What To Do With An Odd Hall?

The old saying is that all politics is local. That’s definitely true in Stonington, where residents recently had an in-person town meeting at the local baseball field, so as to allow appropriate social distancing. At the meeting, the attendees discussed and voted on a number of issues. One of them was what whether to proceed with the town purchasing the building shown above.

It’s the former meeting hall for the local chapter of the International Order of Odd Fellows, located on the western edge of Stonington’s small downtown area. There aren’t many Odd Fellows left in Stonington, so the organization offered to sell the building to the town. Town officials were supportive of the idea and put it on the agenda for the town meeting, where residents voted to approve the purchase.

Why would residents vote to approve the acquisition of an old fraternal organization building? One of the arguments was to keep it out of the hands of a buyer who would turn it into a personal residence, thereby further hemming in the commercial area of town. And while the building may need a lot of work—a point made by opponents of the purchase—the property sits on precious waterfront and includes an old dock, both of which could give rise to commercial uses.

The cost of the building to taxpayers is initially estimated to be $525,000, which is a lot of money for a small town. Town officials are exploring the possibility of getting federal and state aid to help pay for the purchase and the necessary refurbishing work, and also are working on potential uses for the building.

It’s a tough issue. The Odd Fellows’ Hall could turn out to be a white elephant that puts a crimp in the city budget, but towns like Stonington need to preserve their commercial areas, too. It’s a risk, of course, but it’s reasonable to believe that some business somewhere will see the potential of a building that commands a great view of the harbor and will turn a derelict venue into a functioning contributor to life in downtown Stonington. The voters at the town meeting see an opportunity. Now we’ll keep an eye on that building to see if the opportunity is realized.

Holding Fast In The Wind Tunnel

If you work in a downtown area, you understand the wind tunnel effect.

IMG_1699In the world of weather, it’s almost never dead calm. There is usually some breeze, a gentle zephyr wafting across the rolling countryside. Except, when it reaches a downtown area, there’s no place for the gentle zephyr to go as it runs up against office buildings and other barriers. The breeze gets channeled and concentrated along rigid streets lines, and suddenly that gentle zephyr has been converted into a focused blast that snaps the flag on the flagpole and lifts hats from heads and sends them tumbling along the sidewalk.

Let’s just say that the wind tunnel effect especially sucks during the winter. On a gray winter’s day like today, with the temperature plummeting, the cold core of concentrated air cuts to the very core, congeals the blood, brings tears to the eyes and a moan to the lips. The wind finds every crevice in your winter garb, sneaks between the layers of scarf and coats, ices the foreheads and reddens the ears. Pedestrians walk carefully, leaning into the chilled air, hoping to hold fast in the wind tunnel and just make it to their cars.

During the winter, the wind tunnel can bite me — and it does.

Car2go 4 Cols

Car2go has come to Columbus.  Walking in to work this morning, I saw two of their cars parked along Gay Street — which is appropriate, because Gay Street is the coolest street in downtown Columbus and car2go is a pretty cool idea.

IMG_1617According to the website and its FAQs, it works like this.  You fill out an application form and make one $35 payment to register after your application is accepted.  You are mailed a membership card.  You download the car2go app to your smartphone then use it to locate cars.  When you find one, you swipe your card, answer some questions, get in, and drive.  You are charged 38 cents a minute for use of the car, and you return it to a metered space within the car2go home area, which covers German Village, downtown, the University district, and Clintonville.  The charges are billed to your credit card.

It’s an interesting idea that is based on a core reality of urban living — owning your own car can be a pain when you live in a city.  You don’t need a car most of the time.  Parking spaces can be hard to find, and figuring out where to put your car can be a hassle.  With car2go, you only have a car when you really need it, and you only pay for it as long as you use it.  The two car2go vehicles I saw today were the small, two-seater models that seem well-suited to their limited purpose.

Will Columbus car2go work?  Beats me.  But if you want to offer an urban living lifestyle, as Columbus does, it seems like a pretty good idea that would fill a void.


The Guardian Building

IMG_5151On our visit to downtown Detroit over the weekend, Russell made sure that we stopped by the Guardian Building, which has to be one of the coolest buildings you’d find anywhere.  It is a fantastic palace of a building that combines Incan themes, Art Deco motifs, and the kind of architectural flourishes that you’d expect from a wealthy Bavarian prince.  Walking through the building is a feast for the senses — as I hope the photos in this post demonstrate.

IMG_5154Of course, Detroit being Detroit, reality had to intrude into the dream.  Some time ago, somebody thought it would be wise to connect this fabulous structure to the boring high-rise across the street through what looks like a cheap aluminum tube.  It’s hideous, and it tells you a lot about the kind of judgment Detroiters were using during the city’s long downhill slide.  Fortunately, nobody messed with the lobby area of the building, where these photos were taken.


