Project knocked off stride
Interstate redesign delaying Liberty Place plans

Columbus Business First
Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Brian R. Ball

The developer planning more than 300 apartments on the northern edge of Columbus' Brewery District has taken two years to demolish a former industrial complex and rid the site of contaminants.

Now, just as Winther Investments Inc. had hoped to lay the foundation for Liberty Place, it faces at least nine more months of delay as the Ohio Department of Transportation floats a design to improve the flow of traffic along Interstates 70 and 71 through downtown.

The Houston developer and other Brewery District property owners learned Nov. 6 that ODOT has tentative plans for an elevated exit ramp over Fulton Street, which marks the north boundary of Liberty Place.

"We were just wrapping up the environmental remediation and (construction crews) were doing the final dirt work in preparation for digging foundations," said Jeff McNealey, an attorney from Porter Wright Morris & Arthur who represents Winther. "Up until Sept. 18, we thought everything would happen within the existing (interstate) right of way."

Depending on ODOT's final plan, Liberty Place could lose 50 to 60 apartments, McNealey said. The developer, he said, "is not pleased."

"We're getting very anxious for them to tell us just how far south they're coming so we can do a redesign and get along with the project," he said.

Plans under review

More than 175,000 vehicles a day travel the I-70/71 corridor, which was designed to handle 125,000 vehicles. It is considered one of the most congested and dangerous sections of Ohio's highway system. ODOT officials said the redesign could include five lanes in each direction between the so-called splits, where the interstates merge and separate. Traffic headed into and out of downtown would connect over a network of roadways just outside the splits.

"The whole idea is to eliminate all the merging and weaving by creating two separate systems: a downtown local system and a more through regional system," said ODOT transportation engineer Tim McDonald. "It sorts it all out."

The idea is similar to the design of the Fort Washington Way-Interstate 71 system through downtown Cincinnati, which also attempts to keep downtown pedestrians safer.

In Columbus, the project has centered on minimizing the buildings that would be demolished. Preliminary designs call for the demolition of a Hertz truck rental facility near the interchange of I-70 and Route 315 and a vacant school building in private hands.

"We've stuck to our goal to minimize the impacts," McDonald said.

In downtown, the project calls for a cantilever entrance ramp over the interstates along the north edge of the Columbus Africentric School and Livingston United Methodist Church on Livingston Avenue, east of South Fourth Street.

A similar $20 million ramp would extend up to 20 feet above Fulton Street next to the Liberty Place site.

"That's the tightest pinch point in the entire concept," McDonald said. "It's the hardest to fix."

The tentative plan would take up less room than if ODOT took a traditional approach, which would call for at least one additional I-70/71 lane in each direction, McDonald said.

"It's just an initial concept," McDonald said. "We're not sure how it will flesh out in the end."

A Brewery District Commission meeting this month served as the first of a handful of ODOT presentations on the proposal. Another presentation to the German Village Society is set for Nov. 14, with a public presentation scheduled for Nov. 19 at the Columbus Health Department building on Parsons Avenue.

The project has its selling points, including making it agreeable to nearby neighborhoods, said Jim Tinker, executive director of the Brewery District Association, a business group.

"They're striving, it seems, to accommodate a variety of needs and not take out any existing structures," he said.

Tinker also is pleased the district's new torch landmark next to the Ice Haus building would apparently survive the highway construction.

Tinker called Liberty Place critical to the area, with its site overlooking the highway.

"It's important to see people living in this area," he said.

Waiting it out

McNealey said the long effort to clean up the former Capitol Manufacturing Co. site makes the situation "a mixed barrel," since the most optimistic plans had called for opening Liberty Place early next year.

With ODOT's projection of a 2007 construction start, that would have meant tearing down some of the buildings after just three years of use.

"It's a blessing, because tearing down 50 or 60 feet of buildings would have been a terrible blow to the balance of the project," McNealey said.

Still, Winther worries about the need to redesign the property, no matter how little ODOT pushes into the site, since the exit ramp could rise 20 feet above the base of the building where plans had called for residential units.

Winther, which paid $3.1 million to acquire the site, will press on.

"They are committed to the viability and vitality of the Brewery District and to doing the project," McNealey said.

Once the developer gets a final route from ODOT, it will start the design process all over, including government approvals and reworking tax incentives from the city. Until then, plans for the site remain simple.

"We'll probably put grass seed on the site and put it to sleep for a while." McNealey said.

© 2003 American City Business Journals Inc.