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What’s Next for The Continent?

Brent Warren Brent Warren What’s Next for The Continent?Photo by Brent Warren.
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Imagine seeing an advertisement for a new development that touts luxury apartments and townhomes situated in a “European style village (with) every convenience in strolling distance of your home.” Those conveniences include a wide range of unique, locally-owned retail shops, an artisan food market, a state-of-the-art pool and fitness center and a curated selection of bars and restaurants catering to the young professional demographic.

Pedestrian walkways connecting the different sections of the development are framed by multi-story buildings with retail on the ground floor and apartments above, all centered on plazas featuring ornate fountains.

The concept is a familiar one to anyone who follows development in Columbus – from Downtown to Easton, from the Short North to Bridge Park and beyond – walkability, connectivity and “place-making” are the current buzzwords that fill press releases and marketing copy.

Far from describing a recent proposal, though, construction on this particular mixed-use development started in 1972.

Originally called “City Within a City,” local developer C.W. (Bill) Bonner eventually settled on “The Continent” as the name for his ambitious 60-acre development.

Located north of Dublin-Granville Road, between Busch Boulevard and I-71, the first buildings in the complex opened in late 1973. The anchor was the French Market, a food hall concept that featured over 40 independent merchants, selling both prepared and specialty food items.

The first phase of the development also included a three-story office building, a four-story building with office over retail, three different multi-story apartment buildings (all with ground-level retail) and the Continental Racquet Club, which featured tennis courts and a pool.

Add to that one of the first multi-screen movie theaters in the city and high-profile tenants like radio station WNCI (97.9) and you have a vibrant mix of uses that any card-carrying New Urbanist (a term that only came to prominence in the 1990s) would approve of.

Not every part of Bonner’s original vision was realized – two hotels were planned at one point, as were condominiums – but the project had a long and successful run nonetheless, becoming a regional destination and kickstarting additional development along the 161 corridor.

“That was the restaurant row in Columbus at the time,” says Rob Vogt, Principal of Vogt Strategic Insights, a local real estate research firm.

“You could almost say the Short North now is the 161 of the 70s and 80s,” he says, adding that the Continent, specifically, “was absolutely the place to go…it was really the first lifestyle center in Central Ohio, probably in the nation.”

As the buildings aged, though, the property changed hands several times, and The Continent was not able to maintain its status as a regional retail destination or as a trendy place to eat and hang out.

The opening of the City Center Mall in 1989 was followed in later years by new malls and lifestyle centers to the west, east and north; the Mall at Tuttle Crossing opened in 1997, Easton Town Center in 1999 and Polaris Fashion Place in 2001.

Tuttle and Polaris were both traditional, indoor malls, and Easton – although it featured streets lined with shops that were laid out in a town center style – offered no residential component within that central core (its recently announced expansion will add some for the first time).

The Continent today is home to a handful of night clubs and offices, as well as the movie theater, which now features Bollywood movies. It also is home to plenty of full-time residents – the immediate area contains over 600 apartments, including the French Quarter Apartments in the center of the development – but restaurant and retail offerings are scarce, and vast swaths of the large parking lots that surround the complex sit empty most of the time.

Vogt sees promise in those parking lots.

“The Continent represents an opportunity…so many of the bones are in place to build off of without a big investment – unlike a place like Westland, where you would be tearing down everything and starting over – it just needs a good going over and a lot of infill,” he says, explaining that the perimeter lots could hold housing of various types.

Those new residents would create a larger built-in market for whatever mix of businesses occupy the existing cluster of buildings in the middle of the development, which Vogt says could be renovated and refreshed for a fraction of the cost of building out a whole new town center area.

The City of Columbus also sees promise in the Continent, and would be thrilled to see it redeveloped.

“As the city contines to grow, we anticipate more of that growth will be infill development along major corridors, centers like this, and mixed-use (development) makes the most sense in the long run,” says Kevin Wheeler, the assistant director for growth policy in the Development Department.

“The existing infrastructure system is there…certainly, it’s auto-oriented, but you have the ability to achieve densities that can be served by transit,” adds Wheeler. “We’d want to see a range of uses there; housing is an important component, but office and retail would be as well…regionally, the site is really pretty well located.”

Vogt, whose company performs hundreds of market studies a year – including one for the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio that argued the region should be building 6,000 more housing units a year than it is – agrees that The Continent’s location is a strength.

“It has good proximity to Worthington and Westerville…tick down all the things on your list of what makes a good location,” he says, including relatively quick access to Downtown and to areas that have seen significant job growth in the last decade, like Polaris and New Albany.

Most of the original Continent site is now controlled by AXS Opportunity Fund, an LLC with a Beverly Hills address that purchased several parcels totaling nearly 40 acres – including the central buildings, surrounding parking lots and the French Quarter Apartments – in 2008.

Continent Village, the apartment complex that sit on the northern end of the site, was bought by a Minneapolis-based company in 2001.

A representative of AXS told Columbus Underground that the company is “looking at alternatives for use of this property,” but declined to elaborate on those plans.

Surrounding the site is a hodgepodge of hotels, apartments, warehouses, offices, and aging retail centers. Directly to the south, plans were recently announced to convert a former Giant Eagle store into a self-storage facility.

“It may take awhile for a property (like this) to become really ripe for a broader redevelopment,” says Wheeler.

While the future of The Continent remains uncertain, similar sites around Columbus have been getting second looks from developers in recent years.

There seems to be a broad consensus – among local city planners, elected officials, and developers – that dense infill development will need to be a major part of any larger strategy to respond to the growth projected for the region.

Vogt hopes that, at the very least, someone is looking to The Continent and its unique history for some inspiration.

“The vibrancy of the original (Continent), that is the kind of environment we need to create if we’re going to accommodate all of the households that will be entering Central Ohio,” he says.

All photos by Brent Warren.

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