North Market project back on track, to boast tallest building in Columbus in 30 years

Jim Weiker
The Columbus Dispatch
A 31-story tower is at the heart of the new design for the North Market mixed-use development.

After being delayed by the pandemic, a plan to develop the North Market parking lot is back, and bigger.

A 31-story tower anchors the new design for the mixed-use project to be located on a one-acre lot just east of the Downtown food market. The 700,000-square-foot tower would be the tallest built in Columbus since 1990, edging out the 28-story Hilton hotel being built a stone's throw away.

The North Market tower – five stories higher than the one announced two years ago – is the most dramatic element of a project that has grown in other ways, including cost, from an estimated $192 million to about $300 million.

"As a company we look long-term and we try to do projects that we think are generational," said Jim Merkel, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Rockbridge, the Columbus firm leading the development. "This particular project is just that, a transformational  project, well located and as significant to a community as any project we’ve done in our history."

The North Market mixed-use development would rise on the parking lot on the east side of the North Market building.

Rockbridge, which has been involved in developing hundreds of hotels nationwide, added Jeff Edwards, CEO and president of the Columbus development firm The Edwards Companies, as a partner in the project.

North Market tower: Project details, timeframe

Developers hope to begin construction next summer and finish within 30 to 36 months.

"We’ve been spending the last year refining the details of the project and making sure all these different uses work successfully in the building," Merkel said.

The building will house several components in three connected sections, including:

• 170 apartments, including some lower-cost workforce housing, in the 31-story portion 

• A 212-room independent hotel in the 20-story portion 

• 60,000 square feet of offices, down slightly from 90,000 originally planned, in a nine-story section 

• a 350-space parking garage under the apartments 

• Rooftop amenities on all three sections including a "speakeasy," pool and spa accessible to members of a club; a dog park on the roof of the apartment section; and a ballroom and event space on top of the nine-story portion.

The Merchant Building mixed-use development includes a hotel, residential tower, offices and parking garage in addition to an expansion of the North Market, shown on the right.

Other amenities include a fitness center, restaurant, coffee shop, spa, billiards room and a main-floor hub called the Trade Room, a gathering spot with indoor and outdoor space.

"Rather than think of hotel lobbies as just transactional places, we think of them as the heart of the house," Merkel said. "It will function as the center and heart of the project. We put a lot of attention into the details of creating these spaces."

How the tower project will benefit North Market

In addition, the project involves adding 11,000 square feet onto the east side of the North Market, expanding the market's space by about 50%. The space would be split into 3,900 square feet for merchants, 4,400 square feet of event and public space, and 3,200 square feet of outdoor space.

“North Market must evolve to stay relevant and prosperous – especially at a time when so many small businesses need creative plans for recovery,” Rick Harrison Wolfe, North Market's executive director, said in a Wednesday news release announcing the project.

The North Market is designed to benefit financially as well from the plan. Under the proposal, the city would transfer the parking lot to the developers. In exchange, the developers will commit funds to the North Market to compensate for lost parking revenue in addition to hotel bed-tax revenue from the project.

The project also adds a significant customer base and room for more tenants. 

"The plan is designed to ensure the preservation of the North Market for perpetuity," according to a statement from the developers.

In a news release, Mayor Andrew Ginther welcomed the development.

“It’s exciting to see this transformational vision progressing at such a critical time in Columbus, as this proposed plan for the project not only secures the preservation and expansion of the North Market – it also creates construction and permanent jobs for residents,” Ginther said.

Ginther said the partnership between public and private entities "addresses the region’s need for housing Columbus residents can afford and adds important hotel accommodations that help us compete for convention business and events.”

The development, designed by the NBBJ architectural firm, "will have a refined industrial design inspired by the North Market and Union Station, which once ran through the site," according to the news release.

The North Market development will include an addition to the market itself, shown on the right of this rendering.

The developers plan to present plans for the as-yet-unnamed project to the Downtown Commission shortly. Merkel said developers also plan to apply for tax credits allowed under Ohio Senate Bill 39 for "transformational mixed use development projects."

"This project meets every definition of what the state’s trying to do," Merkel said. "A big part of this is collaboration with the North Market and the city to really enhance this iconic destination in the heart of the city, adjacent to the Short North, Downtown, the Arena District. It hits on all fronts."