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Mark Wood on the Past, Present and Future of the Short North

Brent Warren Brent Warren Mark Wood on the Past, Present and Future of the Short NorthPhoto by Walker Evans.
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It’s been almost three years since we last checked in with Short North developer Mark Wood, President of the Wood Companies. At that time, construction was just starting on the addition of three floors of apartments to the existing single-story retail building at 937-951 North High Street.

Not only is that project now fully complete (and the apartments fully-leased), but the Wood Companies has gone on to propose a series of new, even larger developments that are poised to change the face of the Short North; Parkside on Pearl, the Dennison, Hubbard Park Place, the Brunner Building and the Diplomat (a renovation of the Buttles and High building) are all in various stages of development.

Mark Wood recently sat down with us to provide an update on the many projects his company is involved in. He also shared his thoughts on a variety of related topics, from his desire to continue his father’s legacy of community involvement to the importance of maintaining local and independent businesses in the neighborhood.

This is the latest in our series of interviews with developers and others who are shaping the Short North; previous editions featured Michael Schiff and Joe Armeni. 

Q: Can you talk a little about how you got started in development?

A: I had worked during the summers before I finished with college, and then I graduated and in the fall of ’91 I came to work for the Wood Companies full time. It was a very different time, we had a few struggling projects back then. My first assignment was to lease the Battleship Building, across from the North Market. We had a lease singed with Cameron Mitchell that was contingent on the banks consenting to the lease.

We got behind on our mortgage, and that did not happen quick enough, so we lost what would have been his first restaurant. So that was my introduction into real estate, coming in. I think it was a good experience to have early on. It’s been a number of years ago, now, so looking back I can say it’s good to experience the hard times. The neighborhood is so vibrant now, so mature.

Q: In 1991, your father (Sandy Wood) had been working for how long in the neighborhood?

A: He started the company in ’82. As a kid, my brother and I had been cheap labor, renovating here or there, until my dad started the company full time in ’82.

Q: In the early days it was mostly remodeling older buildings, right?

A: They were historic tax credit deals, where he had partners, and the concentration of the redevelopment was happening in the very southern portion of the Short North at that point, so it was maybe a three-block, four-block area. Its amazing, to look at the before-pictures of the district, before he started developing here, and it’s amazing what he took on – there was no market here to get traction on, people were afraid to come down to the Short North from the suburbs.

Q: In the early 90’s that was starting to turn around, but it was still a tough market I imagine.

A: Exactly, very much – there was some traction, some people like Risgby’s that had come in early, they had become a destination and drew people from the suburbs, but it was still very early in the redevelopment of the neighborhood.

Q: One thing I’ve noticed recently in some of the new projects, is that there are national retailers being attracted to the neighborhood. I know that apart from the projects you’re developing, you rent out a lot of retail space…

A: Yeah, we have more High Street frontage than anyone else in the Short North.

Q: And it seems it’s primarily smaller, local, independent businesses.

A: Yeah, we don’t have any national chains I don’t think.

Q: Is that something you’ve done on purpose or just what the market has warranted?

A: It’s been a little bit of both. We’d be very sensitive to who the national user was if we were going to lease to someone; it’d have to be a good fit within the fabric of the Short North. We aren’t just looking for the highest-paying tenant, or the most credit-worthy, we want to make sure they fit into the character of the neighborhood.

We promote the neighborhood, we love the boutique nature of the neighborhood from the street-level standpoint, so the boutiques, and the individual attention you get from the mom and pop shop owner, we definitely wan to maintain that. Even though there will be some new developments with national chains – and I think Anthropologie coming in is not a bad thing, that’s probably a good thing for the neighborhood – but it has to be balanced, you can’t run away with that type of shift in retail climate.

Q: That speaks to how much the Short North has changed – you’ve obviously seen this through the years – the transition from an artsy neighborhood to one where artists can’t always afford to live. What are your thoughts on the transition of the neighborhood?

A: Well, the galleries are a difficult business no matter where you are, but I do think the galleries are just as successful if not more successful in the Short North than they are in other places… you look all around Columbus, it’s just a tough business. As far as the retail fabric of the Short North, I think one thing that’s positive, a lot of these Short North buildings do have small footprints that don’t lend themselves to the national chain, so I think there is some protection within the architectural fabric on the neighborhood, to maintain that authenticity even without purposely doing it.

