From an expanded museum, renovated library and vibrant colleges to the historic Jefferson Center, the Discovery District is drawing new interest.
The Discovery District hosts workers, students and art lovers each day. Yet, for many years these commuters rarely lingered in the East Side neighborhood that's home to Columbus State Community College, Columbus College of Art & Design and the Columbus Museum of Art.
That pattern is changing thanks to an influx of development that has brought residents, restaurants and retailers to the enclave that also includes the main branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, Franklin University and OhioHealth Grant Medical Center.
New housing, the addition of the Hills Market Downtown and safety improvements spearheaded by the Discovery Special Improvement District, a public-private partnership focused on a clean and safe Downtown, have changed the vibe of the neighborhood. The development is a perk for everyone connected to the Discovery District, says David Harrison, president of Columbus State. Locals anticipate that renovations at the art museum and library also will bring more visitors.
"The art museum has always had its patrons. The library has its patrons. Columbus State has its students. Instead of just interacting with that institution and leaving, they're staying in the neighborhood," he says. "The district as a whole is a destination."
Students, residents and workers regularly walk the neighborhood, stopping to grab a bite to eat or do some shopping at one of the new businesses. It's a welcome change, says longtime CCAD executive Jeff Fisher.
"For years, Downtown after 5:15-it was a ghost town," says the college's senior vice president and CFO. "The whole energy in this neighborhood has changed dramatically."
The opening of the Hills Market on North Grant Avenue in 2013 made a big difference to the area. It gave students and workers a reason to remain in the neighborhood, says Randy Walker, president of Randy Walker Real Estate Services. The store, which does a brisk lunch business at its café, also filled a void for residents who had to travel out of the neighborhood to grocery shop, says Walker, who jointly owns the building with the Edwards Companies. The Hills Market and the Grass Skirt Tiki Room, which opened in 2012, were pioneers in the district, he says. Watching the changes in the neighborhood has been exciting, says the longtime property owner.
"It was going two miles per hour for 20 years," he says. "Now it's going 70 miles an hour."
The Edwards Companies, which also has owned property in the neighborhood for years, opted to build condominiums and apartments along Gay and Long streets in the Discovery District because CEO Jeff Edwards saw the opportunity to create a Downtown neighborhood with a unique feel, says Kim Ulle, president of Eclipse Real Estate Group, a division of the company.
Edwards built his buildings from the ground up-unlike other Downtown developers that converted warehouses or office buildings into housing. The company has built 74 condos, has another 26 under construction and plans for up to another 80 units. It also has completed one 129-unit apartment building and recently broke ground on a second one. "He wanted to start from scratch," Ulle says.
The approach allowed the company to develop buildings with yards, private entrances and garages. Residents love the suburban touches combined with the perks of living Downtown, Ulle says. "People like the idea of being able to walk to the museum and the library," she says.
Apartments also have been built or are in the works on East Rich Street and Oak Street.
The presence of the civic institutions has really shaped the neighborhood, says Patrick Losinski, CEO of the library, which is in the midst of a $30 million renovation at the Main Library.
"In the Discovery District, we have an amazing asset of people in pursuit of education, knowledge and wisdom," he says. "It has its own, unique personality. We're going to be the Georgetown of Columbus. You can see the energy the civic institutions are radiating out to the neighborhood."
The art museum, which will debut a $37.6 million expansion and renovation this month, also feels the excitement building in the neighborhood, says Nanette Maciejunes, executive director of the museum.
The new construction and renovations at the museum and the library and the completion of the pedestrian-friendly Long Street Bridge have re-energized the whole area, says Katharine Moore, executive director of the Jefferson Center, a campus of nonprofit organizations housed in historic buildings located in the district. The bridge was designed to make the East Side neighborhoods feel more connected to Downtown. "It's a thrilling time for us," Moore says.
The success of its neighborhoods is ultimately good for Columbus as a whole, adds Marc Conte, deputy director of the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District. As Downtown residents and retailers help fill city coffers, his organization helps property owners in the Discovery District spur development by providing community ambassadors, funding beautification efforts and promoting the area's successes. The original 10-year SID plan, which expires this year, has already been extended for another five years.
"The downtown reflects the identity of a city. Even the suburbs want Columbus to be strong and the region to be strong," he says. "The Downtown that we're creating (is a place where) people of all ages want to live, work and visit."
Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.