A guide to up-and-coming neighborhoods and the next chapter in Columbus' central city renaissance
Downtown is no longer a civic embarrassment. Nearly two decades since Columbus got serious about reviving its urban core, new apartments, condos, businesses, parks and more dot the Downtown landscape. More than 8,000 people now call the city center home—more than twice as many as in 2000—and the numbers are sure to rise, with $640 million in projects under construction in Downtown right now (the highest concentration of new residential housing in Central Ohio) and an additional $1.3 billion in proposed development.
The result, of course, is a more vibrant, interesting and appealing Downtown, a place that no longer feels completely abandoned after 5 p.m. What's more, different pockets of the city center are developing their own identities: the entertainment- and sports-focused Arena District, the cultural hub of the Discovery District, the vibrant shopping and restaurants of the Gay Street area and the parks and festivals of RiverSouth. Here's a guide to the emerging areas that are writing the next chapter in Downtown's comeback story.
The Arena District
The long and the short of Downtown's first turnaround tale
The Arena District, Downtown's biggest urban reclamation project, is entering an interesting new phase nearly two decades after its birth. With land getting scarce around Nationwide Arena—the original catalyst for the area's growth—developers and city officials are looking elsewhere for opportunities. “I think the next big step is, if you will, a step up, literally and figuratively, and a step out, in terms of moving across the river,” says Columbus development director Steve Schoeny.
The proposed North Market tower would fulfill the “up” portion of that plan. Along with Nationwide Arena and Huntington Park, the North Market is one of the Arena District's most significant anchors—a smorgasbord of charming and inventive vendors (from flowers to falafel) that also serves as an entrepreneurial incubator (Columbus ice cream icon Jeni Britton Bauer got her start there). “I think it's one of the city's finest assets,” says Columbus real estate agent Marilyn Vutech, who specializes in Downtown and other urban neighborhoods.
But can the market continue to thrive without adapting to the new economics of Downtown? The city of Columbus, the North Market's landlord, thinks change is needed, leading to a 2016 request for proposals that asked developers to reimagine the market and its adjoining parking lot, also owned by the city. In April, the city chose a winner in the North Market sweepstakes—an audacious proposal from the Wood Companies/Schiff Capital to build a $120 million, 35-story, mixed-use skyscraper on the North Market parking lot.
To say the least, the building would stand out in the neighborhood—it's been a long time since such a tall structure has risen in Columbus—but city officials say the North Market needs bold ideas to remain sustainable. “This is an exciting opportunity to maximize the space currently being used for parking into a multi-use development that will spur growth for the North Market while preserving its historical presence,” said Mayor Andy Ginther in an April press release announcing the city's decision.
Others are less excited. “I think putting a 35-story building on that parking lot is insane,” says Miranova developer Ron Pizzuti. The city rejected Pizzuti's more modest North Market plan, which included an 18-story residential tower and a 10-story office tower. “It's a postage-stamp-sized lot, and it's going to create a traffic problem that's worse than today,” Pizzuti says. “After a hockey game, you don't dare go up Vine Street. … I think it's just a wrong mix for that site.”
While some are looking skyward in the Arena District, others are thinking, “Go west.” Today, Nationwide Arena and a slew of other recent arrivals (condos, offices, apartments, restaurants and a park) occupy the 22 acres where the abandoned Ohio Penitentiary once stood, giving new life to the once-dormant corner of Downtown. But when Nationwide Realty Investors, the Arena District's driving force, completes the last of the two 12-story Parks Edge condo towers on Spring Street next year, developers won't have many holes left to fill on the old Ohio Pen property.
That leaves the Arena District's western hinterlands, an area known more for industrial blight and homeless camps than economic revitalization. In early August, the Schottenstein Real Estate Group announced plans to turn 23 acres of mostly vacant land north and west of Huntington Park, as well as the recently completed Buggyworks office project, into Grand Central, a multi-use development that includes hotels, a grocery store, two residential towers and a conference center. That project comes on top of the proposed redevelopment of the city-owned former municipal light plant at the western end of Nationwide Boulevard into industrial-chic offices. As part of that effort, city officials want to build a park and a pedestrian bridge across the Olentangy River that would connect the Arena District to the Olentangy Trail. Schoeny says such projects are addressing the biggest weakness in the Arena District—the western dead zone. “Progress is being made,” he says.
Ideal Residents: Young professionals, empty nesters, sports fans
Strengths: Careful planning from its main developer, Nationwide Realty Investors; attractions such as Huntington Park, Nationwide Arena, the Express Live concert venue and North Market; close to the Short North and the restored riverfront
Weaknesses: A somewhat bland corporate feel, fewer historic buildings than other Downtown neighborhoods
New: Parks Edge condos phase one, Buggyworks offices
Under Construction: Parks Edge phase two, former municipal light plant office and residential renovation, 457-459 N. High St. office and retail
Proposed: North Market tower, Grand Central, AC Hotel on Park Street, Olentangy River pedestrian bridge
Hidden Gems: Temporary murals on Broadbelt Lane; Mmelo Boutique Confections; the R Bar, one of the best hockey bars in the country
Green space transforms a sea of parking lots.
