This would not be news anywhere but Columbus, Ohio, but yesterday when I walked down to the Columbus Arts Festival after work I saw people in canoes and kayaks out on the Scioto River as it passes downtown. They were paddling around, enjoying the blazing sunshine and their water view of the downtown skyline.
I know, I know — rivers are supposed to host canoes, kayaks, and even (gasp) boats. But that hasn’t been the case with the poor old Scioto. Ever since the government built dams that converted the river into a wide, incredibly shallow morass as it crept past the downtown area, the Scioto has been a de facto no man’s land for any kind of waterborne craft. You’d see ugly, twisted branches thrusting from the ankle-deep water, often catching various bits of debris that were floating by, but that’s about it. No rational canoeist or kayaker would venture out onto the river’s snaggle-toothed waters.
Then Columbus decided to do something to try to make the riverfront a little bit better. The dams that made the Scioto a sluggish, muddy stream were torn down, and the river was allowed to return to a narrower, deeper, more natural channel. This not only uncovered lots of additional parkland on the river’s new banks, but also was supposed to allow some recreational activity on the river itself. So when I saw canoes and kayaks out on the water yesterday, I thought: “Hallelujah! The plan worked!”
We can argue about why the stupid dams were built in the first place — you could write volumes about the unfortunate, unanticipated consequences of government dam projects, actually — but at least we’ve gotten to the point where a couple in a canoe can paddle past downtown Columbus. It actually makes the Scioto seem like a real river, and the Scioto Mile seem like a real riverfront.
It’s been a while since I’ve been down to the Scioto Riverfront in downtown Columbus. Kish and I stopped by today to take a peek at the status of the Scioto Greenways project, which is an effort to narrow the river and return it to a more natural channel — and, in the process, recover some much needed green space and downtown parkland from the former, wider, river bed.
I think it looks pretty good, although you can’t actually enter the new areas right now. I’m assuming the chain fencing will be removed and access will be allowed when the grand opening occurs on Tuesday. The river looks better with the green borders. The question is, will downtown workers use the new areas? I’m guessing they will. People tend to like water, and in land-bound Columbus the Scioto River is just about the only option.
One of the main geographic elements of downtown Columbus is changing — and we are starting to see clear visible evidence of the new look.
For years the Scioto River crawled past the downtown area, a muddy brown swath that separated downtown from Franklinton and points west. The river was so shallow that a replica of the Santa Maria moored next to the federal courthouse could never sail, and branches and other debris routinely became stuck in the river bed, giving the river a sad, derelict look. It was . . . vaguely embarrassing. Other cities have lakes and mountains and mighty rivers with boat and barge traffic, and Columbus had a glorified culvert.
Now all of that is changing. The Scioto Greenways project aims to rechannel the river and create new parkland downtown as part of the project. A dam at Main Street that had long blocked the real current of the river has been removed, allowing the Scioto to return to its narrower, deeper, and swifter natural state. As a result, land that was covered by sluggish water has been exposed and is being converted to parkland.
Yesterday I hiked over to Franklinton for lunch and crossed the river at Broad Street on the way there and Main Street on the way back to check out the work that is being done. The new channel has opened up wide bands of space on each side of the river bed that will be turned into green parkland. On the downtown side, a promontory point is under construction; on the Franklinton side, legions of trees stand ready to be replanted. What’s more, the river itself actually has a noticeable current, and the new river channel has a more pronounced, and attractive, bend as it passes the downtown area.
It’s a positive development for a city that is focusing on encouraging more people to move downtown to live, and more parkland next to downtown and a reenergized riverfront area is bound to help. Of course, there’s also a question to be asked: why was the Main Street dam built in the first place, and how much money was wasted in building the dam and then fixing the problems it caused because someone made that bad decision?
It’s the weekend of the Columbus Arts Festival, so for lunch today the Unkempt Guy, the Bus-Riding Conservative, and I walked down to the Riverfront to take in the show. It was a cool day, but there was a good lunchtime crowd, music was playing, the scent of elephant ears was in the air, and there was lots of art to check out — ranging from paintings to folk art to sculpture to items that appeared to be made from hammered bottle caps.
The Arts Festival runs all weekend along the Scioto Mile, across the Scioto bridges and looping back again. It’s worth a visit.
Today, walking along the Scioto Mile and heading back to the office after lunch, I saw an odd sight: a seagull perched boldly on the concrete abutment next to the walkway. The purpose of the Scioto Mile was to make the riverside into more of a part of the downtown experience, and I found myself wondering momentarily whether the gull had been hired and trained to hang out along the Scioto Mile as a kind of ready-made photo opportunity, so people would be reminded that there is, in fact, a waterfront in Columbus, Ohio.
It’s strange, indeed, to see a seagull framed against the Columbus skyline.
After doing some work this morning I walked down to the Columbus Arts Festival. The 2012 Festival has moved back to its traditional location on the riverfront, and the relocation was an inspired decision. There’s lots of room for artists’ booths, street food tents, seating, and three performance stages. The booths and tents run along Civic Center Drive, cross the Scioto River on the Rich Street bridge, and then loop back across the river on the Main Street bridge.
The set-up gives the Festival a more airy and open feel than I found at last year’s Festival. It also gives the visitor a chance to check out the Scioto Mile park area and cross Columbus’ two cool new downtown bridges, which are works of art in their own right. The Rich Street bridge features an interesting series of buttress supports, and the Main Street bridge uses an unusual inclined arch superstructure and has a wide pedestrian walkway. I think the two bridges, the downtown buildings, and the Scioto Mile features do a really nice job of framing the Festival and making it a visually appealing venue for the artwork.
When I was at the Festival this morning there was lots of foot traffic and apparent purchases, some fine jazz being played at the main stage, and the heady smell of street food in the air. The Festival runs until 10 p.m. tonight and from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow. If you’re in Columbus this weekend, it’s well worth a visit.
In the wake of yesterday’s post, our friends Michelle and Lee politely pointed out that there is a restaurant called Milestone 229 at the end of the Scioto Mile, as well as a series of fountains and misting stations right in front of the restaurant. Both are unfortunately shielded from the rest of the Scioto Mile by some fencing related to ongoing construction.
My bad! I visited the area today to have lunch with good friend and devoted Webner House reader Mike N, and I’m glad I did. Milestone 229 serves some good food and looks to have an extensive drinks menu, although we didn’t sample any of them. It also has a large outdoor eating area as well as a large bend of floor-to-ceiling windows to allow a good look at the fountain area.
There is good reason to encourage viewing of the fountain area, because dozens of happy kids were providing great free entertainment as they ran in and out of the different fountains and soaked themselves to the skin. From the number of kids, Moms, Dads, and caregivers who were there, I’d say the fountain area has already become a go-to destination on a hot summer’s day.