Downtown Concierge

Open Spaces Bring Light to Downtown Columbus

Author: Keith Schneider


In the Media


The New York Times

Photo by Andrew Spear for The New York Times

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The capital city of Ohio adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending.

This year, those words on paper are fully coming to life in the southern blocks of the downtown area of Columbus, which is beckoning developers after decades of disinvestment.

“What happened here is that people chose the future,” Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said. “Our business leaders work closely with the public sector. We’ve taken some big steps that worked.”

In May, the Arshot Investment Corporation became the latest developer to embrace the formula. The company announced its plan for Millennial Tower, a 25-story, $90 million, 400,000-square foot mixed-use development that includes 180,000 square feet of office space, 40,000 square feet of retail space and 100 apartments.

Construction of the tower is scheduled to start early next year on the corner of Rich and Front Streets, a short walk from the nine-acre Columbus Commons, which was completed in 2011. The tower will also be one block from the city’s Scioto River shoreline promenade and park, which was completed last year.

Within a few blocks of the coming tower are five other buildings that are under construction or just opened, totaling $241 million in private investment to construct 275,000 square feet of office space, about 800 residential units and 80,000 square feet of retail space.

Preceding these changes was a challenging campaign for local lawmakers, who persuaded Columbus residents during the recession in 2009 to approve a city income tax increase to 2.5 percent, from 2 percent.

The vote was close, but the measure passed. The added revenue helped prevent layoffs of city employees and enabled Columbus to begin investing in its reconstruction plan. The city spent $63 million from 2011 to 2015 to build three new parks. The total cost was $105 million, and the balance was raised from city businesses, most of them affiliated with the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization founded in 2002 and directed by business and civic leaders.

In 2011, the development group scraped away the last vestiges of the 1.2-million-square-foot City Center. The nearly empty shopping mall, which opened in 1989 but struggled as interest in downtown shopping declined, was replaced by Columbus Commons, a $25 million expanse of grass, gardens and a shaded food court inspired by Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan.

The same year, the city rebuilt its eastern Scioto River shoreline, shrinking a five-lane riverfront boulevard to three lanes, and adding a promenade and restaurants. The renamed Scioto Mile cost $44 million.

Columbus then looked at the river itself, listless and muddy. In 2013, the city removed the Main Street Dam, which was completed in 1918 to control flooding but also doubled to 600 feet the distance between the river’s banks. With the dam out of the way, and with the help of dredges to remove sediments, the river narrowed to 300 feet, and the city gained 33 acres of once-submerged shoreline that opened as the $36 million Scioto Greenways park last year. The projects were principally financed by public funds.

Columbus’s strategy of seeding anticipated private real estate investment with taxpayer money defied the tactics of low taxes and public spending austerity that gripped Ohio’s state lawmakers through and since the recession. But city officials say their decisions have paid off, attracting developers into privately financing the replacement of cracked asphalt of parking lots with nearly $350 million in new and renovated market-rate buildings that house thousands of downtown residents, and helped generate 1,000 jobs.

The newest completed project in the southern part of downtown is 250 High Street, a $55 million, 12-story building on the southwest corner of Columbus Commons. It is 320,000 square feet, and has about 120 rental units and retail and office space. Opened in November, it has 140,000 square feet of office space and 10,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space. Over all, it is 99 percent leased.

The market response has been so strong that the builders — Robert White Jr., the president of the developer the Daimler Group, and Brett Kaufman, the chief executive of Kaufman Development — are preparing to construct a $60 million, mixed-use building of similar size on an empty parcel a block away.

“Our thought was that green space would change how people viewed this part of the city,” Mr. White said. “It did just that.”

The new project from Mr. White and Mr. Kaufman on Rich Street, called Two25 Commons, will be the final piece in a three-sided enclosure of buildings that surround the park. Other new structures are the Julian, a $21 million, seven-story apartment building with about 90 residential units, which opened last year; and Highpoint at Columbus Commons, a $51 million, 300-unit rental apartment project with ground-floor retail, which opened in 2013. Across High Street, a $30 million apartment project with about 250 units and 22,000 square feet of retail space is under construction.

“We knew we needed to build the amenities to attract privately financed development,” said Guy V. Worley, chief executive of the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation. “We had a lot of help from our major businesses here, which wrote seven- and eight-figure checks. At the same time, the public investment has been substantial.”

With 836,000 residents, Columbus is the largest city in Ohio and one of the largest in the Midwest by population. Unlike its two big sister cities, Cincinnati and Cleveland, which have lost residents, Columbus has grown over the last few decades.

Business executives and government leaders cite Columbus’s long history as the state capital, its central location and huge pool of graduating students from Ohio State University and other colleges as competitive advantages in sustaining the city’s economy.

Columbus also has an allegiance to big ideas without flamboyance. In 1991, for instance, city engineers discovered that cleaning up traces of chemicals in the dirt behind a maintenance facility would cost $2 million because of national hazardous waste rules. The city issued an influential report that asserted such urban cleanups caused enormous expense for little gain. The report started a national campaign to change standards and sharply reduce the cost of making urban industrial sites, called brownfields, safe for new construction. The new brownfield rules, enacted in the mid-1990s, adjusted national policy, and helped Columbus and other cities redevelop their waterfronts and business districts.

Similarly, in the late 1990s, Columbus recognized that a 75-acre industrial area and abandoned rail yard along the Scioto River, about a mile north of Columbus Commons, was a prime site for a new multiuse district. The city collaborated with Nationwide Realty Investors, an affiliate of Nationwide Mutual Insurance, which is based in the city. Together, at a cost of $750 million, they turned the area into the Arena District, now one of the city’s most active areas for work and residences. The Blue Jackets, the National Hockey League team, play there, as do the Clippers, an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians baseball team.

Since 2000, the number of people living in the city’s center has doubled, to 7,500, according to the mayor’s office. The $388 million in public infrastructure investment since 2011 in the Columbus Commons area and several more downtown projects has generated close to $2 billion in private investment in Columbus’s downtown, the office said, and brought 1,600 new jobs into 2.5 million square feet of fresh office space.

The next area for development, Mr. Ginther said, is Franklinton, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and across the river from downtown in the 200-acre floodplain along the Scioto’s western bank. Ignored for decades, Franklinton’s turn-of-the-20th-century homes and mid-20th century light-industrial buildings are separated by many empty parcels. “We’ve got the public investments in place to make that neighborhood really work,” he said.

A version of this article appears in print on June 1, 2016, on Page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: Open Spaces Bring Light to Downtown Columbus.