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What’s Next for Downtown?

Brent Warren Brent Warren What’s Next for Downtown?Photo by Susan Post
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By some measures, 2020 was a typical year for Downtown; it once again topped CU’s annual list of neighborhoods with the most announced and completed development projects, and new apartment buildings continued to open throughout the year.

Several new, high-profile proposals were also unveiled – including one for a 30-story mixed-use tower on a North High Street parking lot – and construction began on some significant projects, like the long-planned redevelopment of the Scioto Peninsula.

Everyone knows that 2020 was no ordinary year, though.

Developers have struggled to fill those new apartments, and many restaurants and local businesses closed after a large percentage of the 86,000 workers that previously filled Downtown offices during the day started working from home. Add to that a series of protests that were among the largest and most disruptive in the city’s history, and the question of what’s next for the region’s central business district is on the minds of many.

Marc Conte, acting executive director of the Downtown Special Improvement Districts, is currently working on gathering data for the organization’s annual State of Downtown report, which is scheduled to be released in late February. This year’s report will be different than those of previous years, which have mostly painted a picture of steady progress – more residents moving in, new businesses starting up, and big projects moving forward.

When asked for his current thoughts on what the future holds for Downtown, Conte painted an optimistic picture, but was careful not to minimize the enormous challenges facing businesses right now.

“The impacts of COVID, civil unrest in Downtown, and work-from-home are felt first by retailers (they are on thin margins) and then apartment buildings (leases are a year or less),” he said. “The impact on office leasing isn’t apparent yet since office leases are usually longer in duration.”

The most important thing to keep in mind, though, is that “walkable urban places haven’t lost their value,” he stressed, adding that he is “bullish” on the residential market, even if it takes some time for the newer apartment projects to fill up.

According to last year’s State of Downtown report, more than 9,000 residents called Downtown home in 2019, with an overall apartment occupancy rate of just under 94%.

The question of when – and whether – companies will bring their employees back into centralized offices is one that is looming over much of the discussion about Downtown.

Conte said he expects the office market to come back, citing a recent report from Cushman & Wakefield and George Washington University that predicts many firms will move forward with a mix of in-person and remote-work strategies.

“It will depend on the industry and the job…but if the hybrid workers [those who split time between the office and home] want to be in the office the same days each week, then companies won’t be able to reduce space requirements as much,” said Conte, who added that some companies he’s talked to are planning to bring back employees this summer, but many have yet to finalize their plans.

“Whether someone works in an office or works from home, downtowns will have the amenities people are looking for during and after the workday,” Conte added. “They still offer the spontaneous collisions of people that nurture relationships and spur creativity.”

It’s that type of energy that inspires developer Michael Schiff, and serves as the foundation for his optimism about Downtown’s future. His company, Schiff Capital Group, redeveloped the Atlas Building and was part of the team that renovated the Leveque Tower. Last summer, Schiff also unveiled his Harmony Tower concept for the lot adjacent to the Atlas.

“‘A’ real estate always survives; people always want to live in ‘A’ locations,” he said, remembering that after the financial crisis of 2008, “very smart people – billionaires – told me that New York City would never be the same…but within three to four years, it was stronger than ever.”

Schiff said that it’s important for the economic health of the region that Columbus’ urban core remains strong, and that his experience so far with his company’s mixed-use projects – both Downtown and in the Short North – indicates that it will.

Brad DeHays of Connect Realty, whose Microliving at Long and Front development opened last summer, agrees.

“People don’t make a decision as to whether to move to Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati or Columbus based on their suburbs, they make a decision based on a vibrant metropolitan area that has the arts, night life…an epicenter,” he said. “Once they make a decision of ‘that’s where I want to live,’ then they may go to the suburbs, and that’s ok, we have great suburbs, but if we hollow out our downtown…we could be in a tough spot in the region in five years.”

Recent restaurant announcements and the potential for a new piece of public art at the corner of Gay and High streets are bright spots and bode well for the future, DeHays said, adding that the next six months, in particular, will be crucial.

“We need spring to be a huge lease-up season for all the developers,” DeHays said, adding that he thinks it’s important that people continue to hear about the positive things happening Downtown, especially as there is more and more good news to report. “The businesses are coming back, and we need that message to get out.”

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