We make a purposeful effort of trying to maintain that character, and each time we have a space become available, we want to lease it to someone we think would be really good for the neighborhood – and as far as the strength of the retail, we don’t have spaces that turn over very often any more. But as frequently as not, like Substance just closed, but that was because her husband took a job in the Carolinas, and she hated to close it, and HOMAGE is going into that space now. The traffic down here is good, and we don’t have a lot of turn over of space, which is probably the best sign of the climate.

Q: From the residential side, with the rents rising so much in the last 10-15 years, do you think that’s changing the character of the neighborhood also?

A: I think there’s still a big mix – the new developments are going to be more expensive than aged properties – but there are still properties that are not renovated. In our own portfolio, we have properties that we renovated in the late 80’s, early 90’s that are very different than what we’re building today. I think the Short North still has a good mix of people, and I think having a high standard of new developments is good for the neighborhood. From ground-floor retail, to office, to residential, I think maintaining high quality establishes and maintains a strong neighborhood.

So I don’t see class-A type developments as being bad for the neighborhood, I see it as being good. The hotel development that the Pizzutis are doing is an example of that; I’d much rather have the Meridien than I would a lesser brand.

One thing that’s happened, when the Short North started, it was three or four blocks, and now it’s stretching so far north, that there are opportunities for a lot of different things to be happening, because it’s stretched so much, and it’s going wider too. So I think it’s a special spot and has a bright future.

Q: Are you committed to your focus on the Short North, or do you see a time when you’ll expand to other neighborhoods in Columbus?

A: We have always felt like every time we do a new project, we have an opportunity to touch and improve the neighborhood, and that improves other investments that we’ve made in the neighborhood. So there may be a time when there aren’t development opportunities, and it’s an area that’s being chased so hard by so many, but we feel really fortunate, that we’ve locked down what we think are the best development sites within the Short North, many through our partnership with Mike Schiff, and a couple others that we control on our own.

We’ve got a number of years of development tied up in front of us. It won’t be until after we develop what we already have, before we re-evaluate where we are at. I do see opportunities becoming harder and harder to find in the Short North. We’re not actively trying to buy new stuff, we’re glad that we acquired what we did in the last few years.

Q: There’s always lots of discussion about where the “next Short North” will be, any thoughts on that?

A: I don’t know, I think geographically, the Short North is so well located; connecting OSU and Downtown, the Arena District, the Convention Center. There will be other areas that will have success, it’s just that the Short North is such a strategic location.

Q: You mentioned, that the Short North is expanding north…

A: I think as you go north on High Street, the transition from the Short North to campus will be different than the southern part of the Short North, but I think it’s still going to become a seemless strip in terms of infill development and walkability.

Q: A lot has changed recently with transportation options increasing in Columbus, but there is still interest in adding a rail component. Given your history in the neighborhood, what do you think of those ideas, do you think that’s something that Columbus should pursue?

A: I think so — especially in terms of being able to move people around — if there are true efficiencies in that. I really liked the Three-C idea, moving people from city to city, but even within the city, if it’s something that’s a more efficient means of transportation as opposed to just a sex-appeal type thing, I think it could be promising. Other cities grow up to be that, and I think Columbus should at some point to. Especially when you think of OSU, you’ve got a large student population, so it just seems like Columbus would be a good fit for that type of transportation.

Q: That leads to another issue that always comes up, which is parking in the Short North. Do you see that as being a barrier to future development?

A: I think the city is really interested in parking. The Hub garage, that helps, and when the Pizutti garage opens up, that’ll help a lot. The city has done a market study recently, so I think there’s a desire to not let that hamper development. And I think the city understands the strategic qualities of the neighborhood in terms of public image, and tourism, and convention traffic, and what it means to OSU in terms of student recruitment, faculty recruitment – it’s a very important area for the city, the way it connects a lot of important pieces. I think they would like to see the area continue to infill with development, and they are interested in helping to manage the parking issues.

Q: You ran into some neighborhood opposition to the Parkside on Pearl project – do you think that was more about the design, or the location?

A: I think it was a couple of people who became passionate against it, and rallied others. I think among the Columbus Underground readership, there were probably more people who liked and supported the development than did not, but there were a couple of people who I was told went door to door trying to find people who would oppose the project. I think the project will be good for the neighborhood, and I think it will add significance to the Italian Village Park, help populate it, and provide a nice backdrop for it.

Q: Do you anticipate having that type of battle for every development?

