Our Changing Skyline

For years now, the skyline of downtown Columbus has stayed pretty much the same.  For decades, it’s been the Nationwide complex of buildings to the north, the courthouse and municipal buildings to the south, and the cluster of high-rises surrounding Capitol Square and the LeVeque Tower in the middle.

All of that is now changing, and rapidly.  As I mentioned recently, there are construction cranes all over the downtown area.  Every day I walk past a construction site at the corner of Rich and Third Street that is taking the place of what used to be a grassy expanse adjacent to Columbus Commons that was home to kickball games and exercise groups.  Soon it is going to be the location of a 12-story mixed use building with retail on the ground floor, a few stories of office space, and residential units.  There are similar multi-story, “mixed use” buildings under construction up and down High Street, filling in most of the surface parking lots that have been an eyesore on Columbus’ main north-south street and helping to bridge the “skyline gap” between the taller buildings in downtown Columbus.  And the city is abuzz about the recent announcement of a 35-story skyscraper to be built next to the North Market — an addition that will really change the look of the skyline.

Columbus isn’t Manhattan, where the construction of a 35-story building wouldn’t merit much attention.  Here in the heartland, a 35-story building is a pretty big deal.

But, to my mind, the North Market high-rise announcement, and the other construction projects aren’t the biggest sign of how things are changing in downtown Columbus.  Instead, the most compelling indicator is the money that has been poured into refurbishing the crumbling, crappy Long Street garage, where I used to park my car until the structure was condemned by the city.  Amazingly, a new owner purchased the building and has been working on it for months, giving it a spiffy blue metal and glass facelift and adding a car wash option for parkers.  You know your downtown area is heading in the right direction when developers are willing to put money into a derelict parking garage in the expectation that the conversion of surface lots into buildings, and the influx of workers and new downtown residents, will make a better parking garage a profitable enterprise.

What’s going on in downtown Columbus is pretty amazing, and we’re going to be seeing the results of the changes every day as we drive, and walk, and bike, into work.

 

Condado Downtown

IMG_1238The food fare in downtown Columbus has improved tremendously over the past 10 years, and it keeps getting better.  The latest welcome entrant is Condado, which already has a solid core of fans who’ve frequented its location near the OSU campus.  Yesterday, when the Jersey Girl, the Origamist, the Bus-Riding Conservative and I decided to check it out for lunch, the place was jammed, and I’m guessing that at least some of the patrons weren’t Condado newbies like we were.

Condado is all about tacos.  (And, according to its impressive beverage menu, it’s all about tequila, too, but this was lunch, after all, so checking out the tequila and Mexican beer choices will just have to wait for another day.)  There are some standard taco choices, but you also have the option of building your own taco by filling out a checklist, like you would at a sushi bar.  The checklist allows you to choose a tortilla (hard corn, soft flour, or more exotic combinations), a protein, toppings, cheeses, salsa, and sauces that range in the heat index all the way up to ghost pepper, which carries an “INFERNO WARNING” attached.  After some careful deliberation, you make your choices and then hang out in the happily raucous Condado atmosphere until your waitperson brings your tacos out.

When you go to a taco place, you always wonder how big the tacos will be.  I was hungry and got two of them, and it was plenty of food.  One of the tacos filled a “ju-ju” shell (flour exterior, corn interior, with queso and chorizo) with roasted pollo, pickled red onions, chihuahua cheese, salsa verde, and condado secret taco sauce, which got three flames on the heat meter.  It was lip-smacking superb, with just the right heat level.  The other option combined braised beef brisket, cilantro and onion, queso fresco, salsa rioja, and cilantro lime aioli in a flour tortilla.  It was good, too, but the number of sauces in the soft taco made it messy to eat.  I don’t mind licking my fingers, so I really didn’t care, but in the future I’m going to either cut down on the salsa/sauce combos or stick to the tortillas that include a hard interior shell.  I’m happy to report that the BRC, ever an adventurous soul, tried the ghost pepper sauce and lived to tell the tale with only mild discomfort, thanks to the timely intervention of some heat-killing guacamole.

