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Experts weigh in on Hamilton Quarter development

Walker Evans Walker Evans Experts weigh in on Hamilton Quarter development
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Last week, a group of local developers announced plans for Hamilton Quarter, a new 320-acre project just outside New Albany on the far northeast side of Columbus. Once built, the site will contain 700,000 square feet of office space, one million square feet of retail, and 930 units of apartments and senior housing.

We reached out to several urban planning and retail development experts to get their professional insight on this specific project, and what it means to the future of the region. Kerstin Carr, Director of Planning & Environment at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) pointed out that they do not officially take positions on development projects, but do have informed opinions to share on development trends as a whole.

“It is really difficult to tell what a project will be from just looking at a high-level aerial view — those aerial site plans can be deceiving and not illustrate all the details in terms of street and building design,” explained Carr. “We know that the Hamilton Quarter project includes elements recommended by Columbus’s Connect Columbus plan. Strong bike connections and a shared-use path will connect to the neighborhoods, Alum Creek Trail, and nearby parks.”

Carr added that the inclusion of senior housing will help address the growing population of residents over the age of 65, while the site appears to have a lot of potential as a job creation area.

“The integration and compatibility of the office, retail, and housing elements can still change,” she also said. “As the area grows and develops, parking lots could be converted to structured parking to accommodate additional land uses. To maximize the walkability of this development, it will be important to make sure that the final design safely accommodates all users: walkers, bicyclists, and drivers.”

Retail and real estate analyst Chris Boring, Principal of Columbus-based Boulevard Strategies, echoed Carr’s comments about the job creation potential of Hamilton Quarter.

“I am confident that Hamilton Quarter — just five miles from the airport — will become the next office market hot spot in Central Ohio,” said Boring. “Phased–in offices will provide support for the proposed hotel and restaurants. Though maybe not as exciting as the retail/entertainment component, a solid market for office and housing uses in this part of the Central Ohio region is what really puts this project on firm footing.”

Boring said that traffic counts on this portion of State Route 161 headed east from Westerville are currently around 65,000 vehicles per day, which is enough to support the type of retail proposed at Hamilton Quarter. There’s a population of 60,000 people within a three mile radius, with per capita income exceeding the county average by over 60 percent.

“This is a growing, upscale, underserved neighborhood retail trade area,” said Boring.  “But I question if there is enough of a market to support up to 1 million square feet of retail space with Easton only four miles away. With the advent of Amazon and e-commerce, retail real estate is not a growth industry. In many cases, they will have to talk retailers into closing their current locations to open a new store at Hamilton Quarter. Casto will have to be careful not to cannibalize its own shopping center portfolio for tenants since it is so dominant in Central Ohio retail.”

In addition to changes in retail development trends, Hamilton Quarter appears to run counter to recommended development patterns outlined in MORPC’s Insight2050 report in 2014. That report provides a look at how urban and suburban development scenarios will play out over the next 35 years as the Columbus region adds another 500,000 residents and 300,000 jobs. The findings from MORPC show that a future of dense urban infill will have a community cost savings of $315 million over suburban development patterns of the 20th century, due to reduced public health costs, energy use, and household costs.

“The current site design of Hamilton Quarter appears to indicate a more suburban development style,” said Carr. “The Insight2050 analysis found that trends are moving toward neighborhood design and placemaking that thoughtfully integrates a variety of uses. Regardless of age, people want to live in more walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that provide better access to transportation choices. Developments that meet this demand are expected to be competitive and attractive to employers and residents.”

Harvey Miller, Director at the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis at The Ohio State University, agrees with the trends outlined in the Insight2050 report, noting that the Hamilton Quarter site plan appears to devote a large amount of its acreage to surface parking lots.

“I applaud any attempt to create a walkable environment, but creating small island of walkability only partially solves the problem – people still need to use automobiles to access the development,” he said. “We need walkable environments that are connected with reliable, high frequency public transit so that people do not need to first get in a car in order to walk.”

Miller said that improved public transit connections between suburban “nodes” could help to solve that issue, suggesting possible connectivity between Hamilton Quarter and Dublin’s Bridge Street project. Boring agreed with the idea of node-based development not being as inherently walkable as sometimes promised.

“It appears to be pedestrian-friendly, but not until you park your SUV,” he said.

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