“2 way is the new way.” That's the slogan coined to support converting a formerly blighted downtown area into a thriving residential and commercial community.Photo: City of Columbus, Department of Public Service

I used to think of Ohio solely as that interminably wide state between Chicago and Washington, D.C., with a river that occasionally burst into flames. It's not uncommon for folks on the East and West coasts to sneer at the Midwest, but I should know better. I've lived in Illinois virtually my entire life.

So I shouldn't have been surprised to see how well the public and private sectors cooperate in Columbus, Ohio, site of last month's annual American Public Works Association convention.

In 2002, Mayor Michael Coleman announced his intention to revitalize downtown. The city narrowed in on a mile-long stretch of empty storefronts past which three lanes of one-way traffic zoomed. The decision was made to turn the middle lane into a planted median with one lane of traffic on each side and build condominiums around lush courtyards with shaded seating.

“Scope creep” set in as one enhancement led to the next. Ultimately, the project came in 275% more than the original $1.8 million estimate.

But the result is truly multimodal: modern condominiums sit on former surface lots, 84 new trees and two rain gardens are filtering runoff, sidewalks are unblemished, and 24 bike racks are scattered strategically throughout the area. I applaud Tom Murphy, PE, the public service department's area engineer of design & construction, for convincing utilities — including the water/sewer department, which is separate from public services — to rear-range their plans so the entire project could be substantially built within a year.

Like Murphy, you do that kind of stuff every day. What I found fascinating is how seriously the city takes the “private” part of the term “public-private partnership.”

Four of Ohio's 15 “special improvement districts” are in Columbus. Membership is mandatory, and fees are assessed and collected by the city treasurer's office. So when local businesses say they'll remove garbage, graffiti, and weeds; pick up litter; and sweep and plow sidewalks, they have the money to make it happen.

As a result, the city can increase service with virtually no adverse impact on public works. According to Project Production Manager Doug Roberts, PE, the public service department's maintenance budget is the same pre- and post-construction. The developer maintains the area's irrigation system and the business community maintains the landscaping.

The street is now a place where people feel safe strolling or cycling. And the Columbus Public Service Department can continue doing its part to maintain the rest of the community's quality of life.