Looking back at Columbus from Buffalo’s perspective

I love traveling to other cities for a host of reasons. So often I come away disappointed knowing that Buffalo is missing so much compared to cities around the country but I also enjoy these trips because I often encounter features that could so easily be incorporated in the Nickel City.

My recent trip to Columbus was eye-opening. The Arena District is thriving and it is directly connected to two more walkable, diverse areas of the city (North Market and Short North). Admittedly, Short North is an easier drive from North Market and the Arena District than a walk. But I digress.

The Columbus Arena District is nothing short than the ideal template for developing a work-play district around a sports venue. Amazingly, it is a district that doesn’t rely solely on Nationwide Arena for survival, but uses the home of the Blue Jackets as a key cog in the operation.

Looking down a pedestrian walkway leading away from Nationwide Arena and towards a half dozen bars.
Looking down a pedestrian walkway leading away from Nationwide Arena and towards a half dozen bars.

In additional to Nationwide Arena, the district boasts Huntington Park – the picturesque home of the Columbus Clippers, Lifestyles Pavilion – a mid-sized concert venue and a host of mixed use buildings. Everything within the district is clad in brick and features design constraints consistent with what you might expect to see from an area replicating former warehouses or, perhaps, a historic canal district.

Just beyond the Arena District along Park Street, is the North Market which features a beautiful open market in an old brick warehouse nestled in a neighborhood with plenty of bars with plenty of patio space. The North Market anchors the small neighborhood which is a short 9-iron from the front door of Nationwide Arena. Another four or five blocks puts you smack in the middle of Short North, which is basically the Elmwood Village on steroids.

All of this is just about three miles from the center of Ohio State University and just over a mile from the center of downtown Columbus.

Spending a couple days in 60-degree weather amongst all of these cool, new bars and restaurants certainly gave me a fair bit of remorse for what we have going on in Buffalo these days. Our city is enjoying a resurgence that many citizens likely doubted would ever come. But when I look at Canalside’s Adirondack Chairs and functional lawns compared to the dozen or so mixed-use buildings surrounding Nationwide Arena I realize how far we still have to go.

We’re getting there, we’re just not nearly as close to having a truly thriving district as many of us might think.

Looking at this just in terms of how an arena district should be built out isn’t exactly fair since Canalside is technically its own entity altogether. I prefer to look at the area between Canalside and the Seneca Niagara Casino as a larger, combined entertainment district. It would probably be wise for the city’s lawmakers and decision makers to look at it this way as well, but that’s another blog post for another time.

Prior to the build out of the Arena District, Columbus shared a number of traits with the Cobblestone/Canalside District. The area was relatively well abandoned and there was little interest for people to make their way down. Columbus took the bull by the horns, demolished the former Ohio Penitentiary to make way for new development and paved the way for a 75-acre, mixed-use development that didn’t come at the expense of green space.

So often we hear clamoring for sunset Fridays and the importance of keeping Canalside’s lawns intact as a tremendous asset like HarborCenter is being pitched and then built. Then I look at something like McFerson Commons and realize that those who are attempting to obstruct so many projects in this area don’t realize that we can have both. It’s ridiculous to think that the lawns that border the Central Wharf along Canalside couldn’t remain as they are while every other parcel is developed. It’s ridiculous to think that hasn’t already happened, actually.

In addition to the impressive amount of office and residential space in Columbus’ Arena District (more on that later), there is also an impressive number of bars and restaurants. Just down one pedestrian avenue alone was a grouping of six bars and restaurants. Another cluster can be found in the opposite direction. Just look at a street level view around Nationwide and you’ll get the picture. What stands out, to me, is that I could stand in the middle of the above picture and nearly touch four or five different bars with the option of at least six more in the same general vicinity. Meanwhile there are five (six counting Liberty Hound) bars total between Cobblestone and Canalside.

