Short North Boutique Hotel to Begin Construction This Summer
It’s been a long time coming, but the wait is nearly over. The Pizzuti Companies first proposed a large-scale mixed-use hotel development in the Short North over four years ago, and after many meetings and revisions, the developer is expecting to break ground on construction of “The Joseph” this summer. An 11-story 135-room hotel will tower over the Italian Village side of the street, while the Victorian Village side will gain a six-story office building and five-story 313-space parking garage. Additionally, retail spaces will line High Street and Millay Alley and the former United Commercial Travelers building will house a new art gallery.
All together, this amounts to what is easily the largest and most ambitious private development in The Short North to date, and will radically change the landscape of the neighborhood with a dense influx of new visitors, customers, businesses and office workers.
I sat down yesterday with Joel Pizzuti, President of The Pizzuti Companies, to learn more about what we’re doing to see happening with this new development in the near future:
Walker Evans: I understand that over the past few months there’s been some progress made that will be moving this new development forward. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Joel Pizzuti: Yes, we’ve recently completed a number of significant steps that we needed to take throughout this process. The first major hurdle cleared in October was the acceptance of the project’s viability. Second was getting the Victorian Village Commission and Italian Village Commission to give us certificates of appropriateness in January. And third, the City of Columbus approved our zoning two weeks ago.
WE: Sounds like a lot of progress in a short amount of time, considering that the first reference to this project on Columbus Underground came from the notes of a Victorian Village commission meeting in 2008. What got this project started way back then?
JP: Well, we’ve had so many zoning meetings, I’m not going to bore you with the actual number. Our first zoning meeting was February 14th, 2008… Valentine’s Day. In any event, we closed on the ground in December of 2007, so it’s been four and a half years in the works up to this point. We actually began considering a project of this nature probably in 2005 or 2006, and it was really based on the fact that my father and I and a lot of other contemporaries that work with us travel a great amount, and there are so many great boutique hotel offerings out there, but we don’t have one in Columbus. There are good hotels here, but we are the largest city that doesn’t have a full-service boutique hotel. I believe Des Moines, Iowa has two. So as we traveled, we’re always looking areas where there may be a need that we can fill. And we felt like Columbus deserved a really fabulous full-service boutique hotel.
WE: So what drew you to that location?
JP: The neighborhood. I used to live in the Short North. When I first moved back to Columbus I lived on the corner of Park and Wilber. It was a great apartment, but at the time there wasn’t really anything there. Victorian Gate was just getting under construction and the area was not at all mature. My parents have been friends with Kent Risgby for a long time and he opened his restaurant there in the 80s which helped to start the revolution of the neighborhood, and we felt that if there was any place this boutique hotel project could work, that the Short North was absolutely the right location.
WE: Speaking of flashbacks… some of the discussion that followed the original mention of this project back in early 2008 revolved around how it could compliment the streetcar proposal. If that project would resurface, do you see the hotel complimenting some form of mass transit system?
JP: I think due to our location, anything that further connects High Street is going to be a benefit. Certainly, we’ll be a part of it. I personally tend to favor what our city is doing with improving pedestrian connections. Not that the Streetcar isn’t a good idea, but I’d prefer that we move more toward being pedestrian friendly and encouraging people to walk from location to location. That means that we need to have more great infill and activity so that people are more comfortable walking around.
WE: How much of the project has changed throughout the process between 2008 and 2012?
JP: For starters, it all used to be on one side of the street. To be honest, and I say this with all sincerity, the process —while it has been arduous and long and at times frustrating — has yeilded a much better project. Both commissions were very thoughtful. They were very firm in their convictions and what in what they wanted to see happen. While it was a challenge at times, at the end of the day when we look back at where we started with this project being all on one side of the street, we realize it was too dense. It was too much massing on one side of the street. And quite honestly, the flow of the project wasn’t great. So, somewhere in the middle of this process there was an opportunity to take over the parking lot across the street, so we could then split the project in to two buildings. I think that gave some much needed relief in the minds of the commissioners of each neighborhood because it provided more balance. And it set us on a better course. We still went through a number of iterations, drawings, schematics and sizes… but at the end of the day, there’s not a single thing I would change about this project. I think we ended up at a great spot. We got a lot of great input from neighborhood folks, commissioners, and from our own team that we put together.
