If you take a walk down Gay Street in Downtown Columbus you might be surprised by what you discover on your sojourn. A mix of memorable and modern buildings, a blending of new and nostalgic. The street is alive; there’s no shortage of shops.
A boulevard bookended by signature institutions, beginning with the Columbus College of Art and Design and culminating in City Hall, you'll see a diverse mix of buildings and businesses on a unique, two-way, tree-lined street in Downtown Columbus.
You might find yourself asking how it all came to be.
We caught up with Don DeVere, President of Devere LLC and an early pioneer in the development of Gay Street, to learn more about the district’s roots, growth and trajectory.
Back in 2002, only 3,000 people lived in Downtown Columbus and streets were designed to get people out of Downtown quickly. For many years, Downtown was a ghost town outside of business hours.
“It was pretty lonely,” noted DeVere.
But he credits then-Mayor Michael B. Coleman for setting the cogs of change in motion. In 2002, Coleman spearheaded a Downtown Business Plan which laid out a lofty goal – to get 10,000 people living Downtown. One of the first places to see residential growth Downtown? You guessed it, Gay Street.
“When we did 15 E Gay, at the time, it was one of the early residential buildings within the Central Business District,” said DeVere.
Gay Street had a few things going for it. “The formula for Gay Street isn’t complicated - it had buildings,” said DeVere. “Turn of the century, pedestrian-scale architecture, that’s what drew us to the area.”
Leaning into this key strength, the City of Columbus converted Gay Street from one-way to two-way, adding medians, and trees, altogether enhancing the area’s charm and walkability.
“Part of what makes Gay Street lovely,” says DeVere, “the median with plants and trees... and a canopy that makes it more pleasant to walk.”
Despite taking an early risk, DeVere said that he and his business partners remained bullish. “We knew over time people would discover the benefits of urban living.” And indeed, they did.
“In the last 10 years, the resurgence has been remarkable, beyond anything I would have predicted. The organic growth has really been a result of people in leadership, who were strategic thinkers, who put the pieces in place.”
The downstream effects of these early investments were significant. It showed Gay Street was viable to other developers who had their eye on the area, developers like Jeff Edwards, who would spend the next two decades building on Gay Street’s organic success.
Edwards’ endeavors started with Neighborhood Launch, a nine-block cluster of walk-up condos, before filling in a block-long gap on High Street’s west side with The Nicholas. Currently, Edwards is working on the redevelopment of the White-Haines and Madison’s buildings, which have long been blighted. With this explosion of projects, it’s no wonder Downtown’s residential population now tops 11,200.
One key element that makes Gay Street so attractive not just to residents, but to employees and visitors too, is the density of first-floor retail offerings. A mix of service-oriented businesses, food and beverage establishments, and shops and boutiques are nestled together, serving the entire neighborhood.
While other pockets downtown have amassed a smattering of bars and restaurants, few have the wide variety seen on Gay Street. Between High and Third you can find a wine parlor and coffee house, an optometrist and bridal shops, nail salon and wallet artisan, four-star hotels and apartments for rent, all within a few minutes walk.
Gay Street is also the market heart for Downtown Columbus. Passersby can purchase artisan goods and fresh produce from local vendors at the Pearl, Moonlight and Sunlight Markets throughout the spring and summer months.
The food and beverage choices on Gay Street span the full spectrum, from Aracri’s by-the-slice New York-style style pizza to Veritas, an upscale experiential establishment tucked below the Citizens Building.
And there’s more on the way.
Veritas’ Executive Chef Josh Dalton is bringing yet another concept to this culinary corridor, Speck Italian Eatery. A Parisian-inspired bistro, Grand Rue, is also planned for the Northeast corner of Gay and High.
Gay Street, however, is aspiring to be more than a delicious destination, it’s blazing a course to become a nexus for creative work in Columbus.
According to DeVere the two – food and fine art – go hand-in-hand. “Having terrific galleries and unbelievable restaurants will be a strong foundation for the area.”
“We’re trying to make this area really another unique arts district,” says Jeff Edwards, President & CEO of The Edwards Companies but Gay Street’s already well on its way.
In 2021, the Gay Street District became home to No Place Gallery and in June of 2022, Sarah Gormley Gallery announced they’d be moving from the Short North to a 1,800-square-foot space in The Nicholas later this fall.
“Art has a real role here in the Gay & High District,” DeVere says, “it brings a level of sophistication, level of fun, that is unique.”
Fun and unique are perfect words to describe the new sculpture by Janet Echelman that will be suspended above the intersection of Gay and High – one of many reasons to be excited about the future of the Gay Street District and Downtown Columbus.
Over the last eight months, residents of the region have been sharing their big ideas for Columbus' city center as part of the next stage of Downtown’s resurgence – the 2022 Downtown Strategic Plan. While the full plan is coming later this year, it’s clear people are eager for more urban neighborhoods with everyday necessities within walking distance.
Conversion of streets from one-way to two-way, enhancing the urban tree canopy, creating more walkable corridors, adding first-floor experiences and enhancing the public realm – these are just some of the strategies that have been talked about as part of the planning process to bring Gay Street’s success to other Downtown districts.
Understated, unexpected, Gay Street has come a long way in its 20-year saga, but really, this is just the beginning.
Discover something new on Gay Street today.