Campus Partners used bulldozers and political clout to replace High Street squalor with restaurants and retail. Next on the to-do list: Weinland Park

It's the day before fall classes start at Ohio State University, and the movie theater at the South Campus Gateway is hopping with students lured by the promise of free films, popcorn and candy. The crowd, though large, is orderly and waiting patiently to enter. The scene is a far cry from the neighborhood's not-so-distant past, when the blocks near Chittenden Avenue and North High Street were pockmarked with half-empty storefronts and decaying buildings, and nighttime brought a parade of students stumbling from bar to crumbling bar. A rope tied along the sidewalks often kept the revelers from spilling over into the street.

Years of neglect had created a festering problem no one was willing to deal with. "The University District was the forgotten stepchild of the city. The city thought the area was the university's responsibility. The university thought the area was the city's responsibility," says longtime resident Pas-quale Grado, executive director of the University Community Business Association. "We were not getting public service delivery commensurate with our population. We were not getting our streets cleaned, the infrastructure was falling apart."

It wasn't long after former Columbus Mayor Greg Lashutka and E. Gordon Gee, in his first term as OSU president, formed the University Area Task Force to study crime in the campus area that tragedy galvanized the community into action.

In March 1994, OSU freshman Ste-phanie Hummer was abducted from Pearl Alley just east of High Street, raped and murdered. It would be 12 years before a DNA test identified Jonathan J. Gravely as her killer; he pleaded guilty to the crime in 2007.

The horrific incident jolted the task force into motion. It recommended the creation of a nonprofit redevelopment corporation to lead the revitalization of University District neighborhoods. Columbus developer Barry Humphries was chosen to organize Campus Partners for Community Urban Redevelopment, which formed in 1995, and became its first president.

Today, the decaying buildings that once marked that troublesome stretch of North High Street are gone, replaced by shiny new restaurants, apartments, office space and retail stores. Campus Partners is on its third president (Humphries left in March 1996 to return to private business). And the University District revitalization, the centerpiece of which is South Campus Gateway, won the American Planning Association's 2010 National Award for Planning Excellence for Implementation.

Still, Campus Partners President Doug Aschenbach, sitting in an office just steps away from the theater, says the organization is far from finished. There's still work to be done at Gateway, where retail vacancies are of particular concern. There's also nearby Weinland Park, a neighborhood just east of the University District that suffers from high poverty, unemployment, crime and low rates of homeownership. Aschenbach, it seems, has his work cut out for him.

‘A Downward Spiral'

While Hummer's death crystallized the need for some sort of intervention, momentum had been building after decades of decline in campus-area safety, quality of life and housing and commercial stock.

"I think the university was getting increasingly concerned, President Gee was getting concerned that there was a downward spiral going on there," says Terry Foegler, who succeeded Humphries as president of Campus Partners. "Crime was getting worse, gang activity was getting worse; we were seeing the negative consequences of highly concentrated poverty. The campus bar district was failing pretty miserably, the market had shrunk pretty badly, and underage drinking was a growing issue."

Campus Partners was an ambitious enterprise from the start. In 1995 and 1996, with support from OSU and the city of Columbus, the nonprofit led a community-based planning process for the University District, which is bounded by Fifth Avenue to the south, Glen Echo Ravine to the north, the Conrail tracks to the east and the Olentangy River to the west. The result: a 250-recommendation revitalization plan that examined the social, economic and physical environment of the city's most population-dense neighborhood. The document, adopted in 1997 by the OSU Board of Trustees and Columbus City Council, prompted a number of efforts, including:

• The Faculty and Staff Neighborhood Homeownership Incentive Program, which aims to stabilize the neighborhood by encouraging OSU staff and faculty to buy homes in the University District. The $500,000 program provides $3,000 in down-payment assistance. More than 90 employees have participated to date.

• Improvements to municipal services, including code enforcement, refuse collection, street lighting and sweeping.

• Coordination among city-university safety services, notably the Moody Hall Neighborhood Policing Center at 248 E. 11th Ave. The $4.6 million, 16,000-square-foot center, which opened in October 2008, was jointly funded by the city and OSU. It houses Columbus and OSU police officers, a Community Crime Patrol office and a Neighborhood Pride Center. The building, which also includes a fire station, is LEED-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.

• Construction of the Schoenbaum Family Center by OSU's College of Education and Human Ecology. It is the country's first university-operated early childhood laboratory in a neighborhood setting.

• Collaboration among OSU, public schools and other agencies. Such collaboration has culminated in the Godman Guild-Ohio State University Extension Community Outreach Center, a community computer center and improved community engagement by OSU students, faculty and staff.

The revitalization plan also spawned two more studies: a plan for High Street and a set of development and design guidelines for the area; both were adopted by city council in 2002. "The High Street plan is really the document that, to a certain extent, we still follow today," says Aschenbach.

South Campus Gateway

As south campus declined, the impact reached far beyond High Street. OSU began struggling to attract both students and faculty. Those who did come largely chose to live elsewhere: By the mid-2000s, more than half of OSU's 48,000 students were living in the suburbs rather than on campus or in the largely run-down properties of the University District. "If anything met the definition of ‘blight,' they were it," Foegler recalls.

