By  Steve Wartenberg

The Columbus Dispatch Sunday February 26, 2012 6:24 AM

Architects are opinionated when it comes to the future of Columbus and the surrounding suburbs — and also quite optimistic.

And those opinionated optimists say the next decade should be interesting and present a lot of opportunities, especially Downtown and in the surrounding historic neighborhoods as more people move in and the vacant spaces are filled in with new projects.

Six prominent local architects from the American Institute of Architects Columbus recently shared their views during a wide-ranging discussion: Keith Myers of MSI-KKG; James Bresler and David Brehm of Braun & Steidl; Michael Bongiorno of DesignGroup; John Kelleher of NBBJ; and Jonathan Barnes of Jonathan Barnes Architecture & Design.

They weren’t focused at all on the design of specific buildings and didn’t share whether they liked the look of the new hospital buildings at Ohio State or Nationwide Children’s or the proposed statue for the Scioto Mile riverfront park.

They were in full city-planning mode, and were more interested in sharing their dreams of what could and should be in and around Columbus.

“We realize that the cumulative efforts of what we do changes neighborhoods and cities, so we are thinking on that scale when we design buildings,” Barnes said.

Downtown and infill came up several times during the discussion.

In the not-so-distant past, the trend was to tear down the old buildings Downtown, which gradually became devoid of residents as people moved farther and farther out. These days, the trend is to preserve what’s left and then fill in the empty spaces with new projects, including a plethora of residential units that are bringing people back to live Downtown.

Downtown will continue to evolve — and these six architects have a vision of how they would like it to evolve.

“Enough with the red brick buildings,” Bongiorno said.

He didn’t mean exactly that. He was exaggerating to make his point: Review boards and planning commissions need to be more open-minded and accepting of new styles of architecture. A diverse sea of different, quality architectural styles will only enhance Columbus, he said.

“There’s a misplaced attention on style rather than quality,” Barnes said.

Everyone agreed that Columbus is filled with wonderful old neighborhoods — and it’s important to retain what’s here and add interesting, quality and sustainable new buildings.

While the future of Downtown and many historic neighborhoods looks promising, there could be problems farther from the center of the city.

Meyers and Kelleher said they are concerned about “the next ring out.”

“Land had been more valuable for homes the past few decades on the edges of the area,” Barnes added. “But it’s changing, and in some areas that land is now more valuable as farmland.”

Older residential and commercial developments in outlying areas could actually be plowed under and turned back into farms.

How’s that for reversing a trend?

These architects probably wouldn’t shed many tears if some of these suburban projects go back to farmland.

“Some of the builds in the last 20 to 30?years out there were built to throw away; there’s no quality,” Bongiorno said.

There was also agreement that many of these big suburban projects didn’t do a good job of integrating the residential units into the community.

This type of development is happening in the city — and everyone seemed to agree there are several opportunities to reinvigorate many long-suffering neighborhoods:

“Nationwide Children’s Hospital is expanding — how will it affect the area?” Kelleher wondered.

“Franklinton is on everyone’s radar,” Myers said.

The area around the new Hollywood Casino Columbus is another hot spot — and development around this project could reutilize this section of the city.

Grandview Yard is another development the group believes has an interesting future.

And so is Ohio State, where several student-housing projects are planned.

Brehm praised Ohio State for “creating a high-quality neighborhood community for students with redevelopment of their North Campus housing district.”

In other words, there’s a lot to be optimistic about.

“But we need leaders who are well-informed and make the kind of decisions that make us a better city,” said Gwen Berlekamp, executive director of the American Institute of Architects Columbus.