The Rehabilitation Quandary

Last night, on our way to a visit with Richard in Columbus, Missouri, Kish and I spent the night in Terre Haute, Indiana.  (For the record, Terre Haute means “upland.”)  We stayed in a Candlewood Suites downtown.

IMG_5032One block away was a magnificent movie theater — the Indiana.  Located on a corner, it had a fantastic wraparound front, a central ticket window, a fine neon sign, and especially beautiful, detailed stone or plaster work above the entrance.  You could easily imagine walking into the theater to watch new releases like The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind or some other film from the golden era of Hollywood.

I could only imagine what the interior looked like — because the Indiana was closed, of course.  Like many of the magnificent downtown theaters in America, it has fallen out of favor in an era of multiplexes and cinemas where a dozen films are offered and some theater screens as only slight larger than the big screen TV offered at Best Buy.

There was a big dumpster outside the Indiana, and a small piece of machinery that indicated there was a rehabilitation effort underway.  That’s the big quandary for towns like Terre Haute, I suppose.  You’ve got tremendous structures from your glory days, but they just aren’t economical anymore.  What do you do with them?  Do you sink money into them, and hope that you can figure out a way to keep them busy and marginally profitable?  Or do you just recognize that societal forces have sent structures like the Indiana the way of the dodo?

I say give it a shot.  Keep the Indiana, and hope that you can find a way to support something that is beautiful and unique.

Planning For Parkland

The Columbus Downtown Development Corp. is hoping to create more parkland in the downtown area.  If it happens, it will be a good thing.

The plan is to put the parkland in the area around COSI and where the Veterans Memorial Auditorium now stands.  Vets is supposed to be torn down and replaced by an amphitheater and a different kind of veterans center.  At the same time, the damming on the Scioto River as it sluggishly moves through downtown is to be changed to allow the river to return to its more natural, narrower, more swiftly flowing state.  The narrowing will create an opportunity for additional parkland.  And, a third part of the plan — a 50,000-foot “indoor adventure” structure operated by the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium — will be built just south of COSI.

It’s an ambitious plan, and, in Columbus, ambitious plans often are greeted with skepticism.  The urban landscape is dotted with plan and concepts that have never become reality, and Columbus is no exception.  When a planner says their vision is of Columbus’ version of Central Park — which is a bit of an overstatement in any event — the question of whether the project will get off the ground becomes even more compelling.

Still, the idea of more parkland is a good one.  The future of downtown Columbus is as a residential area, not an industrial center. People like parks and playgrounds in their neighborhoods, and urban dwellers also like things to do within walking distance.  That means parks, theaters, restaurants, bars, and other potential entertainment venues.  A plan that provides parks, an amphitheater, and a downtown aquarium fits those needs.  Putting those sites on the west side of the river in the Franklinton area also makes sense.  In Columbus, as in other cities, the river is a real dividing line, and most downtown workers don’t venture over the bridges.  That needs to stop, and putting some real attractions in Franklinton will help.

Columbus is changing, and most of the changes are for the better.  Adding green space that makes downtown living more attractive will accelerate the positive trend.

At The Corner Of Hype Street And Boosterism Boulevard

Yesterday, I thought I was at the intersection of Broad Street and Front Street in downtown Columbus.  But when I looked at the street signs, it appeared that I was instead at the corner of “Commit to be Fit” and “Top 7 Intelligent Community Way.”  So, of course, I immediately began jogging while mentally performing differential calculus equations.

IMG_1325Does anyone else have this issue in their city or town?  In Columbus, street signs are no longer reserved for providing the visitor with useful information about where they are.  Instead, the signs often are used for civic boosterism or one-shot nods to a visiting convention or celebrity.  So, because a group named Columbus one of the seven most intelligent cities in the world, we’ve got to make sure that anyone tromping around downtown is reminded of that fact.  As for “Commit to be Fit”?  Well, it’s a laudable goal.  Now, how the heck to I get to Schmidt’s Sausage Haus?

I love Columbus, and I think it’s a wonderful place to live and work, but I don’t think we need to constantly be hyping our special little corner of the world.  Putting up street signs that brag about our community intelligence seems awfully needy to me.  It also is likely to provoke curses from motorists who are looking at the street signs to provide guidance on how to get to where they want to go.

Here’s an idea:  why don’t we just let the street signs of Columbus do their job of telling people where they are, and leave it up to the visitors to our fair city to figure out on their own what a fine, brainy place Columbus is?

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.