But change was on the way. From 1998 through 2002, Campus Partners went on a shopping spree, buying up numerous neighborhood properties to create the mixed-use, 7.4-acre South Campus Gateway. Plans called for 250,000 square feet of retail space, 90,000 square feet of offices, 200 apartments and a parking garage for 1,200 cars.

The vision was bold, and Foegler acknowledges the process was lengthy, due in part to legal challenges from several property owners. The threat of eminent domain loomed, but ultimately proved unnecessary. "We wanted to work fairly and transparently and wanted to be as fair as possible in purchase prices," says Foegler. It wasn't always pretty, he admits: "When you're assembling, it's more of a blighting influence than it was before."

Boston-based Druker Company initially signed on as the Gateway's developer and an equity partner, but was jettisoned once Campus Partners decided the project might not be as risky as first thought: Barnes & Noble inked a 20-year lease to operate a 50,000-square-foot campus bookstore; the university committed to the office space; and about 70 percent of the housing was set aside for law students.

Also helping to make the numbers work was the federal New Markets Tax Credit Program, which ultimately doled out $47 million in tax-credit allocations toward the $152.5 million project. OSU's endowment fund picked up the tab for $20 million in land acquisition. Columbus spent $8 million on infrastructure improvements, and the state paid $4.5 million toward the parking garage. Tax-exempt bonds issued by OSU paid another $66 million of the cost, capped off with $7 million in other debt and investment.

When it opened in fall 2005, the five-building Gateway project was anchored by Barnes & Noble and also featured the seven-screen Drexel Gateway Theatre, a parking garage, retail stores, restaurants, offices and apartments. The bulk of the development is on the east side of North High Street between Chittenden and East Ninth avenues.

The apartments, where one-bedroom units rent for $1,095 a month, primarily serve students at OSU's Moritz College of Law. Aschenbach says they've been strong performers, with occupancy rates between 90 percent and 100 percent. The office space, which gained another 10,000 square feet from former retail area, is fully occupied by university departments.

"I think the development has been very good for OSU. It is nicely done; it's a mix of retail from local to regional to national chains," says Columbus Development Director Boyce Safford, a Campus Partners board member. "They even put back some of the elements of south campus" by permitting the limited presence of bars. The difference? "It's not conducive for the unruly crowds south campus had back in the day," Safford says.

Tough Times

Bulldozers can get rid of dilapidated buildings, but they can't eliminate crime. The Gateway parking garage was the site of shooting deaths in both 2007 and 2008; OSU medical student Brian Schaffer disappeared in April 2006 after he was last seen at the Ugly Tuna Saloona bar.

Also troubling, though certainly not as tragic, has been a fair amount of tenant turnover. Four of the Gateway's initial 12 tenants have closed, and the theater's management has changed hands twice-from Drexel Theatres Group in early 2008 to Landmark Theatres and now to in-house operations. The failure of Sunflower Market also left a big hole. The natural foods grocery from SuperValu opened in 2006 at 18 E. Ninth Ave., but the chain folded in 2008.

No doubt Aschenbach, who joined Campus Partners in 2001 as vice president for real estate development and took over the reins from Foegler in August 2008, inherited a full plate.

So far he's had no luck with the Sunflower space, though SuperValu still holds the lease. Another grocery expressed interest, as has a fashion retailer, but the numbers didn't work, Aschenbach says. Another possibility: office space. "We try and strike the right balance between sticking to a merchandizing plan that helps achieve the overall goals that we set out to achieve versus market realities," he says.

"I'm confident that ultimately the space will be occupied, it's just a slower absorption than had been initially expected-but you can say that about a lot of projects in the last five years," says Foegler.

While some less-desirable retail space has been converted into offices, the development's alley section has been unable to sustain retail; occupancy percentages have been hovering in the mid-80s. In the courtyard that runs between Ninth and 11th avenues, Campus Partners has-at least for the time being-filled otherwise-vacant space with nonpaying artists. The Ohio Art League is using one 1,500-square-foot space for exhibitions and classes.

Foegler, meanwhile, again has a hand in the development he guided to fruition. In mid-September, he resigned as Dublin's city manager to serve as associate vice president of physical planning and real estate at OSU-a job that also makes him president of Campus Partners' Board of Directors.

In retrospect, Foegler says, Campus Partners was "overly ambitious in its projections of the volume of retail that could be supported." But, he adds, the numbers weren't a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. "All of the national developers who competed for the project, all of the market studies affirmed this was an appropriate amount of retail," he says.

Some contend that a few vacant storefronts aren't such a big deal. "Everyone thought that they were going to be able to get the rents that they needed, but that was all based on the math of 2004-2005, and what has happened there, in my opinion, is not a bad thing. Giving a place for the arts to flourish in the University District is, in my mind, a success," says University Area Commission President Ian MacConnell.

Retail consultant Chris Boring says that despite the stumbling blocks, the Gateway has spurred growth in nearby neighborhoods. "I think it's been a catalyst for redevelopment of the campus area along High Street," Boring says. "There's not only been new commercial space, but also new residential space, and when you compare it to what it was 15 years ago, you had a lot of properties in disrepair with absentee property owners."

