In the not too distant past, the Brewery District was the most happening nightlife spot in all of Columbus. Young professionals (before they were even called that) would swarm South Front Street on the weekends to grab drinks at any of the dozen or so bars in the area, listen to live music, or dance the night away. Ludlow’s, Gibby’s, Howl at the Moon, and Tommy Keegan’s were just a few of the hot places to be seen in the late 90s and early 2000s.
All that rapidly changed with the opening of multiple bars and clubs on Park Street near the newly minted Arena District; many of the entertainment-based businesses in the Brewery District closed up.
“The development of the Arena District pulled nightlife away from the area,” explains Doug Griggs, owner of the Columbus Brewing Company. “We stuck it out by becoming more of a destination restaurant.”
While CBC remains along with The High Beck Tavern, all four of the other aforementioned bars closed up within a few years of each other, in addition to Barrister Hall, Banana Joe’s, Hoster’s, and Victory’s. A handful of bars and clubs came and went throughout the mid-2000s, but, for the most part, the Brewery District’s nightlife lights were out for good.
Fast forward to 2011 and you’ll see what is starting to look like a comeback of sorts.
“Within the past 12 months or so, there has been a bit of a groundswell with some new momentum and energy in the neighborhood,” says Jeff Pongonis, associate principal at MSI+KKG design firm, which is located in the Brewery District. “The renovation of the Worley Building to accept a theater and bar –Shadowbox Live and World of Beer– has dropped a nice bit of life back into the area, both for visitors and residents.”
Pongonis has served on the Brewery District Commission since 2004 and has overseen neighborhood projects, both commercial and residential. He contends that the addition of new offices in the neighborhood is critical to support additional restaurant and bar ventures nearby.
“Neighborhoods do not get longevity from entertainment-based destinations, but they can often times be helpful to spur longer term neighborhood anchors, such as office and residential development,” he explains. “A sustainable neighborhood needs a backbone of jobs where people work, and residences where people live. The market will provide the amenities once those are established.”
In addition to Shadowbox Live and World of Beer, the Brewery District has gained a new nightclub (Double Happiness), winery (Via Vecchia), live music venue (Outland on Liberty) and several places to dine (Backstage Bistro, T. Murray’s Bar & Kitchen and Section 8 Yakitorium) over the last two years.
“The Brewery District is definitely on the verge of a comeback,” says Jennifer White, general manager of The CBC. “However, this time around the focus will be more local-orientated with small individually-owned restaruants, quality programming, and a good mature, historic vibe, as opposed to the district’s previous club scene.”
Neighborhood newcomer Maryanne Testa agrees.
She’s one of the co-owners of T. Murray’s, which opened in July 2011. Testa and her partners had many reasons for opening their new restaurant in the Brewery District, citing the close proximity to office workers in the Brewery District, residents in German Village, and an easy-to-find location with nearby highway access.
“The Brewery District neighborhood is attracting interest again in part because of the growth in Downtown living and the many improvements Downtown, she says. “This time around, the Brewery District will not just be an entertainment district, but also a residential neighborhood.”
Fellow newcomer Yalan Papillons at Double Happiness thinks part of the neighborhood’s appeal is that it’s a bit off the beaten path in terms of where customers are used to going for nightlife.
“Having worked at the places like Blackcat in DC and the Knitting Factory in New York, this type of location only makes sense,” she says. “It’s perfect for a quaint place for larger acts to have an after party or low-key night.”
Across the street from Double Happiness, Shadowbox Live is interested in anything but a low-key night. A recent weekend pulled in more than 3,500 visitors to the neighborhood to see multiple shows at its new venue.
“When we were looking to move back Downtown, we were considering locations throughout the entire area,” says Shadowbox Live Executive Producer and CEO Stev Guyer. “The Brewery District has extraordinary buildings, a welcoming community, a neighborhood that needed revitalization and, of course, Bill Schottenstein. As terrific as the first few elements of that list are, it was really Bill Schottenstien that made the difference for us.”
Schottenstein is the principle of Arshot Investment Corp., which owns several buildings in the Brewery District, including those that house Shadowbox Live and World of Beer.
“Finding a developer that was enlightened enough to recognize the economic development potential that an arts organization could bring to a community was unusual,” Guyer says. “When Yarmir Steiner brought us to Easton, it wasn’t because he thought that we would help him make money, it was because he didn’t want Easton to be entirely Disneyland. We were the bad boys. But Bill brought us to the Brewery District to help kick start the economic redevelopment of the neighborhood.”
While Shadowbox Live and World of Beer have only been up and running for a few months, Schottenstein is wasting no time in leveraging those assets and is planning new residential development, office development and more.
“We had this vision 18 years ago of what the Brewery could be, and we started on that path,” he explains. “Certain things killed it, but now it’s like the rising of the phoenix. We have an opportunity to do it again and I think the neighborhood is in a better condition with a more stable base than what we’ve had in the past.”
Fellow developer Jeff Edwards of The Edwards Companies has similar plans to continue development in the area.
“We had the original vision for the creation and renovation of the area almost 30 years ago,” states Edwards. “We’ve most recently begun the renovation of the historic Born Brewery into luxury apartments, which should be completed in late 2012.”
With private investment moving forward, neighborhood advocates are now calling upon the city of Columbus for assistance with infrastructure upgrades that could increase through traffic, make pedestrian crossings safer, and provide better access between Downtown and the Brewery District.
“Part of the charm of a historic neighborhood is the age of its bones,” Pongonis says. “That being said, some modern infrastructure upgrades would go a long way. High Street itself could use a significant makeover as it serves as a gateway into Downtown from the south and is the link between German Village and the Brewery District. It’s sorely in need of streetscape improvements and maybe even a road diet.”
In the meantime, there’s no need to wait for new streets and sidewalks if you’re interested in grabbing a craft beer, some locally produced wine, or taking in a show at Shadowbox. Your options for nightlife entertainment have grown quite diverse lately, and the Brewery District is happy to welcome you back.