1 million more people? Columbus on verge of growth spurt

By Rick Rouan and Mark Ferenchik The Columbus Dispatch

Flying cars never took off. Humans haven’t colonized the moon. Hoverboards that fly high in the air still haven’t materialized outside the big screen.

We'll forgive the prognosticators of the past for missing the mark. Predicting the future is tricky business.

But as central Ohio lights the fuse for a population explosion, it’s important to anticipate the effects of that growth. We wonder what that will mean for neighborhoods. What will the Columbus skyline look like in 20 years? Will most cars drive themselves?


Tell us what you think Columbus should look like in 20 years


We asked city leaders, futurists and neighborhood experts to gaze into their crystal balls, and some common predictions emerged.

The city's skyline will continue reaching toward the clouds, and the parking lots and other empty spaces between existing developments will continue to disappear as more people populate the city center.

Suburban evolution will be watched closely. Living far from the urban core, once reserved for the affluent, might become the affordable alternative to living in the city, where home prices have risen steadily in the past two decades.

Our steering wheels are likely to disappear — eventually. Autonomous vehicles are an inevitable symbol of a transportation revolution that is very real and which experts believe could revolve around Columbus.

Automation also could wipe out many low-skill jobs, potentially setting up the city for an employment crisis among low-wage workers.

Many of the city’s struggling neighborhoods likely will emerge from decades of population loss and economic turmoil. While they rise, though, others could fall.

Columbus and the seven-county metro area are getting bigger, and signs indicate the growth will only accelerate. Columbus already has bumped out Indianapolis to become the second biggest city in the Midwest, and it now is 14th largest in the nation, the latest census estimates show.

“The exciting part of the next 20 years is how we’re going to thrust ourselves into the top tier of big cities in America, but doing it our way," Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said.

What may be more important than predicting the future is for city and county leaders to plan better together — now — to prepare for that future.

“I don’t know that there’s anyone with ownership of any overarching comprehensive vision for the city,” said Michael Bongiorno, an architect and director at DesignGroup.

Predicting growth

No prediction is etched in stone, and much depends on how fast the area grows.

Community leaders assume an additional 1 million people will populate the seven-county region by 2050, as the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) has projected. Some say that estimate is conservative, even though the region’s growth traditionally has been slow and steady.

“A lot can happen in 35 years. It’s relatively easy to project births and deaths, at least at an aggregate level,” said economist Bill LaFayette, founder and owner of Regionomics LLC in the Columbus area. “It’s much harder to predict net migration. That’s where population projections tend to go wrong.”

MORPC based its projection on the 115,000 people the seven-county region added between 2010 and 2015. About half of that was due to births, with another quarter moving here from outside the region and the rest coming from abroad, said Liz Whalen, a data analyst for the commission.

"We've become a kind of economic magnet," Whalen said. Those numbers could change, based on unforeseen factors such as immigration restrictions or economic downturns.

"There is certainly room for the possibility that the growth trend could level off between now and 2050," she said.

But unpredictable events or economic factors could cause the area to grow even faster than predicted, too.

Alex Fischer,president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership of business leaders, believes the area will grow faster than predicted. [Barbara J. Perenic/The Columbus Dispatch]
Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership of business leaders, is convinced that the metro area will grow to 3 million in just 10 to 15 years.

“It’s gonna happen way quicker than the historic modeling suggests,” Fischer said. “It’s a city that sits in the center of a population that’s young, vibrant, innovative,” citing the 150,000 college students in the area.

Henry Butcher believes that, too. The owner of the Creole Kitchen restaurant on Mount Vernon Avenue on the Near East Side said it is possible Columbus’ population could vault into the country’s top 10 in 20 years. The city’s population now tops 860,000, by far the largest in Ohio. Butcher, a 69-year-old native of Shreveport, Louisiana, notices the new apartments rising in his neighborhood.

“I remember when they used to call Columbus a cowtown,” he said.

Many predict that the biggest population growth will be among young adults and senior citizens.

That means the region must make preparations on two fronts.

Planners need to develop walkable, vibrant communities to attract young residents, and the region needs enough desirable jobs to keep them here.

At the same time, they recognize the need to prepare for an aging population that will need to live within easy access of amenities. The growing elderly population could put added stress on an already overworked health-care system.

