Ross Horner is less than three months into his job as president of Uptown Columbus, Inc., a non-profit organization that has been working to develop downtown for nearly three decades.
Last week, when the W.C. Bradley Co. announced it was investing $52 million in a residential and retail development north of the 13th Street bridge along the Chattahoochee River — the largest real estate project taken on by the Columbus-based company that started in the late 1800s as cotton brokers — Horner asked a question:
“Doesn’t it feel like there is more to come?”
Then he partially answered it.
“This is a signal to anyone else who is looking at developing in or being a part of uptown to come and get it now,” Horner said. “This is going to ramp up quick.”
It’s not just the investment the W.C. Bradley Company will make to add 226 new apartments and more than 15,000 square feet of retail space along the Chattahoochee Riverwalk between the 13th and 14th Street bridges in a project called The Rapids at Riverfront Place. Smaller investors are putting $500,000 here and millions there for projects like restaurants and hotels, all near the 7.5-acre riverfront site that will be developed by W.C. Bradley over the next several years.
Marc Olivié, president and CEO of W.C. Bradley Co., is at the helm of the company’s development strategy.
“I don’t think there are many other cities that show the same kind development and the same kind of transformation we have seen in the downtown area,” Olivié said when the project was announced on March 1.
Inside the W.C. Bradley Co. office they simply call it “the riverfront.” And they do so because they own or control most of it from the Dillingham Street Bridge north to the TSYS campus. And what is happening is happening strategically.
“We see the riverfront as the main asset of Columbus downtown — and it’s really connecting this riverfront with the rest of downtown — as an important piece of what we are trying to do ... (and) I think, many others are trying to do, as well,” Olivié said.
And nowhere is that connection more evident than the riverfront property that goes to Broadway between the 13th and 14th Street bridges.
“It is a very important part of the whole downtown area because it’s the only place where you could go from Front Street to the riverwalk without having to do stairs,” Olivié said. “That is an opening that we think is very important to connect what is the riverwalk with the rest of downtown.”
The goal with that property is to continue to enhance the river, said W.C. Bradley Co. Real Estate Division President Mat Swift.
“We’re able to have people walk along the riverwalk and engage —whether it be buying an ice cream cone or a beer — with retail easily,” he said. “That is a little different than other parts of the riverwalk.”
What the developers are looking for at Riverfront Place and the new apartments and retail is a “sense of place,” Swift said.
“We are trying to have an exceptional outdoor experience here,” Swift said. “... It will have restaurants, it will have residential; potentially it could have office, hotel, retail and a grocery. We don’t have all of those yet, but we are going to start with the first project.”
That’s fine with Garrett Lawrence and his business partners Miles Greathouse and Robert Battle, who invested $390,000 in July 2015 to purchase the building at 1239 Broadway to open Nonic, a gastropub that has found a niche beer and food business. By the time they had renovated the building, they were more than $500,000 into the project, but now because of the W.C. Bradley Co. investment they see a potential they could only dream about two years ago.
“We have been talking about it, and I don’t think we can even begin to get our heads around the impact this is going to have,” Lawrence said.
And they will be direct beneficiaries of the connection between the riverwalk and Broadway that W.C. Bradley is working to achieve. Connecting it means it needs to be pedestrian friendly, vibrant and mixed use, Olivié said.
“Mixed use is really an opportunity to have people who live there — like the people who live in Eagle & Phenix or people who live in the 11th Street Lofts, who work there like TSYS, Synovus, the Bradley Co., and many others and those who learn here,” Olivié said. “With the recent move of CSU to the Ledger-Enquirer building we have another group of students and faculty that moved there.”
Internally, W.C. Bradley divides its holdings along the riverfront into four phases. To understand where this is going, it is essential to understand the company’s downtown holdings.
Inside the company, they have divided their downtown Columbus and Phenix City holdings into four phases.
The first block runs from Ninth Street to 11th Street along Front Avenue and Bay Avenue and includes the W.C. Bradley Co. corporate building; Synovus Centre, a five-story riverfront office building that headquarters Columbus-based banking firm Synovus; Whitewater Express, the lone outfitter on the Chattahoochee River; 11th & Bay restaurant; and the River Club. It is about 355,000 square feet of office and retail space.