Columbus attorney and real estate developer Scott Schiff owns several University District properties, including a building just south of Lane Avenue and High Street that houses Radio Shack, Noodles & Company, Diaspora and UniversiTees and one at 14th Avenue and High that's home to Urban Outfitters and Starbucks. "I think that the university, through its efforts at Gateway, set the tone and example for private developers to confidently invest on individual projects," he says.

Weinland Park

Though South Campus Gateway is Campus Partners' most high-profile project, the organization refers to work in adjacent Weinland Park as its "most notable success." The organization has been working to improve low-income housing and promote economic diversity and stability without displacing residents who call the neighborhood home.

Weinland Park-bounded roughly by Chittenden to the north, the railroad on the east, East Fifth Avenue to the south and High Street to the west-has Columbus's highest concentration of project-based, Section 8 housing. In 2001, Campus Partners proposed a plan to acquire 1,335 units of the subsidized housing from Columbus-based Broad Street Management Inc. in three states: Ohio (including 550 units in Weinland Park, plus units on the Near East Side), Georgia and Kentucky.

Campus Partners teamed with the nonprofit Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing (OCCH), which acquired the properties in 2003. Renovations began in 2004 and continued over the next five years. Proponents say Community Properties, as the housing portfolio is known, has improved property management and public safety in Weinland Park.

Campus Partners also had a hand in creating the Weinland Park Neighborhood Plan, adopted by city council in 2006. The guide for continuing improvements includes redevelopment of the former Columbus Coated Fabrics (CCF) site, which had become a hotspot for illegal salvaging, fires, vandalism and other public safety concerns. Campus Partners worked with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to transfer the property's title to the city of Columbus in December 2006; in 2007, the nonprofit managed asbestos removal and demolition of the buildings.

Campus Partners helped the city apply for-and win-a $3 million Clean Ohio Revitalization Fund (CORF) grant to clean up the CCF site, located on North Grant Avenue between East Fifth and East 11th avenues. In 2008, city council approved an economic development agreement with Wagenbrenner Development Company; the developer took over the 21-acre brownfield and Columbus committed $14 million to infrastructure improvements.

Wagenbrenner plans to build 35 houses and more than 500 condominium and apartment units on the site. Vice President Eric Wagenbrenner says Campus Partners was key in moving the project forward. "They really did the heavy lifting," he says. "It would have been very unlikely that we would have gotten involved without their support."

The Weinland Park Collaborative, which includes Wagenbrenner, Campus Partners, Columbus, OSU, the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, the Columbus Foundation and others, recently pledged $15 million to develop housing in the neighborhood, where homeownership is a lowly 8 percent. Plans call for more than 100 new and renovated homes in the next two to three years as well as job training and education for residents.

Other Ambitions

All these ambitions don't come cheap, of course. Campus Partners' only operational funding-$650,000 a year-comes from OSU. The nonprofit has an eight-person staff; third-party contractors operate the theater and parking garage and oversee retail leasing, cleaning and security.

OSU committed another $13 million over three years toward capital investments-a cut from the $50 million over five years initially approved in 2007. By necessity, Campus Partners seeks investments from the city and other public and philanthropic partners for individual projects.

"Our goal is to let private developers do what makes sense to be done privately, but for us to execute the projects that have to be done in a more public-private way," Aschenbach says.

Grado and others who have worked with Campus Partners credit the nonprofit's collaborative and political powers for getting things done. "It truly has been a great partnership. They've been wonderful, and Doug's been wonderful to work with," says Wagenbrenner.

Campus Partners continues to acquire properties and plan for the future. In early 2009, the nonprofit negotiated OSU's purchase of the Holiday Inn on Lane Avenue for $19 million. The facility is being used as a dorm while the south campus high-rises are renovated and to serve the needs of a larger incoming freshman class.

In June, Boston-based Sasaki Associates identified the former Long's Bookstore at 15th Avenue and High Street as a sensible place for even more student housing. The property was one of several parcels that Campus Partners acquired in 2000 from Frank C. Long Jr. The group is likely to issue a request for proposals to develop that site, as well as land south of the Gateway at Eighth and Ninth avenues, by year's end, says Aschenbach.

Safford, too, has high praise for the nonprofit's work. "I think Campus Partners has added great value to the OSU administration, and what they're doing to improve the quality of life for students at the Gateway and ultimately at Weinland Park takes skills, sophistication and savvy," he says.

Bill Graver is vice president of the University District Organization and president of Core Real Estate, which rents about 70 campus-area properties. He says he's witnessed a complete turnaround. "I've seen a whole big change and shift from the blight to the high life, the nightlife," says Graver. "I take my kids down to the theater there, we have dinner and lunch, and it's a very nice area now. Now, with the new [Ohio] Union there and the library, there are so many different things, and now it's like, ‘Let's put them all together, let's reenergize this whole area, let's bring the people here, make them stay. And that's what Campus Partners is helping do with Weinland Park now, too."

Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the November 2010 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.