An Industrial Brownfield In Ohio Gets a Makeover Fit for Birds
Columbus, Ohio, isn’t exactly known as a birding mecca. But an Audubon Center, located a mere mile from downtown, is attracting avian species galore—and people, too.
Great blue herons bully great egrets for the best positions on the fringes of a backwater. A raft of 20 cormorants swims on a shallow river pool. A red-tailed hawk swoops over a road, a furry brown morsel in its beak. In other circumstances, such scenes would seem too commonplace to mention. But this location makes them special—less than a mile south of downtown Columbus, Ohio, nearly in the shadow of Interstate 70-71, on acreage that housed an impound lot, rows of warehouses, a concrete factory, and a city dump.
The site is the Whittier Peninsula, a stretch of hard-used land wedged between the Scioto River and the city’s gentrifying German Village. Overlooking a backwater is the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, opened in August 2009 and dedicated to restoring the peninsula while bringing outdoor education to city kids lagging in science achievements. “We love the idea of taking these neglected urban areas and reforesting and making healthier habitat,” says Heather Starck, the center’s director until she became Audubon North Carolina’s executive director. “If we really want to get people engaged in conservation work, this is where we can do that. We’re right at the core of the city. We can get all kinds of people involved.”
The center stems from a cooperative effort by Audubon, the city, the metro park authority, and the business community to remake an industrial brownfield into natural space for city residents and wildlife. “We think it means a lot to take an area that was a run-down industrial site, kind of misused for a long time, and make it a premier attraction for the city,” says John O’Meara, executive director of Metro Parks, which manages the fledgling Scioto Audubon Metro Park on the peninsula. “It’s going to make downtown and the nearby environs an even better place to live and work. With the Audubon center there it’s going to have a very strong environmental education program targeted at the inner-city neighborhood and schools. We think that’s a great asset.”
About a decade ago, Columbus, like a lot of other cities at the time, developed a riverfront plan to re-invent its neglected industrial waterfront. The Whittier Peninsula figured in several proposals—including a ballpark and an amphitheater. With pressure from conservationists, some form of open space figured prominently.
Metro Parks, the regional park authority that develops and manages large natural recreation areas for Franklin County and other adjacent counties, badly wanted a park in central Columbus. There were more than a dozen regional Metro Parks in seven central Ohio counties, but none in urban Columbus.
Audubon Ohio saw conservation potential in restoring Whittier Peninsula, where some members bird-watched. Despite the long-term neglect and degradation, a three-mile stretch along the river retained a fringe of hardwood forest and had been recently designated an Important Bird Area. It remained an important spot for waterfowl and shorebirds and a stopover for migrating songbirds. Not long ago, it had been a nesting area for yellow-crowned night-herons, birds rarely seen here at the northern edge of their range. At least 212 species of birds have been spotted in the area, more than any other stretch of the 200-mile-long section of the Scioto.
So the Whittier Peninsula presented an opportunity: riverfront rehab for the city and a park for the park authority, and a chance for conservation work and outreach for Audubon. In 2003, the three parties signed an agreement to create a natural park with the Audubon center as its centerpiece. When plans for nearby mixed development fell through, the city asked Metro Parks to manage most of the 160 acres, leased from the city for $1 for 25 years, and they have contracts for the next 50 years, bringing the grand total to $3.
Some of the work and expense fell to the city, which removed old buildings and underground storage tanks, and paid for soil remediation. Elevated levels of lead and arsenic caused concern, but on the five acres surrounding the Audubon center the concentrations were low enough and buried deeply enough to allow the property to be used for recreation, says Amy Yersavich, manager in the site assistance and brownfields revitalization section in the division of environmental response and revitalizationfor the Ohio EPA. “In this case, it wasn’t a superfund type site by any means,” she says.
Audubon Ohio set a fund-raising goal of about $8 million for its new center. Then Philip Urban received an invitation.
Urban, a self-described “corporate vagabond,” is recently retired CEO of Grange Insurance in Columbus, a $1.5 billion company with policyholders in 13 states. Jan Rodenfels, an Audubon Ohio board member and friend, invited Urban and his wife to dinner in nearby Dayton. On the way, they toured the Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm just north of Dayton. Rodenfels talked about how Grange Insurance might support a new center on Whittier Peninsula.
The timing was fortuitous. Grange, says Urban, had been searching for “some iconic way” to commemorate its 75th anniversary in 2010. The company had always been located downtown and a nature center committed to community education in central Columbus seemed to fit the bill. “We’re in the business of insurance where longevity and strength and being there when customers need you—that’s who you want to be as a brand. We wanted to have some way of saying we’ve been here 75 years—we’ll probably be here another 75 years.”
Urban sold the idea to Grange’s board, which offered to buy naming rights to the center for $4 million. Then he formed a fund-raising committee and invited Rodenfels “because no good deed goes unpunished.”