Downtown Concierge

Downtown Playground


In the Media


The Columbus Dispatch

Some Of the hottest action this season Is taking place in the heart of the city

Downtown Columbus is fast becoming one of the city’s best places to enjoy the outdoors. What once was a dead zone on weekends and evenings has become a spectacle of concerts, kickball games, carousel rides and al fresco dining. There’s seemingly something for everyone—birders, foodies, extreme sports enthusiasts, energetic children.

Two new signature parks—Columbus Commons and the Scioto Mile—are responsible in large part for the transformation. They’ve been hubs of activity since they debuted last year, and the buzz should continue in 2012, the first full summer season for both parks.

Columbus Commons alone has more than 230 events scheduled between May and September, up from 130 last year. The offerings include fitness classes, Shakespeare in the park and Picnic with the Pops, the popular Columbus Symphony summer series that’s moving Downtown in June.

The Scioto Mile, meanwhile, will liven up the urban core with music, art and ethnic eats. A full slate of festivals—including the Columbus Arts Festival, returning to the riverfront after four years in the Discovery District—will keep the string of parks on both sides of the water hopping through the summer. But special events aren’t the only draws. Shaded swings, riverfront dining and a 15,000-square-foot interactive fountain offer plenty of other reasons to check out the city’s new $44 million showpiece.

What follows is a guide to enjoying some warm-weather fun Downtown. Sure, the center city isn’t the first place you think of for outdoor recreation. But with its two new parks—and some venerable green spaces as well—the heart of Columbus is a great summer setting.


Columbus Commons

The Columbus Bicentennial Pavilion is the big new addition to Columbus Commons this year. The $5 million stage—funded through public and private money—was set to debut in late May with four days of festivities, including a petting zoo, a Shadowbox Live performance and a free concert by Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. The pavilion should stay busy throughout the summer with movies, theatrical productions, local musicians and some big-name touring artists.

Amy Taylor, chief operating officer for the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation/Capitol South, says she is working with Ohio State, which books both Nationwide Arena and the Schottenstein Center, to bring in other major performers this year. “Michael McDonald will be the first national act, but not the last one,” says Taylor, whose organization built and operates the park.

On June 15, Picnic with the Pops will kick off its new season at the pavilion—which was built to be a summer home for the Columbus Symphony—with a performance featuring Three Dog Night. Eight more concerts will follow in June and July, featuring the likes of the Temptations, Peabo Bryson and the music of Led Zeppelin, before ending with the traditional Ohio State Marching Band swan song.

Some symphony fans are skeptical of the move to Columbus Commons. At the final concert in the series last year, they booed the symphony board chairman when he talked about the plan to leave the ensemble’s longtime summer home, the expansive Chemical Abstracts Service lawn. Indeed, there will be differences: Parking won’t be free anymore (it’s $5 at the garages below the park or just south of it), and the nine-acre Downtown space offers less room to throw a Frisbee around.

But there are improvements, too. The pavilion features a state-of-the-art sound system, two large LED screens and a 40-by-60-foot stage with plenty of space for symphony and guest musicians. Plus, food and drink options are better. People still can bring their own booze and picnic dinners, but alcohol also will be available on-site. And if you don’t pack your own chow, the park’s two concession stands should offer more plentiful choices than were available at Chemical Abstracts.

Pelotonia also is relocating to Columbus Commons from Chemical Abstracts. The bike-a-thon, which raises funds to support cancer research at OSU, will kick off at the park on Aug. 10. If a long-distance bike ride isn’t for you, however, the park offers other ways to get in shape. Taylor says free fitness classes were among the most popular programs last year. This summer, instructors will lead five Fit Club courses every week: yoga, Zumba, kickboxing, boot camp and general fitness.

More sedentary folks have options, too. Food should be a big draw at the Commons. In addition to the concession stands—a hot dog and hamburger joint and a new pizza and ice cream place (both operated by Burgers, Dogs & Fries)—the park will be a hot spot for food trucks and carts.

A food truck court with multiple vendors will offer lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Thursday during the summer, and the park will host two larger food truck festivals on July 13 and Sept. 28. Food trucks also will be regular features on Thursday evenings during kickball games and the Downtown Live concert series sponsored by the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District. (Both activities moved from the Statehouse grounds last year.)

You also can take in a show at the park. Eight movie nights are planned for the summer months, including The Muppets on June 2. The Actors’ Theatre of Columbus will present two Columbus Commons productions—The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) in August and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in September—while continuing to perform at its longtime home, Schiller Park in German Village.

And film and theater will combine over Labor Day weekend, when The Rocky Horror Picture Showmovie is screened on Sept. 1, followed with a live performance of the theatrical version by Shadowbox the next night. “It’s going to be a Rocky Horror weekend in the Commons,” Taylor says.

Scioto Mile

Downtown’s refurbished riverfront is ground zero for summer festivities, with the Columbus Arts Festival rejoining Festival Latino (which takes place Aug. 11-12 in Genoa Park, behind COSI) and the Jazz & Rib Fest (July 20-22 in North Bank Park and McFerson Commons).

