MILL RACE PARK IN DOWNTOWN COLUMBUS
MICHAEL VAN VALKENBURG AND STANLEY SAITOWITZ
Learn about Mill Race Park
A top 100 park
Landscape Management recognized this 85-acre riverfront park as one of the top 100 parks in the nation for design, reputation, and accessibility. Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh, and featuring structures by Stanley Saitowitz, it includes an 84-foot observation tower, a covered bridge, people trails, fishing at two lakes, picnic shelters, playground equipment, horseshoe pits, basketball courts, and an amphitheater that hosts concerts and performances.
Located in an oxbow bend of the Flatrock River in downtown Columbus, this site had once been an industrial area and had informally evolved with recreational activities, despite frequent flooding. Mill Race Park is a testament to the collaborative spirit of design with the contributions of the community, the Park and Recreation department, architecturally appropriate structures by Stanley Saitowitz, and a park concept by celebrated landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh.
The back story
In 1984, J. Irwin Miller was honored by the city with a 75th birthday celebration in Mill Race Park that was attended by over 5,000. The celebration also honored his wife Xenia and sister Clementine Tangeman for their unparalleled contributions to Columbus. During that celebration, many commented that the park might become something special with the input of a master planner, and this led to Van Valkenburgh being brought in to offer a proposed design.
A series of “follies” that become micro-destinations are found throughout the park. Designed in collaboration with Stanley Saitowitz, these structures, highlighted with a signature red painted metal, include a dramatic arc of lights that frame the entrance to the park, an 84-foot observation tower that provides a bird’s-eye view of downtown Columbus, a boathouse, a river lookout, a fishing pier, the amphitheater stage, an arbor, restrooms, and picnic shelters. Saitowitz’s creative playfulness is on display with restrooms that have curved roofs signifying an M and W.
The round pond provides a central feature that is experienced from a looping road that includes an historic covered bridge that was relocated to the park. The mounded crescent-shaped amphitheater at the park entry provides the other grand gesture in the park – the ampitheater hosts Columbus’ largest outside events. A landscaped parking lot is integrated into the park next to a remnant tannery foundation wall, bounded by a preexisting allée of linden trees.
While much of the natural setting was preserved, hardy new species were selected that could withstand saturated soils and drought. The overall affordability and durability of the site materials reflects an intentional efficiency for both construction and low maintenance of the park.
Michael Van Valkenburgh on the park
Mill Race Park is located at the confluence of two rivers, and much of the parkland is an active floodplain. Prior to the construction of the park, the site was cut off from adjacent business and residential districts by regional railroad tracks. Community members, eager to put the land to public use, had spent many years informally building trails, but the site remained a large swath of feral landscape. Foremost among the constraints of the Mill Race site was the issue of annual flooding. Rather than attempt to prevent or shut out the regular flood waters, MVVA’s design explores numerous ways to integrate this natural annual rhythm into the use and experience of the site.
The overall affordability and durability of the site materials reflect an intentional efficiency of means and materials in both the construction and the maintenance of the park. The fill generated in the excavation of Round Lake was used to build an earthen amphitheater as well as the berms around the basketball court. Many of the paved surfaces use reinforced concrete instead of asphalt, which can be peeled up by floods. The steel and glass block restroom walls are raised to allow flood waters to flow through; the playground is elevated on a wide earth platform; the amphitheater stage is nestled into the protected higher ground of the crescent landform. Plantings include mostly hardy native species, including grasses that can weather drought and trees that can withstand saturated soils.
Mill Race Park received a 1994 ASLA Design Merit Award and a 1993 Boston Society of Landscape Architects Honor Award.
What visitors say
Beautiful setting, original structures: This is a lovely setting...
Iowa City, Iowa visitor / Tripadvisor review / posted Feb 2018
Don’t miss the Observation Tower...
Nashville, Tennessee visitor / Tripadvisor review / posted Dec 2017
Paved walking paths, a pond, streams, covered bridge...
Cincinnati, Ohio visitor / from Tripadvisor / posted April 2018
Take a ride through the park!
Park route starts at 0:26…