RiverSouth is the kid sister of Downtown districts—a spunky new arrival with lots of energy and potential. Asked to describe her neighborhood, RiverSouth resident Amy Schmittauer points to the construction cranes found all over the area east of the Scioto River and north of I-70. “When the construction is done, it really is going to be quite a hub of homes for people, and I think that's a really fascinating thing to be saying about RiverSouth,” says Schmittauer, the president of the Downtown Residents' Association of Columbus.
Indeed, RiverSouth didn't really exist a few years ago. Schmittauer lives in 250 High, a 2-year-old, $50 million, 12-story, mixed-use development with apartments, retail and offices, including the headquarters of digital marketing company Resource/Ammirati. Four more significant residential developments are under construction nearby, and developers have proposed three more major projects in the neighborhood, including the $90 million, 28-story Millennial Tower at Front and Rich streets. “They can't rent these things fast enough,” Schmittauer says. “The demand is absolutely incredible.”
A decade ago, this area was a drab and depressing dead zone with a handful of surface lots, government buildings and not much else. And while pioneering luxury condo high-rises Miranova and Waterford Tower first showed the residential potential of this southern corner of Downtown, big changes didn't occur until city officials hit on another idea: using green space as an economic development tool. The struggling City Center mall was turned into Columbus Commons, a 6-acre park, while the Scioto Mile and Scioto Greenways created a new riverfront oasis with bike paths, boat launches and gorgeous views of the Downtown skyline. “Now, people are living, working and playing in a district that once was a sea of surface parking lots,” says Guy Worley, head of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp. and Capitol South.
RiverSouth is convenient to German Village to the south, as well as Capitol Square theaters to the north, and if you're looking to head to the 'burbs for shopping or work, there's easy highway access. But thanks to the new and spruced-up parks in the area, residents don't need to leave their neighborhood to find things to do. Situated between Columbus Commons and Bicentennial Park—two summertime hubs of activity—the neighborhood offers residents the chance to snuggle under the stars during Picnic with the Pops or Rhythm on the River concerts, jog or bike along new multipurpose riverfront trails or take in the view at Milestone 229, the restaurant in Bicentennial Park. “The chicken and mac 'n' cheese keeps me coming back,” Worley says.
What's more, with the recent completion of the Scioto Greenways project—in which the removal of the Main Street dam created a narrower river channel, opening up more green space along the now-exposed riverbanks—the waterfront has become the city's main festival grounds, hosting Festival Latino, the Columbus Arts Festival, the Columbus Pride Festival and the Columbus Jazz and Rib Fest, among others. “RiverSouth has developed this identity that's linked to Columbus Commons and the Scioto Mile and the Scioto Greenways,” says Columbus development director Steve Schoeny. “It's the place where people gather outside because there's these great assets.”
The neighborhood isn't perfect, of course. Retail is still limited, though that's changing with the likes of Swan Cleaners, De Novo on the Park, Condado Tacos and Winans Chocolates + Coffees opening recently. (The Millennial Tower and several Lifestyle Communities proposals call for street-level retail that should help fill the void down the road, too.) Miranova developer Ron Pizzuti says festival crowds can be a hassle for residents, but he's not complaining too much. “There's enough value in having them in the neighborhood that it's worth putting up with the aggravation,” he says.
Pizzuti, who opened Miranova in 2001, has enjoyed watching the transformation of RiverSouth. When he returns to his penthouse condo in Miranova from his Short North office, he drives along Civic Center Drive, past the swings that beckon folks strolling along the Scioto. On a warm night, he says, they're almost always occupied by people enjoying the peaceful setting. “Those swings are a hotspot,” he says.
Ideal Residents: Young professionals, empty nesters, reverse commuters, outdoor enthusiasts, festival buffs
Strengths: Columbus Commons, Bicentennial Park, Scioto Mile and Scioto Greenways; bike paths and boat launches; festivals and concerts; close to Franklinton, German Village, Downtown theaters and the Brewery District; easy highway access
Weaknesses: Cranes, cranes, everywhere; lack of retail; noise and traffic from festivals
New: Swan Cleaners, Winans Chocolates + Coffees, Condado Tacos, De Novo on the Park
Under Construction: Residential developments like Lifestyle Communities Trautman Block, Lifestyle Communities Beatty Block, 303 S. Front St. Apartments, Two25 Commons
Proposed: Residential projects like Lifestyle Communities Mattan Block, the Millennial Tower, 255 S. High St. Apartments
Hidden Gem: The Cultural Arts Center in a former armory next to Bicentennial Park
The Discovery District
Downtown's cultural hub is on the rise—even if it's hard to notice.