WE: As we followed along with development news, I noticed that some of our readers were quick to beat up on the neighborhood commissions, primarily because they felt as if those groups were slowing things down. Naturally, everyone wants to see new development move as quickly as possible, but things don’t always happen that way.
JP: Right. The reality of the situation is that this project works for us today. It works for our company, it works for our hotel partner, it work for our financial partners… it all works today. And I don’t think that would have been the case a year or two ago. While it’s taken longer than anyone would like, the timing in our opinion is clearly right for this project today and we feel like the stars are more appropriately aligned to make it work.
WE: With the Victorian and Italian Village neighborhoods being historic in nature and the design of The Joseph looking more contemporary, was there any pushback about preserving the character of the area?
JP: If you go to most great cities around the world — New York, London, Chicago — there are a lot of old buildings that populate all of their great neighborhoods. We truly believe that a balance of paying homage and preserving what can be preserved, but then also pushing things forward with contemporary design is the way great neighborhoods are created. That’s what SoHo looks like, that’s what Chelsea looks like, that’s what TriBeCa looks like. And the Victorian and Italian Commissions, to some people’s surprise, were very supportive of that. In fact, they encouraged us to focus on more of a traditional historic look and feel on the first three stories, but then they wanted us to push the envelope as we went higher. So to the pedestrian walking up and down High Street, there’s a neighborhood flow, but then there’s also a piece of beautiful modern architecture on top. We think one compliments the other and will fit in great.
WE: One of the things I’ve personally found interesting about this project is that it’s truly mixed-use. What was the drive behind this project being a hotel, offices, parking garage, art gallery, restaurants and retail units all in one?
JP: Well, for starters, that’s the way the project works economically. More practically, we have a parking challenge in the Short North. So in order to put a 135-room boutique hotel, which is going to require parking, in the middle of The Short North, someone’s got to put the cars somewhere. Secondly, if you ask most people who have an urban mindset where they’d like to have their office space, they really want to be in The Short North. They wouldn’t have to drive anywhere to go out for lunch, or go out for drinks after work, or even to get home if they live in the neighborhood. It’s all very pedestrian friendly. But there’s no great office offerings in The Short North right now. And what is there has an incredibly high occupancy rate, somewhere north of 95%, which is mainly Class-C type space. That proves that people want to be there. So we feel that Class-A office space with efficient 10,000-square-foot floor plates attached to a parking garage would do incredibly well. It’s been very well received, and we’ve got a great deal of interest so far. We’re negotiating leases right now with tenants. Obviously, retail has always worked in the Short North and we need some complimentary retail for the project. We want to activate the street so we’re not creating a deadzone. We need to have a great restaurant and some amenities for the people in the hotel and the office building. Obviously, the parking garage is critical. We’re providing 313 parking spots, and the majority of that is for public usage. There will be a certain number of spaces that the hotel uses every day, and then users of the office building will have access to some of the spaces during the day, but then at night and on weekends the vast majority of the parking will be available to the public. Even when the office and hotel are fully occupied, there will be a great number of spaces available to the public during the day.
WE: One thing some of our readers were critical of with the new Hilton Hotel down the street is the skywalk piece that connects to the convention center. There’s concern that it takes away from sidewalk vibrancy. Was a skywalk ever considered for The Joseph?
JP: I can’t speak for the convention hotel, but my sense is that they’re really more concerned with providing a convenient experience for convention-goers. Some of their visitors will venture outside the skywalk anyway, but with a convention hotel it’s a different animal in terms of what you need to provide. We never considered a skywalk because whether it’s raining, snowing or sunny we want people to walk around outside. You see people walking all over the Short North when it’s raining or snowing and they don’t care too much about it. So we never considered that.