Condado offers both interior seating and exterior seating on a small patio filled with picnic tables.  When we were there, both seating areas were bustling.  We all agreed that Condado would be a prime place to come after work for a few Mexican beers or a slug of that tequila, some chips and freshly made salsa, and maybe a taco for the road.

I’m glad to see a new downtown Columbus restaurant get off to a flying start — especially this restaurant, which is on the ground floor of one of the Highpoint buildings next to Columbus Commons.  The High Street retail space in those buildings has been slow to fill up, and the downtown lunch crowd has been waiting patiently.  If Condado proves to be as successful as our initial visit suggests, that may encourage other restauranteurs to come join the party.  Those of us who work and live in and around the downtown area would be happy to have them.

Stretching Out On Commons Ground

IMG_1185Yesterday morning as I walked to work I noticed that seemingly everyone else out on the streets was wearing some kind of yoga outfit and carrying a mat.  Some staggered forward with a grim, zombie-like obsessiveness, others marched with intense and purposeful stride, but all were heading for the heart of downtown Columbus.  Naturally, I had to follow to see what the heck was going on.

I learned that on Saturday morning the yoga practitioners among us have a little confab on the main lawn of the Columbus Commons to do their yoga thing.  Actually, it’s not that little — I’d say there were more than 100 people there, stretching out, regulating their breathing and enhancing their innate flexibility, and getting ready to do the downward facing dog — and still more were arriving.  It was a very pleasant setting for yoga, with the cool, grassy lawn for the most part covered in shade and the downtown skyscrapers towering in the background against the bright blue sky.  You could see how it might help promote the inner calmness and serenity that yoga is supposed to bring about.

I walk past the Commons just about every day, and it’s become a real beehive of activity for the people who live in or near downtown.  From Saturday morning yoga to carousel rides for kids to kickball games after work to nighttime concerts and other events, the Columbus Commons is making a great contribution to the downtown community.  It’s a vast improvement over the City Center mall that used to occupy that space.  No one, but no one, ever did yoga in the City Center mall.

More Fountains, Please

IMG_1110They’ve put a new fountain in at one of the entrances to the Columbus Commons.  It’s a nice fountain, with its lily pad look and bright green surrounding shrubbery.  But then, all fountains really are nice, aren’t they?  The burble of the water, the coolness of the air around them, the slight spray on your face, the gleam of the shimmering water on a sunny day — these are the things that make fountains a great addition to any metropolitan area.

If I were in charge of city planning, I’d make sure that a chunk of development money was dedicated to building more fountains.

First Concert At The Commons

IMG_0883Walking home tonight on a fine evening — at least until the rains are supposed to come later on — the music started pumping as I approached Columbus Commons.  It’s the first outdoor concert of the year, at least to my knowledge, and the music was cranked up and the food trucks were out in abundance.

This particular concert was a private event, for OSU students, but it made me resolve that we’re going to go to one of the concerts on the Commons this year, come hell or high water.  There’s nothing like live music to provide a shot of adrenalin heading into the weekend.

Stoned Soul Picnic

On our way back from the Short North Kish and I walked past the Columbus Commons.  There was a line stretching around the block, and a lot of the people had those collapsible chairs slung over their shoulders.  The CC lawn was dotted with food trucks and games and other telltale signs of an outdoor concert in the offing.

IMG_5635It turns out that one of the local radio stations, Magic 106.3, is sponsoring Stoned Soul Picnic, an all-day event with a bunch of musical acts and activities for kids.  The Commons is a cool venue for a concert, with what passes for skyscrapers in Columbus in the background and some new buildings under construction right next door.  And, of course, events like Stoned Soul Picnic are an important part of the continuing effort to get people to come downtown at times other than 9-5 M-F and to help entrepreneurs and restauranteurs who have decided to open up shop downtown.  It’s great to see a large crowd of happy people ready to be entertained — and, perhaps, drop a dollar or two in the process.

I looked long and hard, but saw no signs of surreys — or sassafras and moonshine, for that matter.

