New venues for dining, living and being entertained change the look of the neighborhood
Last weekend, Odes Roberts and his companion had dinner and drinks at the bustling El Camino Inn — a faux dive with $2 tacos, weathered booths and stylish bartenders who spin the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds in its entirety.
The new lounge, near several restaurants along a once-sleepy stretch of N. 4th Street that includes the Greyhound bus depot, has been abuzz of late — not unlike the rest of the Columbus core.
“It’s been the summer of Downtown,” said Roberts, a graphic designer, 27, who lives in the Short North. “I can’t wait for more things to happen around it.”
These days, instead of rolling up the sidewalks after businesses close at 5 p.m., the city is figuring out ways to roll out the welcome mat — picking up foot traffic at night and on weekends with an increasing number of bars, restaurants, shows and other entertainment, outdoor activities and more.
The heightened activity is attributed in large part to the growth and development of residential housing and public green space intended to interest people in living and playing Downtown.
Columbus Commons, the 9-acre park on the site of the former Columbus City Center mall, draws hundreds of people weekly to free yoga, Zumba, boot-camp and kickboxing classes — and much-larger crowds to marquee events such as rock concerts and the Columbus Symphony series Picnic With the Pops (to end its first Downtown season tonight and Saturday with the Ohio State University marching band).
A few blocks west, along the riverfront, patrons savor blackberry mojitos and jalapeno calamari on the patio of Milestone 229, the restaurant at the south end of the Scioto Mile with views of a pedestrian fountain filled with frolicking children.
The three-day Columbus Arts Festival — this year, set up in a loop along the Scioto River using two bridges — attracted an estimated 400,000 visitors, the highest in a decade, festival spokeswoman Jami Goldstein said.
Such energy helped spur Melinda Dixon to put her Westerville home on the market and search for a residence Downtown or in the Short North.
“There’s a million things you can do here without a plan,” the elementary-school principal said.
Last weekend, Dixon, 52, bicycled along and kayaked in the Scioto River, sampled sticky barbecue at the Jazz & Rib Fest in the Arena District and caught Peabo Bryson performing with the Columbus Symphony.
More summer events are still to come — including Festival Latino on Aug. 11-12 along the riverfront as well as free concerts, movies and children’s activities at Bicentennial Park.
WaterFire Columbus will light the flames on the river for several more showings this summer, with one at 8:30 tonight.
Dining, too, is part of the lure.
In the fall, Yavonne Sarber shuttered Vonn Jazz on the Far North Side to open the upscale De Novo Bistro & Bar on S. High Street.
The business is “going gangbusters,” she said.
Ditto for Tina Corbin, who with husband Randy runs El Camino and the neighboring Little Palace, a once-gritty bar that the German Village couple renovated in 2010.
The growth in Downtown events, she said, provides “a nice spillover” in traffic to both places.
Restaurateur Liz Lessner, who operates three popular Downtown spots, will soon open the Grass Skirt, a tiki bar on N. Grant Avenue, near a growing cluster of new town homes. And the Hills Market, a gourmet grocer, plans a store nearby.
Attracting retail might prove to be a trickier proposition, noted real-estate analyst Ken Danter, who said the Downtown population — residential and visiting — is simply not large enough to support major big-box stores such as Target.
In any case, Danter cited a low 2.6 percent vacancy rate among the Downtown, Short North and German Village neighborhoods — with more housing on the way.The region “is starting to feel like a vibrant city,” said Tom Betti, a state employee and former Dublin resident, 32, who owns a condo in the Hartman Lofts on E. Main Street. “You’re part of something.”
Still, not every day evokes visions of a metropolis.
“I’ve been down here during the week; you never see anything,” said East Side resident and longtime Downtown employee Steve Clayborn, 55.
Columbus Commons, he said, “at least provides a chance to commingle.”
Even staunch advocates of the new Downtown acknowledge room for growth.
Yet simply changing the perception of the area as a safe and reliable place for leisure constitutes a big step.
Deanna Fouche hadn’t been Downtown in 15 years before she recently visited the rib fest.
“I pretty much avoided it,” said the lifelong West Side resident, seated in the shade last week at McFerson Commons.
Hearing the sounds of jazz and watching pedestrians strolling the brick streets of the Arena District, the self-employed Fouche, 42, said she was glad she made the trip.
More important, she plans to return.
“I think it’s more upscale,” Fouche said. “It’s so much better and more pleasant to be here."