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Opinion: RiverSouth is Ideal for Innovation District

Walker Evans Walker Evans Opinion: RiverSouth is Ideal for Innovation DistrictAll photos by Walker Evans.
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As Brent Warren reported on Thursday, Troy Miller spent his final days on Columbus City Council studying the feasibility of creating an Innovation District plan in Columbus, which would encourage the creation of a centralized cluster of entrepreneur-focused facilities. That could include startup incubators, business accelerators, industry-specific development hubs, shared resource and co-working spaces, and of course, places to live and spots to drink a lot of coffee. The end goal would be to support the entrepreneurial community, and to give startups a better chance at blossoming from a simple idea into the next locally-grown billion-dollar enterprise.

As reported, the research conducted thus far has looked at the possibility of creating an Innovation District in one of three areas: Downtown, The Short North or Franklinton. After spending a week thinking about the possibilities, I’ve come to the personal conclusion that the RiverSouth District in Downtown Columbus is the most ideal place for this initiative to land. That’s not to say that it couldn’t work in other areas, but the Short North is growing short on space, and East Franklinton’s development plan calls for a more robust creative rebirth that doesn’t focus specifically on startups. Here’s why RiverSouth has all the right ingredients for the making of an Innovation District:

Existing Assets:

When you undertake any large-scale project, it’s easiest if you’re not starting completely from scratch. And RiverSouth has many existing assets. If you’re unfamiliar with the area, RiverSouth is essentially a southwest quadrant of Downtown, bounded loosely by High Street to the east, State Street to the north, Main Street to the South and the Scioto River to the west. This area has been the targeted focus of redevelopment by the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation (CDDC) over the past decade, and successes include the renovation of the Lazarus building, the LC RiverSouth Annex apartments, and the Scioto Mile park along the river.

Some of the lesser-known-to-the-public assets to the area are the business and organizations that are already set up within the neighborhood. The Lazarus Building specifically houses the offices of Columbus 2020, The Columbus Partnership, The Columbus Chamber, and other city and county economic development offices. You’ll also find two creative gathering places in the Town Street entrance to the Lazarus building with the Center for Architecture and Design located across the pedestrian walkway from the OSU Urban Arts Space. Around the corner on High Street, you can also find an existing coffee shop at Cup O Joe / MoJoe Lounge.

While having a residential or live/work space component was not specifically mentioned in the official Innovation District Assessment presented by former Council Member Miller, another advantage of the RiverSouth area is that it is currently home to 507 new apartment units (206 at the LC Annex at RiverSouth and 301 at Highpoint on Columbus Commons) with another 422 under construction (120 at 250 High, 213 at the two new LC RiverSouth buildings and 89 at The Julian). Having a variety of rental housing nearby is not only good for entrepreneurs who want to live within the Innovation District, but also great for supporting additional lifestyle resources like retail and restaurants.

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Easy transportation and parking options were both mentioned specifically in the Assessment, and RiverSouth excels in these areas.  The new RiverSouth parking garage offers 770 spaces, and the Columbus Commons underground and above ground garages offer another 4,500 spaces. On-street parking meters are plentiful in the area, it’s connected directly to the Scioto Greenway Bike Trail, and has access to CoGo Bike Share, car2go Car Share and easy taxi hailing to get to Port Columbus and other parts of town.

Quick Conversion Assets:

In addition to existing resources, RiverSouth excels as an area loaded with untapped potential. There are several existing noteworthy spaces that can be repurposed as entrepreneurial space very quickly, easily and possibly cheaply too.

One of the most obvious spaces is the former home of the Ohio Department of Jobs & Family Services, located at the northwest corner of Front Street and Town Street. This 220,000 square foot, six-story building (with a 60 space underground garage) is owned by the State of Ohio and has been sitting vacant since 2006. If an entity like Columbus 2020 could take over the building from The State for cheap and give the building a minor renovation, it could retain its function as office space with flexible short term leases for startups, or potentially house new incubator or mentorship spaces. It’s not the prettiest of buildings, but it could play a large role in filling many of the needs of the Innovation District Assessment while also being directly across the street from a wealth of mentors and resource providers.

