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Interview: Keith Meyers and Campus Partners on the 15th and High Plan

Brent Warren Brent Warren Interview: Keith Meyers and Campus Partners on the 15th and High PlanThe corner of 15th and High — Photo by Walker Evans.
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In late February of this year, OSU and Campus Partners unveiled an ambitious plan for redeveloping a nine-acre area centered on the intersection of 15th Avenue and North High Street. The underlying zoning for that plan – which calls for new mixed-use development along with a public square, a hotel, and a parking garage – has since been approved by both the University Area Commission (UAC) and the University Area Review Board (UARB) and will soon be considered by the city’s Development Commission and City Council.

Given the scale of the proposal, and the number of questions that seem to remain about what effect it will have on existing businesses and buildings within the development zone, we thought that now would be a good time to sit down with some of the architects of the plan for a more in-depth look.

Keith Meyers (Associate Vice President of Physical Planning and Real Estate at OSU), Amanda Hoffsis (President of Campus Partners) and Erin Prosser (Director of Community Development at Campus Partners), have worked with neighborhood groups, property owners, the City of Columbus and many others to craft the plan. They will also be the team tasked with implementing it in the coming years.

What follows is an edited version of my conversation earlier this week with Meyers, Hoffsis, and Prosser:

Q: The framework plan was unveiled in late February. Since then, it’s been presented to various neighborhood groups – how has the response been, have people raised concerns about any aspect of it?

Keith Meyers: We’ve been very pleasantly surprised. We worked hard with the neighborhood to try and craft a plan that they would embrace, and really I think that the response has been very, very positive. The neighborhood groups have been active participants in shaping the plan as it’s unfolded, and it seems like it’s gone very well.

Erin Prosser: This plan is very much based on decades worth of planning efforts that have come out of the district that have focused on that node at 15th and High, and this is really not that distinct from the efforts that the community has put in over the last 30 years.

Amanda Hoffsis: Yeah, there are a number of plans, that if you go back and look at them you can see all the different threads that we used to construct this plan, and I think that’s really why the community has been so accepting of this idea, because they see their own past work really brought to life in it. They helped shape it, so the document that we submitted to the city in February has been formed by the community members…it looks very much like something that they wanted, not the traditional style of just a developer coming in and trying to push something through to the finish line.

Two weeks ago, both the University Area Commission and the University Area Review Board voted in favor of the proposal. The UARB vote was unanimous, we were really excited about that. And we had a very positive vote from the UAC as well, so we’re really excited to be taking it on to the Development Commission next week, and then if it is approved there, on to City Council.

Q: What’s the next step if the zoning is approved by council, do you send out Requests for Proposals to developers?

KM: I think that has to be determined. Once we have the entitlements in place, we’ll evaluate what the next steps are and we’ll be entering really into an implementation phase of the plan. There are a lot of questions we have to answer –  we’ve got infrastructure that we’ve got to think about how we’re going to design and get built. That’s probably priority one, sorting out the infrastructure – streets, sewers, water lines, lighting, everything that you need to make a great urban neighborhood. We have to get all that thought through, and then after that, the next step is to begin to think about what we’re going to build, and who we’re going to partner with to build it.

EP: We really picture our role as being liaisons – we’re the stewards of this project, coordinating with the city, with the community, and with future potential developers. That’s the way we’re going to move forward, and it’ll start with some of the big moves that we’re able to do, things that individual developments wouldn’t be able to accomplish, like opening up 14th and 16th avenues, realigning 15th to create the civic space, things that we can bring to the table that otherwise wouldn’t happen if it were piece by piece. I think the key to this project is having that ability to be more comprehensive and make some of these big moves.

AH: And that’s where we’re really focused right now, is the zoning, because that’s what cements in place the ability to do these key elements that are comprehensive to the whole area. And obviously we’ve written in a lot of architectural requirements to help ensure that that there’s a high quality no matter what gets redeveloped in the area. But, unlike south of Gateway, where we were open with everyone and said that once we get zoning we’ll go through and select a developer, this is not one, big development, so it’s going to be important that we have really thoughtful plans and designs and go about it in a thoughtful way.

