Columbus, OH

July '03 Cover Story

What's Behind the Orange Barrels and Yellow Tape, Story by Cindy Bent

The gates of the Short North are under construction. It's obvious. From the bridge over I-670 all the way to The Ohio State University, new buildings are filling in the streetscape. Strolling down High Street this spring has become an adventure in dodging chain-link fencing, and parking is even more a safari than usual.

What's going on is further proof that the Short North has come of age. The story of the neighborhood is well-known and often retold - how little by little, entrepreneurs big and small have been working to restore Victorian-era homes and commercial buildings. One by one, homeowners and businesses invested in these buildings, repointing brick, repolishing hardwood floors, and setting up the art galleries followed by restaurants and artistic retailers that gradually made the Short North the place to be - downtown Columbus's hipper, busier little sister.

But not, perhaps, since the neighborhood was originally constructed in the 19th century has High Street ever seen such volume of activity all at once. In the tradition of grand old city neighborhoods, many of the new properties will be combination buildings: storefronts below, apartments or condos above.

"There has been very little in terms of new build on High Street," says Tim Wagner, executive director of the Short North Special Improvement District and long-time neighborhood observer. "There is definitely demand for residential space; in fact, in some of the combination commercial and residential properties, I think the residential is driving those buildings."

New Housing
Parkview, a new five-story construction featuring 28 condominium units at the corner of Park and Poplar, is one of the more high-profile projects nearing completion.

The 25 one-story and 3 townhouse units will range in price from $300,000 to $600,000. Ranging from 1460 to 2800 square feet, they feature open floor plans with hardwood floors, granite countertops, angled walls and modern styling, and walk-out balconies.

Secure parking, one spot per unit, plus additional spaces for the office building next door, will be beneath the building. The condos are being marketed by Dooley & Company Realtors and will be completed near the end of summer 2004.

Parkview represents somewhat of a new take on the urban demographic for the Short North. Certainly, there are single-family homes in the same price range, but there are few if any condos as upscale as these in the immediate neighborhood, especially new build with the contemporary styling these will offer.

Upper Arlington's Long & Wilcox LLC is developing the property, aiming at upper-income bracket "empty nesters" or young childless couples attracted to a very urban lifestyle.

"I think large groups of people probably always wanted to have a more urban eclectic lifestyle, and the time is right now," says Bob Long, president and co-founder of Long & Wilcox. Long says the maturity of the Short North and new vitality in the Arena District have created a niche.

Bob McLaughlin, head of the city's Downtown Development Office, considers Parkview and the rest of the Short North important components of the city's downtown housing initiative.

"Columbus is very fortunate in that its downtown is ringed by these great neighborhoods like the Short North, so that the strength of them contributes significantly to the ability to revitalize the core of the downtown. In turn, the revitalization of the core will contribute back to the continued longtime health and vitality of those neighborhoods. They're very much linked together."

"I really believe this is the best location in the downtown Columbus area," says Long. "The park is a beautiful park, it's nice to have amenities like that immediately adjacent to our project. And this is one of the few buildings that we can really talk about a walking environment. You can walk to shops or restaurants or to get coffee, walk down to the Arena District attractions."

New Commercial
Two of the most noticeable High Street construction projects, at 765-771 North High Street and 941 North High Street, have striking similarities. Both are large scale (for the Short North) and multi-storied, and as of this writing, near completion. Both will be home to shops, restaurants, and apartments. And both developers have put thought and investment into fitting their buildings into the streetscape that has made the Short North a desirable environment. Though each will be constructed as one building, they will be divided into several different facades, using different brick, detailing and frontage styling to make each one appear as if they are really three or four different buildings.

Raymond Brown, partner in Lahoti Properties, developer of 765-771 North High, says their project will consist of 6,000 to 7,000 sq ft. of commercial space and two additional floors with twenty one- and two-bedroom apartments.

Brown isn't sure yet about the rental prices on the apartments, but says the plan calls for upscale, modern styling.

Square footage costs for the retail space should be in the $20 to $30 per sq. ft. per year range, depending on the tenant's requirements. Two are leased already, Brown says - one to Hair, a coloring salon, and one to Modern Persona, a clothing chain. Both are new additions to the Short North neighborhood.

The new tenants are a good sign that outsiders are eager to take a chance on relocating from the suburbs and that filling all the new commercial space won't end in poaching from within the Short North itself.

The Wood Companies are also betting on long-term retail success with their redevelopment of the Quest Diagnostics building at 941 North High. The 11,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor will include a restaurant. Either condos or rental apartments will come later on future second and third stories.

