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From The Other Paper

Can the folks behind the spiffy cap over I-670 turn us into happy hikers?

By Molly Willow / September 25, 2003

Your trip to the new and improving Short North begins in your car. You drive up High Street optimistically, eyeing the new shops you might want to stroll to once you park. You dodge bohemians and barrels, hoping for an open meter. No such luck.

Then it's on to the lots, the one next to the Union Station bar and another up the road by Mac's. Nada. You know better than to head east of High, where permit-only parking signs all but blare "Neener, neener, neener."

Growing more irritated, you head west on Buttles toward Goodale Park, the last refuge of the aimless driver. Finally you beat some poor desperate Toyota to the last spot next to the park.

Your 10-minute search mercifully ended, your hike back to High Street can begin.

And they're opening more shops? With no parking lots?

What do they have in mind, a bunch of drive-thru galleries?

Calm down. Deep breaths. We understand your frustration.

Some important people in the Short North, however, do not.

"People in Columbus are spoiled," said Scott Rousku, owner of the men's clothing store Torso at 772 N. High St. "If you go to any other major city, to go to a good restaurant, you have to walk. To go to a good store, you have to walk."

But Columbus isn't any other major city. We don't like to walk. We're fat-eighth fattest in the country. We like our food delivered and our parking options as ample as our butts. True, we'll walk to a football game, but that's tradition, and there's beer involved.

A man named Jack Lucks is betting about $7 million that he can convince you walking is fun.

Lucks is a developer who, along with his Continental Real Estate partner, Frank Kass, has had a longstanding interest in the Short North. The pair built the Victorian Gate residential and retail edifice-which replaced a darn fine surface parking lot-in 1988, for instance.

And while a bunch of politicians are exchanging high fives for finally making I-670 a reality, Lucks is doing his very best to make it disappear.

If you're in a hurry to get from Grandview to Easton, you look at 670 and see Nirvana. Lucks sees a deep, nasty "scar" through his dream of an urban stroller's paradise.

For pedestrians, freeways act like moats. Even with a perfectly fine bridge over the interstate, it feels like, well, you're not supposed to walk from one side to the other. You're elevated and exposed, with only a grimy chain-link fence to keep you from falling into the path of some 18-wheeler hell-bent for Illinois.

Better to park on whichever side of the moat you like best and just stay there.

But Jack Lucks thinks he knows what you really want: You want to pretend.

Where the Ohio Department of Transportation envisioned a brick wall over the freeway, Lucks and other community leaders envisioned something like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy. (Shops on a bridge. It's cool. You should go.)

They saw a way to disguise a bridge as, well, not a bridge. They saw, suspended over 10 lanes, a stretch of pavement that could be surrounded by storefronts and converted to a welcome mat to a unique neighborhood.

It was a grand vision with a stupid little name: "the cap."

Not to be confused with "the beanie" or "the fez," the cap will be lined with storefronts, sidewalks and, yes, parking meters.

You may not have even realized the cap is there yet, which simply means it's living up to its "seamless transition" intent.

Driving up High Street from the Arena District, you'll get past the convention center and pass between some half-completed storefronts. By the time you get to Functional Furnishings, you've passed over an interstate. If you didn't notice, congratulations-you've been cap'd.

In fact, the walk between the Short North and the Arena District is not so far and not so uninteresting.

"My 4-year-old can walk that," said Cleve Ricksecker, who was director of the Short North Business Association during the early planning stages for the cap. "It takes 15 minutes."

Ricksecker, now director of the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District, has been a resident of the area for 23 years. And he does not own a car, which is why he feels entitled to talk toddler smack to you.

In Columbus, Ricksecker's lack of a personal car (he does occasionally borrow his wife's) makes him both noble and freakish, but hear him out.

"It's not like people can't get to the Short North without a car," he said. "The bus lines that run through the Short North are very middle-class bus lines." (Meaning, presumably, that even people like you could stand the bus.)

"It's not a big leap to think that more and more people would begin to find alternatives to driving."

Though Lucks concedes that Continental is currently in negotiations with nearby parking garages for cap shoppers, he agrees with Ricksecker that it's not unreasonable to expect people to hoof it a bit.

