Green Spaces

When you live in a downtown space, you inevitably see a lot of steel and concrete. Green spaces are therefore a welcome sight, just to inject a little color variety into the urban landscape. But green spaces also are essential if you hope to encourage people to live downtown, which is an obvious goal of Columbus city planners.

People need green spaces to romp around with their dogs, as a woman in the far distance was doing when I took the picture above, to sit on the grass on a warm, sunny day, eat a carryout or food truck lunch, and just stop for a minute and take in their surroundings. Green spaces can go a long way toward improving the urban dweller’s mood. And, if planning is done well, green spaces also can serve as performance venues, gathering spots, and impressive photo backdrops.

This summer I’m going to be checking out some of the parks and green spaces in the downtown Columbus area. A good starting point is the Columbus Commons, shown above, just south of the Statehouse in the center of downtown. When the Columbus City Center mall failed years ago, city planners could have developed the space into another downtown building. Fortunately, they had the foresight to turn the sprawling property into a park that is bordered by residential and commercial buildings. The wide, deep, and very lush green lawns are beautiful from spring to fall, and they serve as a performance venue for Picnic with the Pops and other concerts, the site for open “workout Wednesday” yoga and exercise groups, and a food truck destination.

Plus–and this is an important point–the vista of the green lawns against the backdrop of the surrounding buildings just looks cool. Columbus Commons is a green space done well.

A Tale Of Two Markets (II)

As I’ve noted previously, the story of the real estate market in downtown Columbus is basically a tale of two markets. The residential market estate market seems to be very strong, with studies showing increased numbers of people living downtown and new units being built and coming on line. Three historic and long-vacant buildings at the corner of Gay and High Streets, for example, are in the process of being rehabbed, with the upper floors being converted into apartments. Those units will help to house the thousands of additional residents who are expected to make downtown Columbus their home over the next few years.

The commercial market, however, is a different story. In particular, ground-floor retail space seems to be abundant, with lots of apparent vacancies. And the commercial market also features some “white elephant”-type properties, like the old bank building right across from the Ohio Statehouse shown in the photo below. It’s in prime territory in the heart of downtown Columbus, but it’s been vacant and for lease for decades. There’s a similar empty bank building a few blocks away on High Street. There’s only so much you can do with an empty bank building, with its columns and vaulted ceilings and other architectural features designed to convey the message that money deposited with the bank will be safe and secure. And the downtown area already features one old bank space that has been converted into a restaurant (Mitchell’s) and another that has been turned into a fine cocktail lounge (the Citizens Trust).

Another problem seems to be a narrowing range of retail businesses that could reasonably expect to succeed in the downtown area. Businesses like shoe stores and department stores and hat shops that once occupied downtown retail space aren’t coming back; the experience of the failed Columbus City Center mall demonstrated that sad reality. And if anything, the shift in shopping patterns to on-line buying makes the market for first-floor retail space in the downtown area even more challenging. Restaurants and bars seem to be doing well, but there aren’t many other retail business models that appear to be well-suited to occupying downtown space.

The disconnect between the thriving downtown residential market and the struggling commercial market raises a central question for Columbus developers who are creating “mixed-use” space: who is going to lease those ground-floor storefronts? Until that question gets answered, we’ll continue to see “for lease” signs in the downtown area.

Unmetered

Earlier this spring, the blue sign shown above started appearing on parking meters in downtown Columbus. The sign notified parkers and passersby that Columbus was going to a meter-free parking world. Yesterday morning, as I walked to work down Gay Street, city workers were removing the coin-accepting tops of the parking meters from their metal stands and hurling them into the back of a pickup truck, where they landed with a clang. One of the employees at our firm noted that a parker had just put money into one of the meters before it was taken and unceremoniously tossed into the truck.

By the end of the day, a new parking kiosk and a new sign, shown below, had appeared in front of our firm. All of the parking meters were gone–with only their sad, lonely metal stumps remaining to remind us, probably forever, of where the meters once were.

Why is Columbus ditching the meters? The city’s Director of the Department of Public Service says it is part of an effort “to enhance the customer experience for on-street parking by adding greater convenience with better technology tools.” She adds: “A modernized system supports equitable access and turnover as our city—and curb lane demand—keep growing.” (I’m guessing that “curb lane demand” refers to desire for parking spaces.)

The city says that the new system will be simpler for parkers, who can identify their mobile pay zone using street signs where they parked, walk to the nearest kiosk, enter their license plate number and pay using a card or coins. I’m not sure why the city contends that this new approach is simpler than just dropping a few coins into a slot. And the new system will require people to remember their license plate number, which will predictably cause a number of people to double back to confirm their number, but there’s no fighting progress.

