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City Considers What to do with Vacant High Street Properties

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea City Considers What to do with Vacant High Street PropertiesPhoto by Walker Evans.
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Columbus has development on the brain and a low tolerance for vacant buildings, particularly Downtown and particularly on coveted High Street. So it’s no wonder the vacant buildings at 72 North High have become such a topic of interest that 10TV devoted not one but two stories to the buildings and their owners last week.

The three dormant buildings are owned by the Tonti Organization, a real estate company with a number of properties in and around Columbus. One of the three was once a department store called Madison’s, as evidenced by a dilapidated sign on the front. The danger posed by falling bricks has forced the city to block off several parking meters in an adjacent alleyway – another cardinal sin for Downtowners.


An eyesore for some and parking issue for others, as far as the city is concerned the buildings are just plain unsafe.

The Building and Zoning Services Department, headed by Director Scott Messer, has already made that determination. According to Messer, a 2012 inspection of the property indicated the buildings suffered from roof damage and other deteriorating conditions. Many repairs were made to the property, monitored by Messer’s department, yet the buildings have apparently continued to fall apart.

“Our first desire is that the buildings not remain in an unsafe condition,” said Messer.

An engineer’s report on the buildings’ integrity is expected on June 28. If the report finds the structures to be unsafe, but not immediately hazardous, the buildings can remain standing while necessary repairs are made. If, however, the engineer’s report shows the structure to be an imminent threat, it will need to be demolished immediately.

According to Messer, the Tonti Organization understands that problems exist with the buildings and has been cooperative with the city. The company did not return a phone call requesting comment for this story.

The buildings have been vacant for a long time, but exactly how long is unknown. According to Messer, there is evidence of at least one recent business tenant, but Messer’s department wasn’t made aware of it. Because of the buildings’ Downtown location, Messer says the city would obviously prefer that the property be redeveloped if possible.


Messer is not alone in that regard. Nancy Recchie, who has been a historic preservation consultant for 38 years, hopes the buildings can stay standing.

“My personal opinion is that the last thing they need on High Street is more vacant lots,” said Recchie.

According to Recchie, the buildings in question are on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation which will not save them from demolition if they are found to be an immediate threat, but which can help the owners restore them to a safe condition. Owning a building on the registry provides certain tax incentives for restoration.

Recchie is also skeptical about the determination the engineer’s report will make with respect to the extent of the hazard the buildings pose. Though she acknowledges the buildings are “probably in very rough shape,” in her time as a preservation consultant, Recchie says she’s seen buildings “in conditions that a lot of architects and engineers have said it can’t be done and it has been done.”

According to Messer, if the engineer’s report shows the buildings do not need to be demolished, the owners may have as many as 30 days to decide how to remedy the buildings’ structural problems.

“I would really hope that if the current owners don’t want to make the investment,” said Recchie, “they would consider selling them to somebody who would.”

For ongoing discussion on the Madison Building, CLICK HERE to visit our Messageboard.

All photos by Walker Evans.


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  • It would be a shame if the city allows these buildings to be emergency demolished after over a decade of the property owner letting them deteriorate.

    Hopefully an intervention can happen to save and restore them.

  • If so, this is pretty standard practice on how many historic buildings are demolished. City codes (or lack of them) allow absentee owners to let perfectly okay buildings rot over long periods of time, and only when the buildings become structurally unsafe from neglect does the city finally act, usually through demolition. You have to wonder just how many hundreds of Columbus’ historic buildings have been allowed to be demolished in this very same way.

  • BrianW

    It’s just so sad that the economics work out that speculators want to “sit on” these buildings, waiting for their big “pay day”, rather than putting the buildings to use.

    • Ned23

      A good example of where “the market” doesn’t work in the best interest of everyone.

  • Brandom

    Walker, just because a building is old doesn’t mean it needs to be saved. If that is your train of thought, I have a sh*t ton of Phar-Mor buildings I’d love to unload.

    • Where did I say that that it needed to be saved just because it was old?

  • CB_downtowner

    Do you have a Phar-Mor that’s located in the heart of downtown in a nice looking building that could easily accommodate multi-use? Let alone the idea of yet another surface lot in this spot of downtown. The problem is mostly with the owners, not the building itself. A shame to tear down a building like that because the owner didn’t at least try to take responsibility.

  • There is a reason these buildings are on the National Historic Register and an abandoned Phar-Mor in a strip center is not. The comparison is ridiculous.

