The Pizzuti clan‚??s latest bold idea‚?"a boutique hotel, office space, parking garage and gallery to house the family‚??s renowned art collection‚?"would remake both sides of High Street in the heart of the Short North.
History shows that the Pizzuti family thinks big.
About a decade ago, Pizzuti Cos., a nationally recognized real estate development and management firm led by Ron Pizzuti, changed the Columbus skyline with Miranova, the $150 million mixed-use complex situated downtown on the Scioto River. It also helped bring major league sports to Central Ohio by becoming minority owners of the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Columbus Crew.
Now, the company has set its sights on the Short North.
Its latest venture-a $50 million project recently dubbed The Joseph in honor of Ron's father-promises to be a game changer for the area, shaping both sides of High Street's 600 block. The proposal features the trendy neighborhood's first hotel and multi-level parking structure (buildings taller than most along that stretch of the city), state-of-the-art office space and an art collection to rival some museums.
That is, if it ever breaks ground.
More than three years after the blueprints were unveiled, the development still hasn't launched-thanks to the Great Recession and the Short North community's initial resistance to the grand plans.
"The project has been somewhat controversial," city of Columbus planning administrator Vince Papsidero acknowledges. "But at the same time, it offers amenities that really speak to the heart of what the Short North is all about-an art gallery, offices, parking, a boutique, smaller hotel. Our goal is always to balance all of the needs with solutions that benefit the whole community. We have to see if this project will be able to do that."
Ron Pizzuti's son, Joel, dressed in an open-collared pink shirt and gripping a cardboard coffee cup, sits at a conference table on the eighth floor of the company's Miranova Place office. The president of the business founded by his father in 1976 is talking about why the project is a must for the Short North.
It begins with observations by the employees of Pizzuti Cos., which also has offices in Chicago and Orlando. While developing everything from industrial centers to upscale condos, Pizzuti workers travel a lot and have discovered Columbus lacks the kind of unique hotels found across the country and around the world.
"There are some nice offerings downtown, and there has been some success in the past with the Lofts and some other properties," he says, "but in our opinion, the 100-room boutique hotel experience that is on street level in the heart of a great neighborhood that we would find in a city like Nashville, Kansas City, Minneapolis-cities that some people would think are fairly analogous to Columbus-we just never had here."
The Short North jumped out as a prime location, combining nightlife and shopping with proximity to downtown and convention center traffic. And a dearth of hotel competition.
By early 2008, Pizzuti Cos. identified the site it felt would fit the 1.4 million-square-foot plans: a block on the west side of High Street, framed by Russell and Park streets and Millay Alley. The centerpiece would be a 10-story, 160-room hotel sitting on a current parking lot. In addition, there would be a 500-space parking garage, up to 50,000 square feet of office/residential space and 12,000 square feet of retail space.
The plan also would put back into play the vacant 85-year-old United Commercial Travelers Building at 623 Park St., which Pizzuti Cos. purchased in December 2007. The idea is to demolish the newer backside of the building to create the parking garage and use the historic front half-facing Park Street-to display the family's extensive and world-class collection of post-World War II American contemporary art, as well as pieces by emerging international artists. (The gallery would be open to the public, although with limited hours.)
The plans were introduced at a Victorian Village Commission meeting on Feb. 14, 2008. Residents and commissioners alike were intrigued-and overwhelmed-by its magnitude and the effect on parking and traffic. Plus there was resistance to demolishing a portion of the historic UCT structure.
"In the beginning, it was simply not appropriate," says Larry Totzke, former president of the Italian Village Society. "The parking part of the project was 500 spaces, and there was no way the site could handle that many cars. The initial design was for metal and glass structures that were very different from the local architecture. It looked like a monolith rising out of High Street."
Pizzuti says he wasn't surprised by the reaction. "We didn't expect that we were going to walk in there and they would say, 'Fantastic! Please alter the streetscape and let's add this hotel, this office building, this parking garage. Let's start tomorrow!' " he says. "We knew it would be a long process."
The process soon got even longer. In the fall of 2008, seven months after the project's unveiling, stock markets tumbled and the economy tanked. The company shelved the plan for more than a year.
By early 2010, the plans were back on the table-but they had morphed significantly. Discussions with the Victorian Village Commission generated a breakthrough question: Why place the project on only one side of High Street?
