Columbus, Ohio USA
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A Bridge Too Far
By Joel Knepp
January/February 2016 Issue

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Photo | Joel Knepp

I don’t know if y’all have noticed, but the city is filling up fast. Developers have either their hands or their eyes on practically every square foot of land within five miles of Broad and High. Condos, apartment complexes, giant office buildings, and commercial properties to service them are springing up at a mad pace almost everywhere you look these days, from downtown and outward in all directions. For architects, builders, construction workers, and purveyors of building supplies, these are surely the good times.

It seems like everybody wants to move to the city. What took them so long to come to their senses? How could anyone not think that life in or near downtown beats daily excursions up and down the likes of Morse, Bryce, Stringtown, and Sawmill Roads and their “geography of nowhere” cousins that all look depressingly the same and feature the same dreadful architecture and traffic conditions? Except some developers don’t actually want to attract real city dwellers. Instead, they are touting “suburban living with an urban style” and officials and other movers and shakers are facilitating these undertakings with that same frame of mind: Let’s bring the suburbs to the city!

Some of you might remember Big Bear, that icon of gone-but-not-forgotten Columbus supermarket chains. The late, great XXXL ursine hugger, may he rest in peace in a cozy den lined with Golden Buckeye stamps, maintained a warehouse complex on the south side of 3rd Avenue in Grandview Heights. Those buildings and many others nearby have been leveled, and a large area from 3rd Avenue south to Goodale Avenue is now a gigantic development known as Grandview Yard. It is backed by Nationwide Realty Investors.

I thought cities were supposed to have walkable neighborhoods and business districts. Despite being practically in the shadow of downtown, no attempt has yet been made to integrate this behemoth and its new neighbors with the city around it by connecting with sidewalks to Olentangy River Road and 3rd Avenue into the Short North. In standard suburban modus operandi, it’s all about cars. It seems that walkers are so far at the bottom of the priority list that they have fallen off.

Just north of Grandview Yard on 3rd Avenue is the super-wazoo Giant Eagle Market District, complete with its own bar, 47 brands of peanut butter, two different sizes of shopping carts, a gas station, and a grand-opening guest appearance by Mario Batali. Like its neighbor across the street, the gargantuan raptor is not accessible by sidewalk from anywhere other than right where it sits. These projects seem to have forgotten about, or worse, totally ignored those real city dwellers who rely by either choice or circumstance on humanity’s oldest form of transportation, the shoe-leather express. Harrison West and Victorian Village are within easy walking distance of Grandview Yard, the new Giant Eagle, Panera, and other nearby businesses. The Eagle alone is a major attraction and within a mile or so of many Short North residents. The most direct route is across the 3rd Avenue bridge, across Olentangy River Road, and west on 3rd. Let’s make the trek.

The 3rd Avenue bridge sidewalks are nice and safe, and there’s even lots of room for bikes on the north side. So far, so good. Crossing Olentangy on foot is iffy, with two turn lanes of heavy traffic coming at you in the crosswalk, but you make it and breathe a sigh of relief. The city has posted tiny signs, high up and nearly invisible at night, telling through drivers to yield to pedestrians. As cars zoom by, you walk further westward on 3rd. But what’s this? The sidewalks on both sides of the road on the way to a important local destination mysteriously disappear!

The new Tribeca apartment complex just east of the railroad has a sidewalk beside its access road running north and south which connects to…nothing. The complex was originally supposed to have a sidewalk facing 3rd Avenue, but that got cancelled.

Instead, they planted trees where the sidewalk should be, and the backs of its brick garages face the street. For bus riders, there’s no pad at the COTA stops on either side of 3rd, just grass and dirt. Seriously, COTA, is this the best you can do for your fully abled riders, not to mention those with disabilities? Even the Columbus police station lacks a sidewalk, for heaven’s sake!