Mixing Bowl Asian Grill

IMG_2861At the Columbus Food Truck Festival yesterday, the four of us looked long and hard at the dozens of food truck options.  Finally, we settled on the Mixing Bowl Asian Grill.  It’s a testament to the food this place offers that a committed meat-eater (me), a vegetarian (the Rising Star), a person who boasts incessantly about her California excursions and California cuisine (the Origamist), and a person committed to eating a taco at all costs (the Investor) were able to agree on a single food truck.

The MBAG was a good choice on two levels.  First and foremost, the food was great.  Second, the MBAG had a two-person bowl-building operation underway that caused its waiting line to be the fastest moving line at the Food Truck Festival, which is incredibly important if you are really, really hungry and can’t bear to smell the mouth-watering scents for one more second. 

IMG_2863The MBAG follows a customer choice approach that appeals to me.  You figure out whether you want a rice bowl, a noodle bowl, a salad bowl, a burrito, or a taco.  Then you order your protein, hot toppings, cold toppings, sauces, and crunch from a menu that offers multiple choices.  I got a rice noodle bowl with grilled chicken (including the “extra protein” option), sauteed bean sprouts, egg, some daikon and carrot slaw, and ginger soy vinaigrette sauce.  One window starts the creation process and the other finishes it and rings you up.  Prices are reasonable (the basic chicken noodle bowl is only $8, and the extra protein is an additional $3), as shown by the fact that the MBAG would have charged only $1 for bottled water where the Columbus Commons folks were charging $3. 

The resulting noodle bowl was excellent, with just the right combination of heat, coolness, and crunch.  I used chopsticks to eat every morsel, and even when looking longingly at the empty bowl felt a certain pride at my role in its creation.  The Rising Star got some appalling tofu-oriented noodle bowl, the Origamist got a noodle bowl that included kimchi with a spicy kick that made her yearn for a beverage, and the Investor got, well, a taco.  The MBAG somehow satisfied us all, and that is what Food Truck Summer is all about.

Columbus Food Truck Festival, 2014

IMG_2878What’s Food Truck Summer without a trip to the Columbus Food Truck Festival?  That cornucopia of local food entrepreneurs and tasty grub is this today and tomorrow at the Columbus Commons.  The Origamist, the Rising Star, and the Investor and I decided to leg it over there for lunch today and check out the offerings.

It was a beautiful day, weatherwise — bright sunshine, blue sky, and temperatures topping out in the mid-70s — but it was an even more beautiful day for foodies.  I’m not sure how many dozens of food trucks were there, but it was enough to make choosing what to get almost impossible.  Ultimately we made our selection, which I’ll talk about tomorrow, but in the meantime we couldn’t help but be impressed at the number, and cuisine diversity, of Columbus food trucks peddling their wares.  BBQ, Asian, tacos, Greek, colossal sausages, noodle bowls, high-end grilled cheese, and just about every other kind of food you can think of is there, waiting to be wolfed down on the grassy plain just south of the center of downtown.  It’s a nice setting, and at today’s lunch hour it drew a big crowd.

IMG_2883It was, perhaps, unexpectedly big, because there weren’t enough tables and chairs to go around.  We ended up using an empty water stand as an ersatz table, and as we walked around we saw people perched on little chairs intended for toddlers.  We managed, but for some of the dishes being sold you really need to be able to sit down and dig in.  Next year, maybe the Festival organizers could put a row of picnic tables or two on the Commons?  It would make eating a noodle bowl with chopsticks a more feasible.

Two other items of constructive criticism.  First, all beverages have to be purchased from the city of Columbus beverage stands, and the price for a bottle of water is set at gouging levels — $3 a bottle.  $3 for bottled water?!?  That’s bogus, and self-defeating.  If you want people to enjoy the great food truck culture in Columbus, or to frequent the Commons for other events, price the water (and beer, which I think was $6 a bottle) at more reasonable levels. 

Second, crank down the volume on the music acts to a lower decibel level.  It’s nice to have music and it contributes to a fun and festive atmosphere, but I think most people are there with friends or colleagues and would like to have a conversation over lunch without having to raise their voices.

All in all, though, a very nice and well-attended event that confirmed, again, that Columbus is really starting to get there as a big city.  I’d encourage anybody interested in getting a taste (pun intended) of the Capital City food truck world to drop by tomorrow and check it out.  Just be sure to bring your own bottle of water!