The article linked above quotes the city’s Assistant Director for Parking Services as saying: “For the City of Columbus, streamlining parking payment will require less maintenance, greater efficiency, and enable quick and accurate license plate recognition (LRP) enforcement to encourage access and turnover.” In short, it will be easier to ticket people who overstay their designated parking space period. If you’re parking in downtown Columbus, keep that in mind. And watch out for those sad metal stumps.

JGI, Concourse C, 4:35 a.m.

I’m on the road this morning, with very early flights. Being the prototypical Uptight Traveler, I got to Columbus’ John Glenn International Airport early to make sure there were no snags, which meant I encountered a gleamingly clean and mostly vacant terminal when I headed to my gate. (And, for those who make fun of my U.T. tendencies, I should note that there were long lines to check in bags at many of the airline counters when I arrived, so I am firm in my view that getting to the airport early remains a good option.)

This is the first flight I’ve taken since the mask mandate was lifted and masks became optional. Some travelers are wearing masks, but the vast majority are unmasked. I’d say the ratio of unmasked to masked is about 9 to 1. It’s kind of weird to be in a mostly unmasked airport after two years of pandemic-fueled masking. It makes the two-year masking period seem like a strange, unsettling dream.

On The West Bank

Paris has the Left Bank; Columbus has the West Bank.

Columbus’ West Bank is the western, Franklinton side of the Scioto River. I’ve been trying to explore the various trails and walking paths that the Columbus Department of Parks and Recreation has created in the downtown area, and yesterday after the rain and drizzle stopped I decided to follow the Scioto Mile down to the Main Street bridge, then cross over to the west side and double back along the river trail. When you get to the point where the Olentangy River joins the Scioto you can cross a bridge over to the east side again, make a few turns that take you past the Boathouse restaurant, and then loop back along the river to downtown.

All told, the walk is a little over three miles, and it is a quiet, pleasant walk that yields some interesting views of the downtown area, like the photo above of the north part of downtown and the condos along Riverside Drive. The walking paths on the west side of the river are far less used than the east side, if yesterday’s experience is any indication, and the trek allowed me to walk through a part of the Franklinton area, just north and west of COSI, that I really haven’t explored before. The walk winds through a grassy and woodsy area between the railroad tracks and the river and ends up at the North Souder Avenue bridge, just past the confluence of the two rivers.

To its credit, Columbus has worked hard to try to establish and maintain walking, jogging, and biking paths to allow people to get away from their cars and use their legs instead. It’s been a challenge because Columbus has traditionally been a car-centric city, and much of the downtown area is a snarl of highways and roads that really aren’t well-suited to walking. Fortunately, the rivers provide a kind of natural opportunity for trails and pathways that take you under the highway bridges and allow you to walk and cycle without constantly having to stop for traffic lights.

I’m hoping that Columbus continues to emphasize non-vehicular ways of getting around, and takes the next step of cleaning up some of the riverfront areas. The trails are a nice feature of our town, they promote a healthier population, and they will come in handy if gas prices continue to climb.

That Spring Thing (II)

A glorious spring weekend continued today in Columbus. The grass was lush and bright green, the sky was blue, and the air was warm and bore a light floral scent. It was a perfect day for a walk on the Scioto Mile and the Olentangy River trail—as countless cyclists, joggers, walkers, and skateboarders recognized.

Spring never seems to last long in Columbus; we tend to move directly from winter to summer with barely a breath of spring in between. Even the temperatures this weekend have been more like summer than spring. It’s important to enjoy these beautiful days when they are here. Regrettably, they’ll be gone soon enough.

The Random Restaurant Tour — XLIV

When it comes to burgers, size really does matter. Dainty patties and delicate presentation aren’t really what the burger aficionado is looking for. No, the true burger fan wants a burger that is a colossal handful, groaning with high quality beef and melted cheese, so huge you struggle to finish it all even as you are relishing every last morsel.

On this crucial burger threshold, Alley Burger–the new restaurant at the corner of Lynn and Pearl Alleys in downtown Columbus, just around the corner from the venerable Ringside–passes with flying colors. When the B.A. Jersey Girl, the Church Singer, and I darted into Alley Burger on a cold and rainy day last week, we found a place that definitely doesn’t scrimp on the burgers. In fact, all of our sandwiches were so large that they were held together by huge and very sharp steak knives that looked like they belonged in a Rambo movie. The presence of these mercenary-style knives on our plates definitely encouraged civility in our lunchtime conversation, and should cause any visitor to Alley Burger to choose their lunch companions with care and avoid heated political discussions during their meals.

