Columbus’ hottest neighborhood keeps going up and up and up.
The Short North has long charmed visitors and residents alike with its collection of mostly two- and three-story buildings that differentiate it from its skyscraper-friendly neighbor, Downtown Columbus. But a red-hot real estate market has shaken things up in the Short North, sending both building costs—and the buildings themselves—upward.
All of that interest has prompted developers to propose projects along the neighborhood's High Street spine close to or exceeding 10 stories, exacerbating long-standing parking woes in the district and threatening the character of the historic residential base off High. “[Developers] have to go higher and higher in order for the projects to [financially] pencil out,” says Marc Conte, chairman of the Victorian Village Commission.
The climb upward in the Short North began 11 years ago when real estate investors Brad Howe and John Bonner began construction on the eight-story Jackson on High condos at North High Street and West Fourth Avenue. More recently, Columbus developers Mark Wood and Michael Schiff expect to deliver late this year a nine-story office and retail/restaurant project at 711 N. High St. Plans had called for an 11-story building when Wood and Schiff first unveiled the project dubbed The Lincoln in the fall 2015, but it got “pushed down” as it sought Victorian Village Commission approval. “It's still a tall building,” says Wood, “and it's the tallest approved building in the Short North.”
But that could change. Columbus urban developer Brett Kaufman is trying to upsize a plan for a nine-story luxury condo tower the VVC approved in March 2017 with five additional residential floors and a switch to apartments. Unlike the other mid- to high-rises planned or built on the High Street commercial corridor, Kaufman's tower would sit well off the main drag on vacant lots totaling 0.9-acres off Price Avenue just behind the Salon Lofts-anchored retail center at 820 N. High.
Plans still call for the preservation of the historic International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall at 23 W. Second Ave. that's part of the properties Kaufman bought in April 2016 for $1.63 million. But some neighbors are complaining that stretching the tower even more would overwhelm Victorian-era homes that give the village its name. “At 180 feet,” West Second neighbor Kathy Rhinehart argued to commissioners at an April meeting, “I'll lose my ability to grow a garden.”
Kaufman says the changing market forced the switch to lower-yielding apartments even as construction costs skyrocket in the region. “We had to shift gears into a different program.”
Victorian Village commissioners agreed in May—the 15th public meeting the project had gone through since it was first proposed—to set a special meeting to continue the working on an alternative more in line with established guidelines in the Short North. Those rules offer more flexibility along the High Street corridor because of its commercial nature.
New buildings, the rules state, should look new but “relate to existing [historically] contributing properties surrounding” the project. “Height as viewed from the street shall be compatible with adjacent contributing properties,” those guidelines state.
“It needs to fit in,” says Victorian Village resident and former commissioner Rob Vogt, “and the commission needs to decide what that means. … Everyone has their own idea what's compatible.” The 39-year residential market researcher and consultant who heads the Vogt Strategic Insights firm says the commission in the early 2000s “settled” at five stories for the Dakota condos at 845 N. High after looking at the four-story, 100-year-old Greystone Court apartments at 815 N. High St. as the appropriate level—at that time. A few years later, the Jackson on High got approved at eight stories, but only after the developers set the residential structure back from High and chose lighter exterior colors and glass to reduce the visual impact of the building. “It was taller,” Vogt says, “but it seems less imposing.”
Randy Black, the city's historic resources officer until his late March retirement, says height should not necessarily disqualify a project. “I don't see it as that big of an issue if the design is done right,” he says. Black cites developer Pizzuti Cos.' Offices at the Joseph project at 629 N. High St. as an example of a well-designed project that passed muster. That Pizzuti project started out with an office, retail, housing and hotel components and significant structured parking that pushed the proposal to 15 stories.
In the midst of what became a four-year approval effort involving both Short North commissions, the lodging component moved across High to a city-owned parking lot in a 10-story hotel now called Le Méridien Columbus, The Joseph at 620 N. High St. The office component—minus condos—now stands six-stories tall on the original surface lot site with a five-level parking garage tucked in off Russell Street. “We were able to spread it out,” says Pizzuti Vice President Phil Rasey.
Wood and Schiff also shifted a portion of The Lincoln office tower parking to a remote site in Italian Village at Lincoln and Pearl streets. That $15 million, five-story project will offer 260 parking slots—including 125 available for the general public—as well as 16 apartments and a restaurant space.
Most projects, like The Lincoln, have to give a little on height. The VVC rebuffed Borror Properties and White Castle System's joint venture for an 11-story apartment tower at 965 N. High with 150 apartments under its initial April 2015 vision. That project—dubbed The Castle—now nearing completion has eight- and six-story sections with 105 apartments and 10,000 square feet of office space. It also will have 12,000 square feet of retail space anchored by a White Castle. The approved configuration “was the smallest building we could afford to build and deliver public parking,” says Borror President Lori Steiner.
Pizzuti's Rasey says the developer first looked into a 12-story luxury condo tower on the site of the Grandview Mercantile antique and art shop at North High Street and West First Avenue, then reimagined it as a nine-story office building. “We started to get into the [high] cost of [structured] parking,” Rasey says.
The final approved project that began construction in April consists of 45,000 square feet of commercial office and retail at a more traditional scale of four stories fronting High and 100 apartments off of First. “As a developer, you want to get as much as you can,” Rasey says. “But there's a balancing act.”
Brian Ball is a freelance writer.