Village Center anchors the city of New Albany

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO
Snapshots of life in New Albany.

Hanging baskets of white, purple and red petunias, green-leaved, sentinel- like Norway maple trees and shiny white benches camped on rust-colored brick walkways splash their colors on Market Square in New Albany. A branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library anchors the square, which is flanked by twin two-story, 20,000-square-foot rows of shops, restaurants and offices facing each other and creating a pedestrian-friendly U-shape. The Keswick development of high-end townhomes fills in the opposite side of Market Street.

Market Square is seen as "the axis upon which city life revolves," and it is just one important component of New Albany's Village Center: 605 acres located in the core of the city designed for civic, social, cultural and commercial activity.

The Village Center is a focal point for the community and the setting and gathering space for a host of activities, like the New Albany Walking Classic, Pelotonia, Taste of New Albany and weekly farmers markets among others. Planners intended for the center to be a hub for a vibrant lifestyle that redefines how communities learn, stay healthy and stay connected.

Besides Market Square, the Village Center includes the Jeanne B. McCoy Community Center for the Arts, the 200- acre New Albany-Plain Local School District campus, the historic business district, city government offices, post office, Phelps and Ealy houses and 60 acres of nature preserves, parks, community gardens and wetlands.

And thanks to the vision of a strong master development plan and the solid bond of a public-private partnership, a whole lot more is in the works. A beehive of new construction activity-$77 million worth-has been underway this past year. The new developments include:

The 55,000-square-foot Philip Heit Center for Healthy New Albany, which will feature healthcare, individual fitness and community wellness activities.

  • A "leading edge," 12-classroom, academic building for the school campus.
  • A 26,000-square-foot, two-story retail and office complex whose tenants will include Hudson 29 and Mellow Mushroom restaurants.
  • A roundabout at Market and Main streets.
  • M/I Homes Straits Farms, a site for 51 new homes.

Recently, the New Albany Community Foundation announced plans for an outdoor amphitheater, which could be located near the McCoy Center, after receiving a $500,000 contribution from Charleen and Charles Hinson.

The Village Center was designed to keep people in the community connected, while at the same time reflecting the character of New Albany, something William Ebbing, president of The New Albany Company, and other community leaders refer to as the four pillars:

  • Lifelong learning
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Healthy living
  • Arts and culture

"You can imagine a community that is anchored by those four key components rather than a shopping mall or big box user," Ebbing says. "That was never the intent of our master plan. It was really to go back to the basics, the fundamentals that are critical to the community, and that is what we built upon."

The idea to create a Village Center stretches back to New Albany's original 1998 Strategic Plan to create a core area "with a mix of uses."

The concept really gained momentum in 2006 when MSI Design created a plan to "develop a thriving Village Center recognizing it is the emotional and practical heart of New Albany."

Keith Myers, with MSI when the plan was developed, says a Village Center was always a major component for each of the several strategic plans that were created over the years.

"The idea was to build the village in a fairly dense sort of walkable pattern," Myers says. "Let it have residences and commercial uses. Market Square was a good first step, and all of the stuff starting to happen now is exciting to see."

Getting there involved some skirmishes. Prior to development, the McDonald's Corp. wanted to construct a restaurant and drive-through at a site next to where the McCoy Center was eventually built, and later a drive-through carryout was proposed for the center of town, says Myers, vice president of Physical Planning and Real Estate at the Ohio State University.

"That got a lot of people upset or nervous," he says. "It was not a problem with McDonald's, but the community didn't want a giant parking lot and drive-through in the middle of town that would compromise the ability to make it walkable."

The commitment for a practical Village Center is stronger than ever, Myers says.

"Residents understand how important it is to have a real heart in the community and not just a symbolic heart; a true functioning and working Village Center," Myers says. "It is vitally important to understand just what New Albany is and what it can be."

A great deal of research, discussions with architects, builders and planners, and travel-both inside and outside of the United States-went into the development of the center. Appointed groups explored towns and their centers in France, England, New England and the Virginias, says J. Craig Mohre, president of the New Albany Community Foundation.

Planners embraced the configuration and character of towns and villages of the pre-World War II days, before the widespread availability of automobiles helped create the urban sprawl that pushed retailers and businesses to the outskirts of a city.

"It was decided that here would be a lot like the old town centers where the core was a shared place where everybody in the community could come and congregate," Mohre says. "All the buildings in the town center would be in walking distance and they became shared assets and anchors to bring foot traffic to help small shops and restaurants.

"It was almost like a community of yesteryear and everything was within a little defined area in the historic center of the village," he says.

The 2006 Village Center Plan clearly reflected those notions, pointing out that "the town center is the heart of any community. It is a place to gather, socialize and do business." The center would embrace the historic roots of the village, founded in 1837, by developing in the core of New Albany. The street patterns today are the same as they were in the old village.

