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  NEW TOWNS
JULY/AUGUST 2008
 

The King of Columbus

Keith A. Myers grew up in exurban Cleveland during the late '60s/early '70s area of urban renewal and middle class exodus from big cities.

His dad worked in downtown Cleveland, but his family lived in the next county over -- far from the "Mistake of the Lake," the sooty Great Lakes city where the polluted river burned, the baseball team was a joke, the school system was broken, and a once-thriving industrial hub went bankrupt.

The prevailing wisdom at the time was that cities were dark and dangerous places -- all of which was exemplified in the great cult classic movie 'Escape from New York,'" said the principal of Columbus, Ohio-based MSI Design. "The movie captured the feeling about cities at that time. In spite of that, I used to love to go downtown to my dad's office. . I never really felt threatened by the city, Cleveland, in spite of its appearance and reputation.some ways, that made it more of an adventure."

The award-winning urban planner spent his early professional years in Mariemont, the fabled 1920s master-planned community on the outskirts of Cincinnati on the Ohio River.

Mariemont was a sharp contrast to suburban Cleveland with its village setting, wealth of parks, red brick Norman, Georgian and Tudor buildings, bell tower, concourse, village square -- and one of the few elected town criers in America.

"I moved to Mariemont in 1980 and couldn't understand why we were not building villages, towns and cities on the same principles that seemed to work so well in the past," he said.

The contrasting styles shaped a designer who literally built a neighborhood where there was none in downtown Columbus, Ohio -- a capital city sprawled in every direction with over-engineered one-way streets aimed at getting cars out of the urban core and off to the farthest flung suburbs as quickly as possible.

Myers and his firm played a lead role in planning the Arena District for Nationwide, the insurance giant based in Columbus. The district is anchored by Nationwide Arena, home of the city's only big-four professional sports team -- the Columbus Blue Jackets of the National Hockey League.

The District features a grid pattern, throwback brick buildings and: 1.5 million square feet of office, retail and entertainment use where more than 3,600 people work and nearly 1,000 will live.

"The residential uses in the Arena District have been much more successful than we had ever dreamed, said Myers, a landscape architecture graduate of Ohio State University.

"The original master plan was for 350 units, and we will likely double that or more. The rental units are getting the highest rates in the market, and the for-sale product went very quickly. Over $650 million of private investment has off set the meager $43 million of public investment. The city of Columbus made the best business deal in America."

The city's land investment and Myers' master plan turned the grounds of a huge abandoned penitentiary and adjacent largely vacant former industrial zone into a highly popular mixed use destination. In a downtown that used to die after 5 p.m., the Arena District comes alive year round with a restaurant row, indoor-outdoor live performance venue, the NHL arena, a compact urban multiplex theater and a waterfront park featuring a Daniel Burnham-designed arch salvaged from a nearby building that was sadly razed during Columbus' less enlightened era.

With offices in Pasadena and Winter Park, Fla., the MSI firm also is active in public park, city master plan, resort, town center, industrial to mixed-use, and amusement park design. Myers' next project is converting an 80-acre former grocery chain warehouse complex in an inner-ring suburb into another Nationwide-developed urban center with ground floor retail and office or residential above.

"I consider myself an urbanist: new, old -- it does not matter to me" Myers said. "I do love some of the research and the passion of the new urbanists, if I don't always agree with the dogma.

"When the new urbanists first banded together, there was a distinctive mission. In 1980, few people cared about creating great urban space. The rules were stacked against it and the attitudes of bankers, engineers, planners and politicians were even worse. It was a crusade. One that I think has been largely successful."

However, Myers cautions against the Congress for New Urbanism becoming to rigid.

"I worry that the Charter is too narrow and that those who explore outside its boundaries are dismissed as 'not in the club.' Not a healthy outlook," he said. "Curiosity is the first sign of intelligence. Curiosity gave birth to the NU movement, and it is the only thing that will sustain it. Rhetoric and rules won't."


Wright has written for a living for 25 years, with nearly 5,000 published articles. He lives in historic Little Havana and is very active in Miami's urban issues. He and his wife of 20 years also are involved in making new and old towns more accessible for people with disabilities.