Colossal Cupcakes Kudos

IMG_3324You don’t see many really interesting store signs in downtown American cities anymore.  At least, you don’t see signs like the store signs of old.  As I child I loved the bright flashing neon, the painted windows, the cigar store Indians, and the giant-sized representations of one of the store’s products — be it a watch, or eyeglasses, or a single shoe.  Those were among the things that made the central cities so interesting and exciting.  Now, you get signs that are more subdued, as if the shopkeepers are too cool and hip to advertise their wares with signs that scream for attention.  It’s not a positive development in my book.

So, when I was walking down Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland last night, I had to stop and admire the signage for Colossal Cupcakes.  Bright lighting blazing against the night sky!  A glass window frosted with a depiction of a huge cupcake with hot pink icing!  And speaking of icing, the icing on the (cup)cake was a huge representation of a cupcake, all lurid pink and blue, hanging above the front entrance!

I’m not a cupcake eater, but I would have marched right into the store to buy a baker’s dozen and compliment the store owner for being proud of her product.  Unfortunately, the store was closed for the night, so I can only post on our family blog, encourage our northern Ohio readers to give their bakery business to Colossal Cupcakes, and say:  Colossal Cupcakes, I salute you!

Urban Birds

Obviously, the downtown areas of modern America cities are not pastoral places.  You don’t expect to find furry woodlands creatures gamboling through traffic, for example.

But there is one creature, besides humans, that seems to deal pretty well with the vast concrete expanse of the urban world:  birds.  And not just pigeons — those loud, filthy, disgusting rats of the air — either.

Plant a tree or two on a courtyard amidst the high rises, and you’re soon likely to find a bird or two or perched in the branches.  On a recent trip to Houston, I saw three different types of birds (at least, they looked to be different to my untrained eye) clinging to branches in the same tree on the same generic corporate office building plaza — chirping, grooming themselves, calling out to their fellow feathered friends, and finally flapping off to some other location.

Birds are good company when you are moving through a downtown area.  A chirp and a flutter of wings may be small things, but they make you feel like you still have some connection to the world that exists beyond the edge of the concrete, asphalt, and steel.

Bonbons In The Big City

The design of corporate plazas often is rote and uninspired.  A lone tree in a planter here, a random piece of abstract sculpture there, a concrete bench or two at the opposite end . . . it’s why so many downtown areas have this grim sense of sameness.

It’s a pleasure when you see some downtown landscaping that is different and interesting, like this collection of topiary bushes in front of one of the Chevron buildings in Houston.  The spherical shrubs look like bonbons in a candy box, or tomatoes on the shelf in the produce section at the grocery store.  Seeing the ball-like shapes as I walked by brought a smile to my face.

Independents’ Day, 2011

Independents' Day, as seen from my Gay Street office window

Today, September 17, 2011, is Independents’ Day — on Gay Street in downtown Columbus, Ohio, at least.  It’s a day worth celebrating.

Every year, on a selected autumn Saturday, various Columbus “independents” — cultural organizations, food truck operators, local crafts people, beer sellers, restaurants, artists, musical groups, and many other — gather on Gay Street and in nearby Pearl and Lynn Alleys to put on what has become part party, part street festival, part music venue, and part general zaniness.  It’s one of the things (along with the presence of our law firm, of course) that makes Gay Street by far the coolest street in downtown Columbus.

This is, I think, the fourth year that Columbus has celebrated Independents’ Day.  I last went in 2009, and the event has grown considerably since then.  Once the music started at the Athens Business Remixed Stage, which is right beneath my office window — a really fine band called Enrique Infante that played Caribbean/Tex-Mex music that made you want to dance — there was really no point in trying to continue with work, so I did the circuit.

A food truck with a great sense of humor

There were dozens of food trucks, food stands, and places where you could wet your whistle with beer and wine.  Culinary offerings ranged from chocolate covered bacon and deep-fried peaches to vegetarian hotdogs to gourmet pizza to hot off the griddle grilled cheese sandwiches to fine food cooked by some of the local restaurants.  I like the humor you find in most food trucks, too.  Any pizza truck that can lampoon the ever-present “Eat.  Play.  Work.” ads for new mixed-use developments gets my support.  I bought some pastries for Kish from a Czech food stand called Kolache Republic and she gave them an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

There’s also a stand that combines a useful public service with point-of-purchase marketing:  at the intersection of Gay Street and Pearl Alley, those imbibers who might be concerned about their continuing compliance with Ohio’s impaired driver laws can take a free breathalyzer test, courtesy of Hastie Law Offices, which specializes in DUI defense.

"Pander Bear" stands guard in Lynn Alley

Lynn Alley, which runs parallel to Gay Street, is largely devoted to Craft Alley, sponsored by Crafty Cotillion.  Here you can find local comics, folk artists, and other crafts people showing off their wares.  I learned that Columbus has a vibrant independent comics community (who knew?), heard the story of “Pander Bear” — created to pander to passersby and lure them into the comics tent — and bought issue number 1 of Nix Comics Quarterly.