Knights And Carrousel Horses

IMG_2442The Columbus Commons is all decked out for the summer, with a king-size, on-the-ground chess set available for the scholarly gamers, a carrousel ready for the young and young at heart, and cool grass, good food truck options, and flowers for the rest of us.  It’s a cool location, and getting cooler every day as more people move into the new apartment units that border the Commons and two other large developments are under construction just across the street in two directions.

Getting rid of the old enclosed City Center mall and replacing it with green space that can also serve as an entertainment venue during the summer months is one of the best things that has happened to downtown Columbus.

IMG_2445

Hangin’ At The Columbus Food Truck Festival

IMG_1353Food truck aficionados, take note!  Today and tomorrow, from noon to 10 p.m., you can sample the wares of dozens of food trucks — and enjoy some beer and good music and browse through local craft tents, besides — down at the Columbus Commons.  It’s the weekend of the Columbus Food Truck Festival, and there’s a broad range of trucks operated by some of the passionate folks who are making Columbus’ food truck culture one of the city’s greatest features.

When I visited the Festival tonight, the crowd was just starting to roll in.  I got the sense that we disturbed a woman in a bikini who, amazingly, was sunbathing in the middle of one of the lawns.  Really?  Sunbathing in the middle of a civic event?  Weird, perhaps . . . but it just seemed to make the Festival a bit more quirky, and that’s not a bad thing.

I love the development of community events, like the Food Truck Festival, that you can now find almost every weekend in Columbus if you’re inclined to get out with your neighbors and friends.  It helps to make Columbus an even better place to live.  Stop by and nosh if you have a chance.

Construction Cranes On The Commons

There’s building going on down at the Columbus Commons.

IMG_1238It’s part of the housing mini-boom that has gripped downtown Columbus over the past few years, as developers have rehabbed old buildings into apartments and condos and also built some new structures.  The housing boomlet has made downtown into a much more bustling place, especially on weekends.  It’s why we’ve finally got a downtown grocer and several new restaurants, and it’s one of the reasons (aside from our firm, of course) that Gay Street has become the coolest street in downtown Columbus.

The development on the Commons is called Highpoint and will offer studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments.  It’s located right on the Columbus Commons, with the front to be along High Street and the back facing the Commons park.  It’s one of several developments that have been built in the south half of downtown Columbus, between the Statehouse and the Franklin County court complex.  I think (and hope) we’ll be seeing more of this, as Columbus slowly moves to more of a residential downtown that caters to the urban living crowd.

It’s A Food Truck World

I worked hard at the Ohioana Book Festival today.  There was a big turnout, lots of books were purchased, and I helped to make sure that visitors who signed up for Ohioana information via email and spun a wheel got their prizes.

By the time my shift was over, I was a hungry camper.  Fortunately, the Ohioana folks had thoughtfully arranged for a rich menu of food trucks to satisfy those of us who might want to tie on the feedbag, waiting in a row just outside the entrance to the Festival.  And what terrific options!  Spinelli’s DeliPer ZootGreen MeaniePitabilities.  Jeni’s Ice Cream.  All getting raves for their food from ravenous bibliophiles.

I finally decided on Ajumama, which features Korean fare.  On the day before Mother’s Day, how could I not pick a place with “mama” in the name?

I had the Amdong Chicken, a mix of tender white and dark meat in a rich yet delicate sauce, served over some very tasty sweet potato noodles.  It was wonderful, and I ate every last morsel.  In fact, I would gladly have licked the bowl clean but for concern about public embarrassment.  If you get a chance, check Ajumama out — its appearance schedule is posted on Facebook and Twitter, and it appears regularly at the Hill’s Market in Worthington.  (I’m looking at you, Dr. Science.)

Food trucks are fabulous.  Take people whose dream is to cook and serve the food they love, put them on wheels, and let them move around Columbus, creating magical meals for the masses.

As the Ohioana Book Festival experience showed, Columbus’ food truck scene just keeps getting better and better.  This summer, we’ll be looking for the food trucks on weekdays in the vicinity of the Columbus Commons, to add a little spice to our humdrum workdays.  We’ll also be looking for a chance to grab some grub from Ajumama again — even if it isn’t Mother’s Day.

