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Mr. Elmer's Neighborhoods
Architect and city planner Frank Elmer makes the case
for trolleys in the Columbus of today – and tomorrow

July 2006
by Jennifer Hambrick

Frank Elmer with his wife, Ruth Gless, fellow architect and co-founder of the Lincoln Street Studio. Photo/Gus Brunsman III

It’s a Monday morning in the year 2030. You leave your Dublin home and greet your neighbors by name as you walk to the local downtown area and catch a trolley to your office a few miles away. Or you leave your Italian Village townhouse and ride a streetcar down High Street to German Village for breakfast at Katzinger’s.

Architect and city planner Frank Elmer, a founding principal architect of the Short North’s Lincoln Street Studio Ltd. and one of few fellows of both the American Institute of Architecture and the American Institute of City Planning, believes this is what life will be like in the Columbus of the not-too-distant future. A transit system, he says, will connect the new urban centers of what are now Columbus’s suburbs. And the streetcar will play a central role in life in both downtown Columbus and in the new urban centers.

The Case for Urban Living
For Elmer, who both works and resides in the urban chic-updated cinder block shell of what was once a meat distribution warehouse, the urban area of shops, restaurants, galleries and other residences around his home at the offices of the Lincoln Street Studio is where the heart is.

“I love cities,” Elmer said. “I love to live in a place where there’s a whole variety of people. We have social diversity, economic diversity, and a whole array of businesses mixed in with housing types and transit. I find it very exciting to walk down the street and yell across, ‘Hey, Pia, how are you?’ She owns the wine store over here. And it’s even nicer when somebody yells at me, “Hey Frankster.” I love that. I don’t love wasting my life in an automobile.”

Elmer admits that his penchant for urban living isn’t shared by everyone in the United States. Suburban sprawl is the rule in America today and is responsible for the development of everything Elmer dislikes: uniform housing for homogeneous neighborhoods, neighborhood planning that all but prevents neighbors from being sociable, and city planning that creates large blocks of residential or commercial properties so far away from each other that car travel is a must. Though suburban living is still a status symbol to many, the single-family house without a front porch in a neighborhood without sidewalks several miles away from the nearest place (usually a mall or shopping center) to buy groceries or clothing, Elmer says, is economically, aesthetically, socially and environmentally a bad idea.

So he has dedicated his career to teaching the benefits of urban patterns of living that foster a sense of community among residents. He predicts that by 2030 many if not all of Columbus’s suburbs will have issued a corrective to sprawl and will have developed mixed-use downtown centers of their own, possibly not unlike that of the High Street corridor in the Short North today. Instead of the open spaces and tract housing of present-day New Albany, imagine pockets resembling a hip combination of 1940s Brooklyn and downtown Mayberry, with streetcars taking people from place to place. Elmer says these changes will occur in part because today typical suburban housing fails to serve nearly half of America’s population.

“In our country today, half the population are singles and singles with children,” Elmer said. “There are still young people who want start-up housing, and there’s a growing number of seniors. The single family, three-bedroom ranch with a full basement and a three-car garage is not what those people want. There need to be some options.”

Many of the housing options Elmer envisions aren’t new; they’ve just been forgotten.

“What’s wrong with a house that has the garage in the back and an alley, instead of every house having a driveway coming from the street going to the backyard, which is a lot of asphalt? Why don’t we have one alley with the garage cans back there and the garage back there? Then we can have a sidewalk out on the street and people can be sociable and we’ll have front porches,” Elmer said.

If you think this model sounds a lot like central Bexley, you’re right. But it’s not suburban sprawl.

“It’s America in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, but we’ve forgotten about it,” Elmer said.

According to Elmer, the evolution of sprawl in Columbus can be seen in neighborhoods throughout the area.

“In parts of Clintonville, you’ll have houses with front porches, but a driveway and a garage in the back. At some point, we did away with the alley, but we put the garage in the back and we still had a front porch. In the early version of that type of development, sometimes the driveway was shared between two houses. And it’s only as you move forward into the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s that we did away with the sidewalks on the streets. There’s no front porch, there’s a private patio. The density is so low that the streets are wide and the cars can go swooping through at 30 miles an hour, so nobody wants to walk and there’s no place to walk anyway. So living becomes very much a private matter and sociability is by invitation. We’re trying in places to say, ‘Can’t we have some of that back?’”

Elmer believes sprawl will eventually take care of itself because the suburban lifestyle already no longer serves a good percentage of Americans, and because it will not be financially sustainable. The townships around Columbus, like Orange and Liberty Townships, are good examples. On the surface, townships, where there are no taxes and where large homes can be bought on the cheap, sound like a good way to live, despite the fact that they provide no (or few) services. But Elmer predicts dire straights for township residents when, for instance, their local roads – all built at about the same time – suddenly need repairs and there is no revenue source to fund them.

Elmer also sees the transportation problem in Columbus as directly linked to the development pattern of the suburban lifestyle.

“Even in some of our earliest suburbs, like Bexley and Upper Arlington, there are large percentages of the streets with housing on them, and even if they have sidewalks it’s not possible to walk to the store because they’re too far removed from the store, and when you get out into the townships, just forget walking.”

