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What’s New at Neighborhood Launch in 2010

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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Despite being only 15% complete, Neighborhood Launch has quickly become one of the signature residential developments in the heart of Downtown Columbus. Bridging the gap between the Gay Street restaurants and the Discovery District, this new residential community is replacing thousands of underutilized parking spaces with hundreds of new Downtown dwellers.

We recently sat down with Jeff Edwards, President of Edwards Companies to discuss the various phases of the project and to learn more about what we have to look forward to in 2010.

Walker Evans: The announcement about Bishop’s Walk was just made last month, and ground has already broken. Can you start by giving us an overview of this new phase of Neighborhood Launch?

Jeff Edwards: Well, what we call Bishop’s Walk is really two buildings… kind of two blocks really. The part that’s been started is only half of one building. All told, Bishop’s Walk is 51 units and will have a long linear kind of crooked space park that runs east-west along Gay Street that will run across both of those buildings. I don’t know the exact dimension, but it’s about 30 feet wide and probably 500 to 600 feet long.

WE: That’s being dubbed as the “Promenade Park”, correct?

JE: Yeah. We were originally calling the park “Bishop’s Walk”. We had a bunch of our project names originally associated with the Catholic Church there. At one point in time was called Chancery Green. We didn’t really stick with that, but used it for planning purposes. Anyway, again, what we started construction on is half of a building, or 13 units and then our next building will be 14 units for a 27 unit building and there’s another 24 unit building to the east of that, and all together that makes up Bishop’s Walk.

WE: Each of the different phases at Neighborhood Launch have different architectural styles. How do you feel that Bishop’s Walk is going to complement the rest of the development?

JE: Bishop’s Walk’s architecture is the most traditional so far. It’s the most townhome-type of unit out of any of the other buildings down here, except for the units around the park that are kind of a brownstone look and pretty traditional too. It’s a very classic look because of the length of the building and the repetition. The next building further down Gay Street, the sister building to this one, will be kind of… European’s not the right word, but it will have more of a formal setup with the streetscaping around it. It’s “classic”, and we think it really has a broad appeal with our buyers and the general public. We’ve actually already purchased the trees for the park about two or three years ago. We purchased London Plane Trees that were about a four to five inch caliber. Now they are all five inch caliber, and will go in the ground about 23 or 24 feet high. Eventually, our idea would be to trim those trees up so that you have a nice raised canopy maybe 12 or 14 feet up, and a walking promenade in front of those units. I don’t want to use the description “Classic European” because there are certainly other places in the US have a similar feel. It should be fairly unique to Columbus.

WE: Are there any specific types of buyers that you see being a good fit for Bishop’s Walk?

JE: It’s definitely for urban dwellers. Overall, I think it’s really a fit for the same kind of people we’ve had move into the other units up till now. Mostly empty nesters or young professionals and in some instances, because of the fact that we’ve got $180k to $190k one-bedroom units, we’re getting a fair number of first time home buyers.

The only thing that’s really been surprising, and maybe it shouldn’t have been… we’ve always created this development as a neighborhood, but I always thought of that strictly in the context of physical buildings. I never really thought about of the social aspect of that. I mean, that’s what neighborhoods are, right? But you don’t think about that when you’re buying dirt and tearing down buildings and negotiating with land owners and everything else. But now, two years later, for the people that live here its all about being neighbors. They watch football games together, have parties in the little park in the fall, and they are really concerned about each other as far the neighborhood goes. There’s a real sense of community which you don’t always think about at first.

There’s a lot of pride on Gay Street anyway, and that stems from the resurgence of the retail and restaurant core, and all of that surges this way. The new Daimler Project will be right down the street too, which is great and adds to the energy. I am involved with the Columbus Museum of Art expansion which is underway. CCAD has been doing their thing, and Columbus State continues to grow… pretty soon it’s going to all grow together along Gay Street. I think ultimately its not going to take long to fill that gap between Gay Street and Nationwide Boulevard… and then you’re all the way up in the Arena District and Short North and it all becomes a great urban walkable neighborhood.

