Hotels lead revival along the river road corridor.

When a partnership led by Robert Weiler Co. bought the University City Center retail property in May 2000, it and the rest of the Olentangy River Road corridor between Ackerman Road and the OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital already had declined a bit.

“When we first moved in, Olentangy River Road was sleepy,” says Skip Weiler, president of the commercial real estate development, brokerage and management firm. “There wasn't a whole lot of action in the area.”

In fact, a handful of older, independent hotels—mostly limited-service lodges—served parents visiting their children at Ohio State University or out-of-town fans attending a Buckeyes football or basketball game.

“But we knew it was close to Ohio State and Riverside and neither were going anywhere,” Weiler says. “It was just a matter of time before it got hotter.”

The corridor's revitalization follows an upgrade and expansion of the lodging market. In fact, that transformation already had begun about the time Weiler Co. acquired the 120,000-square-foot, Kroger-anchored retail center. A partnership affiliated with the late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner tore down the Parke University Hotel and replaced it with a smaller but fresher Fairfield Inn, a limited-service brand in the Marriott International stable of hotels.

By 2005, Columbus-based Indus Hotels and a partner renovated the former Cross Country Inn into a Baymont Inn and started construction on an upper mid-market Hilton Garden Inn at 3232 Olentangy River Rd. In September 2014, Indus opened another Hilton brand, the Hampton Inn & Suites, at 3160 Olentangy River Rd., just south of its Hilton Garden Inn.

Meanwhile, the Columbus-based Sintel Hotel Group, a lodging developer and operator, opened a Holiday Inn Express at 3045 Olentangy River Rd., in April 2011. And in the fall of 2016, it opened a Staybridge Suites—another Intercontinental Hotels Group brand—at 3125 Olentangy River Rd.

Indus COO Alan Assaf says the corridor offered little for travelers other than budget lodging before the spurt of hotel development began. “You had (with Ohio State) the region's largest demand generator, but the lodges there were tired; they were all spiraling down,” Assaf says. “We saw an opportunity.”

Sintel Vice President Manav Singh extends credit beyond Riverside, its related medical offices and Ohio State. He also points to the expanding OSU Wexner Medical Center as a demand generator for patients and their families.

The hospitals also host visiting administrators and researchers. The Wexner Medical Center and Riverside Hospital are at least a quarter of Sintel's business, Singh says. The upscale, boutique-ish Staybridge has an advertised room rate of $149 to $169, but prices can head north of $300 during football weekends.

The Olentangy River Road corridor next will add a full-service, 251-room Marriott Hotel and a 127-room Residence Inn by Marriott as early as June on the site of the former University Plaza Hotel and Conference Center. Continental Real Estate Cos. of Columbus and North Carolina-based partner Concord Hospital Enterprises bought the property in mid-2014 after Indus and its financial partner failed to secure financing for a $30 million, 230-room Marriott first unveiled in late 2011.

OhioHealth and Ohio State will continue to generate traffic for the hotels, restaurants and other amenities after recent announcements.

At the north end of hotel row, OhioHealth has chosen a 12-acre site for a 240,000-square-foot, $89 million headquarters where it will consolidate operations for its executive suite and 1,600 administrative workers. OhioHealth now has its headquarters Downtown at 180 E. Broad St., and administrative functions are spread among 22 other locations.

The Olentangy River Road location already is home to an OhioHealth distribution center, as well as supply chain and accounts payable operations centers.

Roland Tokarski, OhioHealth system vice president of real estate, construction and facilities, says a year-long search considered 45 options in central Ohio. “We exhausted every site we could find,” he says. “Ironically, the center of gravity from where our employees live was in the area (where) we already owned a site.”

OhioHealth has 7,000 employees at Riverside and other nearby medical facilities, such as the Bing Cancer Center and McConnell Heart Health Center. The healthcare system has pledged to add another 900 along the Olentangy River corridor through 2024.

“It takes a site that's sat there for years and years, and we become a catalyst for the entire corridor,” Tokarski says. Conceptual plans call for architects with the DesignGroup firm in Columbus to produce a facility of four or five stories complete with structured parking. “We're working those puzzle pieces right now,” Tokarski says.

The Ohio State sports and medical center also will expand its impact on the corridor. The Wexner Medical Center already had back office operations at 600 Ackerman Rd., just west of the University City Center. It will add additional offices at 700 Ackerman Rd., which an OSU real estate affiliate purchased in 2016 for $8.8 million. That 110,000-square-foot facility will undergo $22 million in renovations.

In September, OSU opened the Jameson Crane Sports Medicine Institute, billed as the Midwest's largest and most advanced sports medicine, research and performance training facility. It's on Ackerman Road near Rt. 315, and closer to Olentangy River Road. OSU plans further expansion of its North Athletic District with long-anticipated construction of the $50 million Covelli Multi-Sports Arena and Jennings Family Wrestling Practice Facility just north of Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium.

Also planned in the athletic district, anchored by the Schottenstein Center and Woody Hayes Athletic Center, is the$43 million Schumaker Student-Athlete Development Center, a training facility set to replace the existing Biggs Facility within the Hayes complex.

Other commercial players have joined the redevelopment fray as well.

Dublin-based Crawford Hoying Development Partners has tentative plans to redevelop the 17-acre site anchored by Kohl's department store with a mix of retail, residential and structured parking. “It is one of the larger parcels left in the area at 17 acres, so we believed there was opportunity to densify the site at some point,” principal Brent Crawford says, promising more details later this year.

Developer John Royer of the Kohr Royer Griffith Inc., commercial real estate development, brokerage and management firm completed an 18,000-square-foot retail center on surplus land in front of the Fairfield Inn in a joint venture with the hotel's out-of-market owner. That property, once the site of the original Damon's Clubhouse BBQ restaurant, has Skyline and Denny's restaurants, a chicken wings franchise and a medical uniform shop. “We thought a 24-hour Denny's operation was a big complement to the hotels,” Royer says.

Homestead America/Homestead U, the Columbus-based owner of the 1,900-unit University Village apartments, bought the corner of Royer's Shoppes at Olentangy at Harley Drive for a residential life and leasing center, essentially creating a front door to the complex with the hustle and bustle of student tenants using its computer room, study rooms and game room.

Homestead President Dave Anderson says he anticipates the redevelopment of University City Center as a capstone to redevelopment in the corridor. (University Village was built by the late Columbus developer Harry Zieg, whose daughter married Steinbrenner.)

Weiler says the $80 million redevelopment project, which will include retail and housing, remains in design. The concept calls for upward of 100,000 square feet of retail, with expectations that either Kroger will recommit with a larger store or another grocer will move in as the anchor. The current Kroger is about 33,000 square feet, which is less than half the supermarket chain's average store size.

Restaurants and service retail will fill out the rest of the ground floor. The five floors above the retail will house 232 market-rate apartments with more than 400 bedrooms. “We think we'll get medical school and graduate students and older people and young people.”

The project will include 483 underground parking slots, two levels of above-ground parking with a total of 180 slots, and 400 surface parking slots. It's enough parking, Weiler says, to offer a space for each bedroom in the apartments.

Weiler says the timing for development has ripened as the leases for Kroger and other tenants expire at the end of 2017, thus creating the opportunity to begin construction in 2018. “Kroger was on a series of two-year leases with a ton of renewals at below-market rents. Now, it's finally time to redevelop the site,” he says.

Brian Ball is a freelance writer.