Morton J. Marcus is an economist formerly with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. His column appears in Indiana newspapers, and his views can be followed on a podcast: https://mortonjohn.libsyn.com.
Like other Indiana cities, Columbus seeks to strengthen its downtown area. The plan was detailed by The Republic (December 2, 2018). What appears to some as a progressive move forward, is perceived by this aged observer as a reversion to previous concepts.
This is not a disparagement of the Envision Columbus plan. No. It’s a recognition of changing preferences and lifestyles, as well as the pendulum swings in urban land prices.
Let’s look at some details. As the burdens of suburban living became manifest, downtown residences became popular again. The Columbus plan asserts: “young people and families expressed an interest and desire to live in the downtown area.” This might be a real trend or a transitory millennials’ mirage.
High on the list of priorities is an “urban grocer.” Downtown Columbus, as in other cities, is short of places to buy the necessities of daily life. Grocery stores and other everyday retail outlets moved from downtown and from the commercial streets of neighborhoods.
Today, shoppers tell planners they want to walk to the grocery. It’s a bit of self-deception and misrepresentation.
To be successful, that grocery will have a multi-storied parking garage. Who will walk to a grocery in winter’s freezing cold or under the blazing summer sun? Only the most rabid fitness acolytes when they limit their purchases to light weight energy bars.
Who are the shoppers talking to the planners? Are they poor and infirm, or are they young, affluent techies, the purported foundation of the future?
Next, the Columbus plan calls for a downtown conference hotel. A downtown location will have many benefits for Columbus.
There was such a place on the western edge of Columbus, adjacent to Interstate 65 that did little for downtown. But a 2008 flood is blamed for financial difficulties and the facility’s demise in 2017.
In the 1960s, a hotel/conference center next to the interstate was a good investment. A comparable piece of downtown land was too expensive. Now, downtown properties, in the hands of governmental entities, are priced for investment.
But is there a place for sheltering the homeless in the downtown plan? Or, unlike other cities, doesn’t Columbus need such accommodations?
Many Hoosier cities are still recovering from the interstate impacts and subsidized suburban strategies of the past century. Already gone are early attempts like downtown pedestrian malls in Evansville, Richmond and South Bend.
Likewise, the efficiency of one-way streets is challenged; some return to two-way traffic is encouraged. This proposal attempts to solve the problem of arduous navigation for visitors and inefficient local trips.
Also recommended is the return of the Columbus Transit hub to downtown from exile west of the core area.
This plan is not a step-backwards. It seeks to align downtown with contemporary yet ever-changing desires of high-end consumers. Its implementation should provide flexibility for low cost adjustments as those desires change again in the future.