On The Scioto Mile

2011 has been the year of downtown parks in Columbus.  Earlier this year, the Columbus Commons opened on the site of the old Columbus City Center.  Now the Scioto Mile has joined the Columbus parks parade.

The Scioto Mile is a thin strip of brick and stone walkways, flower beds and flower pots, fountains, and seating areas that runs along the Scioto River as it arcs through downtown Columbus.  The area sits atop the Scioto River flood wall, well above the water itself, and is an effort to try to reintegrate the river into the downtown area by making the riverfront a more attractive destination.

In Columbus and other cities, city planners long ago made it difficult to get to the body of water that was a big part of the reason the for the city’s location in the first place, by putting heavily trafficked roads or walls or sports arenas or fences in the way.  The Scioto Mile is an effort to reverse that approach.  Planners apparently realized what the rest of us have known all along — people like water and are drawn to it.  (Read the first few pages of Moby Dick if you don’t believe me.)  The muddy Scioto is not as striking a body of water as, say, one of the Great Lakes or the Ohio River, but it is nevertheless pleasant to sit nearby and watch as the water meanders past.

I appreciate the effort and thought that went into the development of the Scioto Mile.  I particularly like the inclusion of table areas for the brown bag lunch crowd and the swinging benches, which would be a pleasant way to spend a few minutes on lunch hour.  The tables have checkerboard imprints and are just waiting for some serious chess players to show up.  The fountains and planters also are attractive additions.  From the signs appearing at various points along the Scioto Mile, it looks like the project has had significant corporate and foundational support.

Although the park is nice, the jury is still out on how much it will be used.  The closest buildings to the Scioto Mile are government buildings and office buildings, without any restaurants, bars, or food areas in sight.  If the hope is to make the Scioto Mile a bustling place, some kind of food and drink options will have to be part of the mix.

Lunch Alfresco At Columbus Commons

One of the mini-gardens at Columbus Commons

Today was a beautiful day, with bright sunshine and the temperature in the ’70s.  So, JV, the Conservative, and I decided to stroll down to Columbus Commons to see if we could scare up lunch and check out the capital city’s newest park, now officially open.

The only lunch option at Columbus Commons was a burgers/hot dogs/fries place in one of the permanent structures at the south end of the park.  There was a decent crowd there — not overwhelming, but not bad — and we had to wait for a while to place and then retrieve our order.  The food was fine, and it was very pleasant to be sitting outside at one of the circular tables along with our fellow downtown Columbusites, chowing down and enjoying the view of the downtown buildings.  The tables are all collected in a gravel-topped area at the south end of the park, allowing you to look north across the lawns of Columbus Commons to the center of downtown.  It is a nice view.

As we ate, I noticed people coming to the park from all parts of downtown, which is a good sign.  The only disappointment was that no food trucks or street food vendors were to be seen.  If Columbus Commons is to be a success, alternative food choices are a must, and food trucks and food carts are the easiest way to achieve that goal.  Perhaps the word will get out that potential customers are there, and that will attract the vendors.

The carousel and part of the eating area

The park looks good, although I’m still skeptical about the ability of many stretches of exposed grass to stay bright and green under the withering July and August sunshine.  The landscaping is attractively done, and there were a number of people sitting on benches adjacent to the landscaped rectangular mini-gardens.  Security was visible, and the one apparent panhandler who showed up hit the road when the security guy made his rounds.  The attention to security was encouraging, because people need to feel safe when they frequent this park.  No one is going to want to sit and eat outside if doing so exposes them to aggressive begging for money.

It looks like they’ve given thought to some unique touches to help give the place its own character.  The carousel is the principal initiative in that regard — although unfortunately it was shrouded today — and they have set up a small reading area with book carts, which is interesting.  They also were working on a performance area at the north end of the park, and as we left they were rolling in carts of beer for some party that seemed ready to get underway.  It appears that portions of the lawn areas can be rented and roped off for functions.

It’s way too early to weigh in on whether Columbus Commons will be a success.  So far, though, so good.