Columbus is about to take a major step to redesign its downtown riverfront, preparing to select a design team to set the course for what the area could become.

The riverfront, a stretch of the East Fork White River that rolls through Columbus, is best known for its low-head dam and the rushing water sound it makes as the water cascades between two major bridges carrying traffic in and out of the city. Fishermen sometimes use sand bars to fish near the banks, and kayakers are common.

Its value as a tourist attraction was highlighted this year with the opening of the Upland Columbus Pump House, which brought new focus on the potential to attract visitors from around the state and around the nation to the city’s riverfront for entertainment and recreation.

In about a year’s time, local entrepreneur Tony Moravec took the city’s former water plant building — designed and built in 1901 by nationally recognized architect Harrison Albright — and transformed it into a multi-faceted brewhouse and restaurant.

But while the new restaurant, which opened in early July, is a step toward attracting people to the riverfront, large challenges remain for the Columbus Redevelopment Commission, which has been working since early this year to design a development strategy for the area.

Those challenges include:

A People Trail path that the city hopes to connect near the Pump House.

The former city landfill site on the opposite side of the riverfront.

The low-head dam that is crumbling from years of neglect and has been labeled a safety hazard.

One decision that has been made is the selection of consultant CORE Planning, Indianapolis, to guide the city in how to obtain a workable design plan for the area.

CORE Planning’s Karen Valiquett gave a brief overview of the project Monday for the redevelopment commission before recommending that a proposal from Hitchcock Design Group of Chicago be selected as design team for the project.

The redevelopment commission decided to table that recommendation, but plans to revisit it when more details about costs and time frames are provided by the city’s redevelopment department.

A team composed of city officials and local residents evaluated proposals from five companies before recommending Hitchcock to the commission.

Hitchcock’s proposal includes working with other consultants, including:

Market and Feasibility Advisors, Chicago

S2o Design and Engineering, Lyons, Colorado

Christopher B. Burke Engineering, Columbus

Strand Associates, Columbus

Hugh Lighting Design, Oak Park, Illinois

The redevelopment commission had advertised seeking proposals to design a riverfront project that would connect the People Trail where it separates on the Pump House river frontage, modify or remove the deteriorating low-head dam that crosses the river at that point and address the old Superfund landfill site on the west side of the river, Valiquett said.

The low-head dam is of particular concern as Valiquett said the water’s circular motion around the dam can trap swimmers or kayakers underwater, causing injuries and even drowning. The dam is falling apart, she said.

The team that rated Hitchcock’s proposal as the winner consisted of Heather Pope, the city’s redevelopment director; Dave Hayward, executive director of public works/city engineer; Stan Gamso, redevelopment commission attorney; Jeff Logston, representing the Pump House; and Kyle Hendricks, a member of the Columbus Young Professionals.

CORE was hired for a maximum of $90,000 for 50 weeks of work to assess the riverfront land in downtown Columbus, including the low-head dam and former landfill, to determine how it could be improved for public use.

In August, the Columbus Redevelopment Commission approved up to $53,000 for additional work on the riverfront project — $48,500 for a geomorphic study into the implications of removing the low-head dam and up to $5,000 for the research, application and administration of a grant to remove the dam.

Pope told the redevelopment commission that public input into the project, including a public information session Sept. 28, revealed the residents wanted a plan that would bring visitors to Columbus’ riverfront.

“Hitchcock provided the most in-depth plan,” she said of the company’s proposal. “They wanted to make sure the public had a voice in the project.”

Prices quoted by Hitchcock and the other four proposals ranged from $130,000 to $249,000 to create a design proposal for the riverfront, Pope said.

However, commission members repeatedly asked for specifics about the costs quoted in the five proposals. Pope said Hitchcock was in the highest range of price quotes but said that was because the company had a “deeper bench” than the four other proposals.

By bringing in the other companies to consult, including experts on market feasibility, river recreation and lighting, the Hitchcock proposal had more depth, she said. Hitchcock was the only firm to bring in a recreational specialist, represented by the S2o company.

Hitchcock, which estimated it would take eight months to complete its design for the riverfront, proposed to provide an opportunity analysis for the acreage and evaluate resources, in addition to providing alternative riverfront concepts.

The company said it would define the most promising strategy for the area and offer a plan to do the improvements and how changes could be implemented.

Valiquett told the commission that CORE Planning would negotiate the scope and fee schedule for the project with Hitchcock once the redevelopment commission had approved the firm. Then, the commission could decide what projects, based on cost, they wished to do based on the numbers, an a la carte approach.

“We have no idea what this could be,” redevelopment member and city councilman Frank Jerome said. “We would be having them design and then each design would have a cost for each element,” he said.

The Riverwalk project would be done in phases, Valiquett said. The approach would be similar to how the city is approaching the State Street Corridor project, which is in Phase 1 with bridge work underway.

Sarah Cannon, redevelopment commission president, said she was not comfortable selecting Hitchcock without knowing what it was going to cost, and asked for the matter to be tabled.

“Given that speech, if you’re not ready, I’m not ready,” commission member George Dutro said.

No date has been set for the redevelopment commission to reconsider the Hitchcock design proposal, although the board’s next meeting is 6 p.m. Dec. 29 at Columbus City Hall.

This riverfront proposal is the second that has been considered by city officials since May 2015, when then-Mayor Kristen Brown shared her vision for a pedestrian bridge that would connect the People Trails between Mill Race Park and the Robert N. Stewart Bridge and to rezone and sell more property along the East Fork White River.

Cost of the proposed bridge was $2.5 million, but city council members decided not to vote on a resolution in August 2015 to approve spending $282,500 in tax-increment financing district funds to pay for engineering work on the bridge project, effectively killing the project.

Companies submitting riverfront proposals

The Columbus Redevelopment Commission received five proposals to design the city’s riverfront project.

  • Hitchcock Design Group, based out of Chicago (recommended by a city committee to handle the project)
  • Forum Studios, offices in Chicago and St. Louis, Missouri
  • Rundell Ernstberger Associates, offices in Louisville, Kentucky and Indianapolis
  • Stantec, Columbus, Ohio
  • MKSK, Indianapolis
Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.