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Columbus Officials Say Downtown Housing Growth is Booming

It's been four years since the City of Columbus launched its downtown business plan. One of the goals is to encourage creation of 10,000 housing units by 2012. And according to city officials new housing is well underway.

There were only a few customers at Cafe Brioso on Gay Street Wednesday night. Scott Vogel sat outside drinking green tea with a friend. Both young men lamented the lack of local night life.

"It's unfortunate," Vogel says, "that Columbus as a city shuts down around 7 o'clock."

But inside, Barista Alana Odenweller says the cafe may extend its hours in the future.

"We stay open until 7," Odenweller says. "Once the neighborhood gets more established and more people are down here, we'll probably accommodate them and stay open later."

It may not seem like it now but Caf Brioso may play a part in the development of downtown Columbus as a residential area. In 2002 the city launched its downtown housing initiative, calling for 10,000 housing units to be built by 2012. And it began offering tax incentives to developers who build within the business district -- the area bounded on the north by I-670, on the east and south by Interstates 71 and 70 and on the west by COSI.

"We've been incentivizing development in the suburbs for decades. And there's never been a comparable sort of incentive provided for downtown housing."Cleve Ricksecker, the director of Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District, says it's more cost effective for the city to encourage urban housing because utilities, roads and schools are already in place. He says the city's investment is paying off.

"Once you began to level the playing field between downtown and the suburban fringe the demand just went through the roof. I think we have 17 residential developers in downtown now."

About 1500 people have moved downtown since the plan went into effect, according to Ricksecker. He says that in the central business district about 700 units have already been completed and about 500 are under construction. Add the Short North and other areas and the number of condominiums and lofts approaches 4,000. Ricksecker says that's not enough to meet potential demand.

"In any metropolitan area, 1% to 2% of the population would love to live downtown if there were housing product for them to live in. And in the metropolitan Columbus area that's 13,000 to 26,000 people who would move downtown in a heartbeat."

"One of those people who's already moved downtown is Golden Mergler. She's an OSU professor who, with her husband, moved away from their Clintonville home after 20 years.

"It has been lots of fun. We love it! A lot of my friends that still live in houses in other parts of the city say I don't know how you did it.' But it really wasn't difficult. I loved living in Clintonville and I loved my home there but I don't miss it, I really like where I'm living now."

Making downtown Columbus more livable may spur downtown job creation - ensuring that more people will be paying city income tax. One complicating factor is the softening real estate market. Cleve Ricksecker says the pent-up demand for downtown housing makes a forecast difficult.

"Even if the housing market softens and interest rates go up we think that demand for downtown housing will remain. It may shift a bit from purchasing to renting - typical when interest rates go up - but there's still a big, big unmet demand."