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Historic Buildings Downtown Sitting Empty Despite Demand

Brent Warren Brent Warren Historic Buildings Downtown Sitting Empty Despite DemandPhoto by Brent Warren.
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Despite a strong market and a demonstrated demand for commercial and residential space with historic character, a number of buildings featuring precisely those types of spaces in Downtown Columbus have sat empty for years.

It’s a dilemma that has Downtown boosters shaking their heads — lamenting the lost opportunity but also worried for the future of such buildings, given the familiar historical pattern in which neglected buildings deteriorate and are eventually demolished to make way for surface parking or, more recently, new development.

“On a weekly basis, I talk to companies that say, ‘we want a hip, authentic, urban space with an open floor plan,’ and what they’re saying is, we want a rehabbed historic building,” says Mark Lundine, the city’s Economic Development Administrator. “We just don’t have enough of that product to offer them, and we lose business because of it. Look at the success of Buggy Works, or a building like 226 N. Fifth Street… and I always say if we had six Smith Bros’ Hardware buildings, they’d all be full. That’s the type of office space that people want.”

Joyce Barrett, Executive Director of Heritage Ohio, cites a cautionary tale from Omaha, Nebraska. “They tore down their old warehouses to build a modern corporate campus, then the company later left for a warehouse district in Chicago… valuing what you have almost always pays off in the long run.”

Successful residential rehabs like the Julian and the Atlas Building have demonstrated that there are plenty of people willing to pay a premium to live in historic properties. Older buildings also provide a foothold for independent restaurants and retail, as evidenced by the successful Gay Street and South Fourth Street corridors.

“In Downtown Columbus, the older retail space is where entrepreneurs and new businesses can bubble up,” says Cleve Ricksecker, Executive Director of the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District. “Where there are buildings that haven’t been torn down, particularly clusters of buildings, this is where we’ve seen some really good entrepreneurial activity.”

One prominent grouping of such buildings is on the west side of South High Street between Town and Rich Streets. Three of those buildings — the former Ohio National Bank building at the corner of Town, the four-story brick building containing Moses Jewelers at 171-177 S. High, and the three-story building at 185-191 S. High — are owned by Plaza Properties.

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Despite sitting across from the Columbus Commons and being right down the street from new and under-construction mixed-use developments like 250 High, Two25 Commons, and LC RiverSouth, the buildings remain mostly empty, and have not seen any significant investment or improvements in recent years.

Josh Ruben, a Real Estate Broker for Plaza Properties — which owns property all over the metro area, including the Westland Mall site — declined to comment on the buildings other than to say that they are currently available for lease.

Near the intersection of East Long and North Third streets, Schottenstein Property Group (SPG) owns two historic buildings that have sat empty for years — the five-story former Westwater Supply building, at 154 N. Third, and 134 E. Long, a four-story building that once housed K-Beck Furniture.

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Shannon Thomas, Director of Marketing and Communications for Ohio History Connection, says that the Third Street building dates to 1914, while the Long Street building was likely built “somewhere between the 1870s and 1890s.”

A third building in the same block, also owned by SPG, holds Spoonful Records and the Downtown Bike Shop on its first floor. SPG also controls the parking lots adjacent to the three buildings, the Budget Car Rental building, and a number of other surface parking lots on N. Third.

Dirk Greene, Vice President of Leasing for SPG, says that the company is “at the beginning stages of a development plan,” for the block east of Third and north of Long. He declined to share any further details, including whether or not the preservation of the three buildings would be part of those plans.

Barrett, of Heritage Ohio, acknowledges that there are many challenges inherent in restoring older buildings, which is why preservationists have fought hard for policy solutions, like the state’s historic tax credits.

She cites Brad DeHays’ project at the corner of West Long and North Front streets. “That’s a complicated, challenging preservation project,” she says, “one that’s probably not possible without tax credits.”

The challenge for buildings like the ones owned by SPG and Plaza Properties is that they tend to fade into the background, not drawing much attention until a plan is actually developed and presented to the public to either restore or replace them.

“It isn’t that uncommon that people galvanize around an issue once it presents itself, but the way to do it is before,” Barrett says. “If a developer doesn’t know what is important, what should be protected, then the community has to step up.”

She adds that it can be hard for people to see the potential in buildings that may have fallen into disrepair, since, “your average American doesn’t recognize the value of a historic building until it’s restored.”

As for developers who have held on to buildings for decades that could be restored and returned to productive use, Barrett has a mantra; “if you don’t have the vision, at least stop being a road block.”

All photos by Brent Warren.

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