I ordered a double cheeseburger that was so highly stacked that, after one bite, I realized it could not be eaten by hand without risking massive suit and shirt staining, so the steak knife came in handy as I chopped the double up for a more genteel approach to consumption. The burger, made with Alley Burger’s own sauce, was excellent, and I finished it all The meal also came with free tortilla chips, with another fine sauce made in house, and a reasonable order of french fries. I stuck with water, which is my lunchtime drink of choice, but Alley Burger also offers a variety of slushies, and the proprietors are looking to secure their liquor license, too.

The Alley Burger location has been a kind of revolving door for restaurants during the time I’ve worked in downtown Columbus, and that rear wall that is now painted with the Alley Burger name has sported the names of many other restaurants gone by. I’m hoping that, unlike its many predecessors, Alley Burger sticks around for a while.

That Spring Thing

After a bout of remarkably foul April weather— featuring some late snow, cold temperatures, and incessant rain—things took a turn for the better today. The sun came out, the thermometer touched 70, and on the Statehouse grounds tulips, daffodils, and flowering trees were all in bloom.

Hooray for spring! And with fine weather like this forecast for the weekend, too, it’s time to get outside, take some deep gulps of fresh spring air, and shake off winter, once and for all.

The Random Restaurant Tour–XLIII

I am loyal to restaurants. When I find a place I like, and a dish I like, I will frequent the venue again and again. That has been the case for Indian Oven, my go-to Indian restaurant in Columbus, for nearly two decades.

So when Dr. Science and the GV Jogger suggested that Kish and I join them last night at Rooh, an Indian restaurant in the Short North, I was struck with pangs of guilt. But Dr. Science can be persistent and persuasive, and I enjoy trying new places, so I swallowed my unease. Billing itself as a “gastronomical journey in progressive Indian cuisine,” Rooh offers a wide range of dishes, some of which are decidedly unconventional. The menu is most intriguing. Whoever heard of an Indian dish that involved Monterey Jack cheese, which is part of the Kerala fried chicken small plate?

Our party opted for a few small plates and large plates that we could share. I focused on the Amritsari Shrimp, which was crispy and crunchy and served with a great chili mayo, and the Lamb Dum Biryani. The biryani was well presented in a small kettle as shown above and was topped with cashews. It also came with a bowl of boondi raita, a mild yogurt that was intended to cut the heat level if the diner found the biryani to be too spicy. I like spicy food, so the biryani wasn’t too fiery for my palate, but the boondi raita was such a perfect complement to my dish that I promptly spooned it onto my plate and mixed it in with the biryani. It was excellent. My food was so good that it raised a common problem at “plates to share” venues: I had to struggle internally not to be overtly territorial when others in the party wanted to dig in to my biryani and boondi raita.

I was able to withstand my strong feelings of Indian Oven guilt and enjoyed my food specifically and our visit to Rooh generally. Columbus is big enough and diverse enough to support multiple Indian restaurants, and I would definitely return to Rooh when I want to try a unique twist on traditional Indian fare. One of these days, I’m going to have to experience firsthand how Monterey Jack cheese fits into progressive Indian cuisine.

End Of The Malls

Columbus’ local ABC affiliate is reporting that the city has filed nuisance abatement actions against the owners of the old Eastland Mall. The article linked above reports that, in the court action, the city has presented photographs that reflect a property in decline, with accumulated trash, broken windows, crumbling canopies, dilapidated walls, and a sinkhole underneath the parking lot. According to the article, Columbus code enforcement also offered photographs showing people living in tents on the mall sidewalks.

The sad tale of the Eastland Mall is another sign of the end of suburban American mall culture. Indoor malls were a phenomenon that swept the country in the ’60s and ’70s, putting many downtown stores out of business and shifting retail activity to the ‘burbs. Featuring “anchor stores,” countless smaller stores, food courts, and acres of parking spaces, indoor malls were generic places where people could shop, retirees could walk to the accompaniment of mall music, and kids who became known as “mall rats” could hang out with their friends.

No one who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s would have dreamed that their clean, antiseptic mall could turn into a crumbling eyesore, but the handwriting has been on the wall for years now. In Columbus, the travails of the downtown Columbus City Center mall was the canary in the coal mine that showed the indoor mall era was ending. City Center opened with great fanfare in 1989, struggled, and closed two decades later; it was then torn down and became the Columbus Commons greenspace and the location for mixed use developments. Other Columbus malls, like the once-thriving Northland Mall, also have been torn down, and the retail trends have shifted to open air shopping venues, like the colossal Easton Town Center development.

