Green skywalks, sidewalk bistros, public art: Jeff Edwards sees opportunity in Downtown Columbus

Jeff Edwards is taking Columbus’ urban core into the future with optimism.

Jim Weiker
Columbus CEO
Jeff Edwards, CEO of Edwards Cos.

Late last year, in a former bank lobby that his firm meticulously restored, Columbus developer Jeff Edwards studied a map of Downtown Columbus and saw a changed city. 

He saw a Downtown rising to life after a pandemic left it all but a ghost town, boarded up and empty.

In Edwards’ vision, the new Downtown will include an elevated landscaped skywalk, a vibrant French bistro spilling onto the sidewalk, a sunken plaza with outdoor dining, public art hovering over High Street and nightlife rivaling the Short North.

“It’s going to come back,” says Edwards, 57, CEO and president of Edwards Cos. “Long-term, Downtown Columbus will be great. It’s on the verge of exploding again.”

While many developers are waiting out a pandemic that has left them jittery or merely finishing projects started before the pandemic, Edwards is set to embark on a string of developments totaling more than $160 million that will transform Downtown and help bring his vision to life.

When those projects are finished, Edwards will have invested approximately $400 million to erect more than a dozen buildings covering most of six city blocks, restored three more buildings, and added 1,100 residences to Downtown Columbus. 

Developer Jeff Edwards, left, and Kim Ulle, right, president of Edwards Cos.' development arm, Eclipse Real Estate, stand inside the White Haines Building, which Edwards' firm is redoing.

No single developer, with the exception of Nationwide Realty Investors, whose efforts have been concentrated in the Arena District, will have left a greater mark on Downtown so far this century.

“Jeff Edwards sets a gold standard for development in Columbus,” says Becky West, executive director of the historic preservation group Columbus Landmarks, which gave Edwards its Patron Award in 2018.

“He really does have a vision for Downtown. It’s exciting because it will attract more residents and inspire visitors, which is so critical as we consider our post-Covid recovery. The timing of these projects couldn’t be more optimistic.”

Founded in 1959 by Jeff Edwards’ father, Peter, the privately held Edwards Cos. became one of central Ohio’s largest developers by focusing on student housing, multifamily housing, suburban commercial development and pioneering the redevelopment of the Brewery District. 

A dozen years ago, the company entered Downtown in a big way with Neighborhood Launch east of North 4th Street and north of East Gay Street that included a dozen buildings and 400 residences over five city blocks. The development is significant not merely in size, but also in its design, which brought to Columbus an urban townhouse streetscape like that in Chicago or Boston. 

“Neighborhood Launch is really spectacular. The scale of it, the design of it, the urban qualities of it, are just spectacular,” says Robert Loversidge, a longtime member of the Columbus Downtown Commission and CEO of the Schooley Caldwell architecture firm. 

Developer Jeff Edwards is redoing the White Haines Building downtown.

Neighborhood Launch also included the renovation of the former Welsh Presbyterian Church on East Long Street into a community center. The company followed that renovation with a $20 million conversion of the former Citizens Bank building at the corner of North High and Gay streets into apartments and what might be the most luxurious bar in Columbus. 

Immediately to the north, the company filled the empty block on the northwest corner of Gay and High streets with The Nicholas, an $80 million building that includes 230 apartments and 20,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space. 

“That was a fantastic infill,” says West, of Columbus Landmarks. “That block was a missing tooth Downtown for decades; it was just so exciting to watch that stretch of High Street come back to life.”

Now, Edwards is about to tackle a third corner of Gay and High — the former Madison’s Department Store and White-Haines buildings, which for years have been sat empty. In a $60 million project, Edwards plans to redevelop the three buildings into commercial space and apartments, while adding a new building that would include parking and possibly a hotel to the north, on High Street.

Edwards also envisions expanding the funky commercial strip of Pearl Alley north of Gay Street.

On the northeast corner of Gay and High, Edwards has leased the ground floor and mezzanine of a building for a French bistro called Grande Rue that would feature sidewalk seating. 

Developer Jeff Edwards is redoing Madison's on N. High St. downtown.

When finished, Edwards would have renovated or developed three of the four corners of Gay and High, an intersection he sees as a vibrant street-life center of Downtown, dancing with galleries and restaurants. 

“We want to create a real hub at Gay and High,” he says. “We’ve already spoken with gallery owners who want to be part of this.” 

As an exclamation point, Edwards has reached out to artist Janet Echelman to install one of her enormous suspended and illuminated fiber sculptures over High and Gay streets. Nothing has been settled yet on the sculpture, which would require city approval, but Echelman’s sculptures have served as major draws in other cities.

Edwards’ other focus is a few blocks away, on East Broad Street east of 3rd Street, where he is working on two connected projects: 

  • A $63 million overhaul of the 24-story PNC building at 155 E. Broad St. Fourteen upper floors will be converted from offices into 105 residences. The two-story glass box in front of the building on Broad Street will be replaced with a sunken terrace with outdoor dining. 
  • The Gilbert, a 13-story, $44 million building housing 133 apartments and 265 parking spaces that will replace three smaller buildings at the southeast corner of Young and East Broad streets. Unlike most other Edwards’ projects, this one involves razing buildings, something he says is necessary for the project but others, including West and Loversidge, find disappointing.
The  White Haines Building in downtown Columbus

Edwards plans to link the Gilbert and PNC buildings by reinventing the elevated walkway from the PNC building over South 4th Street into a “parkwalk.” The long-neglected, musty walkway, notorious for freezing in winter and baking in summer, will be uncovered, widened and topped with plants to create a 30-by-760-foot lush setting with benches, trees and shrubs that will rise from East Broad and South 3rd streets to take pedestrians to a parking garage on South Young and East Capital streets.

“This will be an elevated greenspace, like a park,” Edwards says.

Joel Pizzuti, another developer moving forward on Downtown projects during the pandemic, is excited by Edwards’ Broad Street plans.

“I think what Jeff is doing on Broad Street will be terrific,” says Pizzuti, president of the Pizzuti Companies. “All his developments have been really well-thought-out, the architecture and planning is first class.”

With these projects and others Downtown, Edwards is helping fill in the empty buildings, parking lots and other gaps that have drained Downtown of life for decades. 

“His projects are helping us with one of our fundamental projects, which is density,” Loversidge says. “It’s increasing the density and connecting the dots, so to speak. Jeff’s projects have been huge contributors.”

Jim Weiker is senior reporter with the Columbus Dispatch.

Edwards Cos.

495 S. High St., Suite 150, Columbus 43215

edwardscompanies.com

Business: Real estate developer

CEO: Jeff Edwards

Work: Downtown projects include Neighborhood Launch, Citizens Bank, The Nicholas, Madison’s building