An Ohio Sprawl Leader Begins to Recognize Its Mistakes

Dublin, a wealthy suburb of Columbus, Ohio, was a regional pioneer in job sprawl in the 1990s. Built on former corn fields, this city of 42,000 had barely 5,000 residents in 1980. The suburb was an early and prolific builder of suburban-style office parks, and it was extremely successful at luring big employers. Companies like Wendy’s International, Cardinal Health, and Nationwide Insurance bring in 74 percent of the city’s revenue and keep tax rates low for its mostly affluent residents. In a reversal of the “bedroom community” notion, the city hosts some 60,000 workers. And its success inspired other central Ohio suburbs, like Westerville and New Albany, to establish employment centers — low-density, suburban downtowns — around the city’s outerbelt.

Dublin, Ohio -- a poster child for 1990s sprawl -- is slowly retrofitting. Circled above are sidewalks installed through parking lots. Photo: Xing Columbus

And Dublin isn’t letting up. In a local magazine article on the coup, a Dublin development official noted that the suburb’s commercial areas are only 60 percent built out. Earlier this year, the city refused to sign a regional agreement — signed by 11 other communities — not to “poach” employers away from other cities using tax incentives.

But even Dublin, sprawl promoter that it is, is starting to recognize its weaknesses, namely that top talent doesn’t necessarily want to work in soul-crushing corporate office parks anymore. Kaid Benfield at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Switchboard blog compliments the town today on its “retrofitting” efforts, beginning with the addition of sidewalks through parking lots — a revelation pulled from a Xing Columbus post we linked to yesterday:

It seems such a modest concept, really, and one that should have been standard practice long ago: put articulated pedestrian walkways to and within large suburban parking lots. This can get shoppers, workers and visitors more safely to and from their cars, and also facilitate the occasional pedestrian walking through the cars to get to a supermarket or shop more conveniently.

But, really, this could also be deceptively sophisticated. Take a closer look at the markings on the satellite image provided by [Xing Columbus' John] Wirtz [above], and where they are placed. Intentionally or not, they are consistent with the beginnings of a street grid, potentially the first step in delineating the location of new streets and parcels, marking places for a more walkable system of blocks when the supersized parking lot is eventually redeveloped for something else. The walkways start to lay the foundation for a place with more connectivity and walkability.

It could be a coincidence, but I’m betting not, that this is being done in Dublin, Ohio, an affluent suburb outside of Columbus that has committed to one of the most ambitious suburban retrofits anywhere. As I described in some detail two years ago, Dublin wants to become a more diverse, lively, and walkable community that can attract the best young workers to its several high-tech industries. Throughout the Bridge Street corridor, the closet thing Dublin has had to a main drag, the city is forging ahead with plans for better defined, walkable streets; compact and varied home choices to appeal to millennials and empty-nest baby boomers; new arts, entertainment, and shopping; and an upgraded park system. In short, Dublin hopes to move from a 20th-century suburb to one that can flourish in the 21st century.

Dublin development officials, as cynical as I find many of their policies, are no dummies. If they are ahead of the curve on this matter, perhaps they will inspire other communities to begin remaking their landscape again, the way they did a generation ago in a much different way.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Economics of Place blog tells communities “be yourself, only better.” Bike Portland reports that after the DA came back with no criminal charges against the truck driver who killed a young woman cyclist, advocates have fresh safety demands for the city. And Baltimore Spokes draws inspiration from Pittsburgh’s “crosswalk vigilantes.”

Correction: Nationwide Insurance recently moved 1,400 jobs from Dublin to downtown Columbus. The original article had the situation reversed.