Developers plan to transform High Street, rid its seedy look; Change at the gates of OSU

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

Page B1

COLUMBUS — Out with the dive bars, in with the aerobics studios.

Out with the nightclubs, in with the fresh produce markets.

If a group of developers gets its way, a stretch of one of Columbus’ most storied streets will be virtually unrecognizable in a few years, with sparkling new businesses replacing blighted buildings.

At least that’s the way they see it. To opponents, it’ll be yuppiedom replacing urban character, and national chains replacing successful mom-and-pop businesses. The battle between the two sides is about to heat up.

The strip – on High Street, around 11th Avenue – is familiar to anyone who has spent time at Ohio State University. It’s just south of campus, and has long been a central student hangout, filled with dark, windowless bars, cheap ethnic restaurants, and funky record stores.

The six-block area is dirty and plastered with graffiti, and boarded up windows are about as common as working storefronts. Although some legendary student haunts are still there, a lot of the buildings are abandoned.

To the rescue, they say, comes Campus Partners, a nonprofit group founded by the university in 1995 to improve the neighborhoods around campus. Since then, one of the centerpieces of the plan for the area has been what they call the University Gateway Center.

It would be a new “destination” retail center the size of several other suburban developments, with 600,000 square feet designed to appeal to students and a broader regional audience. Included would be several large chain stores, as well as some locally owned, and an arts cinema. Above some stores would be office space or housing, and there would be plenty of parking. It would be the first significant investment into the area in years, at a cost of more than $50 million, and would maintain an urban, streetscape feel.

But the plan would require that all the buildings on 7GF1*2acres be torn down. That land houses about 30 local businesses, some of them very much thriving.

“It’s not done lightly, but redevelopment is necessary for the area,” Campus Partners President Terry Foegler said.

Therein lies the debate. Although some of the property owners will willingly unload their land to Campus Partners – Mr. Foegler expects the group will control half of the land by early November – others plan to fight a battle that could get nasty.

“It’s no good,” said Steve Panagiotopoulos, who owns the Greek Village restaurant, which occupies the second story above a now-closed restaurant. “I’ve been here for 30 years, and I don’t want to go anywhere else.”

Mr. Panagiotopoulos is just one of several business owners who say that, while the Gateway Center is potentially a great idea, it doesn’t mean they should be forced to give up their businesses.

“It’s a sad thing,” said Nasir Latif, who owns Firdous Deli and Cafe. “I raised this building like my own son.”

The debate over South Campus has been swirling for years, but it has been somewhat academic until now, because talk of renovation has been just talk, mired in a series of studies. But late last month, Campus Partners issued the draft of its final plan for the High Street project, saying for the first time what it wants to see torn down and what will remain.

The final plan will probably be out within two months. Campus Partners has already begun to buy up the district’s land with OSU endowment money and has started the search for a private developer, who would pick up most of the project’s cost.

Later this year, the group will ask the Columbus city council to declare the entire area blighted and use its eminent domain powers to take control of the land of any unwilling property owners – a process very similar to what the city of Toledo is doing to clear out a North Toledo neighborhood for the new Jeep plant. In Columbus, the land acquisition alone is expected to cost $15 million.

Area merchants are quick to point out that nothing is a done deal, but also argue that the constant talk of redevelopment is responsible for the sorry shape South Campus is in now.

They say that when talk of massive dislocation first surfaced, businesses started not renewing their leases because they didn’t know what the future would hold. And with the constant threat of destruction, patrons started staying away too.

The result, they argue, is the high number of empty storefronts.

“This was a busy place in the ’70s, the ’80s, and the early ’90s,” Mr. Panagiotopoulos said. “Then when Campus Partners started up, everyone started going away.”

He said his business is down 60 per cent from what it was before Campus Partners.

Ryan Clark, manager of the Cycle Tech bicycle shop, is also disappointed with the way that a death sentence has been looming over his “very profitable” store for the last several years.

“The overall plan is a pretty decent idea,” he said, “but the way it’s happening isn’t good. This store has been in the paper as a displaced business, even though the building hasn’t been sold and we’re still open. It’s not good for business and customer confidence, a lot of people jumping to conclusions.”

Mr. Clark said that the decline of the neighborhood will make it easier for Campus Partners to snap up land, as empty buildings sell at lower prices than full ones. One restaurant already has closed and put a sign on its door saying, “We look forward to returning to South Campus upon completion of the redevelopment project by Campus Partners.”

Other area residents are concerned that the businesses that will replace the displaced shops will be too yuppified and pricey for low-budget students.

“There is a realm where people have lots of money and get to buy what they want to, and that’s not a realm I live in,” said Brian Lovely, who works at Magnolia Thunderpussy, the landmark independent record store that has been on High Street for 29 years. “This area has been neglected by people in power for years, but now they see they can make some money off of it, and get rid of the businesses that have been making money and paying taxes for years.”

Mr. Foegler responds, “Any business in this area is going to have students as its main customer base, and no business is going to survive if it doesn’t serve them.”

And while Mr. Foegler said Campus Partners has done a good job of talking with the community and with business owners, at least one business has been left in the dark.

Last week, a man at the counter of an old pizza place he plans to renovate and open in the district within a few months seemed shocked when asked about Campus Partners’ plans to tear his building down. “I don’t know anything about this,” he said. “I’ve never heard of Campus Partners.”

Mr. Foegler said that all affected businesses will receive relocation assistance, and some would be welcome to remain on High Street.

The businesses Campus Partners considers most problematic for High Street, the district’s many bars, would even be welcome on the “21st Century Main Street” they are planning, so long as they are more spread out.

He said – and most business owners in the area agreed – that pumping millions into the area would make for a massive improvement, encourage redevelopment elsewhere in the district, and allow High Street to better serve students, faculty, and the entire neighborhood.

“We’ve got to preserve the urban fabric and make it more attractive to people, more clean and more safe,” he said. “This will make the already-successful businesses in the area even more successful.”

But even those who think redevelopment is needed aren’t always willing to step aside and let Campus Partners have their way with the neighborhood.

“What angers me is that we’re mentioned as eyesores, which just isn’t true,” Mr. Clark said.

Campus Partners says that construction on the Gateway Center could begin in two years; if land owners are willing to fight the eminent domain in court, that could be a conservative estimate.

Mr. Foegler said he doesn’t know if there will be much of a fight from owners. Mr. Panagiotopoulos does.

“I’m ready to fight,” he said. “People should raise their voices.”