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Another nearby office building undergoing a similar transformation is the 15-story former Columbia Gas headquarters, which was purchased by CC-13 last year, a development venture between Robert Meyers and CASTO. The group has indicated that the building will remain office space, and while only some of the floors have been announced as leased by new tenants following the ongoing departure of Columbia Gas, there remains possibilities to lease other floors within the 239,000 square foot building for startup spaces.

Vacant retail space is also abundant in the RiverSouth area, which could either be converted into retail incubation centers or utilized as ground-floor office space in the interim. The Lazarus Building has multiple spaces available along Front Street that currently sit mothballed, while the group of buildings at 171-191 South High are either empty or underutilized for retail or office functions. The upstairs spaces in these buildings on High are also prime for creative live/work spaces. To see an example of that in action, check out the Commons Studio, located just a few doors down at 199 South High.

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Another RiverSouth building with immediate untapped potential is the National Bank Building at 167 South High Street. The historic 100-year-old three-story building boasts another 27,600 square feet of space that is prime for retail or office use. One possibility for this high-profile corner could be a new public-centric market incubator space set up to function the same way that the North Market does. An oft-cited example of home-grown entrepreneurialism to emulate is Jeni’s Ice Creams, and the question of “how can we find/grow the next Jeni’s” can be answered specifically with the creation of a new space that accommodates that type of business with the right kind of space. The North Market operates at vendor capacity, and has been a great success, but the downside of that is the fact that there is no space available there for new businesses. An Innovation District in RiverSouth would be an ideal location for a Central Market.

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Combined, these groups of buildings and spaces offer nearly a half-million square feet of ready-to-develop office, retail and flexible mixed-use space within a two block radius, all of which could be converted with minimal effort as their zoning uses would likely not need to change much from their existing purpose and floorplans.

Long Term Development Assets:

RiverSouth is not only the most ideal candidate for an Innovation District plan because of the current resources and the possible addition of new resources, but also because of the long-term trajectory of the area. Seated directly in between Columbus Commons and the Scioto Mile, this area has been primed for private development thanks to an influx of public investment into greenspaces, cleanup efforts and other infrastructure. Some of that has already been actualized through new developments that have been recently completed or are still under construction, but the future has even more to offer with infill possibilities on large surface parking lots located on the south end of the district between Rich and Main Street. Nearly four entire blocks are currently made up of surface parking lots, and in an area where development is booming, they likely won’t remain surface parking lots in the long-term and may see new apartment, office or mixed-use rebirth.

The Most Important Asset – The People:

It was mentioned already that Columbus 2020, the Columbus Partnership and the Columbus Chamber are resources (among others) housed inside the Lazarus Building. It’s important to reiterate how critical this is for this area, as the leadership and the teams at each of these organizations represent a vast wealth of knowledge, mentorship and connectivity that surpass what you’re likely to find anywhere else in the entire city. The Columbus Partnership is composed of the leaders of most of the major corporations and institutions that make up the Central Ohio region. Columbus 2020 is the region’s economic development division that works one-on-one with companies looking to relocate to Columbus, but also with scalable business sectors looking to grow into the next big local firm. And the Columbus Chamber is the resource provider and connector that has been reinvented in recent years to become the one-stop-shop for all small business needs. There’s no dollar amount that can be attached to the value of being able to have meetings with representatives from these organizations within a short walk, or the ability to casually run into to leaders of these organizations on a coffee break at Cup O Joe. Those types of “collisions” are mentioned specifically as a goal of the Innovation District Assessment, and are already happening for the handful of entrepreneurial businesses that already call this area home by coincidence.

Some of the biggest puzzle pieces are already in place, and others are waiting to drop in easily and quickly. The RiverSouth District is ready to become the RiverSouth Innovation District.

For ongoing discussion, CLICK HERE to visit our Messageboard.

All photos by Walker Evans.

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