Mark Wagenbrenner is Mr. Clean

By
From the May 2014 issue of Columbus CEO

Mark Wagenbrenner realized early in his career that he wanted to control his own professional destiny. After graduating with a degree in finance from Miami University, the president of Wagenbrenner Development spent three years working for legendary investment and real estate tycoon Sam Zell at Zell’s Chicago-based Equity Group. The early ’90s recession left a number of Wagenbrenner’s peers out of work.

“It made me realize, the next time it was probably going to be me,” he says. After three years in Chicago, Wagenbrenner headed home to Columbus, where his family has been in real-estate development for three generations. His grandfather constructed schools and churches, mainly in the German Village area. His father, Tom, and uncle Mike’s Wagenbrenner Company led the redevelopment of the Grandview Avenue strip in central Grandview during the early 1970s. Today, the area is a happening neighborhood restaurant and nightlife destination.

Over the years, Wagenbrenner found inspiration and opportunity in other trendy metros, but his business interests and family connections drew him back to Columbus. In the mid-’90s, he and partner Brian Barrett formed Wagenbrenner Development, a separate company fully owned by the Wagenbrenner Co. Eric Wagenbrenner, Mark’s brother, joined the partners around 1998, and they focused on finding their development niche.

The young company took on small projects—nothing on the scale of the massive urban infill sites for which Wagenbrenner Development is now known. By 2000, they had grown frustrated, says Wagenbrenner. “We just couldn’t find a sustainable product, we couldn’t find our stride.”

That all changed with the Harrison Park revitalization project. Wagenbrenner Development acquired the polluted AC Humko plant site along West First Avenue in the Harrison West neighborhood and, in 2003, made what The Dispatch termed an “ambitious” proposal to build 200 apartments, 60 condos and 18 houses on the contaminated site. To accomplish their goal, the Wagenbrenner partners would cobble together private and public funds, including a $3 million Clean Ohio brownfield remediation grant.

“We saw demographically what was happening in the larger cities with the urban movement and we just tried to get ahead of it and looked at these large industrial pieces,” says Eric Wagenbrenner, vice president of Wagenbrenner Development.

The once-contaminated AC Humko site is now a hip residential enclave nestled between the Short North and Downtown. The success of Harrison Park showed the potential for a thriving urban housing market, says Steven Schoeny, development director for the city of Columbus. “If you look at Harrison West and the ability to put that kind of housing in the city and have it really take off, I think that is a great example” of urban redevelopment, says Schoeny.

The partners’ experiences in cities like Chicago and Austin, Texas, informed the company’s decision to invest in infill redevelopments near Downtown. Just before the AC Humko acquisition, the Wagenbrenner brothers and Barrett spent a lot of time in burgeoning Austin, where their father had retired. They scouted real estate sites, then had an epiphany: What were they doing in Austin when there was an opportunity in their own backyard?

“Why (were we) trying to break into an environment where nobody knows us and we don’t know anybody, when we (could) really see and feel this coming in the Short North,” Mark Wagenbrenner says. That decision propelled them to become the master site-rehab firm they are today. It’s also transforming the Downtown residential and commercial landscape.

“After we did this deal, we decided (to) try to absorb and get as many large tracts of land near the urban core,” says Mark Wagenbrenner. “We really targeted about seven or eight large brownfields. Over time, different stories, but we ended up getting control of most of them and cleaning them up.”

Today, partners Brian Barrett, Mark and Eric Wagenbrenner, Joe Williams and Matt McClimon act as project leads on the 13 major redevelopment projects in the Wagenbrenner portfolio. The company recently pitched the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority on a proposal for a mixed-use hotel and residential development to rejuvenate the underutilized Goodale Street corner of the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

REPUTATION GOES A LONG WAY

Another large-scale Downtown residential redevelopment announced in 2000 provided a sort of blueprint for the Harrison Park project, though it didn’t fare nearly as well. If Wagenbrenner’s projects have been models of successful site remediation, the Jeffrey Place condo fiasco modeled the potential pitfalls of complex redevelopment deals.

Developer Joseph Recchie secured one of the city’s first $3-million Clean Ohio remediation grants in order to clean up the former machinery manufacturing site of the Jeffrey Coal Mining Company, located on the east side of North Fourth Street in Italian Village, just north of Downtown. According to The Dispatch, the project received $4.4 million in state and local grants and loans for site development. The planned $200 million Jeffrey Place development got as far as 11 completed town houses and a 30-unit apartment building before stalling in the recession. Investors sued and the site lay fallow until 2012. That’s when Wagenbrenner Development stepped in to buy off the site’s debt.

“We knew the potential of that site for a long time and had a really good understanding of its issues and potential,” says Mark Wagenbrenner. After two years of repositioning, his company broke ground in February on 276 of the 40-acre site’s 1,500 planed units. If the existing plans are carried out without deviation, Jeffrey Place is slated for completion over the next five to 10 years.

