Discovery District's new shine, one project at a time

Laura Newpoff
The Columbus Metropolitan Library's Main branch opens onto Topiary Park in the back after a $35 million renovation.

A little more than a year and a half ago, Capital University made a decision to do something it’s never done before when it formed a joint venture with Pizzuti Cos. to transform a surface parking lot into a five-story apartment and retail project.

The parking lot was in Downtown Columbus, several miles west of its home base in Bexley. That 1-acre sliver of land at Oak Street and Grant Avenue had become a prime piece of Downtown real estate and Capital saw an opportunity to help enliven the Discovery District neighborhood that already housed its law school.

Bill Mea, the university’s vice president for business and finance, says the project was so significant to Capital that it chose the joint venture arrangement so it could stay involved as the project moved forward and be able to exert a level of control over its design.

“The [district] already has health care, the law school, library and the museum, all of which contribute to the life of the neighborhood,” Mea says. “But what you’re seeing now with the new development more particularly is it’s focused on getting people to live there. [The residential projects] will bring additional life to the neighborhood beyond 9-to-5.”

Click here for a map of the Discovery District.

10-year development wave

From Columbus State Community College to the north to City Dog Daycare to the south, and two of the city’s most important cultural institutions in between, the Discovery District long has been ripe for development as Columbus’ inner-city building boom spreads from the High Street corridor.

The Capital/Pizzuti project, which is expected to break ground in January, is one of 14 proposed projects in the district. Five others are under construction and nine were completed in 2018.

While the 70-square-block neighborhood has seen massive investment of $600 million in recent years including a $32 million overhaul of the Columbus Metropolitan Library and a $43 million addition to the Columbus Museum of Art, this new development wave is largely residential. Of the 14 proposed projects, eight involve residential and will account for at least 318 units.

Rob Vogt, managing partner of Vogt Strategic Insights Ltd. in Columbus, says many of the city’s other neighborhoods are dominated by residential. Not so in the Discovery District which, beyond the library, museum and Columbus State, is home to the Columbus College of Art and Design, Franklin University, State Auto Insurance, Motorists Mutual Insurance Co. and OhioHealth Corp.’s Grant Medical Center.

About 10 years ago, residential infill started to come online as developers like Edwards Cos. and Daimler launched projects in the area.

“The last decade the district has really started to blossom,” Vogt says. “It became poised for development as developers recognized the success of the urban core along High Street and those parcels started to get taken up. These parcels in the Discovery District represented some good opportunities for residential development. That evolution was sort of inevitable with so many of the core sites exhausted.”

Vogt also says developers likely are keen on the proximity of their projects to the district’s major employers. The projects will continue to drive others into the area including restaurants, retail and other lifestyle services.

‘Innovative together’

Columbus State Community College has been a primary driver of the Discovery District’s overhaul in recent years, including through the “creative campus” partnership that’s a city of Columbus sidewalk and streets project that involves area businesses, the Columbus College of Art & Design, the museum and others. The project has resulted in more trees, new sidewalks, more crosswalks, a median on Cleveland Avenue and more benches, chairs and street lighting.

There’s also the soon-to-open Mitchell Hall, a $33 million Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts building, which is the first new facility since the school’s Center for Workforce Development was completed in 2006. Columbus State also recently formalized an entity called Columbus State Community Partners that, as a university affiliate, will stimulate investment in real estate connected to the college, similar to what Ohio State does with Campus Partners and the redevelopment of the High Street-Lane Avenue corridor.

“Our focus is on helping students succeed and as we look at our own data … a lot of students have trouble with non-academic barriers— housing, food, transportation and childcare,” says Columbus State President David Harrison. “We’re trying to be creative in terms of how we can engage the community deeply to address those needs for our students.”

Harrison says a good example of what to expect from the affiliate is the recent partnership with the Mid-Ohio Foodbank. The pair are repurposing a maintenance garage on Cleveland Avenue that will become a full-service grocery for the community, but with a focus on students and their families.

“It’s a new approach for us,” Harrison says of the Columbus State Fresh Market. “So having a mechanism for us to be innovative together is a big part of the purpose of this.”

 Bye-bye surface lots

The recent spate of redevelopment in the district is focused on surface parking lots like the Pizzuti/Capital project and is part of an effort to make the area more attractive.

Motorists Insurance is developing a surface lot adjacent to Topiary Park into a 92-unit residential/retail complex.

State Auto Insurance Cos. is reconfiguring three surface lots with plans to build a four-story, 761-space parking garage along Washington Avenue.

Grant Medical Center completed a 1,050-parking garage atop surface parking at Grant and Rich streets 

in 2018.

Private developers continue to unveil plans for small developments on parking lots along East Long Street.

In addition to the residential and educational developments and the streetscape improvements, the Discovery District Special Improvement District office is working on a “Discovery Trail” to better connect property owners, especially the museum and the library.

“Our research shows that most people coming into the district are going to one place like the museum and then leaving,” says Cass Freeland, who is in charge of special projects at the SID. “Crossing Broad Street was seen as a barrier, so this will be designed to make it more pedestrian friendly and make this area more of a destination.”

Kenny Sipes, who launched the Roosevelt Coffeehouse in the district in 2015, says retailers already have discovered that the area is the “perfect spot to build community.”

The coffee shop, which supports the efforts of those working to fight the injustices of unclean water, hunger and human trafficking, has thrived in the neighborhood, drawing not only nearby students and Downtown workers, but students from Ohio State and the group meetings of other nonprofits such as the YWCA, YMCA and HandsOn Central Ohio. Over its first four years, the Roosevelt has given $111,000 to the organizations it supports, impacting the lives of thousands.

“You want community and anybody can strive for that in their mission,” Sipes says. “It’s what we strived for here and, man, Columbus has honored that vision for us.”

 History of Discovery District

Kenneth Cookson, an attorney with Kegler Brown Hill & Ritter in Columbus, is a founding trustee of the Discovery District Development Corp., where he served as president from 1994-98. The organization now is called the Discovery District Civil Association. He recently wrote to Columbus CEO about the district’s history. Here are some excerpts, which have been edited for clarity and brevity.

“The Discovery District name dates to the late 1970s and was part of a planning document put together by the leadership of the various institutions in the area. The name was selected because it represented the discoveries available in the unique blend of institutions— colleges and universities, major employers, cultural institutions and historic churches.

“The Discovery District Civil Association has been meeting monthly since 1995 to promote institutions and events in the neighborhood such as the free movies in Topiary Park on the last Saturdays of June, July and August and a December “shop around.”

“The formation of the special improvement district in 2007 was a true turning point, Cookson says. “The commitment of the land owners in the district to clean and safe programming and security makes the district one of the safest and cleanest areas in Columbus,” he says.

“Columbus College of Art & Design, Columbus State Community College and Capital University Law School have added to their physical footprints in recent years and attracted students from wider areas. With more than 20,000 students in the district, there is demand for housing. The neighborhood also has become attractive to Millennials who are drawn to Downtown living.”

What: The Discovery Special Improvement District was created by the area’s property owners in 2007 to provide improvements and safety services in the neighborhood. It’s managed jointly with the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District.

Where: I-670 to the north, Fifth Street to the west, I-70 to the south, I-71 to the east

Since: 1970s

Residents: 3,000+

Square blocks: 70

Key stakeholders: Columbus State Community College, Columbus Museum of Art, Motorists Mutual Insurance, State Auto Insurance, Capital University Law School, Columbus Metropolitan Library, OhioHealth Grant Medical Center, Franklin University

Discovery District