If a Columbus project is an indication, proposed capping of four blocks of Fort Washington Way with large decks that can support parks or buildings would spur surprising development.

It also would erase the chasm between downtown north of Third Street and The Banks development on the riverfront. Future visitors would even be surprised to learn Fort Washington Way’s combined traffic of Interstate 71 and U.S. route 50 was rumbling below their feet.

After the Riverfront Advisors Commission and others in the late 1990s imagined what The Banks and the city’s overall riverfront could become someday, they emphasized the decks covering Fort Washington Way were key in creating a strong bond between The Banks and downtown.

The decks would be built above the highway trench between Main and Elm streets, and could provide a park-like pedestrian connection to The Banks, the emerging 24-hour neighborhood rising between the Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium.

With foresight 15 years ago, city and county officials accommodated a second alternative: In addition to supporting trees and dirt for a park, the decks could accommodate four-story buildings.

While Fort Washington Way was under construction, Hamilton County commissioners in 2000 voted to spend $2 million to install pilings to someday support the decks.

Columbus neighborhoods are delighted with some platforms above highways there. So much so that city officials now are considering at least three more such links to reconnect neighborhoods that were severed from each other when interstate highways went through.

Covering an Ugly Canyon in Columbus

More than a decade ago, leaders of the Short North arts and business district were dismayed to learn construction on Interstate 670 would widen the already unsightly highway canyon that severed their area from the Greater Columbus Convention Center and downtown Columbus.

Crossing the highway was so unappealing that few visitors to Columbus did it, says Betsy Pandora, executive director of the nonprofit Short North Alliance.

“It was the very worst of what you would expect in an aging highway overpass,” Pandora says. “There was no separation, really, between pedestrians and a loud, booming highway but a chain-link fence, and it wasn’t good looking.”

The Short North since the 1980s has elevated itself from a shabby area filled with drugs and prostitution, but with sturdy older buildings. It has become one of the state’s most vibrant areas of restaurants, art galleries and about 300 businesses overall. It’s situated around High Street, the main thoroughfare linking downtown Columbus to Ohio State University’s main campus.

The district’s attractive metal arches span High Street and welcome people to the district.

Visitors to the convention center could see the arches and the promises of the Short North not far away, but wouldn’t cross the highway to get there.

Facing litigation that could stall the widening and extension of I-670 between the downtown and Port Columbus International Airport, city officials and the Ohio Department of Transportation agreed to help create 60-foot-wide platforms on either side of High Street above the highway.

Under the agreement, ODOT built the 1,000-foot-long bridge, the city paid to bring all necessary utilities to the site. Meanwhile, developer Continental Real Estate constructed the elegant buildings atop the bridge platform, which echo the former Columbus Union Train Depot that was designed by Daniel Burnham in 1897.

Under an agreement worked out among the federal government, the city and developer, Continental leases the platforms for $1 a year over 20 years, with eight five-year renewal options. Mostly restaurants, upscale bars and a coffee shop have occupied “the cap” through its first 10 years. Columbus officials call the project the nation’s first “speculative infill retail project built on a bridge over a highway.”

Recently the high-end boutique hotel, Le Meridien Columbus/The Joseph, opened immediately north of the cap.

“You wouldn’t have seen that quality of development occurring without something like the cap, connecting convention-goers directly to the neighborhood,” Pandora says.

Architect David Meleca, who designed the cap, was dazzled in February when he visited the boutique hotel that his bridge design helped attract to the neighborhood.

“I went in there the other night for dinner, it was just gorgeous,” Meleca recalls. “I was just shocked. It was beyond what I expected. Yeah, that’s part of the success” of the cap.

“We just see a lot of great things happening” in the Short North, Meleca adds. “Everything’s being upgraded, great restaurants are going in, and the hotel is obviously a huge thing that kind-of-really says this is a high-end destination, which it never was.”

The High Street cap was so successful that Columbus recently built two more highway caps that reconnect torn-apart neighborhoods, on Long and Spring streets. Leaders are considering similar ones for High Street, Third Street and Fourth Street above I-70 that would reconnect the downtown with German Village.

Back in Cincinnati

Cincinnati City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. in 2013 sought to create a design competition for best ways to make use of a capped Fort Washington Way. The hope was to offer a $250,000 stipend for the winning firm, but with other projects taking higher priority, the fundraising effort stalled.

Yet the city hasn’t taken down the website information about the hoped-for competition.

John Deatrick, who led the city’s efforts to reconfigure Fort Washington Way and redevelop the central riverfront area, notes there are tricky design obstacles to overcome in putting caps above Fort Washington Way.

“The [highway reconfiguration] project was already designed before we put the pilings in,” Deatrick says. “And we couldn’t have lowered the road any further than we did, or we wouldn’t be able to hook up to the ramps.”

That means the clearance between the roadway and caps “can meet standards, but then you’ve still got to deal with ventilation and roadway signage,” Deatrick adds. He notes that few people enjoy driving on the lower deck of the Brent Spence Bridge and seeing the traffic signs that hang just above traffic from the bridge’s upper deck.

Lighting and signage for the highway are two issues to overcome, as is ventilation for the highway.

With a capped Fort Washington Way, perhaps Third Street could become the important address that was imagined by those who envisioned a renaissance of that area because of the revitalized riverfront.

Jeff Rexhausen of the University of Cincinnati’s Economics Center, who has performed economic analyses of jobs and revenues created by The Banks, predicts that if Fort Washington Way is capped, it will not be to create more parkland, “because we really have a good deal of public space that is down there on the river right now.”

Instead, “I would expect that if something is going to happen there in terms of covering Fort Washington Way, it’s going to happen because someone on the private side is going to come with a proposal that’s going to make it a worthwhile investment.”

Rexhausen also notes that the reconfigured Fort Washington Way is only one block wide, significantly narrowed from more than two blocks wide before the massive reconstruction.

Also, he notes, “some of those restaurants on The Banks, they regularly draw people from downtown for lunch. So Fort Washington Way still constitutes a barrier, but I would not characterize its current configuration as being something that is like what Columbus faced in the past, or like what Cincinnati faced in the past.”