Soon after he moved Downtown in 2005, Justin Crockett began scouting locations for the used-record store that was in the maybe-one-day stage.
And, no matter where or how far he wandered, the E. Gay Street corridor between N. High and 3rd streets beckoned.
“You could feel the energy growing along Gay Street,” said Crockett, who lives a couple of blocks away. “This is ground zero of the Downtown comeback.”
In October, Crockett and his partners opened Vinyl Frontier, joining other entrepreneurs and restaurateurs who have turned this once-quiet street into a vibrant hub of commerce and a destination for food- ies.
The block is lined with restaurants such as Due Amici, Tip Top and Plantain Cafe, as well as a growing number of boutiques that ooze urban charm.
Other recent additions to the block include the ZenCha Tea Salon and the zerOz wallet shop.
“I fell in love with Gay Street,” said Carolyn Maloney, who opened the 39 Below frozen-yogurt shop in August on the strip. “I came down one day for the farmers market (on Pearl Alley) and saw all these people and all this opportunity.”
Not so long ago, this stretch of E. Gay Street was a ghost town between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m., when local office workers returned.
Weekends were worse.
“Most of the restaurants were only open for lunch, and there wasn’t much of anything going on at night,” said John Berlin, who in 2008 moved into the Neighborhood Launch development on Gay Street between N. 4th and N. 6th streets. “I can’t believe how much things have changed in four years."
Especially on weekends, he added.
Urban pioneers such as Crockett, Maloney and Berlin have helped pave the way, with the help of the city.
The city’s master plan to better connect Downtown with the Scioto River, and the development of Scioto Mile and Columbus Commons in support of this goal, jump-started the Downtown renaissance, said Don DeVere.
He owns two buildings on this E. Gay Street strip, each with retail on the first floor and several floors of office space above.
The development of Downtown condominium and apartment projects such as Neighborhood Launch and the Annex at River South have led to more restaurants and retail in the surrounding blocks, as development has expanded outward from these residential hubs.
“There’s been a fire lit in terms of the demand for urban housing,” said Conor McNally of Carter, the Atlanta-based developer of HighPoint, the $50 million retail and 302-unit apartment project being built in Columbus Commons.
The demand is led by young professionals, or Millennials, and empty-nesters, he said, who want to live in urban settings and walk to restaurants, shops and parks.
Another city project that helped was turning Gay Street from a one-way, five-lane street into a two-way street, said Guy Worley, chief executive of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp.“Now, there’s more traffic, more people walking there, and this has led to the development of shops and restaurants right there and residential further east,” he said.
Several other factors have helped make E. Gay Street one of the prime examples of the revival of Downtown.
“This was one of the best streets in terms of not having all the old buildings torn down and not having vacant storefronts,” said Jeff Edwards, developer of the Neighborhood Launch project, a large condo and apartment complex that covers several blocks along Gay Street, east of 4th.
However, these older buildings “needed some tender-loving care,” DeVere said, adding this has been done in recent years by most of the owners.
The street’s upscale-restaurant pioneer was Jeff Davis, who opened Cafe Brioso in 2001.
“At the time, the only foot traffic was the people who worked here. Nobody else came here,” he said. “And the fast-food restaurants were trying to hit a low-price point to attract the lunch crowd and weren’t interested in quality or extending their hours or bringing value to the neighborhood.”
Due Amici opened in 2004, followed by Tip Top.
“That’s what really helped,” Davis said. “Due Amici brought the traffic in, and then Tip Top added to it.”
And then came Neighborhood Launch, as well as other condominium and apartment projects in the immediate area.
To date, 75 units have been built, Edwards said, adding that an additional 258 are under construction. Eventually, Neighborhood Launch will include 450 units.
The new Hills Market grocery store is under construction on Grant Avenue, just north of E. Gay Street, and within walking distance of Neighborhood Launch. Next to Hills is the new Grass Skirt Tiki Room.
All these projects add up to foot traffic.
“We’re seeing the biggest difference in the evenings and weekends,” Davis said. “The increase on Saturdays is three-fold.”
Soon, he added, he’ll add Sunday hours at Cafe Brioso.
All this activity caught the eye of Mark Ballard, who owns Sugardaddy’s Sumptuous Sweeties bakery with partner Tom Finney. They opened a shop on Gay Street in 2010.
“We saw it as a great opportunity, the perfect place Downtown for Sugardaddy’s,” said Ballard, who has stores at Polaris Fashion Place and Easton Town Center.
“This store (on Gay Street) actually does better than the one in Easton on certain days,” he said. “Easton is great on Friday nights and weekends, but the rest of the time this Downtown store can be more prolific.”
Ballard also helped form the Gay Street Business Collaborative, along with Chad McCoury, owner of the J. Gumbo’s restaurant on the street. The group has about 30 members, Ballard said.
Its first project was putting up the multicolored Gay Street banners that line the street from High Street to Cleveland Avenue.
“I was looking out the window one day, thinking about all the beautiful streetscaping and light poles that had flag holders on them,” he said. “And I thought, ‘What if we created some sort of look, like the arches in the Short North,’ but obviously not going that far.”
Next up for the group is collaborative marketing. This will include fliers and posters, as well as working with organizers of large events such as the annual Arnold Classic to entice visitors to Gay Street.
“I love this sense of community; all the business owners are rooting for each other,” said Maloney of 39 Below.
They also frequent one another’s shops.
“I’m at El Arepazo (Latin Grill on Pearl Alley) and Plaintain Cafe all the time, and I have to take my 3-year-old to 39 Below three times a week. She loves it,” said Crockett, of Vinyl Frontier.“In fact, one of the things we didn’t plan for when we moved here, expenses-wise, was how much more we’d spend since we go out so much.”