After four years in the Discovery District, the Arts Fest returns June 1-3 to a much different place. Trees line a stone-paved walkway along Civic Center Drive that includes park benches, tables designed for chess and card games and a stone colonnade with swings. Meanwhile, Bicentennial Park, at the heart of the Arts Fest, boasts a top-of-the-line performing arts pavilion, a restaurant (Milestone 229) and the Scioto Mile Fountain, the centerpiece of the park. No wonder festival planners expect a boost in attendance at this year’s event, which will spread to both sides of the river and use bridges along Main and Rich streets.

Bicentennial Park isn’t as heavily programmed as Columbus Commons, which bills itself as “Downtown’s playground.” The riverfront park—which reopened last July after an extensive makeover—plans to show a couple of movies in the park (Midnight in Paris June 15 and Charlotte’s Web Aug. 17) and host a concert series dubbed Rhythm on the River, featuring such local and touring artists as the Sean Carney Band with Shaun Booker, the Kentucky Headhunters and BalletMet. But its built-in amenities are the main draws. You don’t need kickball to bring in the masses when you’ve got Downtown’s only riverfront restaurant and a fountain that shoots jets of water 75 feet in the air.

Children are welcome to frolic in the fountain as long as the weather is nice;
it’s open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily (until
11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday). And the park does offer a couple of special fountain-focused events: FountainSide, a children’s program featuring arts and crafts and other activities, occurs 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, and a series of evening “fountain shows” set to music also are in the works, says Karen Wiser of the Columbus Recreation and Parks special events office.

Bicentennial Park, as nice as it is, shouldn’t be your only Scioto Mile stop. A short hike along the Scioto Greenway Trail will take you to the Scioto Audubon Metro Park at the southern end of Scioto Mile. It’s a pleasant stroll, even with the constant hum of highway traffic. And the walk should become even nicer if civic leaders back Mayor Michael Coleman’s plan to remove the Main Street dam, a change that would reduce the width of the Scioto River and create more green space.

The 120-acre park—a partnership involving the city of Columbus, Metro Parks and Audubon Ohio—sits on the Whittier Peninsula next to the Brewery District. Nature lovers can hike along the park’s two and a half miles of trails, observe birds and frogs in wetlands and spend some time in the Grange Insurance Audubon Center. The closest Audubon center to an urban core in the country, the 18,000-square-foot facility includes a library, a 200-seat auditorium, an observation room and a children’s play area. From 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, staffers help visitors explore the park during a free program called Audubon Afternoons.

More active recreation is available, too. If you bring your own equipment, you can climb the park’s 35-foot-tall fiberglass and concrete climbing wall. Other features include a playground, a one-acre play field and a two-acre dog park that boasts separate areas for small and large pooches. “The park is just a great park to come and play in,” says Amy Boyd, director of education and conservation for the nature center.


Other urban oases

Though the Statehouse grounds are better known for public protests than fun and games, the 10 acres in the middle of Downtown can be a great place to spend a sunny afternoon. You can take a cellphone tour of the statues and monuments anytime. And the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, the organization that oversees the Statehouse, plans a handful of public events when the grounds aren’t being used for weddings or political rallies.

The Hard Tackers, an a cappella group, will perform a free concert July 11 at noon featuring sea shanties to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, which played out in part on Lake Erie.

Other musical genres—jazz, bluegrass, rock, choral, even opera—can be heard on the west plaza of the grounds during Summer Fridays at the Statehouse, a free series from noon to 1 p.m. that gives folks a chance to enjoy some music as they eat their lunches on the Statehouse steps. “It’s really designed to bring the Downtown community out of their offices and onto the grounds,” says Gregg Dodd, deputy director of communications for the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board.

More outdoor music, as well as movies, can be enjoyed just north of Downtown at Goodale Park, a quick jaunt across I-670 on the Park Street bridge. The Goodale Park Music Series offers six free concerts on Sunday afternoons in July and August, as well as food carts and free children’s activities. This year’s lineup includes Tony Monaco, the Fabulous Johnson Brothers, the Spikedrivers and Nick Tolford & Company. In addition, the Screen on the Green movie series will show movies on Goodale Park’s softball diamond on July 20, Aug. 17 and Sept. 21 beginning at sundown.

The Topiary Park, located on Town Street behind the Columbus Metropolitan Library, has a music program, too: PBJ & Jazz, concerts for children on June 9, July 14, Aug. 11 and Sept. 8. But with its mature trees, lush landscaping and whimsical topiary garden—a re-creation of Georges Seurat’s famous pointillist painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte—the park doesn’t need a lot of bells and whistles. Bliss can be found by sitting on a park bench, cracking open a book and enjoying the peaceful oasis in the middle of Ohio’s largest city.

This article appears in the June 2012 issue of Columbus Monthly