Why the developer does things the hard way

Patience isn’t a virtue you find in many real estate developers, but Mark Wagenbrenner has it in spades. Over the past two decades, the president of Thrive Cos. has methodically transformed large swaths of the city, taking on massive, complicated redevelopment projects involving blighted buildings, environmental remediation and community partnerships.

In the early 2000s, Wagenbrenner and his partners—his brother, Eric, and Brian Barrett—branched into redeveloping contaminated sites called “brownfields,” taking advantage of the $400 million Clean Ohio bond initiative approved by Ohio voters in 2000. Their first project was Harrison Park, a former vegetable oil processing plant that took 11 years to redevelop. That was followed by such high-profile projects as Jeffrey Park (a former mining machinery factory), Grant Park (a former coated vinyl manufacturer) and the Rogue Fitness headquarters (a former roller bearing factory).

Columbus Monthly recently spoke with Wagenbrenner about his work, including his latest big-ticket redevelopments—the Mount Carmel West hospital site in Franklinton and the Marble Cliff Quarry, which is being turned into Quarry Trails, a mixed-use collaboration with Metro Parks. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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What current project excites you the most? 
We like them all, but we think the most unique one is Quarry Trails—to have the ability to work with our Metro Park system and to see a park like that evolve. We think it’s a really unique opportunity.

What’s the status of the project? 
Metro Parks is starting this year. They’re out to bid on big chunks of the heavy earth-moving that they have to achieve, and they’re going to start on the mountain biking trails this year. I think they hope to get that open by year’s end. We want to start a phase of apartments, a phase of attached condos and a phase of detached condos and stand-alone homes. By year’s end, all that will be underway.

What’s the most challenging project you’ve ever done?
The Humko site [now Harrison Park], which was the old margarine factory, was probably the most challenging environmental remediation ever conquered through the Clean Ohio program for the state of Ohio. Sulfuric acid got together with hydrogen peroxide under the surface and caused a plume of gas in the sewers.

Are you mixing in residential and commercial in the Mount Carmel project?
Yeah, we’ll do apartments and then office. The city wants to see offices along the freeway. We’re partnered with Pizzuti. Pizzuti bought the old [Graham] Ford site, and so we partnered with them. But the magic of the Mount Carmel site is it’s got a lot of structured parking, and so that’ll allow us to build dense wood-framed construction and not have the cost of new garages, which is brutally expensive. And so we think we’re going to be able to bring units on that are quite affordable.

You’ve developed a unique niche with these complicated reclamation projects. What do you like about them?
It took us 11 years to finish the Humko site, but when we look back on pictures of where we started and where it ended, it’s a lot to be proud of. It’s very rewarding.

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