Plan would cap I-70/71 split to reconnect city
Thursday, May 13, 2004 
Debbie Gebolys 

In the most sweeping changes proposed for Downtown streets in at least a half-century, consultants want to convert many of them into two-way, tree-lined avenues that would reunite Downtown with neighborhoods to the east and south.

I-70/71 could be rebuilt beneath a series of vast parks that would stitch Downtown back together with the Near East Side, German Village and the Brewery District as they haven't been since the Downtown highways were built in the 1960s.

Columbus consultants unveiled ideas Tuesday for transforming Downtown streets to make the business district more accommodating to residents and pedestrians. At the same time, Ohio Department of Transportation officials are moving closer to selecting a design for a $500 million rebuilding of I-70/71, the most dangerous stretch of highway in the state.

Although no proposals have been adopted, their early form sets the stage for a major transformation of the area, officials said.

"This will likely be the single largest Downtown development project in the history of Columbus," ODOT spokeswoman Michelle May said. "We're not just rethinking the highway and street system; we're collectively making decisions that will shape how this city looks, feels and operates for decades to come."
Keith Myers of MSI Design in Columbus, the consulting firm that presented the proposals, said the ideas go well beyond earlier thinking, although most of the details are unresolved.

"We're in the realm of the possible right now," Myers said. "This community, today, is the one that has that opportunity to completely change the Downtown landscape. What we decide will last a long, long time. Fifty years from now, they'll do it again."

MSI Design, working with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission to recommend Downtown street changes, also introduced alternatives to ODOT proposals.

Earlier, the city's priority on making Downtown a place to live was seen at odds with ODOT's goal of getting highway traffic through the city safely and quickly. When both groups met to hear the planning commission's presentation, those cross purposes began to fade into mutual goals.

"We finally feel like we're moving toward common ground," May said. "It's not just a highway project. It's a Downtown-revitalization project."

The proposals tweak earlier ODOT scenarios for redesigning the split and eliminating most Downtown ramps. They introduce ideas for converting parts of six Downtown one-way streets to two-way traffic, considered better for street cafes, shopkeepers and pedestrians.

They also suggest bridging most of the I-70/71 trench that now separates Downtown from neighborhoods to the south and east. If current highway slopes were replaced with concrete walls, decking could be built to enclose the highway and supply a foundation for parks that would reconnect city streets on both sides of the highway.

Along I-71, an expanded cap could be built from Spring and Long streets on the north to Town Street. In the split, the green spaces could run from Front Street to 3 rd Street.

"It is a concept that has been used successfully around the country and, from an urban-design standpoint, makes a lot of sense," said Jason Sudy of MSI Design.

MSI officials didn't estimate the cost of the caps or say where the money would come from. But that didn't prevent ODOT project manager Tim McDonald from being supportive.

"The department is definitely interested," McDonald said. "There's not going to be enough ODOT money to go to this extent, but we definitely could design the foundations for it."

MORPC Executive Director Bill Habig, though, said that the cost of enclosing the highway may be out of reach. When ODOT built foundations for similar highway caps on Fort Washington Way in downtown Cincinnati in 1999, the city paid $100 million of the cost. No caps have been built.

"I think it's nice to visualize these high-quality caps," Habig said. "At the same time, we have to weigh other capital needs and see what's most important and less important.

"Everything has to be looked at in a benefit-cost perspective in this era of shortened government capital resources."
Also missing from the proposals were traffic-model studies to show how vehicles would navigate a changed I-70/71 and converted two-way streets.