OK, you can continue trudging westward on the grass as long as you are strong of limb and sure of foot until you get to the railroad bridge going over 3rd Avenue. At that point, you either have to clamber up and over the tracks, over an embankment, or make a dash directly on the road surface under the narrow railroad bridge. I’ve cringed on multiple occasions seeing women pushing baby buggies under that bridge to get access to groceries. I don’t even want to think about folks with disabilities, and apparently, city officials don’t either. It’s not a whole lot better for Mayor Coleman’s beloved bicyclists, who have to brave the narrow passage under the train bridge while cars speed by in both directions.

The City of Columbus claims awareness of this problem but so far has failed to do anything about it except make promises that never materialize. In September 2014, Richard Ortman, a city engineer, told the Harrison West Society: “A sidewalk on the north side and a shared-use path on the south side are planned for 3rd Avenue …subject to funding approval and weather conditions.” I’m not sure what he meant about weather conditions, since folks need to walk no matter what the weather, but in a stunning instance of bureaucratic CYA and callousness, he also said this: “The City of Columbus does not recommend that pedestrians walk in the 3rd Avenue roadway and to avoid [sic] walking through the construction zone along 3rd Avenue during the two-phase construction. Phase Two of the project will make this segment of 3rd Avenue safer for pedestrians after its completion. In the interim, we ask residents to utilize other means of transportation to and from the new Giant Eagle…until the project is completed.” Maybe the city will issue gyrocopters or rocket packs, because years into the Grandview Yard project, Phase Two is looking about as likely as world peace and a functioning Congress.

A full year later in 2015, with still no magical, mystical Phase Two or sidewalks, Rick Tilton, also with the city, essentially told the Tri-Village News that it’s all about a new railroad bridge. No new railroad bridge, no Phase Two, no sidewalks. A grant request to the Ohio Public Works Commission for a major rebuilding of the railroad bridge, to include sidewalks on 3rd Avenue, was denied. They’re going to try again this year. I’m no engineer, but it sure looks to me like the dirt could be dug out next to the existing bridge abutments on both sides of 3rd Avenue, modest retaining walls built, and sidewalks under the bridge and beyond laid NOW without waiting any longer on some pie-in-the-sky bridge scheme.

Let’s summarize: the cities of Columbus and Grandview Heights, Nationwide Realty Investors, Giant Eagle, and the folks who built the Tribeca apartment complex have invested many millions of dollars on roads and other infrastructure, giant buildings, tax abatements, and celebrity chefs during Phase One in and around West 3rd Avenue but, sadly, there is no money left to build a couple of simple sidewalks and assure pedestrian safety in Phase Two, so the city of Columbus has to go begging again to the Public Works Commission for a grant that has already been denied once. Meantime, no sidewalks, no bus pad, no safe way to move without benefit of a motor vehicle on West 3rd Avenue past the railroad bridge. Walking is not recommended. Even biking is risky. Wheelchairs are totally out of the question. The message is clear: This is the suburbs, damn it, so get a car or stay out!

Friends and neighbors, make no mistake. Once you cross the Olentangy River by going west on 3rd, 5th, or King Avenues, you are in the suburbs, at least until you reach pedestrian-friendly Grandview Avenue. It’s almost like they took a giant section of Easton and lowered it in by helicopter. It’s in the city, but certainly not of the city or connected to the city. And all along Olentangy River Road from Goodale all the way up to Lennox Town Center, it’s one suburban-style restaurant, tanning parlor, motel, and office building after another. There are even new pizza and sub shops, which we desperately need, right?

City life requires people full-time, not just from 8 to 5. The area in and around downtown has been drained of residents for too long. The repopulation of Columbus is a good thing, providing everybody, not just the well-off, gets a piece of the action. But we are doing ourselves no favors to reproduce suburban conditions in the central city. Auto-centric development which makes no provision for pedestrians or bicyclists make city life worse, not better. Safe non-automobile passage on W. 3rd Avenue is needed now, not next year or the next.

See Letter in Response: March/April 2016

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