North Market Tower, Hilton Columbus Downtown, Other High-Rise Projects Press Forward Even Amid Pandemic

Even as the Covid-19 recession chills construction in Central Ohio, developers of the largest projects say they’re committed.

Central Ohio’s pre-pandemic development boom, driven by population growth, featured a surge in mid-rise buildings of five to 12 stories in downtown and the environment around it, including 250 S. High St., 80 on the Commons, a new addition to the Park’s Edge Condos and the LC RiverSouth complex.

But Columbus lags cities of similar size in high-rise construction, including flat destinations like Indianapolis or Kansas City, as well as those with contained urban cores like Pittsburgh or Austin. Planners generally attribute this to the complexity of high-rise building and the economics of growing out versus up.

A handful of high-rise projects proposed in recent years could change that fact. As a group, they represent the first skyline-altering additions to the city in a decade, since the completion of the 20-story Condominiums at North Bank Park project.

As developers of projects around town take stock of the pandemic’s impact on their business, the teams behind some of the biggest developments proposed in recent years are dealing with a flattened economy and an uncertain future. But they’re not giving up.

For instance, the 26-story, $192 million tower planned for the parking lot next to the North Market – a long-awaited project slated to include offices, residences, market space, a parking garage and a hotel in 600,000 square feet of development – is still moving forward, with its development team even meeting this month.

“I’d say the pandemic has delayed things slightly, but certainly that’s no surprise,” said Rick Harrison Wolfe, the North Market’s executive director.

Covid-19 has hampered retail, but the North Market has stayed open, its expansive space an asset that will benefit the expansion component as well, he said.

Last year developers Rockbridge, North Market, Wood Cos. and Schiff Capital Group floated the idea of work beginning this year, but that plan has since changed.

“We continue to move forward on the development and are working towards a mid-2021 groundbreaking,” said Jim Merkel, founder and CEO of Rockbridge. “We are pleased with the progress and are adjusting to the challenges brought on by Covid19. We will look forward to sharing more as we progress.

The Whittier Peninsula development – a mega-development of 1.75 million square feet pitched last year on the quiet patch of land south of downtown, is still in due diligence this month, North Carolina-based Zimmer Development Co. confirmed.

The project includes a potential 30-story tower but the developer still expects years of work, subject to market conditions, before it’s ready to start.

And the long-proposed 28-story, $150 million Millennial Tower pitched by Arshot Investment Corp. is still on the table, said Andy Mills of Elford Realty, who is representing the project. It got a design approval from the city but is still looking for tenants.

Another proposal recently joined the slate of potential future skyscrapers, as Schiff Capital Group floated plans for the Harmony Tower, a 30-story project that would rise on a parking lot along North High Street, as first reported by The Columbus Dispatch. The project is in its extremely early stages; it must gain approvals and there is no date set to break ground.

As the pandemic’s impact plays out, though, some developments could face a new complicating factor. Hotels have been an anchor tenant of many high-rise projects, and they’ve taken an outsized hit as the pandemic halted travel.

Hospitality data firm STR found occupancy plummeted from the mid-60% range in February to as low as 22% in March and has only incrementally ticked closer to 46% this month. It’s generally considered a healthy environment for hotel construction when a local market can hold 70% occupancy.

At least one local hotel project has already been spiked, citing a slow lending environment for hotel development.

But while the Hilton Columbus Downtown is certainly feeling the effects of the pandemic, the substantial hit to hospitality business isn’t slowing plans for its 28-story, $220 million expansion.

Don Brown, executive director of the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority, said the team behind the tower expects to stick to its June 2022 completion time frame. Construction financing was already in place before the pandemic and market disruption.

“It’s a good time to be building and we certainly hope that we’re back in the event business before then,” Brown said. “We’re confident the demand is there for 2022 and beyond. We’re just waiting for conditions to improve and people to feel safe.”