Boosting downtown: New York City consultants offer ideas for Fourth Street and surrounding area

Columbus already is doing some of the short-term suggestions that a New York City consultant suggested Tuesday morning to boost and revitalize downtown. And the metro firm said other recommended concepts have been successfully implemented by other similar-sized cities over a period of a few years.

James Lima Planning + Development made a presentation at the kickoff of the new cycle of Exhibit Columbus programming before a crowd of about 85 people at Helen Haddad Hall on Franklin Street downtown. The study was funded by the Columbus Area Visitors Center.

Exhibit Columbus is a program exploring art, architecture, design and community in a way that activates Columbus’ Modernist worldwide profile and its other offerings.

The local attendees, beyond visiting designers and others, included representatives from city government, downtown businesses, the Columbus Area Visitors Center, the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, The Commons, members of the Columbus City Council, the Bartholomew County Public Library and other stakeholders.

“This is mostly an affirmation and congratulations of what you’re already doing,” Lima said.

Ideas already implemented include art gallery openings merged with street concerts done by the Columbus Area Arts Council, and downtown business scavenger hunts organized by Viewpoint Books — events that have drawn young families with children to a range of businesses and social spots. The consultants said perhaps more of those could be done.

Lima said his mantra with this kind of work is simple: “Capital follows talent. Talent follows place. Place needs investment.”

One of the more repeated add-on suggestions during the presentation by Lima and cohort Yuxiang Luo included more and smaller events along Fourth Street to attract especially people wanting to socialize.

“People love all the big parties,” Luo said, referring to events with food and music and vendors that have drawn crowds of 1,000 plus during summers. “But they tell us they also wish there was something more often.”

The firm did its study last year with focus groups, and business and community leaders.

Another suggestion included using more extensive signage to direct downtown patrons to everything from art such as Gallery 411 on Sixth Street to other attractions. Lima and Luo also said more attractive lighting can serve as a draw to give people a more inviting place to gather.

Plus, the firm said a dedicated person used to stragegize and publicize downtown gatherings and events could help. They used Evansville as an example of doing this successfully to boost its downtown. Lima and Luoalso highlighted making more alleyways artfully inviting for relaxing and socializing as the city has done in the past would be a good idea.

“These make people here feel even more welcome,” Luo said.

Other suggestions include linking the downtown with the riverfront through such elements as art or activities that would cross-pollinate visitors, according to Luo. The 31-year-old Brooklyn resident shared after his portion of the presentation that he often likes to stroll through a park near his home to relax and get ice cream nearby afterward.

Luo mentioned that more people downtown need to be more aware of even casual activities possible along the East Fork of White River riverfront. With prompting, he agreed that could include simple things such as dining or drinks on the overlook at Upland Columbus Pumphouse at or picnicking with friends at Mill Race Park along the river.

Mayor Jim Lienhoop said the city takes seriously Lima’s suggestions.

“We really did hear exactly what James Lima said,” Lienhoop said during a later panel discussion among area mayors.

As a specific example, Lienhoop offered the recent launch of construction for an apartment and urban grocery complex at Second Street and Lafayette Avenue. That’s especially significant since Lima highlighted the current local challenge that the downtown population dips drastically in the evenings when workers leave for homes elsewhere.

Erin Hawkins, director of marketing for the Columbus Area Visitors Center, said she was glad to see Exhibit Columbus examine downtown issues.

“The recommendations James Lima’s team presented are absolutely achievable for this community,” Hawkins said. “I think it is important to pay attention to best practices and what other successful communities are doing to create vibrant downtowns. It’s not just about creative placemaking and programming, both of which are important components, but also enacting policy and providing incentives that will lead to our success.”

Jeff Baker, owner of Baker’s Fine Gifts on Washington Street and a key, leading volunteer with Exhibit Columbus, said he thought many of the downtown ideas were practical.

We need to stick with James Lima,” Baker said of the city and its partners, adding that too many studies have ended up being shelved afterward with no action taken. “In the past, all we have done is talk, talk, talk.”