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Guy Worley Answers Your City Center Questions

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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What will arguably be some of the biggest news of 2009 emerged yesterday when the long-awaited announcement for what is to be done with the old City Center mall was unveiled. Simply put, the City Center building is to be torn down and redeveloped into a new mixed-use project known as Columbus Commons. There’s been a lot of information circulating over the past 24 hours, and many interesting questions raised. Thankfully, Guy Worley, CEO of Capitol South and the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation was able to answer a few of our questions and share some details directly with the readers of Columbus Underground.

Evans: Guy, thanks for taking the time to chat with us today about the new Columbus Commons redevelopment project. Can you give us a quick overview of what this new project entails for anyone who’s been hiding under a rock and hasn’t heard about it yet?

Worley: I’d be glad to.

What we’ve introduced today is a redevelopment plan for the former City Center site. We’re now calling our new project Columbus Commons, and the plan is a three phase development. The first phase includes the demolition of the mall and the preparation of the site for redevelopment. The first phase will also include building a new 9 acre park on the current site of the mall. Our second phase will include building about 30,000 square feet of retail, 40,000 square feet of restaurant space, and approximately 400 residential units, all of which will front High Street. The third and final phase will continue development eastward, and will include about 435,000 square feet of office space.

So now… how do we intend to fund this project… For the first phase we intend to ask for approximately 15 million dollars of economic stimulus funds from the federal government, because we think this project really qualifies for that. It’s shovel ready. It creates approximately 200 construction jobs, it enables the redevelopment of a blighted one-million square foot mall in our urban core, and it has a long term economic impact. To build out phases two and three will create approximately 1,500 more construction jobs and office space for 2,000 permanent office jobs.

I want to tell you a little bit about how we got here… to what we think is the best use of this site. We hired some of the best and brightest minds to work with us on this. We hired the Georgetown Company, who is the developer for Easton. They also assisted us in the redevelopment of the Lazarus Building, which as you know was an abandoned department store. We’ve now converted it into 700,000 square feet of office space with over 2,000 workers occupying it. We also hired MSI, a local firm in the Brewery District… you may not know their name, but you know their work. They created the master plan for the Arena District, they were the architects for North Bank Park, they were the architects for the Scioto Mile project, and they created a master plan for Universal Studios in Orlando. They do a lot of work for Disney World as well. So we had some really good minds looking at this project.

We also asked CB Richard Ellis, who is the largest retail broker in the world, to assist us in our first efforts, and that was the idea of recruiting and bringing back retailers to the mall. After many unsuccessful attempts it became very obvious that retailers aren’t coming back. They left, they moved to Easton, they moved to Polaris, they moved to Tuttle, and they’ve been very successful in those areas.

And so then we turned our attention to figuring out a way to reconfigure the mall into office space and bring regional employers back downtown. After sitting down with many large employers, and attempting to develop programs and building configurations for their use, we came to the conclusion that the cost was astronomical. It was unrealistic and simply did not work in the current configuration of the mall building.

So then we started down another path, and we started looking at residential. We met with many residential developers and many do believe that there is a demand for residential rental housing downtown, even in this current economy. However, they would not be able to be successfully build new residential buildings on site as long as there is a 1-million square-foot empty mall next door. They looked at how we could put residential units inside the mall. The cost per square foot to convert the mall into residential was astronomical as well, because there are no windows, there are no HVAC systems, and the configuration… well… it was built to be nothing more than what it is. A mall.

And so… in looking at all three pieces; retail, office and residential, it became clear that we needed to start all over and clear the site, ready it for redevelopment, and then build a mixed use development on it, with the first phase being green space, second and third phases being retail, residential, and office space.

Evans: You mentioned looking at federal funding to kickstart the project, and I believe I heard earlier that even if we don’t secure federal funding that the project is still going forward. Would missing out on those federal dollars affect the timeline of the project at all, or… what sort of timelines are we even looking at for all of this?

Worley: We believe that this project is very much qualified for the economic stimulus package because of what I described before: it’s shovel ready, it creates construction jobs, and it has a long-term economic impact. In the event that we’re not able to secure those funds we will look for other public resources including other federal, state, or local grants or loans. Capitol South and CDDC intend to raise the private financing that will combine with the federal funds to complete phase one. We believe that these federal stimulus funds will leverage additional private sector investment once we get the site readied for redevelopment. That could enable it to have an additional $145 million private investment dollars for the retail, residential and office portions.

Evans: With the city being in kind of a budget crunch right now, Parks & Rec always seem to be something that gets chopped first. Can you talk a bit about how the park maintenance is going to be funded?

Worley: Capitol South intends to maintain the park. Capitol South will look for other partners to program the park. We’ve had discussions with other organizations within the community that may have an interest in bringing a lot of new activities into our area.

Evans: You mentioned earlier how this project ties into the Riversouth development. Has there been a lot of thought as to how this ties into the master plan of Downtown or how it could compliment the Arena District, German Village, Short North, and nearby areas?

Worley: This very much fits into our urban plan for Downtown because we want to focus on High Street and redevelop that area. We want to bring retail back to Downtown as the Mayor has shared in his new Mile on High initiative.  We believe that we can begin doing that at the corner of Town & High. We can develop retail on both sides of the street there because we control both sides of the street. We’ll start by redeveloping the Lazarus space, and that will be finished this summer. We’ll begin recruiting retailers to start occupying that space because the storefronts will soon be done.

When we begin this retail effort, it’s not going to be the same level of retail that was in the old City Center. That was a million square feet. This is going to be a much smaller component of this mixed use development plan: 30,000 square feet of retail and 40,000 square feet of restaurant space. So a much smaller component that is similar to what has occured very successfully in the Short North. And so by starting in a concentrated area and by building a cluster of retail on both sides of the street, we’re hoping to expand north and south as well.

Evans: One of the concerns I’ve heard a lot of people mentioning is the demolition process. With the Lazarus building I know there was a lot of material that was able to be recycled. It was a very green demolition process. Are the same processes going to be applied to the City Center demo?

Worley: The Downtown Development Corporation has a really good track record of doing green projects. The Lazarus building is the largest urban green redevelopment project in the country. We’re going to look at that very seriously as we begin the demolition of the City Center and see what can be recycled and reused.  So yeah, that’s very much in our line of thinking.

Evans: You mentioned the possibility of events taking place in this greenspace. Do you have any predictions on what what we might see there… festivals… live music… or maybe even bringing back the skating rink and ferris wheel on a more permanent basis? Or is all just wild speculation right now?

Worley: I don’t believe it’s been determined what that programming will be at this time, but we do envision it being very similar in many ways to McPherson Commons in the Arena District. It’s utilized in the daytime by employees who are working the adjacent offices, and it’s utilized in the evenings by residents. Perhaps we’ll see outdoor movies in the evenings and potential concerts there as well… we expect this greenspace to be very active and to be utilized by the community at large.

Evans: Well, I’m really excited to see how all of this shapes up. Thanks again for taking the time to chat with us.

Worley: My pleasure.

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