The revitalization of downtown Columbus has moved south in recent years. A new courthouse, park and apartment buildings have filled vacant lots along High Street, south of the statehouse. The plan is for a mix of residential, office and retail, but as WOSU reports, retail lags behind.
It’s lunchtime, midweek, and a returning PurePressed Juicery customer stops in to try a new product.
PurePressed Juicery is on the first floor of Highpoint on Columbus Commons, the apartments along the High street side of the park. PurePressed opened in April. Owner Greg Mansell said business is better than expected, relying on its returning customer base.
"There isn’t a whole lot of foot traffic, so to speak, where if you’re walking in the Short North you may walk by something and go, ‘I’m going to go in and try this.’ We don’t have a lot of that," he said. "It’s more destination. But you expect that to change? And we do expect that to change.”
The juicery is alone on its block of South High Street between Town and Rich Streets. Large pieces of black particle board cover potential Highpoint storefronts, vacant for two years.
“Well, I think it’s really just a timing thing," Robert “Skip” Weiler said.
Weiler is one of the Highpoint developers.
“We’ve got the juice guy in there. I believe there’s two other tenants that we’re very closed to being announced. And so the momentum is just now starting to pick up and the activity is really picking up," Weiler said. "Before, when we were in construction, everybody went, all the users said, 'we want to be here, but it’s just not ready yet.'”
Developers and retailers envision the area around the downtown Columbus Commons to be a lively, walkable neighborhood, but it’s not there yet.
Neighboring projects remain unfinished. Construction continues at 250 High. And work has stalled on a project at High and Rich Streets causing concern about the project’s viability. A spokesman for that developer told us work resumes next month.
Not everyone is convinced South High Street can support shopping. Call Columbus retail analyst Chris Boring skeptical. He said retail never returned to downtown after City Center Mall closed. Boring lays some of the blame on e-commerce, the recession and even COTA buses along High Street.
“Between the Lazarus building and the Columbus Commons project, they’ve tried very mightily to bring in retail into those spaces and just have gotten nowhere with that. So my thought is you’re going to see retail starting to develop along side streets. And a perfect example of that would be Gay Street.”
According to Boring’s figures, at least three new retailers have opened on Gay Street so far this year.
“It’s kind of like a mini Short North of Downtown, very eclectic mix of businesses," Boring said.
And it’s that mix Cleve Ricksecker wants to see more of downtown. Ricksecker, who is executive director of Capital Crossroads and Special Improvements Districts, said stores help feed each other.
“Until somebody starts to take a broader look at leasing and adjacencies and the retail mix that’s going into various areas, downtown’s going to struggle.”
Ricksecker acknowledges some downtown areas are doing well, like Gay Street. But overall, he said there’s a problem caused, in part, by a dearth of affordable retail space.
“What’s interesting is where we have that space on Gay Street [and] on Fourth Street, near the Greyhound Bus Station, we’re seeing entrepreneurs establish themselves," Ricksecker said. "And but for the fact that we don’t have more of that space we would have a lot more retail downtown.”
Higher prices for new projects could be discouraging retailers. Downtown retail space runs between $15 and $25 a square foot. Rents for new properties on the South High Street could be $28 a square foot.
But for all the worry and skepticism, downtown has at least one new believer: developer Skip Weiler.
“It wasn’t that long ago that I had no confidence in downtown retail," he said. "I was a seller and not a buyer.”
Weiler points to the booming Gay and Fourth Streets as examples of the area’s potential.
“There’s only going to be more and more retail. You really have minimal retail. It’s not going to be Chicago or Washington or New York where you have all these two-story retail Whole Foods downtown," he said. We’re not going to be that, at least not in my lifetime…You’re going to see more of that mini-markets and more of that city-type market retail which is what we need.”
Weiler noted the Highpoint’s occupancy rate is in the 90 percent range. That’s something tenant Greg Mansell sees as a good sign for his juice business.
“What comes first here? Is it residential or retail? And I think it’s proving to be that the retailers and the restaurants want the residential there first before they’re willing to commit.”
Developers indeed hope that old adage – retail follows rooftops – holds true on South High Street.