Downtown drawing more projects that revitalize old sites into new ones.

When the Wittmann Co. development firm began assembling properties 19 years ago in the fading industrial district immediately west of the relic Ohio Penitentiary, the area then called Pen West did not come across as a section of Downtown ripe for redevelopment.

“The walls of the penitentiary were up,” Principal Stephen Wittmann recalls of the area, noting tractor trailers were regularly stored on the site where the Huntington Park ballfield now stands. “The properties were still totally separated from the rest of Downtown.”

A lot has occurred since then, with the 2000 opening of Nationwide Arena, home of the Columbus Blue Jackets hockey franchise, and the many offices and residential buildings built in the wake of the sports and entertainment venue's debut.

“No one knew if the arena would get built after so many failed tries,” says Wittmann, who transformed the properties into offices on seven acres dubbed the Belmont Block after the landmark casket production facility. “This development has happened remarkably fast.”

In fact, interest in large-scale urban projects continues to build, even as scattered-site projects spread to other sections of Downtown and the Short North in the last 15 years.

The city-sponsored Columbus Downtown Development Corp. nonprofit earlier this year offered up 21 acres that the city assembled nearly 20 years ago immediately west of COSI for what planners hope becomes a $500 million mixed-use development.

Growing in Place

Also this year, White Castle Systems entered the advanced planning stage for a $65 million mixed-use project on its 18-acre Goodale Street property just northwest of the Arena District.

In August, suburban Columbus residential developer Schottenstein Real Estate Group also floated the concept—with few details—for a resort-style, residential and office project on 23 acres tucked behind Huntington Park and Goodale Street.

“I think Downtown redevelopment has more to go because, nationally, people want to go Downtown,” says Wittmann, chairman of the city's Downtown Commission urban planning panel since 2009.

Design firm Architectural Alliance in August unveiled a detailed concept for the White Castle campus after Columbus City Council approved a property tax-diversion deal to offset the developer's cost of public improvements. The developer envisions five residential buildings and up to 180,000 square feet of office space in two buildings, one of which would serve as the new White Castle HQ.

The planned project will replace a White Castle HQ and vacated equipment manufacturing operation that dates back to when the “slider” hamburger chain first moved to Columbus in 1934. The property sits between Downtown and the burgeoning Grandview Yard office and residential project in nearby Grandview Heights, just off Route 315 heading Downtown. “We're right in the middle of it,” says White Castle Vice President Jamie Richardson. “There is definitely a gateway quality to it.”

Elford Development President Mike Fitzpatrick says the site location can tap into the Arena District and Grandview Yard amenities even while providing restaurants, other retail and perhaps even a hotel on site. “It's so unusual to have such a large site in the urban core,” he says. Those existing amenities combined with views of Downtown and the Olentangy River will boost the development's prospects, he adds. “These types of locations are attractive to employees, employers and residents,” he says.

Elford will add to the amenity base in the Goodale/Vine corridor between Grandview Yard and Downtown as it eyes the former W.W. Williams Co. complex at835-911 Goodale Boulevardin Grandview, and the metal scrapyard Research Alloys Co. at799 Goodale for redevelopment.

The project will encompass a mix of apartments, offices and retail space.

Great views will also be included in the project planned for the Scioto riverfront behind COSI. A solid plan has yet to emerge for the land abutting Downtown's western boundary on the Scioto Peninsula as the CDDC finalizes its choice of a developer to lead the project over the next 10 years or more.

But a September 2016 market study presented by Chicago-based Hunden Strategic Partners to CDDC shows support for an urban neighborhood as large as 2.5 to 3 million square feet anchored by up to 840,000 square feet of corporate office towers and as many as 1,800 multifamily residential units. The study was a catalyst for proposals that attracted four development partnerships earlier this year, with the winner set for selection as early as this fall.

“It's the next step in redeveloping Downtown as it continues to move west,” says CDDC COO Amy Taylor. The nonprofit agency in recent years led the transformation of the Scioto riverfront through the Downtown into a pedestrian-friendly park accessible from both banks and redevelopment of the former City Center Mall site.

CDDC is also nearing completion of a $37 million park and 630-slot underground parking garage to serve COSI and the nearby National Veteran's Memorial & Museum, which is currently under construction.

The first residential or office project could get started as early as next summer and is expected to take 10 years.

Market-Driven Caveat

When or if these projects move forward depends greatly on continued favorable market forces, including construction financing at reasonable interest rates. “I think the building frenzy nationally is driven by the availability of cheap money,” says veteran Columbus developer Bob Weiler, whose Robert W. Weiler Co. partnered in the Highpoint on Columbus Commons residential and retail project on part of the City Center site. “I think that will continue for another two or three years.”

Weiler, whose firm had competed to co-develop the Scioto Peninsula, says the scope of that project could push buildout well beyond 10 years and $500 million. “It's going to cost more and take longer,” says Weiler. His firm is currently co-developing a residential project with Casto Communities nearby—just on the other side of a rail line in East Franklinton. “If it were in New York City, it would take five to 10 years. There will have to be a lot of patience in Columbus.”

Still, he is bullish on the project and its impact on Downtown. “It has great upside potential,” he says, “next to the river and East Franklinton.”

West of the Arena District, Nationwide Realty Investors remains committed to building multifamily housing units on the 25 acres off West Nationwide Boulevard it bought six years ago.

That area had also attracted the interest of developer Borror Properties and general contractor Ruscilli Construction for an office and apartment project; that project on 4.5 acres owned by the city quietly fell through in 2016. But Columbus developers Brad DeHays and Michael Schiff have moved forward on the nearby shuttered electric plant and into space along the river for the Garth Auctioneers & Appraisers firm and others.

“We see that primarily as a residential development,” says Nationwide Realty President and COO Brian Ellis, of the former Jaeger Machine Co. and Union Tool and Hoe land it bought from Penn National. But it may also have some office possibilities as the developer considers options for land it controls along Spring Street, saying the site will get redeveloped.

He does not consider the White Castle project threatening to the West Nationwide plans. “That won't have an impact,” insists Ellis, who also has the second and third condo towers under construction at Neil Avenue and Spring Street. “The apartment and residential markets are pretty deep Downtown, so I don't think White Castle will have a bearing on our site.”

Elford's Fitzpatrick concurs. “As one or two projects go forward,” he says, “it actually helps the viability of the other projects.”

Brian Ball is a freelance writer.