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Riverfront Arisin': Columbus, Ohio Riverfront Redevelopment: North Bank Park

Stephen Kelly, editor

An air-conditioned glass-enclosed and steel-framed pavilion anchors the terminus of Neil Avenue and is North Bank Park’s centerpiece. The pavilion, which also has an adjoining support building and an underground storage building, was designed by Acock Associates Architects and inspired by the trussed-steel train bridges seen from the park. The Columbus Landmarks Foundation awarded the pavilion its 2007 design award.
Photos courtesy of MSI

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North Bank Park is a new urban park on the north bank of the Scioto River immediately west of downtown Columbus, Ohio. North Bank is the first park developed under the Columbus Riverfront Vision Plan and sets the design and materials standards for the urban riverfront. This divided 11-acre, fully handicapped-accessible site is also the gateway to downtown for many motorists and bikeway users, and complements the rapid development of the Nationwide Arena District immediately to the north. In short, North Bank is an important link to the riverfront parks, a destination for downtown workers and an inviting amenity for the growing downtown residential population, a group underserved by the downtown park system.

Most of the limestone on site is recycled from the old Ohio Penitentiary walls. The park pylons benefit from this rough-textured stone. The capstone and smooth vertical strip of stone (right), however, is a newer, finer textured limestone.

Lay of the Land

LASN spoke with Keith Myers, ASLA, co-founder and principal of MSI, and John Petrushka, RLA, the project manager for the North Bank Park project As the lead consultant, MSI directed the master planning and design of all park elements, managing geotechnical, structural, civil, transportation, and environmental engineers, as well as architects and graphic designers. The client, the city of Columbus, Department of Recreation and Parks, administered the project.

Historically, the riverfront was an undeveloped open space before 1850. About that time, the railroads came to Columbus and train bridges went built across the Scioto River. The riverfront became an industrial site in the early part of the 20th century.

Today, the second generation of those heavy-trussed steel train bridges still flank the east and west boundaries of the park and inspired the designer of the park’s pavilion, Acock Associates Architects, to incorporate exposed trusses and steel framework for the pivotal park structure.

North Bank Park is the newest Columbus, Ohio park and the northern anchor of what’s called the “Scioto Mile” or the Columbus Riverfront Vision Plan. The 11-acre park lies on the north bank of the Scioto River, immediately west of downtown and connects to the 17-mile Scioto/Olentangy trial system. It has set the design and materials standards for the urban riverfront redevelopment effort. Reinvigorating the riverfront has been a boost to downtown residential development. The Condos at North Bank Park, a $50 million, 20-story residential tower, has just been completed. Overall, about 3,650 new residential units are projected for the downtown area.

The Embankment

Looking at the site, the landscape architects contemplate the 10-12 feet high embankment running along the river, effectively cutting off the view of the river. Clearly, a park by the river had to afford people river views. Most people assumed the embankment was a levee. It turns out the embankment was not a flood wall, nor would it function as such. It was simply the detritus from the early days of the interstate construction.

Two second-generation heavy-trussed steel train bridges still flank the east and west boundaries of the park. The steel railings complement that construction.
The new floodwall top) between Spring Street and Long Street was built one foot above the 100-year flood level, say the landscape architects. Its veneer stone (limestone) was entirely salvaged from the walls of the old Ohio Penitentiary.
A major site challenge for the landscape architects was a highly compressible soil incapable of supporting standard load-bearing slabs and footings. This required driving 220 auger cast piles 60-feet deep to support buildings and retaining walls. Other subterranean surprises awaited—such as numerous abandoned fuel tanks, concrete footings and slabs from old buildings. Considering the prior industrial activity of the site, few contaminated soils were unearthed, although significant sewer and electrical work affecting adjacent portions of downtown needed to be resolved.

Photo by Feiknopf

The “embankment” left room for little more than an eight-foot wide riverfront bikeway, so the first obstacle to site development was getting rid of this industrial moraine. Everyone got in on that one—the Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA and local authorities. Burgess & Niple, Ltd. assisted in obtaining permits from the Army Corp of Engineers. The environmental consulting firm, Envirotech Consultants, Inc., also assisted with the permits and developed the plan to naturalize the bank of the river.

With the embankment gone the landscape architects could envision bringing traditional park activities and amenities to the flatter open spaces.

However, more challenges awaited. The site’s soil proved highly compressible, incapable of supporting standard load-bearing slabs and footings. This required the construction of about 220 auger cast piles driven 60 feet deep to support buildings and retaining walls. More unwelcome subterranean surprises awaited—numerous abandoned fuel tanks, concrete footings and slabs from old buildings. Considering the industrial activity of the site, few contaminated soils were unearthed, although there was significant sewer and electrical work affecting adjacent portions of downtown to resolve.

A wood ramp from the river walk leads down to the floating dock on the Scioto River. Local rowing clubs can now launch and a store their boats here. Columbus-area boating is limited as there are two major dams on the river operated by the city. Griggs Dam in Columbus was finished in 1908 as a water supply for the city. Farther upstream at Shawnee Hills is the O’Shaughnessy Dam, completed in 1925.
Photo courtesy of MSI

With those site matters worked out, commencement on the park pavilion, office, restrooms and a kitchen facility began. The project aimed to set a standard of high-quality riverfront park redevelopment throughout the downtown by selecting durable materials: brick, concrete, stone, and powder-coated steel and aluminum.