It will be multiple phases, multiple approaches, multiple partners. And we have some sites that are more available, and others that are still pretty much occupied, so there’s a lot of ability to really phase in something that works with the whole community, instead of simply doing it in a Gateway approach…we’re not going to do that.

Q: I was going to ask about that, because I think a lot of people – especially people who aren’t on the area commission, who haven’t been following this – when they first heard of this plan, they just envisioned another South Campus Gateway, which was a big empty lot for quite a while, and then a huge construction project that was all built at once.

KM: We’re not going to be doing that.

AH: I think we would start with infrastructure, solve a lot of those issues first, to really enable development, and then do a phased approach. This is the epicenter of our life, and of this community, and it’s not something that is just going to sit vacant. So we want to keep it as active as possible for the entire length of time. Looking at ways to phase in development is going to be much more important for us here then it was when it was done at the edge of campus. It’s right at our heart.

KM: Times are different now. There’s a lot of interest in this, so Campus Partners doesn’t have to be the developer. Gateway, it was a different time, and it was a different project, and I think in that case perhaps they did, I don’t know, I wasn’t there for that. But we are not going to be the developer of 15th and High.

AH: And that’s probably something that a lot of people don’t realize – none of us were actually here then, so just intuitively we won’t do it the same way as the folks that were here before. It was a different economy, different world, different scope, a whole different set of rules.

KM: Now, there’s a caveat to us not being the developer. We are going to control the quality and the design – we’ve made commitments to the neighborhood throughout this whole process, and we intend to fulfill them.

Q: Given the current development interest in the area, can you talk a little about what the alternative reality might look like if Campus Partners was not involved, if this area was left to the market to develop?

KM: There was a zoning proposal made prior to us getting involved in this site that was turned down by the neighborhood. I think there would be continuing pressure to redevelop this site in what would likely be a much more piece-meal or haphazard fashion.

EP: And without bringing those infrastructure improvements to the table…all of that would be lost.

KM: For certain, there would be no public space.

AH: There would be no comprehensive approach to it, absolutely not. And that proposal, with the UAC being the recommending body, they said they didn’t like it, and I think, luckily, it wasn’t taken any further at the time. Lots of developers get a no vote from the UAC and go on to get approval at higher levels. So it’s not even to say that that would be any safeguard to folks.

We’ve seen the View on High project move forward, we know things are going on at the Shell Station site. The development is coming, so it’s either a comprehensive approach where we get a lot of public infrastructure and public improvements out of it, or its going to be done by independent developers who are really focused on meeting their pro-formas.

KM: For certain, it wasn’t going to be, in the future, what it was in the past.

AH: Yes, staying the same is not one of the options, that’s not a possible outcome.

EP: The UARB is regularly running until midnight with their meetings, and that hasn’t happened since before ’08, where you had that true development pressure, and I don’t know if that was even the case in the past with the University District, the way it was in the more southern neighborhoods. This is a time when there’s a lot of interest – especially on High Street – from student housing developers, from all kinds of folks.

AH: And I would say that – you asked what have been the concerns – the only real point of concern has been from folks that want it to remain the same. And unfortunately that’s not an option we can contemplate, we just don’t believe it’s a reality that’s actionable.

KM: I don’t think anyone who has an objective view of it, who looks at the situation objectively, would suggest that what’s there today, left to the market, would be there 15 years from now. That’s just not going to happen. And it’s kind of a head-in-the-sand approach, really. Ninety percent of the people out there understand the pressures that the market is placing on everything, all the properties up and down High Street.

EP: As we’ve talked through it with the community, they’ve quickly realized the role that Campus Partners could provide as a stop-gap for the unfettered market development of that intersection. And that was certainly the reason that Campus Partners wanted to get involved in it and that’s what we see as our primary role. I think at one point one of the commissioners even referred to us as babysitters…that we would be the babysitters of this development.


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