neighborhoods. Likely more serendipity than strategy, they also touched off a chain reaction throughout the two-mile corridor between them, bringing a varied mix of housing types in a wide range of attainability levels, improved walkability and public realm and renewed civic amenities like a new public library that anchors a prime “main street” location.

What makes these projects particularly significant, though, is they were each initiated, funded and implemented by institutions that are among the largest employers in the city.

For the Arena District, it was Nationwide Insurance, which has been headquartered in downtown Columbus since 1974. Typical of corporate development of its time, Nationwide’s offices were fortress-like. The office towers were setback far from the street, entries were distant from the public sidewalks and while it brought many people to the northside of downtown, it primarily held them inside throughout the workday. Despite being the northern anchor of downtown and just a block from the convention center, the area around the headquarters was less than hospitable and included a vacant state penitentiary built in the 1800s.

In 1997, recognizing that the area was an impediment to the city’s image and attractiveness to potential employees, Nationwide made the self-aware and confident step of taking responsibility for the transformation of the area, beginning with the purchase of the penitentiary property and establishing a forward-looking master plan. The district is now more than 75 acres and anticipates nearly a billion dollars of additional private investment as it continues to draw corporate headquarters and residents. Under construction is a new venue for the Columbus Crew Major League Soccer team.

The institutional benefactor for the Gateway project, completed in 2007, was Ohio State University. It has become commonplace for universities to instigate redevelopment on their peripheries. What makes this project noteworthy is the strategic partnership between the university and the not-for-profit development corporation, Campus Partners, which acted as master developer, fundraiser and community liaison. It carefully navigated the redevelopment of one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

These examples demonstrate that city-making is a long-term endeavor, one that demands patience, persistence and perseverance. It also takes a champion—preferably one that is more than just a vocal advocate but has skin in the game.

Ultimately, the advances made in Columbus are more than just collections of land uses for the purpose of economic development. Columbus has focused on key projects with an attention to detail and quality of materials that result in vital places that are catalysts for additional development. The energy in Columbus is palpable.

Indy has the knowledge, the ability and no shortage of potential catalyst projects that, thoughtfully executed and with the right partners in place, could set the bar for our next 100 years. Next month I’ll discuss some of those opportunities.•


Gallagher is a principal and urban designer with Ratio and a professor-in-practice at Ball State University. Send correspondence to TGallagher@ratiodesign.com.

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3 thoughts on “Urban design: Columbus, Ohio—Indy’s peer city—has thrown down the gauntlet

  1. Great article Mr Gallagher!

    I’m familiar with Columbus, OH (my wife are Ohio University grads) and have traveled to and visited the city many times. But, I’ve lived in Indy/Greenwood since 1972 and am appalled by the degradation of Marion county and it’s neighborhoods. The BLM riots sure didn’t help anything, and a weak Democrat mayor (Hogsett) and City Council is floundering on all fronts. I know avoid going downtown, even in daytime.

    We sure need some Government & Corporate leadership and try to regain the vitality that Indianapolis developed from 1960-2000. There are rays of sunshine, but until the shooting/killings subside and neighborhoods are allowed to flourish, we are doomed to further decline.

    Looking forward to your next article.

    1. How often are people going to milk the “BLM riots,” to push their political agenda? This was a one time civil unrest that happened a year ago, and which occurred in MOST other cities in the U.S. (e.g. Nashville, Dallas, Louisville, Houston, Oklahoma City, LA, NYC, Chicago, San Diego, Miami, etc.) INCLUDING in Columbus, OH.

      As for Indianapolis, like many cities, it has long had some troubled neighborhoods, including for years under Republican Mayors and City-County Councils (I remember well the Hudnut, Goldsmith, and Ballard years). Some have stayed bad, a few have become worse, and a number have improved.

  2. Great article. Columbus by the way has shooting as well, But Columbus has managed to maintain a more positive and proactive stance in improving the city. And, perhaps more important, Columbus does not have home-grown legislators who seek enact vindictive legislation to thwart development and improvements.

    While significant changes have occurred, much of Indianapolis remains based in and industrial city mindset. Public education is poor and this is a key negative for families to purchase, improve and remain in Indianapolis. Basic infrastructure such as sidewalks and streetlights is lacking in much of the city. A drive along Washington Street from the airport is an embarrassment. A significant strong sense of neighborhood and community pride does not exist on a uniform basis in the city. Incentives to improve neighborhoods and existing housing is needed — ‘Good Bones’ type efforts need to expand.

    Columbus has benefitted from a major university for a number of years. The students and their interaction in the central city has proved a fantastic support to liveliness. Honestly, Indianapolis is not an attractive place for college grads, but this can and should change despite the overarching and negative actions from the Statehouse.

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