“This is the start of it all, where W.C. Bradley started with his cotton warehouses,” Olivié said. “... There is still some space in the main building that is ready for development. It is in our plans to continue to develop that.”
The area includes old Eagle & Phenix textile mills that W.C. Bradley repurchased in 2003 — after selling them off in 1947 — and has renovated into high-end housing along the river. There are about 84 condominiums in Mill 2, several of them exceeding $1 million in value. Three other renovated buildings on the site contain about 90 apartments, some them exceeding $2,000 per month in rent.
“All of them are filled,” Olivié said. “There is only one condominium that is unfinished and we are finishing it this year. ... The reality is we have a waiting list for our apartments.”
The Eagle & Phenix project was “the first big, new investment done in the downtown area by W.C. Bradley Co.,” Olivié said.
EPIC, one of the city’s most highly regarded restaurants, is located on this site. The main unfinished work is the two powerhouses located between the mills and the river.
“We just finished renovating those powerhouses to what I would call ‘white boxes,’ which is really a finished empty space,” Olivié said. “What we will do over the next year is finish further and see where we can take this.”
The company has now turned its attention to Phase 3, a 7.5-acre tract between the 13th Street and 14th Street bridges. The southwest corner of that property is where construction on The Rapids apartment complex will start in the next couple of months. Some units should be available for lease late next year, with the facility completed in early 2019, Swift said.
The property will also include a park that helps bridge the riverwalk to Broadway.
The development of the nearby Eagle & Phenix mills into condos and apartments came with restrictions because of the historic nature of the textile buildings, some more than a century old. As the project moved north of 13th Street to vacant land created by the demolition of newer mill buildings, Swift anticipated the development would come with less restrictions and red tape.
“I had no idea we were going to run into flood plain issues, DOT issues with the bridge,” Swift said. “It has been extraordinarily complicated, but we have a fantastic team that has been helping us.”
Phase 4 is across the river in Phenix City. The company purchased Phenix Plaza shopping center and inherited some long-term leases that have presented challenges. It is directly across the river from what they term Phase 3.
“That is a great opportunity in the next years to develop hotels, potentially more office (and) retail because there, too, you have a wonderful view of the river and access to everything,” Olivié said.
The Frank Martin Pedestrian Bridge at 14th Street is the link to the developments, Olivié said.
“You just have to walk across the bridge one way or the other,” he said. “This is truly the opportunity to connect the two.”
The cities of Columbus and Phenix City have made significant public investments to make the private investments possible, Swift said. He pointed to the downtown streetscape project, the Chattahoochee Riverwalk and the river restoration project that created the 2.5 mile urban white-water course. In Phenix City, he pointed to the amphitheater, the Third Avenue renovation to create a riverfront street, the Courtyard Marriott and the city’s downtown parking garage.
One of those who was watching closely earlier this month when the W.C. Bradley project was announced was Rinkesh Patel, president of Columbus-based RAM Hotels. That company will have properties that will sandwich the W.C. Bradley Co. investments on both sides of the river. RAM owns and operates the Phenix City Courtyard Marriott on the northern edge of the 14th Street pedestrian bridge.
Late last year, RAM announced plans to build a 125-room AC Hotel, an upper-end Marriott property, in the 1200 block of Broadway, just south of the new apartment complex. The current Raymond Rowe building at 1225 Broadway was purchased by RAM Hotels and will be demolished later this year to make way for construction of the new hotel.
“If anything, what W.C. Bradley is doing on the river will encourage us to be bolder on our design,” said Patel, who attended the announcement of the new apartment complex.
Patel said that what is happening in downtown will have a positive effect on how the city perceives itself.
“I think, over the years, Columbus lost its identity,” Patel said. “What you are seeing now is, we are beginning to get our identity back.”
And part of that identity is having more people living downtown, said Horner, the Uptown Inc., president.
“This turns up the dial,” he said. “We are expanding on what we already have. The ability to have more people living down here, working down here and playing down here is an important part of what uptown is about. ...
“One of things it’s doing is expanding the footprint of what people consider uptown. And it’s new construction. It is a new development. It isn’t rehab. It is the opportunity to add something in uptown that maybe wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t brand new.”
And Riverfront Place will spark new development and new ideas, Horner said.
“I am excited to see what this creates next,” he said. “Every project has created something next. I think it makes people think bigger. Big projects make people think bigger.”