The additional units will essentially double the density of Italian Village’s roughly 1,100 parcels, says Mark Wagenbrenner. Projects of scale—which can take up to a decade to complete—are all about building relationships, he adds. The Wagenbrenner team works closely with community members and stakeholders in Italian Village, just as they do with residents in the Harrison West neighborhood and in Weinland Park. There, they are working with a coalition of public-private partners on multiple projects, including the restoration of a group of 23 vacant apartment buildings to be called Grant Commons, the former 3M factory and the Columbus Coated Fabrics industrial site.

“We get lots of encouragement about the work that they’re doing on civic engagement, primarily in the Weinland Park neighborhood,” says Schoeny. “They’ve done a really good job of that in terms of being out in the neighborhood, working with…various community groups.”

When communities feel they’ve been left out of developers’ plans, the city development department is the place they lodge their complaints. The city advises developers to get to know the neighborhood before they begin planning the project. Schoeny’s staff share their historical knowledge of sites and neighborhoods with developers. Finally, they advise developers to have a public engagement plan in place for working with commissions, civic associations and neighborhood groups.

“Help them understand your projects. Then, take that feedback that you get and make your project better,” says Schoeny.

The Wagenbrenner Development staff practically live at community meetings throughout a project’s completion. In Weinland Park, the goal of the company and their partners has been to create neighborhood stakeholders who move up with the community as it’s improved. Gentrification is not an option.

“Our goal is not to flip these neighborhoods. Our goal is to create (housing) stock so that all the rungs of the ladder exist,” says Amanda Hoffsis, president of Campus Partners. The Weinland public-private coalition has systematically reduced the concentration of Section-8 subsidized housing in the neighborhood while simultaneously introducing affordable rental and for-sale housing into the market.

Campus Partners reached out to Mark and Eric to look at Columbus Coated Fabrics, says Joe Williams, a partner with the company and the former director of real estate for Campus Partners. “That was generally based on the success of the Harrison West project,” he adds.

Williams was involved in the campus overhaul of the area now known as the South Campus Gateway in the late 1990s. Today, he leads Wagenbrenner’s multiple Weinland Park projects.

Wagenbrenner managers and designers seek opportunities to gain insights into their future neighbors and clients, attending and even staging their own community forums.

“The world’s changed a lot when community groups organize as quick as they do. From a development standpoint, you’ve got to learn that fighting them is foolish,” says Mark Wagenbrenner. “It’s tough to get (things) started. We don’t want relations issues haunting us downstream.”

Early in the design phases of the newly imagined Jeffrey Place, the company hosted an event at Seventh Son Brewing, located just up North Fourth Street from the site. They invited Columbus Underground blog readers and message-board users (Jeffrey Place’s target: the young-professional demographic) to attend and rate their architectural designs. Wagenbrenner architect Rob Harris worked the crowd, whose responses helped shape the project’s aesthetic. “You’ve really got to immerse yourself in what your consumer wants and try to deliver,” says Mark Wagenbrenner.

BETTER OVER TIME

The Wagenbrenner Development team is currently juggling multiple brownfield redevelopments, all of which are in various stages from remediation to construction to completion. With each project, the partners have become de facto specialists in everything from treating contaminated soil to structuring complex financing tools.

“There’s always something new you learn every day,” says Eric Wagenbrenner. “I guess that’s what keeps us going.”

The continuous flow of new projects doesn’t hurt, either. The companies and organizations that have partnered with Wagenbrenner Development elected to work with the company based on their record of successfully transforming troublesome brownfields.

“Mark and his team have really spent a great deal of time trying to find opportunities within areas of the city that other people have overlooked,” says Todd Sloan, the executive vice president for Daimler Group. Daimler approached Wagenbrenner Development to partner on their 2007 Gowdy Field redevelopment based on the company’s knowledge of brownfield remediation and the Clean Ohio Fund grant process.

Feeling comfortable working on a contaminated site that had been used as a landfill for over 30 years required the “assemblage of a team that understood the challenges that we faced and made sure we addressed all of the potential risks moving forward,” says Sloan. Today, Gowdy Field is a gleaming corporate park situated between Grandview and the Ohio State University campus.

Campus Partners were similarly motivated when they selected Wagenbrenner to partner in Weinland Park. “They’re extremely easy to work with, they’re engaged with the community…(and) they do a good, quality product,” says Hoffsis. “They’re not a faceless corporation. The Wagenbrenners themselves are very much involved and present in the community.”

For the Wagenbrenner team—all Columbus residents and champions—these projects are about more than turning a profit. Williams, a lifelong Clintonville resident, says that being involved in all of the work the team is doing in the city’s urban core is very rewarding. “To commute down High Street every day is a joy,” he says, adding that he finds it exciting to “be involved with projects you feel will hopefully have a lasting legacy in Columbus.”

While Mark Wagenbrenner is characteristically humble about his company’s legacy, Schoeny says their work has had a meaningful impact on Downtown’s economic revitalization. “They have been game changers,” he says. “They did (projects) early in the process of redevelopment in the city, and they did them the right way. They showed people that you really could do these and you could do them profitably in an environment that people didn’t think you could.”

Mark Wagenbrenner says he measures success by feeling good about hitting the pillow every night. “The energy you feel when you …take something that looks as bad as these brownfields, turn them around and introduce new housing, it’s a rewarding process for sure.”