For Elmer, the cost of this lifestyle in gasoline use and driving time is one thing, the expense to community is another.

“I’m a champion of community,” Elmer said. “Anything I can do to help make, build, support community, I’m for it.”

A Tough Sell
Elmer’s assertions that dense, mixed-use urban corridors in fact do help build community have been met with resistance from the residents of suburbs and townships where he has worked. In Orange Township, where the Lincoln Street Studio is collaborating on the development of a town center, residents are fearful that city-style housing rubbing shoulders with commercial properties will not make the new downtown area work.

“We’re really in the middle of a suburban part of America and we’re trying to make a town center, so we’re trying to talk about the value of living above stores,” Elmer said. “And it’s very difficult. The people don’t get it because they haven’t experienced it. There’s a lot of concern, one, that there’s too much housing density and that the housing’s too high. We’re trying to plan the town center so that there’s a sufficient number of people within walking distance of where these small stores will be. The other (concern) is the whole idea of mixing housing of different types. In suburban pattern you have thousands of acres of the same house on the same size lot. In the city we have multiple families in apartment buildings and things above stores and it’s all over the map.”

Westerville residents also have voiced concern over Lincoln Street Studio’s proposed plans for an urbanist project in that suburb.

“They think the (proposed) density is too high and that it will ruin their property values,” Elmer said. “But I don’t think some of these subdivisions are appreciating at all. In the top five areas that are appreciating in value are Victorian Village, Italian Village, North Italian Village: urban situations with alleys. The highest-priced property is in the most dense places.”

Elmer also says densely populated, mixed-use urban corridors are ideal for streetcar transit. In a talk on transit and urban living delivered recently before a breakfast meeting of One Thousand Friends of Central Ohio (1KCO), an organization dedicated to environmentally and socially responsible use of land and other natural resources, Elmer asserted that the consistently high population density and evenly varied properties of the High Street corridor from downtown Columbus through the Ohio State campus area make it ideally suited for a trolley line.

“It’s a slam dunk for the trolley,” Elmer said. “The density is perfect.”

And by implication the mixed-use corridors that will eventually develop as urban centers in each of Columbus’s suburbs also will be ideal for streetcars.

A Desire Named Streetcar
Although the idea of reinstalling streetcar lines in Columbus is not new, it is gaining momentum, in no small part because of COTA’s recently announced decision not to get involved with a more expansive light rail system.

“It’s the ember that’s sort of shining through the ashes,” said Marilyn Baker, executive director of One Thousand Friends of Central Ohio and a member of the Columbus Streetcar Working Group. “While (1KCO) has promoted light rail, under the current system that initiative is not going forward. I see (the streetcar initiative) as that spark. It’s very much a part of good sensible land use, economic development, making neighborhoods walkable, so it’s very much a part of our agenda.”

Baker says city planners, developers and transit experts have been busy investigating not only the financial feasibility of bringing back the streetcars and sustaining a streetcar system without tax levies, but also specifically where the streetcars might run. One possible line under consideration would extend as much as a half-mile beyond the Franklin Park Conser-vatory and Veteran’s Memorial on Broad Street, and from German Village to the North Market on the High Street corridor.

The Columbus Urban Communities of the Future
Not only does a streetcar system make sense for downtown Columbus today, Elmer asserts it will still make sense for a very different Columbus in 2030. Elmer says Columbus’s suburbs will have urban centers: central high-density, mixed-use corridors served by local rail trolleys, and downtown Columbus will be the most sought-after mixed-use neighborhood because of its cultural arts facilities.

And Elmer predicts that bus transit will change in approach to connect the suburbs-turned-urban centers with each other, not just with downtown.

“Everybody keeps thinking Westerville to downtown, Worthington to downtown,” Elmer said. “Were going to have express transit service linking Dublin to Westerville, Dublin to Hilliard. Few people will want to come downtown on a daily basis. In fact, our daily lives will be more on a local basis so there will be fewer long trips. And if there are longer trips, I think the transit routes will shorten and the travelers will use transfers to other routes to eliminate the express bus from Westerville to downtown with six riders on it. What a waste of money that is.”

As the suburbs become urban centers with their own downtown areas, Elmer believes places for working will move to where workers live and daily life will become more local. Commutes between home and workplace will decrease in length – possibly to as little as the length of a 2.5-mile trolley ride – and more people will seek to find ways to live where they work. The more local lifestyle of the new urban centers will bring about true urban communities where housing is designed to facilitate neighborliness and the locally owned sidewalk cafe supports sociability.

As for the Short North of 2030, Elmer thinks it will be a big draw if its businesses continue to be diverse and its retailers continue to evolve from trinket shops to merchants of ‘shopper’s goods,’ like clothing.

“The Short North is already generating substantial evidence of a retail corridor that’s going to make it,” Elmer said. “If we can continue to have the homegrown business, the homegrown restaurant, we will continue to attract the young bright graduates and the graduate students of all the colleges (around Columbus). These are the people that are going to make jobs. They’ll create businesses, they’ll generate work, which is all good for the city.”

For more information on the progress of the streetcar project in Columbus, visit

©2006 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.