I was there right after the celebration started, but already the crowd was building.  The musical acts will be performing all day, and the event runs until midnight, C’mon, Columbus!  It is a perfect day to head to Gay Street, listen to some fine music from any one of five — five! — stages, eat, drink, and rub elbows with your fellow Columbusites.  Let’s show everybody that Columbus really celebrates Independents!

Welcoming The Green Space Of Columbus Commons

A view of Columbus Commons from one of the Rich Street entrances

Yesterday it was a beautiful, spring-like day in Columbus, and after lunch I took a walk down to Columbus Commons — the latest green space in downtown Columbus.  The area has just been sodded and is close to being completed for its grand opening in May.

At one of the Third Street entrances

Columbus Commons is the park that has replaced the late, lamented Columbus City Center mall.  After the City Center became a derelict place abandoned by all retailers and shoppers, there was a vigorous debate about what to do.  The decision was to tear the structure down and replace it with a park.  The result is Columbus Commons — 9 acres of green space with benches, tables and chairs, and a carousel.

My first impression of Columbus Commons was that it is big.  It has enormous central lawns that apparently will be used for kickball leagues.  (Let’s hope the park also has a good underground sprinkling system so those broad and inviting green lawns don’t turn brown and brittle in August.)  There are newly planted trees along some of the wide gravel pathways, large flower beds bordered by short iron fencing, old-fashioned black metal lighting, and plenty of benches.  Some of the entrances are brickwork, with pillars and large circular planters.

The view from the corner of High and Rich Streets

Downtown Columbus needs green space, so Columbus Commons is very welcome.  The park looks to be well-designed, and if it is kept properly planted and tended it should be an attractive place for an outdoor lunch on a warm summer day.  The park also allows for some unexpected and attractive vistas of downtown buildings.

The big question many downtowners have about Columbus Commons is:  who will use it, and how?  Will it become a haven for drug deals and aggressive panhandlers, or will it be a place where the burgeoning Columbus food cart scene sets up shop and caters to office workers happy to get a green space break from their cubicle-oriented lives?

Hoopin’ It Up

My office faces out onto Gay Street, which I think is one of the most interesting streets in downtown Columbus.  It might be called a “mixed use” street and is home to our law firm, office buildings, two hotels, condos, and some older buildings across the street that have restaurants and bars on the ground floors and what appear to be apartments above.

This past week was particularly noteworthy on our block of Gay Street.  The word spread through the grapevine at work that someone in one of the apartments across the street was trying to break a hula hoop endurance record.  Sure enough, I looked out the window of my office and there, clearly visible in through the window, was a guy in a ball cap and shorts doing his hula-hoopin’ thing.  He was doing it Friday morning when I got in, and Friday afternoon when I got back from lunch, and on Saturday I got reports that he was still at it.

I learned today that he broke the record.  His name is Aaron Hibbs, and details about him and his record-breaking effort can be found here.  (The website also provides some reassuring information that answers some of our questions, like whether he was permitted to take time out to address bodily function needs.)  And even though his endurance feat has ended he continues to add to the interesting atmosphere on Gay Street.  This morning the local Fox News outlet was there to videotape a story, with its logo truck parked out front and its antenna fully extended.

So I say:  Congratulations, Aaron!  You made working on Gay Street a lot more interesting last week and just affirmed, again, why it is more enjoyable to work on an active downtown rather than in some drab, cookie cutter suburban office building surrounded by an ocean of parking spaces.

Mr. Peanut, the Survivor

Mr. Peanut

Mr. Peanut

A block away from our offices, at the corner of Gay and High Streets in downtown Columbus, you will find Planters’ Peanut Shoppe. Outside this establishment is a vintage neon sign of the sophisticated Mr. Peanut, complete with top hat, monocle, cane, and spats. Inside is a shop that looks like it hasn’t changed much since the 1940s. There are glass counters with different kinds of nuts and candies, and a cash register. You pick your treat and order your quantity and they serve it up for you, and if you want you can walk out of the store munching on a handful of honey coated almonds or fresh roasted pecans. It’s a great place to visit before a holiday or a ball game. It really smells good in there, too.

Columbus is one of those cities where, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many downtown buildings were torn down and replaced by surface parking lots. Planters’ Peanut Shoppe, and the dapper Mr. Peanut, somehow managed to avoid the wrecking ball and lived on to service the sweet tooths and nut cravings of downtown office workers. Now, as city planners hope to make downtown Columbus more residential, Planters’ Peanut Shoppe is one of those quirky places that make the downtown cityscape more interesting and fun. I’m glad it survived, and I imagine our civic leaders wish they had a few more quaint shops with neon signs of iconic cultural figures and a few less boring asphalt expanses in our downtown neighborhood.