“You can’t have multi-unit housing for old people isolated from the rest of communities,” said Ned Hill, a professor in Ohio State University’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs. “We can’t afford to have the form of nursing home industry that we currently have.”

Creole Kitchen chef Henry Butcher, 69, sees new apartment buildings rising in the Near East Side. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

Strengthening its core

Instead of stretching out to the suburbs where they might find more space, baby boomers and millennials are looking to live where they can walk from work to home and stop for dinner in between.

Many of them will flock Downtown as Columbus, long known for sprawling across the countryside, continues its more recent trend of packing people in tighter at its core. MORPC identified density as a major trend for Columbus’ future in its Insight 2050 report.

Buildings will grow taller. Parking lots will disappear under development.

Most Columbus residents don't live Downtown, and aggressive growth means that new apartments and urban clusters will mushroom all over the region. But developing a vibrant Downtown and reviving central-city neighborhoods is important because that creates thriving, dense areas that draw young and old alike to the city.

Between 2007 and 2016, more than $1.7 billion in private development Downtown has been completed, proposed or is under construction. During that time, public development completed, planned or in progress totaled another $1.9 billion, with most of that on Downtown highways.

Continuing improvements to Interstates 70 and 71 through Downtown will be needed so that traffic flows more smoothly. Development also requires more office and commercial projects and more bars, restaurants and nightlife in order to create a more 24/7 central city. Think of the nodes being created now, such as South 4th Street, with places such as Hadley's, Little Palace, El Camino and 16-Bit Bar & Arcade. Or farther up 4th, with Pins Mechanical Company, Wolf's Ridge Brewing and the Elevator Brewery Taproom.

In the past 20 years, the Arena District replaced a long-vacant state penitentiary and attracts not only sports fans but also young people looking for nightlife. Concerts and festivals play out at John F. Wolfe Columbus Commons, a park that replaced a dying mall. The recently developed Scioto Mile park helps lure people to the Downtown riverfront.

Still, Columbus sprawls across 225 square miles, the byproduct of annexations in the 1960s and 1970s, making it difficult to develop a dense, walkable city center.

“We still struggle with the fact that it is one of the largest, most spread-out downtowns of any city our size in the country,” Ginther said. “Many other big cities have much more dense, highly concentrated downtown areas.”

Al Edmondson, a barber and Mount Vernon-area community leader, said he sees Downtown growing so much that it will absorb his neighborhood east of I-71 in two decades.

“It will be pretty vibrant,” he said of the neighborhood. “It will be more appealing to come and live.”

In 2000, 3,500 people lived Downtown. Today, there are 8,100 Downtown residents. That could more than double to 17,000 in 10 years, said Marc Conte, deputy director of the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District, which represents business owners and helps keep Downtown areas clean while providing security. By 2037, Conte expects Downtown’s population to be 27,000.

Conte expects the momentum for Downtown housing to continue. Residential developments have been the most high-profile Downtown projects since 2002, thanks to tax incentives created by former Mayor Michael B. Coleman's administration, Conte said.

The Arena District, LifeStyle communities rentals at 250 S. High Street and RiverSouth, the developing area of apartments and offices west of High Street and south of Broad Street near the Scioto River, have contributed to the Downtown renaissance as well, he said.

Although living Downtown might be desirable, not everyone will be able to afford it. Twenty-two percent of housing Downtown is considered affordable, and not market-rate, Conte said.

Conte expects the amount of affordable housing to shrink, and the city needs to pay attention to that.

“We need to ask that question of every neighborhood in Columbus,” Conte said.

See more then & now photos here

Rediscovering neighborhoods

As people move closer to Downtown, more could move back to places that have lost population over the past few decades.

“I think we’re going to see residential skyscrapers,” said David Staley, an Ohio State University history professor and member of the Columbus Futurists group.

Taller buildings seem destined for neighborhoods connected to Downtown, too. A 35-story tower is planned in the parking lot for the North Market at the gateway to the Short North.

“Part of what I think that density means is fostering a more seamless connection between the neighborhoods adjacent to the Short North,” said Betsy Pandora, executive director of the Short North Alliance.

Short North development to this point has focused on High Street. But Pandora said development will emerge on the streets linking the district to surrounding neighborhoods, such as 5th Avenue and Park Street.

