The southeast corner of 15th Ave. and High St. is largely quiet. The building, which once housed Long’s Bookstore, is boarded up and its parking lot is empty. However, a new zoning framework, which was recently approved by the City of Columbus, could revitalize the site as well as several of the buildings around it. The plan, which covers nine acres in total, is being led by Ohio State affiliated developer Campus Partners. It calls for larger mixed use buildings, a public square, a hotel and a large parking garage.
Campus Partners is a local developer affiliated with the university and largely focuses on projects within the University District. It was founded in 1995 and dates back to an initiative of then-President Gordon Gee. At the time, the area immediately surrounding the university was in a state of neglect and needed to be revitalized, according to Erin Prosser, Director of Community Development for Campus Partners. She added that students were moving out of the area, primarily because they felt unsafe. After five years of meeting with community members and prioritizing projects, the developer started work on what eventually became South Campus Gateway. The Gateway replaced a section of High St. that was largely concentrated with bars, Prosser says, and showed the university’s commitment to revitalizing the neighborhood. It was one of the first large investments in the area in decades. Eventually this created a new real-estate market and helped jumpstart private-sector development along High Street.
“It’s not the intention of Campus Partners to do everything,” she says “We want to push the market where we can and create investment that is high quality and supportive of the neighborhood.”
While initially planning the project, Campus Partners focused on five goals—promoting a mixed-use environment, developing public spaces, making the area more pedestrian friendly, connecting streets and addressing the parking problems. Hoffsis says it is also important to note that keeping the area the way it is today is something that is not realistic.
“The reason we chose to engage is because there was so much activity,” says Amanda Hoffsis, president of Campus Partners. “We knew if we did not act now and use the properties we have as leverage most of the properties would develop and would be piecemeal.”
Hoffsis says that while a lot of people may make the comparison between South Campus Gateway and this project, the goals are very different. South Campus Gateway was built in order to create a market and clean up an area, Prosser says. The development now would happen with or without the university, Hoffsis said, and Campus Partners is involved to ensure an outcome with elements that benefit the private sector and the community.
“What we want to do is encourage a smart development that meets all of these goals, not just the developer’s goals,” Hoffsis says.
Kevin Wheeler, an administrator with the Office of City Planning for the City of Columbus says the project’s large scale means it’s an opportunity to bridge the gap between the university and the community. He specifically mentioned the public plaza as a way that the plan can achieve that.
“Right now, High St. is a divide in a way that no one really benefits from,” Wheeler says. “So seeing development that provides a stronger link across High St. is important. This moves strongly in that direction.”
Campus Partners urban framework centers around reconstructing both the infrastructure and the buildings in the area. However, unlike with the South Campus Gateway project, the organization is not the sole developer and it’s unlikely the entire project will be completed at once. The footprint includes buildings along High St. and Pearl St. between 14th and 17th avenues. As of right now, the plan has focused mainly on zoning, meaning specifics about the design of the new buildings has yet to be decided, Hoffsis says. The framework was developed in addition to the traditional zoning documents in order to make the project understandable to community members and to get their input, Hoffsis says.
“We’re not picking paint colors,” Hoffsis says. “We’re putting parameters on how dense the area should be; we’re putting parameters so whoever comes in to build will have to stick to that.”
The framework outlines both density and use for the project, which Hoffsis says gives a basic overview for development to happen over time and in a way that the community is supportive. Before the zoning, private developers would be able to develop any area that they owned in a way that makes the most financial sense to them. With the plan that is now in place there is an area for a public plaza, something which Hoffsis says wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Plans for redevelopment had been proposed by other developers, Hoffsis says, but they could not get the support of the larger community. Because Campus Partners owned several of the buildings in the area, they were able to leverage their status in the community to get other property owners on board and make a plan that the community could benefit from.
While the newly rezoned area covers a large area, not all the property owners have immediate plans for redevelopment. Hoffsis says developers were more interested in the properties along High St. while plans for properties east of Pearl St. have yet to be made. The plan calls for limited residential development. The corner of 15th and High St. will feature a public plaza bordered by development that complements it.
Hoffsis says there is an opportunity for a hotel to be developed, something that will likely be built behind the plaza on Pearl St. The area around the university is vastly underserved, Prosser says, despite the university being one of the largest draws for visitors to the area. The hotel will be on a direct axis with The Oval and will be the tallest building in the development. Much of the development is considered mixed use—a zoning term that includes residential, office, and retail. Much of the project will feature ground-floor retail and offices above.