WE: Is there a timeline for those various pieces of Bishop’s Walk to be completed?

JE: We’ll have those first 13 units available this summer in June. Our sales goal is to average around two a month over the next few months. If we can do that we’ll start the second half of that building probably late spring of this year and be finished with those units in September.

We also have plans to build a five-story building over a half-underground one-level parking deck. That product type we’ve looked at because our one-bedroom sales generally out-pace our two-bedroom or townhouse sales, which I think they probably will continue to do long term. In that building, 24 out of 28 units are one-bedroom and the other 4 are two-bedrooms. Our idea is to always have one-bedroom units available at the same time we have the town houses available. Otherwise, if we don’t, we have to stop and let the townhouses sell, before moving forward with construction on the next phases. So the idea is to always have a product mix.

WE: Once all phases for the entire development are completed it, there will be around 300 units, which makes Neighborhood Launch one of the single largest developments in all of Downtown. Have there been challenges in trying to convey that long-term scope to potential buyers?

JE: Absolutely. For instance, when you stand with a potential buyer in the contemporary building at the corner of 5th and Gay, that building faces east and you’re looking out the front window at six to eight blocks of empty parking lots. We have to show them the site plan and explain that there’s going to be a little bit of a park over here, and a nice building over there. So that’s always been a part of it.

Anyone who wants to see the project continue to move forward should take some degree of comfort in knowing that we didn’t set out to buy parking lots and become a “Parking Lot Baron”. At the same time, we were originally thinking that this was a five or six year build out, and clearly it’s going to take longer. Even if it takes us ten years, it’s not that big of a deal because we can continue to use those lots for parking and continue build those out at a slower pace while the market comes back. The whole project is still moving forward as originally planned, just at a slower pace.

WE: It does sound like that kind of flexibility has helped the project continue to move forward in today’s market.

JE: Yeah, having the flexibility to even just do half of a building has really helped. The problem that some other single building projects have had is that you can’t build in phases. You have to get everything lined up to be able to move forward. Selling 13 or 14 units in this market is hard enough, so it’s not easy to get financing for something much larger.

WE: You said that the whole project is still moving forward as originally planned. Does that mean that we won’t see too much deviation from what’s already shown on the project overlay on the website?

JE: Probably not too much change… although the five-story building actually wasn’t in the original plan. If that idea works well we will add another to the layout, although we haven’t decided where the second five-story location would be. Otherwise, it hasn’t changed that much. There was originally another piece of property that was to be included, which the church owned. We were going to swap them for another property and they decided they didn’t want to do it. We’ve replaced that with other property that we bought, which wasn’t originally in the site plan. We’ve even bought some additional commercial property too, so the footprint of Neighborhood Launch has actually grown from what it originally started out as.

For the most part though, it’s largely the same. The idea is still to give people their own front door, their own back door, their own garaged parking space out back, a little bit of green space, the neighborhood concept and the quality that we are putting into all of the units. Those are the five or six things that we think really differentiate us from the other developments Downtown.

WE: Yeah, there was an article last fall that said Neighborhood Launch touted urban convenience and a suburban feel.

JE: It’s for the people who are still married to their car, but want to live downtown. I’ve lived in the Brewery District two different times for a total of seven years and I lived in German Village for three years. Parking can be a hassle. If you can get away without driving, you can walk to work. When I was in the Brewery District I was able to walk to work. But if you had to deal with a parking garage and two elevators every day, it gets to be a hassle.

WE: I believe that article from last fall mentioned that 37 of the 47 complete units had been sold. Are there any updates to that?

JE: I think we’re up to 39 now, and we’ll sell about one or two a month for the next three to four months. Maybe we will have one or two that we haven’t moved in the first 47 but we’ll have sold four or five of the next 13 and we’ll end up having our eight or nine and keep whittling through those too.