"We really want to see that area between campus and the Short North get more developed," says Mark Wood, vice president of the Wood Companies. "We think the area is getting better and better, and we are excited about the ability to have more of the High Street frontage under our management."

Wood says they will attempt to keep square footage costs around $15 per foot to attract a mix of tenants who will continue the arts tradition and add to the long-term success of the neighborhood. He hopes leasing will be completed and shops will open some time this fall. Both Brown and Wood say they've had significant interest in the restaurant space but have signed no tenant yet.

The first tenant at 941 N. High, Mrs. Wiggins Ice Cream, has more than area kids excited.

"People have been asking for an ice cream shop since the Short North got started," says Short North Business Association Executive Director Mary Martineau. "It's a reason for neighboring shops to stay open later because when more people are walking around there's more potential for sales."

Martineau says the whole neighborhood looks forward to the opening of restaurants in the properties, especially as they will have outdoor seating. The Short North is spreading north, she observes, and the two new developments will help fill in gaps in the street's retail attractions, helping the success of the entire neighborhood.

"That block is taking off and this is only going to help it shine," she says.

A New Link to Downtown
Of all the Short North's new construction, the headline grabber is Union Station Place - the proper name for the project known famously as "The Cap."

The planned reconstruction of I-670 was nothing but bad news to most of the Short North until the concept of the Cap came along in the mid-1990s. The Ohio Department of Transportation's widening of the highway roaring below grade between the Convention Center and Poplar Avenue promised to tear the division between the city and the Short North even wider.

Short North residents and retailers feared that the large bridge to be constructed over the gap would discourage all foot traffic from the Convention Center, the North Market area and beyond, and could strangle the retail future of the neighborhood.

Jack Lucks, president of Continental Real Estate, says the idea to construct something better than a barren bridge struck him at a 1995 neighborhood meeting about the construction.

"It dawned on me that it wouldn't be much more difficult to put a beefier foundation in along with the huge plate they were already planning, and support a one-story building that would completely eliminate the view of 670 from High Street," he says.

Lucks dreamed up such a building - actually, two such buildings, one on either side of High Street, that would perch on top of this widened bridge. Christened Union Station Place, they would echo Columbus' historic Union Station and would be home to 27,000 square feet of shops and restaurant space - including patio seating, a sidewalk, and on-street parking.

The idea was to re-create the seamless streetscape that had been destroyed with the construction of the highway. Thus began a seven-year struggle on the part of Continental Construction, the city, and the neighborhoods to make the Cap a reality.

The complicated coordination between dozens of city and state agencies, departments and contractors was beyond Luck's wildest nightmares.

No one knew, for instance, who had the legal rights to build in the air above the freeway. No one knew how to string utilities and sewer lines on the underside of a bridge. All of the construction on the Cap - and the Union Station Place buildings which would sit on it - had to be completed before I-670 reopened this fall - and had to happen without delaying construction of the highway itself.

The total price tag for the project, including bridge, pad for the buildings, and the buildings themselves, estimates Lucks, is somewhere around $7 million. About $1 million of that cost was to build the concrete pad the buildings will sit on. Continental will constuct and own the buildings.

The city has also put up funds, such as $325,000 to install utilities for the buildings. In addition, Continental Realty will pay the city just $1 rent each year and receive a 100 percent real estate tax abatement for ten years.

After three years, the city will begin to enjoy some of the project's success in the form of a 10 percent share of Union Station's net rental income. The amount of investment, says McLaughlin, shows the city's commitment to and belief in the project.

"I can't overemphasize how important we believe this project is to the future of downtown and the Short North. Ideally if this project is successful, it could be a prototype for healing the wounds between the downtown and other neighborhoods surrounding the city - cut off by I-70 and I-71," says McLaughlin.

In fact, says Lucks, representatives of cities from around the country have contacted him about the Cap, including Seattle and Portland, both cities often considered on the cutting edge of urban revitalization.

The Cap could be a national example, agrees Wagner of the Short North SID, of how to cobble cities back together after the highway construction of the 1970s tore neighborhoods apart from downtown cores.

"The rebuilding of the street wall is critical," says Wagner. "The idea is to have constant interest along the sidewalks. Where there is a break, and pedestrians can't see something immediately further up, they tend to turn and go back. So the object for the neighborhood is to get the blank spots filled."

That's why, says Wagner, all of the construction, no matter how small, is good news for the Short North.

"The beauty of this all is that it's not an orchestrated effort, but just a lot of gutsy entrepreneurs. There is a lot of passion among them, an excitement around historic properties and neighborhoods," says Wagner. "As the freeways grow more congested and people re-evaluate their dependence on the car, and as views of pedestrian lifestyles and public transit take a deeper hold, these are the places people will want to live."