"They said, 'Have you thought about going across the street and splitting up this project?' My first reaction was it could make a lot of sense-but we don't own that site," Pizzuti says with a chuckle. "But it did make sense . . . so we took it and immediately investigated how to gain control of that site, and it ended up that we partnered with the city on it."
The partnership would allow Pizzuti Cos. to enter into a long-term lease with the city of Columbus for the east-side parking lot. That site would become the hotel (bumped down to 130 or so rooms and set back farther from High Street). Offices would fill the west-side parking lot on High Street, fronting a 330-car garage. The art gallery remained in the UCT building.
The shift seemed to win over residents. "I was cautious at first," Totzke says. "Through good cooperation between the Pizzutis and the Short North organizations, things are starting to come together."
"Most of the feedback I hear is everyone is excited about the idea of the project," adds Jeff Smith, president of the Short North Civic Association. "Our big concern is how it is implemented. But this is a well-regarded developer with a long history in Columbus. They want to work with us. I think the approval rating has gone from way negative to positive and is getting better."
Not everyone, however, is quite as enthusiastic. Jeff Harper stands on the sidewalk outside his condo on Russell Street and rubs a hand across his forehead, as if trying to wipe away the lines that form when he considers the intended site of Pizzuti's four-story parking garage. The entrance would be right across from his home in the Victorian Gate development.
Current plans have his tree-lined, one-way lane-which connects the block between High and Park streets-turning into a two-way road to become the sole route for traffic into the garage.
Harper bought his two-bedroom, two-bath condo in 2007 for $249,900; he believed in Columbus's vision of bringing residential living to the city's urban areas. When he first read about the Pizzuti project, he says he thought it was a "cool" idea. That's before he realized it would make a parking-lot entrance his front-step view, compromising his already deflated property value.
"I still think it's a nice project, but don't see how you can put a parking garage across from residential housing," he says. "It's bad enough they are going to block my skyline view of Columbus-I don't even care about that. All I care about is being able to sell my condo, and I don't think I can with a garage entrance across the street. My value is gone the second Russell Street becomes a thoroughfare."
And that is not the site's only challenge.
Crucial to the parking garage's development is the demolition of the eastern-most section of the UCT building, an action Pizzuti Cos. asked the Victorian Village commissioners to approve on the basis of "economic hardship." A 12-page document filed Oct. 21, 2010, with the commission outlined the criteria for such hardship, including:
• The property has little or no historical significance.
• It can't be reasonably maintained in a manner consistent with pertinent architectural standards and guidelines.
• There are no reasonable means of saving it from deterioration, demolition or collapse, other than the applicant's proposal.
• Denial of the certificate will result in a substantial reduction in the economic value of the property.
An informal Oct. 28 straw poll showed commissioners supported the Pizzuti hardship position, but chairman Marc Conte says new concerns have arisen from "contradictory" evidence presented to the board by an outside source. "It showed that if [Pizzuti] had purchased the property at a lower price, they could have rehabbed it economically," Conte says. "The code says that an applicant can't create their own hardship. Right now we have a differing of opinion among the commissioners whether the building can be rehabbed and reused."
In the meantime, the plans remain in front of the Italian and Victorian Village commissions, which have ultimate say over the architectural impact of the project. No formal vote is scheduled. The sites also must face city rezoning hearings-and that doesn't begin to address the traffic and parking issues.
But Joel Pizzuti remains optimistic enough to predict 2013 for a grand opening celebration of The Joseph. "Most people look at Miranova today and think that it's a great addition to our skyline, and it was a great part of the beginning of the residential boom in downtown Columbus," he says. "I hope people look at this as an equally important project to the city of Columbus and this neighborhood."
"We want to create the best hotel experience in downtown Columbus," he adds. "We are trying to create a unique office offering that we think the market is asking for. And we hope the parking answers a need in the neighborhood. Lastly, I hope people will recognize and embrace what we are trying to do as a supporter of the arts. I think this will be a really unique opportunity for folks in . . . and outside of Columbus to experience something that a lot of people don't get the chance to. I hope they look at it as a positive."
Nicole Kraft is a freelance writer.
This story appeared in the May 2011 issue of Columbus Monthly.