The landscape architects relate the interesting history of the limestone used on site. It is all from the massive 20-foot walls of the old Ohio Penitentiary. The stone for the prison were quarried in west Columbus by, who else, prison labor. The irony of prisoners quarrying stone for walls to keep themselves from escaping was surely not lost on the inmate laborers of Ohio. The Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus opened its doors to the incarcerated (and quickly locked them) from 1834 to 1979.

Removing the tall embankment along the Scioto River opened the view to its waters and made room for this walk and picnic area. The limestone for the seatwall is also the recycled penitentiary stone, but the cap is a newer vintage limestone. Crushed granite is the surfacing for the picnic area. Youthful honey locust trees intermingle with the seating.
Photo courtesy of MSI

Economic Stimulation

The project was substantially complete in spring 2005, officially opening in July 2005. The positive effects of the new park’s presence are seen by the nearby 20-story condo tower just completed. During the latter stages of park work, the construction manager had a difficult time keeping visitors out of the park once sidewalks, the upper plaza and fountain were completed. Since its opening, the park has become a prime destination for special downtown events and daily use by nearby workers.

The limestone amphitheater and lawn seating face the river. Native and naturalized tree species are used throughout the park. The stone bordering the steps to the pavilion and fountain is from the penitentiary, with new limestone for the caps. The turf is an improved variety of drought and heat-tolerant turf-type tall fescue.
Photos courtesy of MSI

As residential development continues to occur in adjacent downtown districts, the park is becoming more of a neighborhood-gathering place. The annual July 4th bash, “Red, White & Boom,” attracts 300,000 people to the park. The Columbus Recreation and Parks Department has had such a great demand for rental of the pavilion for private events that it had to go to a lottery-like selection process.

Primary Park Elements

An air-conditioned glass pavilion anchors the terminus of Neil Avenue and is the park’s centerpiece. This is the pavilion designed by Acock Associates Architects we spoke of earlier, inspired by trussed-steel train bridges seen from the park.

Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman really wanted a fountain for the park that kids could play in. The river, unfortunately, is not a place for kids to cavort and swim. It suffers from a variety of pollutants from upstream agriculture, urban sewage and contaminants from storm water runoff.
Flagstone borders the pavilion and play fountain. Brick covers most the area, with a rectilinear decorative brick strip about the fountain proper. The limestone blocks offer no nonsense, durable seating. The fountain requires six pumps and has removable stainless steel gratings.

Other Park Elements:


  • The pavilion plaza. A children’s play fountain.Boat storage and floating docks for use by the downtown rowing clubs.Wetlands and native planting areas adjacent to the river promenade help stabilize the river’s edge. Native and naturalized tree species are used throughout the park. The turf is an improved variety of drought and heat-tolerant turf-type tall fescue.Stone walls complemented by nine interpretative panels explain the historical context of the site—the Native American influence; transportation; industrial uses; immigration and the former Ohio Penitentiary.Newly located floodwall between Spring Street and Long Street adjacent to the walkway. All veneer stone used on the new floodwall was salvaged from the Ohio Pen stone walls. The floodwall is one foot above the 100-year flood level, note the landscape architects. Shaded seating and a dining terrace
  • A scenic downtown overlook

The overall project cost was approximately $13 million, not including land costs, consultants and permitting fees.

The Scioto River runs through central and southern Ohio for 231 miles. In Columbus the river is joined by its largest tributary, the Olentangy River, and meets the Ohio River at Portsmouth. This view is from the south bank looking toward North Bank Park. Wetland and native plantings for the park were blue wild indigo, purple coneflower and red cardinal flower.
Photo courtesy of MSI

About the Landscape Architects

Keith Myers, ASLA and Timothy Schmalenberger, ASLA founded MSI (Myers Schmallenberger, Inc., in 1990. The firm comprises about 65 people, with offices in Columbus, Ohio, Winter Park, Fla. and Pasadena, Calif.

Some of the firm’s most recent and distinctive work includes the design of the North Bank Park (featured in this issue), Nationwide Arena District and Bexley Main Street—all in Columbus; Pittsburgh’s North Shore; Florida’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, and the Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando.

The firm’s work has garnered many honors, including the Ohio Parks & Recreation Association’s Park Development award, the Ohio Chapter ASLA Honor, Merit and Special Recognition awards and the Florida Chapter ASLA Excellence, Honor and Merit awards.

There are four bronze submersible light fixtures with stainless steel support brackets for the large bronze cascading nozzles. The fountain has a poured-in-place concrete wall and pool floor with a waterproof membrane.

North Bank Park Project Team:


  • MSILandscape Architecture and Park DesignAcock Associates ArchitectsPavilion DesignMiles McClellanConstruction ManagerHKI AssociatesPavilion Architect of RecordEMH&TCivil and Roadway EngineeringBurgess & NipleWetland Permitting and Environmental EngineeringCrystal FountainsFountain Engineering and DesignTransAssociatesTraffic Engineering
  • Kolar DesignGraphic Design

A Sampling of Flora at North Bank Park

Sugar maple — Acer saccharum ‘Commemoration’

Cherry — Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’

Compact European cranberrybush — V. opulus ‘Compactum’

Burkwoodii Viburnum

Boston ivy — Parthenocissus tricuspidata

Creeping mondo grass — Liriope ‘spicata’

Common periwinkle — Vinca minor

Wetlands/Native Plantings

Blue wild indigo — Baptisia australis

Purple coneflower — Echinacea purpurea

Red cardinal flower — Lobelia cardinalis

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June 17, 2019, 8:34 am PDT

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