What does the future of Downtown Columbus look like?

Katy Smith
Columbus CEO
A view of downtown Columbus captured on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

Recently, I asked a colleague what Downtown is like these days, how it’s doing. While our Capitol Square offices remain officially closed, he’s been working from there frequently the past few months as the company works out the details of our return-to-work plans.

He says Downtown remains quiet. I’ve got to wonder—with a bit of unease—how long will it stay that way?

“Quiet” was actually the same way someone else described Downtown to me during a recent conversation, but she was referring to the Downtown Columbus of 30 years ago.

When Sandy Doyle-Ahern moved to Columbus from outside Philadelphia for a job, “I remember being just so surprised at how quiet Downtown was. That it really wasn’t a downtown, it was kind of a conglomerate of buildings. But there wasn’t a lot of activity occurring,” she says.

Three decades later, she’s the president at a well-regarded engineering firm, EMH&T, and as a civic leader, she’s joining the board of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp., the public-private entity that has orchestrated hundreds of millions of dollars in major projects including turning the former City Center Mall site into Columbus Commons; reinventing the Lazarus Building as an office center; bringing the Scioto riverfront back to life Downtown; and its latest ambition, the massive Peninsula project west of the river.

“When you look at all the work that’s been done Downtown to really build it out as a destination ... I really believe strongly that that core of a region, not just the city, but the region— Downtown—is extremely important to a successful region,” Doyle-Ahern says.

Her friend Christie Angel, a longtime executive with the city of Columbus who’s now CEO of YWCA Columbus and also a new member of the CDDC board, has a direct stake in the health of Downtown: She lives and works there. The YWCA has maintained its headquarters Downtown since its 1929 founding, giving the women it supports with housing and services a central location where they can get their needs met.

Angel says she joined the CDDC board to be a voice for those women and because she’s invested in the future of Downtown.

For both women, making sure we have a Downtown everyone can access and enjoy is a goal.

“Affordable housing is top of mind,” Christie says. “But beyond that, it’s also how we come back from this pandemic, with everyone leaving the Downtown areas, some choosing not to come back. Being a part of setting that vision [for the future] and the projects that are yet to come is very important to me.”

The urban core is projected to reach 10,000 residents this year—a goal former Mayor Michael Coleman set in 2004—and while office vacancies are spiking in the central business district as companies relinquish old notions about remote work, there is activity happening.

While we don’t have a vibrant sidewalk dining scene, or muralists covering public spaces in art, or music spilling from packed clubs in the evening, or even many places to buy a newspaper or a magazine, those things could be the reality soon.

Transformation unlike anything we’ve seen in the past 40 years is coming. As it stands now, there’s $1 billion in construction going on across 32 projects, according to the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District, plus another $1.5 billion proposed (half of that is highway construction). We can look forward to a soccer stadium, the city’s new flagship convention hotel, and what I will call many apartment buildings and parking garages.

A proposal by Edwards Cos. for a sunken plaza on East Broad Street where you can have happy hour is at the top of my list. So long as it has adequate canopy protection to keep the sun off me.

Hint, hint.

Enjoy a quiet Downtown while it lasts