The Discovery District boasts impressive assets: four colleges, a hospital, the main branch of one of the top library systems in the country, the Thurber House literary center, a Level 1 trauma center, a pocket of historic homes on Town Street and Franklin Avenue near the charming Topiary Park, even Downtown's only grocery store, The Hills Market. So why is the area often perceived as something of a Downtown laggard? “The weakness is all the spaces in between, which is mostly parking,” says Marc Conte, research director for the Capital Crossroads and Discovery special improvement districts.
To be fair, the Discovery District's sluggish reputation isn't quite accurate. The area has experienced a tremendous amount of economic activity in recent years. Anchor institutions Grant Medical Center, the Columbus Museum of Art and the Columbus Metropolitan Library all have undergone major expansions and renovations, while the neighborhood has welcomed several new arrivals: Platform Beer Co. and new condos on Sixth Street, as well as the Roosevelt Coffeehouse and additional retail and residential on Long Street. Even more projects are under construction or proposed, ranging from a new hotel at Grant Avenue and Main Street, to a $34 million expansion of Columbus State's Culinary Hospitality School, to several residential projects from the Columbus developer Jeff Edwards, who appears to be attempting to connect the thriving Gay Street neighborhood to the Discovery District.
Yet the size of the Discovery District can make it difficult to notice these changes. If other Downtown neighborhoods are islands, then Discovery District is a continent. The area—roughly bordered by I-670, I-71, I-70 and Fifth Street—encompasses nearly half of Downtown. “You could probably have three neighborhoods in what's considered the Discovery District,” Conte says.
But the Discovery District's unique collection of cultural institutions—an attribute unlike any other place Downtown (or in Columbus, for that matter)—makes the neighborhood attractive to students, lifelong learners and curious recent college graduates without a lot of money (the area has more affordable housing options than other parts of Downtown, especially in some of the old apartment buildings near Topiary Park). “The Columbus Museum of Art and the newly refurbished Columbus Metropolitan Main Library are world-class institutions that create a hub of activity, bringing together intellectuals and art lovers alike,” says Sue Zazon, president of Huntington Bank's Central Ohio region. “Additionally, there's a unique vibe brought by students and faculty of Franklin University, Columbus State Community College and Columbus College of Art & Design.”
Developers are beginning to see these assets as an economic opportunity, too—and if the growth in the neighborhood continues as expected, it's going to be harder to miss it. Consider the $20 million residential and commercial project Motorists Insurance has proposed for one of its parking lots just north of Topiary Park on Oak Street. In the spring, construction will begin on the 82,960-square-foot building with 68 apartments and ground-level retail. Eventually, Motorists plans to spend an additional $62 million to develop four more mixed-use buildings on the nearly 10 acres of parking lots it owns near its Broad Street headquarters. “We've had these lots for a while,” says Mike Lisi, vice president of corporate services and real estate for Motorists. “We've seen all the progress with Downtown construction, and what better time than now, when the economy has turned around, to make better use of these lots than just simple parking lots?”
Ideal Residents: Young professionals, students, recent college graduates, art lovers, lifelong learners, people looking for more affordable Downtown housing options
Strengths: Cultural and educational clusters, Grant Medical Center, Topiary Park, The Hills Market
Weaknesses: Little vitality and walkability, lack of restaurants and shopping, no park land north of Broad Street
New Businesses: Koko Tea Salon & Bakery, Schokko Art Café (inside the Columbus Museum of Art), Platform Beer Co., Ampersand Emporium (CCAD store), Roosevelt Coffeehouse
New Developments: Main Library renovation, 325-331 E. Long St. residential and retail project, Grant Joint and Bone Center, Sixth Street Mews residential project phase one, new CMA wing
Under Construction: Homes2Suites Hotel at Grant and Main, Grant Helipad and Trauma Center, the Neilston residential project, 330 Oak St. Apartments, Mercantile Building residential project, the View on Grant residential project, 65-67 S. Fifth St. residential project, 223 E. Town St. Apartments
Proposed: Columbus State Hospitality and Culinary Arts School, Grant Medical Center expansion, Social Justice Park on Broad Street, Neighborhood Launch (Sixth and Gay), Sixth Street Mews phase two, Washington and Town Apartments, Motorists residential project, 274 E. Long St. residential and retail project
Hidden Gems: Blockfort art gallery and studio, historic Town Street and Franklin Avenue
Gay Street/Capitol Square Area
Can the success of Downtown's liveliest street spread elsewhere?
Call it the neighborhood with no name. The Gay Street/Capitol Square area—the unimaginative moniker we gave this undefined portion of Downtown for this story—makes up for its lack of clear branding with an ingredient not often found in other Columbus central city turnaround stories: an organic, bottom-up revival.