The plan called for the center to display the "community's pride, character, pros- perity and vitality" and to connect with the community.

"In order to reflect the character of New Albany, development in the Village Cen- ter should be of high quality, encourage pedestrian connections, create an inviting public realm and provide civic and social spaces for the community," planners wrote.

The master plan's deliberative strategy paid off, not only for the Village Center but also for New Albany as a whole, and that helps explain why the community continues to grow, says Mayor Nancy Ferguson. The city now has more than 8,000 residents and more than 12,000 people work in the community.

"As people came in and bought land in the area, The New Albany Company and other developers had plans for what the town should be like," Ferguson says. "There aren't many examples in the country of a master plan community and the amenities that come with that. People can see the value and benefits of a master plan."

A vibrant Village Center is a magnet for businesses and for development in New Albany, including attracting companies to its 3,000-acre business park, Ebbing says. "The Village Center has been the cornerstone and very important component to the overall (development) plan. So much of it has to do with anchoring the community economically, culturally and socially," Ebbing says. "The business park is a great example of why the Village Center is so important. A central core is critical

in attracting those businesses." Businesses jumped aboard as early arrivals in Market Square after the two retail and office buildings were constructed, but a problem developed. Too little foot traffic.

"The shops were struggling in 2002 and we knew the library was a big part of the master plan for the town center," Mohre says. The Foundation brought in historian and author David McCullough and raised $1.2 million, winning a commitment from the Columbus Metropolitan Library to build and open a branch in 2003.

"That was all private money and it be- came the anchor to drive more foot traffic," Mohre says. Village Center development has been progressing steadily ever since, thanks in large part to a cooperative partnership on several levels.

Another "anchor" for Village Center is the $15 million Jeanne B. McCoy Community Center for the Arts, opened in 2008. The Foundation took an active role here, too, after school leaders asked for help raising money for a school auditorium. Instead, the Foundation raised more than $8 million, the schools and city put in $5 million each and the township added $3 million for an arts center available to the entire community and outsiders.

"It's still a small enough town that people can come together and shape things the way they want it," Mohre says. "The city and New Albany Company are extraordinary partners in helping that move along."

The newest anchor, set to open at year's end, will be the Philip Heit Center for Healthy New Albany, a partnership between New Albany, the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Nationwide Children's Hospital and Healthy New Albany, an organization promoting healthy living through community activities, events and personalized wellness and disease prevention. The center is named for Phil Heit, founder and race director of the New Albany Walking Classic and co-founder of Healthy New Albany.

The center will offer customized health assessments, emphasizing prevention rather than rehabilitation to connect members' health and wellness goals to the fit- ness options available.

The center will collect baseline data through laboratory evaluations, screenings and exercise tolerance tests. Counselors will offer advice and progress will be monitored and analyzed. The center will even include a demonstration kitchen, donated by M/I Homes, to teach people to cook healthy meals, Heit says.

"We want people to get healthy and remain healthy, and rather than looking at treatment, we will look at prevention," he says. "Its membership is open to anyone who lives anywhere."

Another attraction will be Cameron Mitchell's Hudson 29 restaurant, set to open at the Market and Main develop- ment in spring 2015, says David Miller, executive vice president of the restaurant company. The Village Center seemed a perfect match for the business, Miller says.

"The master plan for that whole area creates connectivity to the other areas of the community, making it easy to walk or ride a bike," he says. "The restaurant will tie into that community feeling."

The foundation for that palpable feeling is bolstered by the community's long-standing "four pillars" and its leaders' commitment to following those principals. It's a dedication unmatched in many other communities and is most evident in the Village Center, says Thomas Rubey, vice president of the New Albany Company.

"There are buildings dedicated to these ideas and the leadership in the community is dedicated to these core values and principals in a way you can now touch and feel in the Village Center," Rubey says. "The community is growing and maturing in a wonderful way that's respecting those original core values and ideas, and I believe it will continue to over the next 20 years."

Future success will rely on deliberate and thorough planning and the wisdom of taking things slowly, Rubey says.

"It will be slow and methodical and intentional and deliberate," he says. "You won't see folks making quick decisions based on short term gains or opportunities."

New Albany is a community that will continue to look forward, and that vision will include the Village Center, says Scott McAfee, the city's public information officer.

"In some ways New Albany is like sophisticated country. There really has been an attention to detail to keep the natural landscape and the natural beauty, and yet they've really done their due diligence to take it to next level," McAfee says. "The Village Center is going to continue to have new amenities, and there will continue to be new phases and improvements that create even better connectivity."

TC Brown is a freelance writer.