In fact, he argues, even the most suburban of Columbusites are already used to long walks when they shop.

"If you look at shopping-and I don't want to say Polaris, but I will-where you park is as far as what we were just talking about."

Because the cap falls within the boundaries of downtown, he was allowed to develop it without parking lots. Lucks said this was key, not just for his purposes but for a thriving central city.

"We want to get closer to a real city instead of a suburban shopping mall with zoning restrictions, parking requirements that are asinine," Lucks said. "If you had to have parking requirements, you wouldn't have a New York City."

That notion echoes the philosophy of self-styled city-planning buff Les Wexner, who once complained that downtown Columbus won't achieve greatness as long as it's so easy to drive right through it.

Ricksecker put it more cinematically, borrowing from Field of Dreams.

"If the mix is exciting enough," Ricksecker said, "people will figure out how to get there."

So let's talk mix. By next spring, the cap will be finished and-if everybody gets really lucky-the lights on those retro arches will be working. But it will still take the right combination of galleries, shops, restaurants and bars to inspire unprecedented ambulating.

What does Lucks have in store? Well, he has ideas for some "unique stuff" on the cap, which is officially named "Union Station Place" in a nod to the long-ago-demolished train station nearby. (That's Union Station's disembodied arch you see in the Arena District, serving much the same purpose as a moose head over a fireplace.)

What Lucks doesn't have just yet is tenants. "Yep, we got nothin'," he said this week. But he has plenty of incentive to go find a few.

Lucks said Continental put $7 million into the project, on top of the about $1.5 million in taxpayer funds dumped into construction.

Then there were the other inducements. Salivating at the thought of infusing something, anything, into downtown, the city threw carrots at the developers by the bushelful. Continental received a 100 percent tax abatement on the project for 10 years, said Bob McLaughlin, administrator for city's Downtown Development Office.

The city also paid $320,000 to install utilities in the buildings and is leasing the cap-which it owns-to Continental for roughly the price of chicken nuggets at Wendy's.

"In addition to $1 a year," McLaughlin said, "if the retail buildings do well financially, then there is additional rent that will be paid to the city as a result."

If they tank, there's egg on the city's face and red ink on Continental's balance sheet.

With a completion date looming less than six months away, Lucks said he's confident he'll find tenants for the 26,000 square feet of retail space.

"We still don't have anybody signed," Lucks said. "But we're working every day with them, and we've got architectural drawings, so people were very serious about going there."

The space can be divided into seven to 20 stores, ranging from 1,200 to 4,000 square feet. Lucks said the shallow depth of the stores presents a marketing challenge for his company; the spaces are a different shape than retailers are used to.

"Until you get something like this up, people don't visualize what this is," Lucks said.

One thing Lucks doesn't visualize is the Gap-or anything like it. Like many of the Short North's true believers, Lucks talks about big-box chain stores as if they're rendering plants.

"We need that like a hole in the head in the Short North," Lucks said.

Incidentally, this is the same man whose company developed Lennox Town Center, home to Target, Barnes & Noble, and Old Navy. But he insists those stores have their place, and it's a mile or two from the Short North.

"It would be seductive as a retailer to take them, because on the one hand you've got a balance sheet that's fabulous," Lucks allowed. But it's visions of unique gift boutiques, stationery stores and maybe even a toy shop that dance through his head.

Twenty years ago, the Short North was a decrepit neighborhood with potential. Ten years ago, it was a funky arts district. What will it be 10 years from now?

"I think it's hard today to imagine what the Short North is going to be like when it's, quote, done," said Ricksecker.

Whatever it is, he hopes it's worth the walk.

The Other Paper

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Because the cap falls within the boundaries of downtown, he was allowed to develop it without parking lots.

Does this mean that there is not urban retail (lining the streets, without parking) in all of Columbus outside the downtown?

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I hope those storefronts are filled. I love the idea of the "cap". Almost every downtown in America has an expressway dividing it in half or from the nearest neighborhood. If it's successful, I expect a lot of other cities following suit.

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I hope other cities do this too. Freeways are like giant surgical scars that divide downtowns & neighborhoods in half. The freeway caps will once again unite neighborhoods that were divided long ago :).

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