Unlike the Arena District or RiverSouth, Gay Street, the center of this neighborhood's renaissance, wasn't the result of a master development plan from the likes of Nationwide Realty Investors or the Columbus Downtown Development Corp. As in the Short North, a mishmash of pioneers—folks like the three Jeffs of Gay Street (Jeff Mathes of Due Amici, Jeff Davis of Café Brioso and Jeff Edwards of the Edwards Companies)—led the way and soon others followed suit, giving the neighborhood a funkier, more authentic vibe.
That feel is enhanced by such warm-weather amenities as Moonlight and Sunlight markets (monthly outdoor street festivals on Gay Street) and the Pearl Market food and artisan bazaar in nearby Pearl and Lynn alleys that stretch between Capitol Square and Gay Street. The brick-lined streets add to the historic charm of the neighborhood. The result is the liveliest retail corridor in Downtown—and one that should get better with the addition of Veritas Tavern (the top restaurant in Central Ohio, according to this magazine), which plans to relocate from Delaware to Gay and High streets. “The eclectic mix of buildings and diverse retail offerings, including restaurants and hotels, provides for a 24/7 lifestyle neighborhood reminiscent of major cities across the country,” says landscape architect and urban designer Carmine Russo, whose business, Realm Collaborative, is in the Ruggery building on Gay Street.
The initial attraction of Gay Street and the surrounding area was its historic building stock. And that remains a major draw, with the transformation of the iconic LeVeque Tower (luxury condos were recently completed) and the much-anticipated renovations of the Citizens Building (the future home of Veritas Tavern) and the former Madison's department store.
But now developers also are looking to fill the holes in the neighborhood. The Edwards Companies, for instance, is turning a giant parking lot on High Street between Gay and Long into a $40 million, six-story apartment and retail complex. Led by CEO Jeff Edwards, the Edwards Companies has shown a knack for building distinctive projects in the Gay Street area, in particular its Neighborhood Launch row houses, unique Downtown residences with many perks, from charming pocket parks to an attractive community center (in the former Faith Mission church). “There was just such an attention to detail on each of those buildings, and I think that's what makes it really stand out compared to some other places,” says Marc Conte, director of research for the Capital Crossroads and Discovery special improvement districts.
City officials and developers hope Gay Street's energy spreads to other parts of the neighborhood. Long Street, a block to the north, has started to develop a hip, funky vibe of its own, with businesses such as Spoonful Records, Downtown Bike Shop and Pins Mechanical Co., the duckpin bowling concept bar in a former National Tire and Battery at Long and Fourth streets that opened last year. Meanwhile, a major project also is on the horizon on Capitol Square with the proposed $29 million conversion of the former Dispatch building at 34 S. Third St. into office and commercial space, including a possible first-floor restaurant.
But both of those areas have handicaps, too. Capitol Square is limited by its defining architectural element, the Ohio Statehouse, which gives the neighborhood history and green space but no commercial or residential activity, and the Rhodes and Riffe towers—giant office structures that house lots of state workers but don't provide after-hours activity beyond the Riffe's theaters.
Long Street seems to have potential, but the design of the wide, one-way street doesn't welcome pedestrians. “You could turn Long Street into a two-way, or there's some streetscape improvements that can be made to make it feel more intimate,” Conte says.
Ideal Residents: Young professionals, empty nesters, Capitol Square workers, theater buffs, people looking for a more authentic urban experience
Strengths: Historic building stock; Gay Street restaurants, bars and stores; Capitol Square theaters; Pearl Market; Moonlight and Sunlight markets
Weaknesses: Tight parking, the design of Long Street
New Businesses: Pins Mechanical Co., Café Phenix, Jewelweed Floral Studio, Downtown Bike Shop, PowerHouse Gym, Sprint, Jack and Benny's Downtown Diner, Loftwright Home Goods and Gifts, Elia Athenian Grill, Buckeye Bourbon Bar, Stack'd, Poke Bros, Tiger + Lily
New Developments: 1-11 E. Gay St. mixed-use project, LeVeque Tower apartments and condos and Hotel LeVeque, Citizens Building apartments, Long Street parking garage renovation, improvements to Lynn and Pearl alleys
Under Construction: Microliving apartments at Long and Front streets, 85-111 N. High St. residential project, Madison's building mixed-use renovation
Proposed: The relocation of Veritas Tavern (Columbus Monthly's best restaurant in 2016) from Delaware to the Citizens Building on High Street, Huntington Center upgrades, former Dispatch building retail and office renovation, the View on Long residential project, 44. N. High St. office and retail project
Hidden Gems: Bee apiary at northeast corner of Ohio Statehouse grounds, Jack's Diner in Lynn Alley