Columbus Crew's new stadium cements Arena District's evolution into sports destination

Jim Weiker
The Columbus Dispatch

The Columbus Crew's new stadium isn't the final piece of the Arena District puzzle. Several large parcels remain to be developed in the neighborhood at the western edge of Downtown. 

But the soccer stadium does cement the district's evolution from a nightlife destination into a residential and office neighborhood anchored by sports.

From the beginning, the Arena District was designed to include far more than an arena. 

History of the Arena District: Starting (relatively) small

As early as spring 1998, more than two years before Nationwide Arena opened, Nationwide Realty Investors planned to use the arena as the core of an entertainment, residential and commercial district akin to the Short North. 

Plans for the 75-acre site, which at that time ended at Neil Avenue on the West, called for 1.3 million square feet of offices and an entertainment cluster of restaurants and bars around the arena. 

The original Arena District master plan, proposed in 1998, covered a fraction of the current Arena District.

The outlook for residential was so uncertain that the original plan called for only 350 apartments.

"You have to remember, there had been very little Downtown development in 20 years," said Nationwide Realty President Brian Ellis. "We didn't know. Will it work? Will people want to live here? We delayed starting the residential because we just didn't know." 

Arena District: Two decades of exceeding expectations

Fast forward 20 years, and the district covers 200 acres – three times its original size –and is home to 1,100 residences, with more than 500 more apartments planned. It includes 1.6 million square feet of commercial space housing 75 businesses. 

"It has exceeded every expectation we had," Ellis now says. "We've gone as far as we could to the north, south, east and west." 

And, of course, the district now includes the city's three biggest professional sports venues within walking distance. Combined, the three facilities hosted about 400 events (including games) a year before COVID, according to the Greater Columbus Sports Commission. 

"We're so fortunate to have these world-class facilities all on one boulevard," said Linda Shetina Logan, executive director of the commission. 

"I can't think of any community that can boast that. And when you add the (Greater Columbus) Convention Center, you've got another destination."

The district has become a sports hub, but Ellis and others see its greatest lasting value in two other ways: The district demonstrated there was a market for Downtown living and it helped bridge the gap between the emerging Short North and the core of Downtown. 

"The original idea was to leverage this new civic sports facility as the anchor for a new urban neighborhood," said Jeffrey Pongonis, a principal with MKSK design firm, which which has helped plan the district as it evolved over two decades.

"Looking back on it 20 years later, I feel like we had a lot of success in that way, and couldn’t be happier to see the Arena District knit together the Downtown, the North Market area and the Short North."

Nationwide Arena, shown here shortly before it opened in 2000, was originally surrounded by empty lots.

Pongonis, Elils and others are convinced the district was the catalyst for surrounding development. 

"It was absolutely pivotal and critical to the transition and emergence of Downtown," said Joel Pizzuti, president of the Pizzuti Cos., whose family has been active in the Arena District since its start and which is now a partner in the Astor Park development around the new Field, as the Crew stadium is now known. 

The district has succeeded in attracting residents and offices and in filling what Ellis calls "the missing teeth" in the city's development.

But Field illustrates how the district has evolved from its original plan. 

Ellis and others originally envisioned the district to be entertainment-focused and to include more retail, perhaps even a grocery store.

As shown in this early rendering, the Arena District was originally envisioned as a nightlife and entertainment district.

Retail never developed in the district, and efforts to broaden the entertainment offerings beyond the feast-or-famine calendar of major sports have seen mixed results. While Express Live and the Basement have found consistent audiences, the Studio Movie Grill (originally the Arena Grand Theatre) closed at the start of 2017 following a 15-year run.

A controversial plan to put a casino in the district – where Field now stands – was shot down by Ohio voters, even though the casino would have provided the regular nightlife attraction the district was looking for. 

While some restaurants such as Buca di Beppo, Ted's Montana Grill and Boston's, have endured, others have struggled, although as Ellis notes, the most prominent restaurant to close, Gordon Biersch Brewery, closed locations nationwide.

Instead, despite initial concerns, housing was an immediate hit in the district, and has been a part of every phase of the district's evolution.  

Huntington Park a home run

The 2009 addition of Huntington Park, home of the Columbus Clippers, may have had the biggest influence on the district's transition. As Ellis notes, "Bringing Huntington Park to the Arena District was extremely impactful." 

Ellis and the district's planners wanted the ballpark in the district, but huge sports facilities present huge challenges to designers trying to keep a neighborhood pedestrian friendly. 

Planners and architects responded by keeping the ballpark's footprint small – 7 acres instead of the original 10 – and by allowing pedestrians to look into the park and the arena. 

"We certainly didn’t see Huntington ballpark or Crew Stadium coming in 1998," said Pongonis. "We didn’t expect those facilities to work so well in a pedestrian-scaled district because of the challenges monolith buildings and parking garages present to pedestrian flow." Field addresses the problem by placing two large plazas on each end of the stadium along West Nationwide Boulevard. Like Nationwide Arena to the east, the stadium also will be tightly surrounded by development, called Astor Park.

The development, expected to start in the fall, will include a five-story office building with ground-floor retail space and two apartment buildings with about 440 apartments. 

Pizzuti believes the stadium will do for the west end of Nationwide Boulevard what the arena did three-fourths of a mile east.

"We thought the development surrounding the Crew stadium was an incredible opportunity," Pizzuti said. "We’ve seen how important the arena was 20 years ago, and to development around it, and we thought Crew stadium would have a similar impact."

The Arena District growth along West Spring Street includes the Condominiums at North Bank Park, left and the Parks Edge Condominiums. McFerson Commons Park (right) is lined with offices and residences.

Making the Arena District an '18-hour experience'

Pizzuti knows that challenges remain to make the Arena District a destination on non-sports nights.

"Giving people more reasons to be in the Arena District and Astor Park for nonevent activity would be terrific," he said.

"There’s a lot of residential in the area, of course, but to continue to develop retail offerings in the neighborhood, more – and more interesting – food and beverage places would be nice. Anything to promote an 18-hour experience."

In the meantime, the new Field leaves Columbus with a trifecta of sports venues in one district.

"For local residents, having these multiple events in one place is so important for the vibrancy of our town," said Logan, with the sports commission. 

"For the travel and tourism industry, the opportunity to have so many options when you come to an event, not just the beautiful facilities but the restaurants and the bars … is amazing."


Get more Columbus Crew news by listening to our podcasts