Currently the cost of the project has not yet been determined and the timeline is still in the works. Hoffsis says it will take time because of the necessary changes in infrastructure and because the changes to properties are up to individual property owners. She added that five to ten years is a likely horizon for how quickly the entire project can materialize.
The zoning plan was reviewed by the Office of City Planning as well as by the University Area Review Board, which is staffed by the office, Wheeler states. He says the mixed use nature of the project is also a real benefit and the parking garage will be crucial in maintaining long-term investment in the area.
Campus Partners currently does not own the entire zoned area, and won’t even after the project is concluded. However through strategic purchases of important properties, the organization was able to get other property owners to join them in their plan. Because the buildings will be built by individual developers, the zoning code and the framework will ensure the project remains consistent all the way through. It includes a list of architectural design principles and also guidelines of how to handle things like parking, Prosser says.
Additionally when building plans are developed the plans will have to be approved by the University Area Review Board. The board is a mix of community members and professional architects. Wheeler says the city was looking for consistency with the area as well as a cohesive development pattern when they were reviewing the zoning plan. As individual buildings are proposed they will once again be reviewed by the city.
“Zoning is a legislative action, so it is now in code,” Prosser says. “In order to vary from what we wrote you would have to go to the city and ask for a variance. The community and city are not going to allow that.”
Hoffsis says the entire project will likely not start all at once. Some pieces, like the Long’s Bookstore site will move sooner than others, depending on how the developer wants to pursue the project.
Currently, Campus Partners is working with the city to decide the best route to solve the infrastructure problems in the area from both a fiscal and engineering standpoint. The framework calls for a realignment of 15th Ave. in order to meet High St. straight on as opposed to the angle it is at right now. The plan also connects 14th and 16th avenues to High St. A parking garage along Pearl St. will also need to be built before much of the property can develop. Hoffsis says much of the infrastructure improvements will begin in the next couple of years. Wheeler says improving the street grid may also involve reallocating property uses.
“It may happen so what is now a roadway will become a building and what is currently a building may become a roadway,” he says.
Wheeler added that the infrastructure improvements on their own do present a challenge, because it involves relocating utilities, determining right-of-ways, and financing the improvements. .
The Affected Businesses
Currently many of the properties that are in the area that has been rezoned are occupied by local businesses. This includes businesses that are in buildings that are already owned by Campus Partners. Hoffsis says she hopes there will be opportunities for the businesses when the time comes to redevelop the individual properties.
“Since it’s not all going to be done at once, if they’re interested in staying in the area, that they can relocate,” Hoffsis says.
She added that some businesses, like Insomnia Cookies, have chosen to relocate proactively, in order to avoid the area during construction. Because there is not a clear timelines yet, Hoffsis says owners are making decisions based on what is best for their business—some relocate while others chose to stay in the area. The organization also works to help businesses identify opportunities, but since it doesn’t own all the buildings in the area many decisions about the businesses are left to the businesses and their respective landlords.
One of the businesses in the newly rezoned area is Evolved Body Art, a piercing and tattoo shop. Owner Nick Wolak says he has been hearing about plans to redevelop the area for years, but firm dates for the project have never really been given—leading to uncertainty.
“Unfortunately, all or most all of the businesses who are still hanging on, have been given month-to-month leases and are hoping for the best,” he says.
He added that his business has been given no relocation plan and it is likely that he will likely have to start over from the beginning in a different part of the city.
“It is very sad to see all the local High St. businesses being squeezed out,” Wolak says.
Working with the Community
Campus Partners worked with the community in order to develop a plan that achieved the needs of the area. The organization worked with the University Area Commission which is comprised of staff members, students, and neighborhood residents. The commission functions as the main conduit into the community and is the recommending body to the Columbus City Council. They also worked with the University Area Review Board which includes architects and community members. The organization also worked to ensure the needs of the communities aligned with the needs of the university.
“I think we have a lot of buy in,” Hoffsis says.
Hoffsis says that much of the community has been supportive of the zoning changes, and resistance mainly comes in the form of people who don’t want to see the neighborhood change from what they remember.
“The folks that live here have been very positive because they understand what is happening. It’s a wonderful opportunity for them to shape their future,” Hoffsis says.
Prosser says the opposition is often those on the outside who have not been involved very much with the entire redevelopment process. She added that portions of the project like the plaza have always been things that the community has wanted.
Prosser says the ultimate goal of the project is to create a place that’s central to the community, that can be shared between community members, students and other members of the university community. Hoffsis added that with the inevitability of development in the area, the new zoning regulations that were championed by Campus Partners will ensure high-quality development.
“The tsunami of developers is coming, and there’s not a lot we can do but we can make sure the projects are positive,” Hoffsis says