The Short North arts, entertainment and residential district just north of Downtown has become Columbus’ crown jewel of development success stories over the past 30 years. Several neighborhoods are in position to become the next one.

The city is investing in the Scioto Peninsula, just west of Downtown, where it is working with the Columbus Downtown Development Corp. on 21 acres on both sides of West Broad Street near COSI that will become a mixed-use combination of housing, retail, office space and hotels. It is meant to bridge Downtown to Franklinton. Developers broke ground this year on a new housing complex where the former Riverside-Bradley public-housing site used to be.

Those developments could foster more growth to the west in Franklinton, the oldest part of the city, with a history that stretches back to 1797.

They also could push out people who can’t afford rising rents in a newly affluent area of town. The city can provide incentives to developers in Franklinton and other areas to build affordable housing alongside market-rate units, Ginther said, and needs to build infrastructure that will attract developers to build in struggling areas.

“Affordable housing doesn’t simply appear. You have to be intentional about it,” LaFayette said. “Right now, we have thousands of households who are paying way more for housing than they really should be.”

The region needs to start looking out for the next areas that will struggle, Staley said.

Town Center, Ohio State University and Downtown, said Carla Williams-Scott, the city’s Department of Neighborhoods director.

The neighborhood is a focal point for Smart Columbus, a multimillion-dollar plan to test new transportation technology. The city’s Department of Neighborhoods is planting its headquarters in the Clarence D. Lumpkin Point of Pride building in the heart of Linden.

Williams-Scott said that Cleveland Avenue and Hudson Street will redevelop into commercial corridors through Linden. The Central Ohio Transit Authority already plans to start running its first bus rapid-transit line along Cleveland Avenue in 2018.

Retail, art studios, coffee shops and chain businesses will follow, she said.

Residential areas also need to be improved. That means rehabilitating houses worth saving and razing those that aren't, she said. The high-crime area also will need to become safer if people are going to be attracted to live there.

“It’s going to be a good five, 10, 15 years before you start seeing this transformation. I ask people to be patient and come along with us for the ride,” she said. “It is a blank canvas. It is a little blurry because we don’t know what it’s going to look like.”

Preparing for new jobs

Experts say that jobs of the future in Columbus will be focused on transportation technology and data analytics.

“When you look at what’s happening in the world of big data, artificial intelligence, those aren’t just words; it’s reality,” Fischer said. “The world as we know it is ever-changing.

“Columbus has the opportunity to lead that change,” he said.

The federal Smart Cities grant Columbus won in 2016 sets it up to be the epicenter of transportation technology in the coming decades, with new companies and infrastructure rising around it, Staley said.

Smaller companies and the jobs they bring will help attract more people, he said. Data centers for IBM and Amazon have helped set up the city to attract more jobs in “big-data analytics,” he said.

Michael Stevens, the city's chief innovation officer, said Ginther sees the grant as a catalyst to prepare Columbus as the economy transforms.

"So there's going to be new technology, new industries, new opportunities for jobs and investments for start-ups," Stevens said. "It's not going to land a 5,000-job manufacturing plant," he said. But new technologies likely will be born out of Smart Cities that will help transform the area beyond transportation.

"It's an amazing platform for economic development, and for all citizens of our community historically left behind," Fischer said.

"Smart Cities brings a whole different dimension to the city of the future," he said.

New jobs in transportation and data analytics will require educated workers. At the same time, automation will erase many low-skill jobs. Artificial intelligence even will start to wipe out jobs that require more education.

“There could be technological advancements now we can’t even imagine that may create sectors that are nonexistent today,” said Jason Reece, an Ohio State professor who has long studied disparity.

The economy will become more “niche-based,” with a rising personal services industry, he said. With more kids living in poverty today, officials need to confront how they are preparing them — and their parents, whose jobs might disappear — for the future, he said.

Local officials already should be thinking about how to retrain workers in dying industries, Reece said. That could include short crash courses or longer-term certificate programs.

The education system also will need to respond more to how individuals learn, she said.

“Across the country, there’s a very early growing understanding that the technological shift is going to define workforce needs in the future,” Fischer said. “I think the country needs to be concerned about that.”

@RickRouan | @MarkFerenchik

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