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Columbus Commons poised for final piece

By Marla Matzer Rose

The Columbus Dispatch  •  Sunday June 26, 2016 5:00 AM

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This week could mark a milestone in the seven-year history of the Columbus Commons development plan.

On Tuesday, the Downtown Commission is set to consider final approval of a second mixed-use building on the site called Two25 Commons. If passed, the project would become the final piece in the redevelopment of the former Columbus City Center site.

Two25 has been pared down in height by nearly a third from the 17 stories originally proposed. Columbus-based developers Daimler Group and Kaufman Development now plan a 12-story building mirroring their recently completed 250 High Street — also part of the Columbus Commons site — and its mix of office and retail/restaurant space topped by apartments.

Members of the commission have expressed reservations about the sky bridge that developers are seeking to connect Two25 to the former City Center parking garage across Rich Street, although Daimler's Robert White Jr. vows that the bridge will be light and attractive to blend with the lively cityscape outside.

The commons plan was unveiled in early 2009 to much skepticism and debate. Some people thought that the mall building, which was only 20 years old, should be retained and repurposed as other retail or office space.

Even those who favored demolition worried that the area might remain a dead zone rather than a vibrant new element of Downtown. Backers had to get creative in piecing together financing for the project, which included $7 million in public investment and $18 million in private investment in the initial site plan, demolition and construction of the park itself.

"The idea was that the green space would be a catalyst for development around it," said Guy Worley, president and CEO of nonprofit development organization Columbus Downtown Development Corp. "That's the way it has worked out, with the park itself providing the energy and activity that attracts people to live and work in the area."

The result is widely seen as a success. The Urban Land Institute has proclaimed Columbus Commons and the nearby Scioto Mile project, completed late last year, as one of the top five parks in America. Representatives of more than half a dozen other cities have visited Columbus to see the park and learn about its development. The New York Times wrote last month about Downtown's revitalization that has been seeded by the commons and the Scioto Mile.

The project didn't turn out exactly as originally envisioned: It has more apartments and less office and retail space in the mix, reflecting that Downtown housing has been quicker to take off than other segments. Worley said he's sure that retail will follow, although it might not be the mall-type stores featured at City Center.

"Retail follows rooftops," Worley said. "Retail is coming, but we still have a way to go from where we'd like to be."

Amy Taylor, chief financial officer of CDDC, said the group found that "you can't incentivize retail. You have to create the market for it. They have their own formulas that they use to decide what makes sense."

The radiating impact is clear: Surrounding buildings such as the Sheraton on Capitol Square and the rebranded 175 on the Park office building have seen millions of dollars in private investment on top of the $165 million invested in the buildings right on Columbus Commons.

The commons also has been a factor in even more development within a couple of blocks, including the ambitious 25-story Millennial Tower apartment project announced by Arshot Investment Corp. in May.

"By Guy and the CDDC taking the risk and initiative with Columbus Commons, they are completely responsible for the development happening in the area," said Kaufman Development founder Brett Kaufman. "There's still a huge risk involved for developers, but the CDDC being there to help facilitate things has been a great help."

Next up for CDDC: a focus on what's being called the Scioto Peninsula, the eastern edge of Franklinton just across the Scioto River from Downtown. Work is well under way there on the overhaul of the Veterans Memorial site, and other elements are expected to be unveiled in the near future.