WE: The former United Commercial Travelers building facing Goodale Park is going to be converted into an art gallery. Can you tell us more about that piece of the development?
JP: The vast majority of that building is being saved and is being converted into a 20,000 square foot art gallery. We started preliminary work back in September on the interior, clearing it out and getting an assesment of what kind of systems we have in place, what kinds of materials need to be removed, and figuring out structurally what kind of condition everything is in. We’re doing our due diligence of figuring out how we’re going to take off the back 20% of this building and then connect an art gallery to a parking garage. The gallery we’re pushing to complete this year. My father is very passionate about that part of the project. He’s been around art most of his adult life and is an avid collector. This is something he’s wanted to do for a long time in Columbus. It’s great that we’ve found a for-profit project that can compliment the nonprofit gallery. So, the gallery could open at the end of this year.
WE: I think many people really appreciate the preservation of that building. Which I find to some degree a little amusing because despite the great location, the front of that building feels practically invisible. Anytime I mention it to someone, they’re usually not sure which building I’m talking about, no matter how many times they’ve driven or walked past it.
JP: Right, why would they have any reason to look at it?
WE: There’s also some trees that kind of hide it a bit.
JP: Well, we’re keeping those trees!
WE: Good! Do you think that this part of the project will also help to counterbalance to some of the art galleries that have closed in The Short North over the past few years, especially on the southern end of the neighborhood? Perhaps helping to reinforcing The Short North as the creative district in the city?
JP: It absolutely is. The programming in that gallery is going to be really fantastic. We will not only program with existing art institutions here in Columbus, but we will do things with major institutions outside of Columbus and even outside of the US. So it’s going to be a really nice compliment to 20 years of art galleries and creativity in the neighborhood. We’ve launched our website and Facebook Page for the gallery, but it’s all still very early on. And this building is just gorgeous. What we’re doing to it will make it more available to the public. There will be outdoor sculpture gardens, and we’re going to visually try to open it up a little more so that people can see it and hopefully stumble in.
WE: Ever since the project was announced, there has been some concern about the two wall murals on the buildings that face the parking lots on High Street. I imagine that those murals will be covered up?
JP: They will. If you want the hotel, then they will have to be covered up. It’s unfortunate because I know they’ve been hallmarks of the neighborhood for a long time. But we’re committed to doing some fantastic things from an art standpoint, not just with the gallery, but throughout the hotel and with the outdoor spaces too. So hopefully we can soften that blow a little bit and provide some new experiences.
WE: Can you tell us a bit more about how the outdoor spaces in the alleyway will work?
JP: One of our goals in this project is that we want to better connect High Street to Goodale Park. I think the average visitor on High Street doesn’t always know about Goodale Park just a block over, and vice versa. So this whole project is focused on creating a pedestrian friendly loop from High Street back to the park. We’re redoing Millay Alley with some retail storefronts facing out into the alley. We’re working with Cameron Mitchell across the alley at Marcella’s and make sure we’re complimenting what he’s doing. There will be outdoor sculptures and seating in the alley, and I think it will be interesting for people to walk through and feel this new environment that we’re going to create.
WE: So last but not least, what’s the timeline for groundbreaking, construction and completion of The Joseph?
JP: We’ll apply for our demolition permit that will allow us to begin construction at the beginning of this summer. We have a few more hurdles to get over, but our timeframe is planned to get started this summer. We’ll open the parking garage probably during the fourth quarter of 2013, and open the office building right at the end of 2013. The hotel is scheduled to open in February of 2014. So basically two years from now, everything will be up and running.
WE: Joel, thanks a bunch for taking the time to share all of these updates with us. We’re looking forward to watching the progress get started this summer.
More information can be found online at www.pizzuti.com.