  • Jason Powell

    The tallest portion to the left is especially beautiful. Would be a shame to see it go. On a positive note – if you can find one – the site would be vacant and ready for redevelopment if a developer should step forward. That is a pretty good location, building or no building. Personally, I would like someone to save these buildings. We should preserve our historic architecture as much as we can. They just don’t build them like they used to.

  • cocco

    Tonti has left these buildings to rot for the past 20 years. I hope they find their way to someone who can renovate them or redevelop. City shares some of the blame for not forcing the issue sooner.

  • firesareburning

    the city’s vacant and abandoned policy and enforcement of code is at the heart of this disgrace. it’s interesting to see news media turn their eye toward this issue on a commercial level – but the same issue is stunningly abhorent on a residential level. the fact that any property owner can own a structure, comply with minimal code enforcement and leave the structure vacant for as long as they choose (up to literally forever) is a true flaw in city and state law.

  • Willful neglect of an historic property is a violation of City code that is punishable by significant fines. The City should pursue the owners to the fullest extent of the law and force them to stabilize the buildings.

  • Despite these buildings being labeled “historic”, I think they’re ugly as sin and should be demolished once a new use can be found for the property. They made ugly buildings in the past, too.

    • Of course they’re ugly because of their condition. The removal of that big flat facade, tuckpointing and window replacements would do wonders to make them look a lot nicer.

      • So would replacing them with new buildings! :-)

        • True. But there’s no proposal for new buildings on the table. It’s wishful thinking to assume that the current owner that let them deteriorate for so long would either build something new or sell the properties to someone else that would.

          We should only be allowing Downtown demolitions when there is funded plan to replace with something of better use.

  • Achekov

    That whole block looks absolutely horrible, and I have to believe that at this point that it is depressing further development in the area by simply being their and dragging down the mood of the area.

  • JMan

    Personally, I’m all for historic preservation if the building is historic. And another surface lot downtown would be just unbearable. On the other hand, the generations who built those buildings thought nothing of razing the log cabins which were already there.

  • jbaker544

    It is about time. I live on this block and these buildings as well as the open lot across the street have allowed high levels of wondering homeless, car break-ins and drug dealing. This is a dead zone just one block from the city center of high and broad, 2 blocks from the capital building and just about 6 block from the convention center. This is a shame the city hasn’t done something with this years ago but hey, it looks like it is getting attention now, with the new development going in the surface lot on gay and high this location becomes so valuable.

  • XeniaPalus

    Walker’s comment: The removal of that big flat facade, tuckpointing and window replacements would do wonders to make them look a lot nicer.
    Columbus could learn a few good tricks from neighboring Indianapolis—their city/business/community made sure to preserve the facades of several “old” buildings and re-newed/remodeled or redid the structures behind those. No wonder their streetscape is inviting, charming, beautiful— and no doubt contributes to INDY winning many visitors to its DOWNtown.

  • Meda

    Madison’s was an upscale womens clothing store based here with store locations in several of the area malls. It went out of business in the late 80’s I believe. Before that I believe the building was one of the branches for the Boston Store and A JCPenney. Back when downtown was the place to shop. Hopefully the buildings can be saved and rehabbed.

    • jbaker544

      The JC Penney was at 106 N High which is the building I live in now not the old Madison’s building.

  • mchippas

    I brought the issue of these vacant buildings up to the Dispatch about a year ago and Mark Ferenchik did a great article that appeared on the front page of the paper. In other cities, vacant properties owners are assessed extra fees for letting their properties set dormant as a deterrent or penalty so that we don’t have these types of issues. It’s a shame the city has not been more proactive in taking stronger initiatives to prevent these buildings from sitting vacant so long. The trolley barn in the near east side was recently taken away from its owner and sold to another entity for development because it sat vacant for so long.

  • JackieC

    Didn’t the parking garage on Long St. get the “30 day tag” on it from the city? I have not seen anything done to that structure since it was closed.

    If the owners are given more time to fix things, how much time? And will the city allow them to just fix the buildings enough so they do not get demolished but are still uninhabitable?

  • anspeakes

    I would love to know the original owners are. Because the property is beautiful and I want to Turn the Properties into Wedding Dress Boutique, Special Occasion and Gothic Wear. I want to know about the entire strip of properties on that street. Does anyone know how I can find the original owners? I know these properties started as Retail clothing shops. I would love to continue this tradition with all original moldings.

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