WE: One complaint that I hear made fairly regularly is the lack of commercial space in Neighborhood Launch. It’s entirely a residential development rather than mixed-use. Was there every any plan for retail development?

JE: We’ve avoided it on purpose because we’ve had such spotty luck with it, both in the Brewery District and in other places where we’ve been involved with in retail. What I really hope is that somebody else does it right across the street. That would be great because we just don’t have the experience. Financially, it’s been a loser for us.

When I think about places like Chicago, you can go to Rush Street for instance, and walk no more than 50 feet off of it and be in absolutely solid residential neighborhood. So what I am hoping is that people associate the two blocks of Gay Street from Third to High as the real commercial portion and then it trails off to residential. Obviously, the south side of Gay Street is property that we don’t control any of. Right now it’s a series of parking lots, the Midland Garage, and more parking lots. I would hope that maybe someday something happens along there. I’d also like to see Long Street and Grant Street developed with more of a retail focus and entice people back and forth from the museum.

WE: You mentioned the Brewery District and your involvement in various developments over there. Around two and a half years ago, it was announced that Edwards Cos would be revamping the old Salvation Army building into condos. Are there any updates on that project?

JE: We are going to build that as rentals actually, with an eventual conversion to condos. Part of what slowed us down is that we had the building placed on the National Historic Register, so that took some time. Then we had to redesign it in a way that enabled us to put it on the register and renovate it. As of January 1st, we were told that we had a state grant and we are in line to get the federal credits for that project too.

Tentatively, we are talking about trying to start construction late this fall. No one is any hurry to bring anything on the market that’s 50 to 60 units. We feel a little bit better doing it as rentals, and the tax credit has certainly made it a lot more financially viable.

WE: There’s a couple of different city-wide visioning projects going on right now, all of which are looking towards the near future. Are there any particular areas that you see as being ripe for development over the next 5 to 10 to 15 years?

JE: I think the area between Gay Street and Nationwide will continue to fill in. Of course, from a commercial perspective The Short North and Arena District… I don’t know if you could call it “hot”… but it will certainly get filled in with some success stories. I think the area around Columbus State has potential too. Beyond that, I think we’d all like to see the development continue along the riverfront with the Scioto Mile and Lifestyle Communities project.

Part of our goal all along with Neighborhood Launch was to encourage other people to do more low and mid rise development instead of all high rise. It may be a little harder to figure out the economics of, but I think the city should be particularly supportive of it because of how much empty ground it eats up.

WE: What’s it been like to work with the project approval process with the Downtown Commission? Have they been supportive, or have there been challenges?

JE: We’ve always had good luck with them. I think it’s partly because of the type of product we are building. From an architectural standpoint we are trying to do everything right. I’ve never built anything in German Village and some other areas where I know things are pretty strenuous… and the architectural committee approval out in most suburbs is not usually very difficult. When we do a fair amount of land development going for rezoning is a much different story, but really it’s not been a hard thing for us to abide by. If a developer is trying to cut a lot of corners, or has a bad architect, then I think they are more likely to run into problems with commissions. We have a pretty good architect and we are doing everything the way it should be done.

WE: In closing, I just wanted to mention that when we asked Columbus Underground readers for their questions, several of them said that they wanted to say thanks for taking a chance on Downtown and doing this project. It sounds like Neighborhood Launch has made a pretty positive impression so far.

JE: Thank you! It’s been a little tough, financially speaking but the only way it worked is because we have a TIF, and we have a community authority, and frankly between all the money on the parks and all the money we put in the ground and the quality we are putting into the buildings… that’s really the only way to make this type of project work. Otherwise, this land would all have remained parking lots until my kids’ kids were old and gone. We have to do more of this type of development that spreads out instead of up. We might get rid of ten or twelve parking lots with Neighborhood Launch, but there’s fifteen more where that came from. There’s way too many parking lots Downtown, and we still have a long way to go.

More information can be found online at www.NeighborhoodLaunch.com.

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