A: No, I don’t. I think people have a special emotional attachment to the park, and there’ve been people who have really put a lot of time and effort into improving the park, and care about the park. So I’m not critical of that, it’s great that people have taken ownership, that’s part of what’s made the Short North – people who were living in Italian Village and Victorian Village, improving their own homes, and got involved in the neighborhood and lobbied for things to happen in the neighborhood. So I think that vitality is really good for the neighborhood, and I’m glad to see it’s still alive. I think it was maybe misdirected at our development, but I think the passion behind it is very good for the neighborhood.

Q: That project is a little off of High Street – like Hubbard Park Place, it’s just on the other side of an alley. With the number of developable sites directly on High dwindling, do you think we’ll see more projects like that?

A: I think so, I think it’s hard to go too deep into the residential neighborhood and do that, you have to have the right site. Parkside on Pearl does not front any other residential property, it has Pearl Alley and Hubbard and the other alley… it does not touch any other piece of property. And it’s the back side of restaurants, so it just seems like an appropriate place for a development, when you’re trying to add some density.

And likewise, Hubbard Park Place has been very well designed, with the consistency of scale along Hubbard and Park Street, and then the taller building hidden in the back. I think it’s a very clever way to accommodate the development and still have it be very sensitive to the surrounding properties.

Q: Your father was involved with many neighborhood efforts, like establishing the Short North Foundation and the Special Improvement District (SID). What are you thoughts on that – as a developer, is it possible to maintain that neighborhood advocate role?

A: I think it’s absolutely very important. I struggle right now just because we are stressed with all of the development we are trying to facilitate. Before my dad retired, he was spending 75% of his time on neighborhood initiatives because he had the flexibility to do that at that stage. I’m currently vice chair of the Short North SID, and I think it’s very important that there is a community effort from developers, property owners, and neighborhood people, to take ownership of the neighborhood. He allocated more time to it than I am able to today, but I think it’s an important role.

Q: What’s next for the Wood Companies, can you talk about any of your future projects?

A: I think Mike mentioned the parking lot south of the Buttles and High building. The city doesn’t want to lose public parking, so we’re trying to find a way to relocate that parking as part of the considerations for acquiring that lot. We already own 25 feet of that lot; there’s an easement that was granted to the city a long time ago, so the city understands that we’re the only logical developer for that site. They want to be responsible in terms of not losing public property.

We think we can create a win-win situation… our developing that lot would allow us to provide parking for the 37 apartments that historically have been in the Buttles and High building. Those people have relied on street parking, so that gets them off the street. And we think we can replace and add to the parking that’s available to the public.

We also own the parking lot where Salon Lofts is, so that’s a future development site.

Q: Do you envision something for that site similar in scale to the Wood Companies building?

A: I don’t even know yet, I don’t see that happening any time soon, it’s a very down-the-road development.

Q: Can you provide updates on the other projects that have been announced and/or approved but maybe not started yet?

A: We are getting ready to renovate the Diplomat, which is what we’re calling the building at Buttles and High. We are expecting to start that in a couple months. We’re hoping to go in for final approval for Hubbard Park Place at the next Victorian Village Commission meeting. We’ve got conceptual approval of that, and we have our finishes in place that we’re going to be submitting.

We’ve got final approval of Parkside on Pearl, so those are both moving towards a ground-breaking – but there’s still a lot of work that has to happen before those can break ground. With Parkside on Pearl, we have to get some utility poles relocated, so we’re talking to the city about that… there’s a package of items that we’re talking to the city about now that impact our developments.

Q: What about the recently-proposed Brunner Building?

A: That’s a partnership between the Wood Companies and Bob and Monica Brunner, who own the 940 North High Street building. We had tried to buy that for a long time and they weren’t interested in selling, but they did like the idea of doing a joint-venture development that would allow both of us to do something more significant by economies of scale – otherwise neither of us could do it individually. So we created a vision for that site, and wanted to get in front of the commission, to make sure we had traction before we invested additional time, and we had very favorable responses from the commission meeting.

Q: In terms of capacity for construction – will you be sticking to one project at a time?

A: I’m guessing we can have two going on at the same time.

Q: And work continues on The Dennison?

A: We’re expecting to move the first people in in about a month in the historic part of the building, and we think we’re about 10 or 11 months out for the completion of the addition.

Q: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

A: You’re welcome.

For more information on the The Wood Companies, visit www.woodcompanies.com.

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