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Retail’s Past And Future In Columbus, Ohio

By News Creatives Authors , in Real Estate , at October 18, 2021

In 1909 the Lazarus Department Store opened in the center of Columbus, a city-block-sized temple to commerce. By the time it closed in 2003, traffic had dwindled as an American institution, the downtown department store, was supplanted by mushrooming malls.

In 1989, huge crowds flocked to the opening of Columbus City Center, a concrete, 1,250,000 sq ft, three-level shopping center that was famous as central Ohio’s largest and most upscale shopping mall. Within a decade, it was dying. By the time the structure closed in 2009, only a few fast food storefronts occupied the vast, mostly empty space. The downtown behemoth, close to the Ohio Statehouse and the Ohio Theatre, attracted vandals and gangs. Late in the sad mall’s life, someone was even murdered there.

“Newer malls had been erected in the suburbs, closer to shoppers’ homes. 

There was no reason to drive into Columbus to go shopping, so City Center declined and stood empty,” says Amy Taylor of the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation, a private, non-profit development corporation founded in 2002 to implement the Downtown Strategic Plan.

“The City Center Mall failed because downtown Columbus did not have the population to support it,” says Michael B. Coleman. Mayor of the City of Columbus from 2000 to 2016, he is the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history, as well as its first African-American mayor. Today he works in private law practice and is chairman of the board of the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation.

“Retail happens when people live in an area, not the other way around,” he says.

“When I was first elected, I made bringing more residents into the center of the city it a priority. After a whole lot of discussion and exploration, we knew that, to grow the downtown, the mall had to go.”

The decision did not go down well with locals. 

“I would ask people who objected to razing the mall when they had last gone there, and it was usually years ago,” Mayor Coleman says. “But they had sentimental attachment to a place where they bought something special once upon a time.”

Coleman was attacked and vilified; he was literally cursed and spat upon.  

“Fortunately, taking down the mall had to proceed slowly because it stood atop five underground parking garages,” Amy Taylor explains. “Between 2009 and 2011, people had a chance to watch it being dismantled, and by the time they saw what took its place, they were ready.”

Today, what was the Brutalist City Center is Columbus Commons, a nine-acre, $25 million project that produced a green park anchored by a stage at one end, a carousel at the other. Food trucks gather during the workday; weekends bring concerts, outdoor movies, fireworks displays and other festivities.  Bordering the park, on the site of former parking lots, are Highpoint at Columbus Commons, two brick and limestone seven-story buildings that represent a $50 million investment on the part of CDDC; they bring 983 new one- and two-bedroom apartments. 

“Columbus Commons has done what the mall never did: create a sense of place,” Taylor says.

Next door, the aptly named Lazarus Building has a new life, its 700,000 square feet transformed into offices, all of which are occupied.

“It was given to the CDDC,” Taylor explains. “We did a green renovation that installed a seven-story light well, built a 1/3-acre green roof, harvested rainwater and utilized wheat board instead of drywall.”   

When Michael Coleman took office in 2000, downtown had fewer than 3,500 residents, a mere 10% of the all-time high of 30,000 residents in 1950. Today, the population is expected to reach 12,000 by the end of the year. According to the 2020 census, Columbus has a total population of 905,748. It is the 14th most populous city in the U.S. and the third-most populous state capital.

“Columbus is home to Ohio State, and used to be a brain drain city,” Coleman says. “Students would graduate and leave for Chicago or other places. Now Columbus is a brain gain city, as many Ohio State students decide to stay and live here after graduation.”  

Housing figures largely in new Columbus development: Astor Park, the new neighborhood being developed around Lower Field, the stadium for the Columbus Crew, the city’s professional soccer team, includes two striking architect-designed residential buildings, as well as office and commercial space.

As Coleman predicted, new residential development brings all manner of retail. Perhaps the most ambitious is the Trolley District created by Brad DeHays, whose Connect Real Estate and Connect Construction is developing 20 historic properties in downtown Columbus. Among them is the city’s former Industrial Light and Power Station, which will open as chic office space in spring of 2022.

DeHays is turning Columbus’ enormous 1880s Trolley Barn into a market building.

“The Near East Side of Columbus is currently deemed a food desert due to its lack of proximity to grocery stores and food resources,” DeHays says. “The Trolley District will open with over 18 local food vendors. It is the largest collective of only locally owned businesses in central Ohio. Neighbors in the community are target customers for local produce, daily consumables and food-oriented programming at the East Market. The East Market will provide prepared foods and beverages such as coffee and pizza, and also unprepared foods such as vegetables, butchered meats and fish.”  

Smaller adjacent buildings — former foundries, coach facilities and machine shops that serviced the trolleys — will be occupied by a local craft brewery, restaurants, a gym, a test kitchen and co-working space. Key to the project: a 102-unit apartment building. 

To finance the Trolley District, DeHays used two allocations of new market tax credits, two state historic tax credit awards and federal historic tax credit, as well as loan assistance from local banks and foundations.  He also sought and received a 30-year Downtown Redevelopment District designation to provide needed ongoing capital expenditure dollars to keep the market running for 30 years. 

“It was a grouping of federal, state and local incentives to provide a sustainable development for long term growth and stability of the neighborhood’s newest community resource,” he says.

In other words, the Trolley District aims to become everything City Center and the Lazarus Department Store were not.

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