The American economy is vibrant, but ever-changing. The rise and fall of the indoor mall culture is a good sign of that reality.

Cool Cocktail Coasters

Friday night we paid a visit to the Citizens Trust cocktail lounge. Located in a refurbished bank lobby less than a block from High Street in the heart of downtown Columbus, it’s an old school place, with vaulted ceilings, plenty of different seating areas, a little gold-trimmed booklet of its standard high end cocktail offerings, and a corps of experienced mixologists ready to prepare whatever concoction you care to name. It’s the kind of place you’d come to with a visitor to our fair city, to help communicate that Columbus is pretty cool.

One of the coolest features of the Citizens Trust, in my book, is the little vinyl records used as coasters. They’re eye-catching, and remind those of us of a certain age of our 45s and albums. (Of course, you’d never put a cocktail or wine glass on one of your treasured platters!)

Quality places typically have these kinds of little features that add to the overall ambiance. They aren’t essential, of course, and simple coasters would perform the same function just fine. But they send the unmistakable message that somebody paid attention to detail and went the extra mile. When you see those kinds of signs, you can order that artisanal cocktail with confidence.

Cool Cocktail Coasters

Friday night we paid a visit to the Citizens Trust cocktail lounge. Located in a refurbished bank lobby less than a block from High Street in the heart of downtown Columbus, it’s an old school place, with vaulted ceilings, plenty of different seating areas, a little gold-trimmed booklet of its standard high end cocktail offerings, and a corps of experienced mixologists ready to prepare whatever concoction you care to name. It’s the kind of place you’d come to with a visitor to our fair city, to help communicate that Columbus is pretty cool.

One of the coolest features of the Citizens Trust, in my book, is the little vinyl records used as coasters. They’re eye-catching, and remind those of us of a certain age of our 45s and albums. (Of course, you’d never put a cocktail or wine glass on one of your treasured platters!)

Quality places typically have these kinds of little features that add to the overall ambiance. They aren’t essential, of course, and simple coasters would perform the same function just fine. But they send the unmistakable message that somebody paid attention to detail and went the extra mile. When you see those kinds of signs, you can order that artisanal cocktail with confidence.

The Piranha Look

On our walk yesterday morning Betty and I strolled along the downtown riverfront area. As we approached the Main Street bridge the overcast skies and sluggish river flow made the river surface reflective of the suspension arch and the railroad bridge behind, like the river was a metal mirror. The result looked like the jaws of a piranha ready to close on the railroad bridge.

Nevertheless, the intrepid Betty and I decided to brave crossing the Main Street bridge to the Franklinton side, and did so without being consumed.

A Deer’s-Eye View

Betty and I took a walk around the river in downtown Columbus this morning, which gave her a chance to hang with a deer friend (get it?) on the stepped seating area in front of COSI. She and her antlered pal got to take in a nifty view of the skyline.

The seated deer sculpture is one of several deer sculptures in the riverfront area, all of which are doing very undeerlike things. I think they are pretty cool.

Back To NormArnold

Back in 2020 (cursed be its memory!) one of the first signs that the world was changing was the cancellation of the Arnold Sports Classic. Known in Columbus simply as “the Arnold,” the event is traditionally one of the biggest tourist weekends for the city, as participants, their families, exhibitors, and fans flock to various venues around town for a huge array of different events and competitions. You always knew the Arnold was back in town when you turned the calendar page to March and saw muscle-bound guys walking around downtown carrying bags crammed with giant containers of protein supplements and other products.

But in early March 2020, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther made the decision to cancel the Arnold due to COVID-19 for fear the event–which attracts people from around the world–could turn out to be a “super spreader” incident. For those of us in Columbus, at least, the cancellation of the Arnold way back in March 2020 sent a clear and unmistakable message: hey, if they are cancelling the Arnold, this coronavirus thing must really be serious! And there was no Arnold in March 2021, either.

But yesterday I was eating lunch in a downtown restaurant when I saw the familiar, bulky shapes of Arnold attendees stride by. They weren’t carrying bags of products–at least, not yet–but their mighty frames and arms so overdeveloped they could not rest at their sides made it quite clear that the Arnold was back. And frankly, it was great to see them. I’ve never attended an event at the Arnold, but for Columbus the reality of once again hosting that event, in person, is a sign that the world is slowly returning to some semblance of the pre-pandemic “normal.” In Ohio’s capital city, we might call it getting back to normArnold.

My guess is that every town in the United States will have some event that communicates that the pandemic is finally, blessedly over. I hope the sign that your corner of the world is back to business as usual comes soon, if it hasn’t come already.