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What is a 'doom loop' and could one form in the Short North?


Updated: July 28, 2023, 9:12 AM ET

The economic vibrancy of neighborhoods like the Short North can be fluid. One year they're thriving, and the next year businesses are moving out.

In the realm of urban planning, there's a concept known as a "doom loop." It's when one negative event triggers another, ultimately exacerbating the first.

Much has has been made over a supposed doom loop in San Francisco. Headlines warn of impending disaster driven by a perceived wave of violent crime and the continued popularity of working from home.

But is a San Francisco doom loop inevitable?

“My perspective on the doom loop is that if we want a doom loop, we can absolutely have a doom loop," said Alicia John-Baptiste, president and CEO of SPUR, a Bay Area urban planning think tank.

"If we keep telling the story that San Francisco is done and that it's unsafe and it's an undesirable place to be, then people will start to believe that it's undesirable and is unsafe and not a place that they want to be. And we will continue to hollow out the center of our city,” she said.

John-Baptiste refutes claims that San Francisco's crime rate has surged since the pandemic, noting that crime in the city is actually down by most metrics since 2019.

However, she notes office occupancy rates in downtown San Francisco are about 40 to 50 percent of what they were before the pandemic.

“And what that translates into is just a significant drop in foot traffic and economic activity in the downtown core," she said.

Other issues like California's chronic housing shortage have led to persistently large numbers of people experiencing homelessness.

San Francisco's socio-economic fortunes are tied to complex and varied forces. The same is true for cities across the country, including Columbus.

It's been two months since the Short North was rocked by back-to-back weekends of violence. Separate shootings resulted in multiple injuries and left one man dead.

Following recent violence, signs line the Short North warning visitors they are being monitored.
Matthew Rand
Following recent violence, signs line the Short North warning visitors they are being monitored.

Could the violence that erupted in the Short North in May be the start of a much smaller doom loop?

Not likely, said Short North Alliance Executive Director Betsy Pandora.

"I'm certainly curious about a place like San Francisco, but I would caution and say to you that that's a vastly different community than Columbus and certainly the Short North," Pandora said.

Still, Pandora notes there are some similarities. The main one is the trend of working from home.

Before the pandemic, Pandora said, some 90,000 workers would flood into downtown Columbus and come to the adjacent Short North for lunch, shopping and other activities.

Now, Columbus' office vacancy rate leads the national average at nearly 27% — twice what it was before the pandemic.

Another factor is the city's ongoing population boom, which Pandora said is helping to offset some of the shifts in how downtown Columbus functions.

"And certainly safety plays a role in all of that, but I don't know that I would characterize a couple of weekends of some news coverage as fundamentally shifting the Short North marketplace as much as those other bigger, broader dynamics are," Pandora said.

After the story was published, Pandora provided the following additional context regarding shifts in businesses operating in the Short North since the May violence.

"We track data on a quarterly basis. We typically observe an average of eight businesses opening and five businesses closing. For this year, we’ve noticed 12 closures in total, with three of them occurring during Q2, which in total, is in line with what we have seen in comparison to previous years. Additionally, we’ve seen 19 total opens for the year and six total openings in Q2. As you know, businesses throughout the country are facing unprecedented challenges not unlike the ones we are seeing in our community. We are not aware of any upcoming closures," Pandora said.

She praised the steps the city took in the wake of the May shootings, which included a voluntary midnight curfew for businesses, increased police patrols, limited street parking and limited hours of operation for food trucks.

Food truck operator Adam Wallace said this last point hit his business hard. Wallace runs food trucks all over the city, but the Short North is his bread and butter.

"We all lost money. I mean, when you're not open for business, you're not making any money, so you're just depleting savings and whatnot. So that time period where, you know, the food carts are 100% your income, you took out a financial loss," Wallace said.

City Council extended the order for Short North food trucks to shut down at midnight through Memorial Day. Wallace said he and his customers are relieved the later operating hours have returned.

"The consensus is everybody's glad to be back to work so they can, you know, survive and thrive," he said.

Still, Wallace said he's noticed a decline in foot traffic in the Short North, which he attributes to the increased police presence there.

In a statement, Kate McSweeney-Pishotti, Columbus' Public Safety Director, assured residents the Short North is "safe and as vital as ever," with no major incidents in the area since.

What the future holds for the Short North is anyone's guess. But Bay Area urban planner Alicia John-Baptiste said where they have seen seen cities succeed the most is when they invest in the quality of life of their residents.

“Whether we're talking about San Francisco or Columbus or Copenhagen, the commitment of the local community and the local government to make those kinds of investments is what actually translates into the well-being of the people who live in a place," John-Baptiste said.

Updated: July 28, 2023 at 9:14 AM EDT
The story was updated to include a statement from Short North Alliance Executive Director Betsy Pandora, who provided the additional context regarding shifts in businesses operating in the Short North since the May violence.
Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.