A great deal of what these awesome areas in Columbus have going for them – and what we’re lacking in Buffalo – is a strong residential presence. The Wikipedia entry (sources!) on the Arena District notes nearly 900 residential units alone. The Short North District – which is impressive in its own right – features a plethora of mixed-use residential as well. These residential areas provide a population of people who are in these districts full time. That means all the restaurants or shops near Nationwide, the North Market or Short North aren’t dependent on patrons traveling to them, but residents who live just around the corner.

More residential options are something that we’re sorely lacking all over downtown Buffalo, particularly near the water and First Niagara Center. It’s embarrassing to think that the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation hasn’t taken steps to not only develop the parcels on the Aud Block and East Canal Block, but the other parcels fronting Main Street as well. It’s just as embarrassing to drive south on the 190 and see the swaths of surface parking in the Cobblestone District rather than a mixed use development led by the city.

There are units going in all over downtown, but so much of it is almost in a hunt and peck method. So while we may gain 200 new units over the next calendar year (arbitrary number), they won’t fall in the same centralized location. I should point out that I’m not bemoaning developments like the UB EOC – which I’m pumped about – but it’s harder to truly enjoy some of our progress when it comes in a color-by-number method.

That’s probably another reason I was so impressed by Columbus. Aside from the Arena District, North Market and Short North basically all situated just blocks from each other, everything is very cohesive and centralized. Being able to hop from OSU, through Short North and back to the Arena District on the same road made for a far more impactful visit than if I were to have navigated various parts of the city to find different hotspots.

Obviously this is utterly and completely out of our control and I wouldn’t change some of the great parts of downtown like Allentown or Larkinville; it just makes the “grass is greener’ effect set in a bit more.

Buffalo really is getting there, though. We have some work to do and it’s high time that groups like ECHDC stopped sitting on their hands and really get some shovels in the ground.

We need to take cues from cities like Columbus and capitalize on clustering residences and office space in districts like Cobblestone (wake up, Byron and open those lots to RFPs). We need groups like ECHDC to understand that if you build it, people will come. Canalside should have triple the buildings built already and ECHDC should be working to fill them rather than playing the spin game on why only one RFP is coming in for a project like the South Aud Block.

One other thing that I loved about Columbus was the signage. I’m a sucker for eye-catching urban signage and Columbus was nothing short of signage porn for me. The streets of Short North are bridged by arches (hello, Hertel), buildings like The Hub are graced with great signs and projects like the Arena Crossing apartments have cool signage as well.

Nowhere in downtown did I see something as pathetic as a pair of canvas banners like you see at the Naval Park and Liberty Hound. If that building was in Columbus each venture would have its own, attractive sign. It’s a shame we aren’t holding them to the same standard.

Columbus is also clever with their parking solutions. There are plenty of parking structures mixed with these developments and many of the apartment buildings had adjoining parking garages. In fact, the Arena Crossing apartments featured six floors of units above three floors of parking.

So often Buffalonians voice concerns about parking despite downtown featuring a sea of tarmac lots begging to be revitalized. Look no further than Cobblestone. It wouldn’t be difficult to either shroud or incorporate parking structures into future projects in order to solve the parking crush that would come with the removal of Buffalo’s beautiful surface lots.

For example, a three or four-story parking structure erected across from the Marine Drive apartments that was concealed by some sort of mixed-use development that would face outwards towards Canalside and the lake would not only provide Marine Drive residents with covered parking (free of course), but at least two more levels of parking that wouldn’t have previously existed. Just imagine the opportunities that would open up if a couple hundred spots were added to the 700 inside HarborCenter.

I’d recommend a trip to Columbus to anyone. Even if you hate sports I can assure you that you’d find joy in the North Market and shopping along Short North. The Fashion Meets Music Festival in the fall strikes me as a mighty good time and I don’t give a damn about fashion.

We’re on our way here in Buffalo. Development along the river and around Canalside shows an increasing amount of attention to the waterfront. Residential developments downtown has led Byron Brown to release an RFP for an actual grocery store. Good things are on the horizon, but there’s so much more left to be done.

I learned a lot from my trip to Columbus and I’d be overjoyed to see even half of them adopted in the 716 area code.


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PS – We need to get a Melt location, now.

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