The transformation of downtown's industrial western edge has been remarkable, to be sure.

In 1997, Alex Fischer was the deputy governor and chief of staff to Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist. As part of his work to forge a new partnership between research giant Battelle and the University of Tennessee, he hopped aboard a small King Air plane to get to a meeting in Columbus. Afterward, his hosts took him to dinner at the old Rigsby’s Kitchen on North High Street in the Short North.

On that crisp fall evening as he left the restaurant, Fischer told the folks from Battelle he’d walk a few blocks south to get to the Hyatt Regency hotel. His host, however, had some rather blunt advice. “You can’t do that—it’s a war zone,” Fischer recalls him saying. Fischer also was struck by what was going on a few blocks west of his hotel. The old Ohio Penitentiary site was a walled-off demolition zone surrounded by a bleak mix of decaying industrial buildings and surface parking lots. A poorly lit downtown. A war zone. A prison in ruins. All within a few blocks of one another. It painted quite a dreary picture of Columbus. 

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“You think about first impressions and what my first impression would be like today if I found myself in those exact same spots,” says Fischer, now CEO of the Columbus Partnership, the city’s influential civic organization of business leaders. “You look at the Arena District today and you see the vision Nationwide, the city and other leaders had. At first, the district was just going to be a single area around the arena. Now you see what Brian Ellis has accomplished in its expansion over 20 years and the economic impact that’s come from companies, the jobs and the residents who have moved there.  

“You pinch yourself and say, ‘All this happened in my lifetime,’ ” Fischer says. “An entire part of the city was transformed. There’s no greater transformation that’s analogous to where our city has gone in the same period of time than the Arena District.” 

Over those 20 years, more than $1.2 billion of development has occurred to make that old prison site and the surrounding area a premier office, sports, dining and entertainment destination. While the district is running out of land for new projects, Ellis— president and COO of Nationwide Realty Investors—and his team and other developers aren’t done yet. Three large projects are underway, and redevelopment of the old Municipal Light Plant at the western end of West Nationwide Boulevard is expected to be complete this year. 

Expanding boundaries

It was 20 years ago that Nationwide Arena opened at the corner of Nationwide Boulevard and Front Street as the home of the National Hockey League expansion team the Columbus Blue Jackets. Architect Dan Hanes describes the area pre-arena as “basically parking lots, with a few small buildings here and there.”

Hanes’ firm at the time, Heinlein Schrock out of Kansas City, partnered with NBBJ on the arena’s design, and Hanes set up shop in Columbus to help Nationwide Realty with offices, condominiums and apartments. 

At the time, the master plan as conceived by Ellis and urban planning firm MKSK was 75 acres. But the district would expand because the projects were well-received from the beginning, Ellis says, not only from private users who would rent office space or people who would buy condos or rent apartments, but by government leaders. That affirmation came in the form of a $42.5 commitment by Franklin County in the mid-2000s for a new home for the Columbus Clippers,  Huntington Park, on the west side of Neil Avenue, a site not in the original master plan. 

In 2007, Nationwide Realty, as part of the original plan, opened the Condominiums at North Bank Park. Moving west would continue as a new frontier for the developer when, years later, it would buy part of the old Buggyworks complex and transform it into offices. Hanes, who worked on those projects, continues to be involved in three that represent hundreds of millions of dollars: As the architect of record for third phase of Nationwide Realty’s Parks Edge condominiums; as designer of the parking structure that will be part of NRI’s new Chipotle headquarters building and apartment project; and as part of a team of designers working on the new Columbus Crew stadium on West Nationwide Boulevard.

The 200-acre district now stretches to I-670 on the north, the Olentangy River on the west, North High Street on the east and West Spring Street to the south. Parks Edge and the Chipotle building will continue a design tradition that emphasizes brick facades with a striking incorporation of glass. 

“The designers gravitated toward a continuation of the brick that was in the area,” Hanes says. “It allows you to take advantage of the industrial feel that was already there.”

Healthy competition

Ellis says the goal for the Arena District was to take a long-term view that was market-driven and focused on a high standard of quality. The new projects and the projects developed by others in the area are no exception. 

“Competition is healthy when you establish a high bar and people are playing in that space,” Ellis says. 

Architect Bob Loversidge has seen the Arena District projects up close as a longtime member of the Downtown Commission, the city’s review body. And his firm, Schooley Caldwell, calls the district home, with a passion for historic preservation – Loversidge was instrumental in moving the old Union Station arch to McFerson Commons. 

“I don’t think any other city in North America had the opportunity to essentially re-envision a quarter of their downtown,” Loversidge says. “We have rebuilt the five-story, red-brick city.”  

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.