Downtown Columbus commercial real estate looking to bounce back after pandemic

March 15, 2024

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The COVID-19 pandemic forever changed the landscape of downtown Columbus. Working from home became the norm, and some workers never returned to the office.

“The work from home movement that was spurred by COVID has dramatically changed the way that people are working,” said Mike Copella, the Senior Managing Director for CBRE, a commercial real estate brokerage in downtown Columbus.

Copella said the current vacancy sits at 22.9% in the central Ohio region for office real estate.

“Vacancy is definitely up over the last five years. One of the reasons is really what happened with COVID where folks were looking to optimize their real estate and if they weren’t using it they were putting it back on the market,” he said. “It’s just going to take time after this big reset that we saw with COVID,” he said.

Copella said a lot of large companies were sitting on more space than they needed to begin with, so the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated their need to shed space.

Trends have changed and companies’ needs have changed since the pandemic. Copella said companies are looking for a “24/7 work, live, play” downtown environment instead of the work downtown and live in the suburbs culture of the past.

“What’s great about central Ohio is we have really some amazing examples of ‘flight to quality’ and some really top-notch developments that other cities in the Midwest don’t have. The Scioto peninsula, and Gravity in Franklinton, and certainly Bridge Park all have been really really successful. And they’re built around this element that you have hospitality, and restaurants, and entertainment. And that’s what really creates this 24/7 environment that these companies when they want to locate their office space there because they can offer really a whole slate of things to their employees versus just having like a deli on the first floor,” Copella said.

A sign of changes in downtown Columbus came Thursday when Huntington Bank announced they are putting three downtown buildings up for sale. Those buildings will be sold in an “invite-only” process.

For the rest of downtown, it could be a sign of things to come.

“For us it’s exciting because it’s an opportunity for redevelopment. And I think what’s really exciting about what’s happening in Columbus is that you have several new developments happening. You have the Scioto peninsula, you have what’s happening in Franklinton and to me that gives us the opportunity to attract new residents into downtown,” Copella said.

Copella explained that many of the older buildings downtown Columbus have the history and charm that is desirable for developers to renovate into multi-family housing. However, some mid 20th century architecture that’s been used for office space for decades doesn’t have quite the draw.

“An older office building that has character and a certain design is really desirable for a multi-family conversion. In the same sense we’ve seen office buildings sitting on a lot of ground be purchased and knocked down and be converted into multi-family or into industrial facilities. The residential component of what we’re trying to do downtown really will bring in more retail, more offices. That’ll kind of be the heartbeat of the city,” he said.

An exodus of workers downtown has had negative impacts on surrounding retail and restaurant business as well.

“The business is struggling. I don’t think that any places have fully recovered from COVID. I know at Matt and Tony’s we had a store over on Short Street and after COVID we never opened for lunch, it was just dinner service,” said Michelle Pelleschi, manager at Matt & Tony’s downtown.

Pelleschi worked in the restaurant industry for 20 years in downtown Columbus. She noticed the difference in restaurants where she worked right away after the pandemic.

“They’re working from home, they’re working remotely. I think businesses figured out that they can get away with that. Once they had to do it, they saw that office space wasn’t important,” she said.

Pelleschi remembers the not-so-distant days of packed dining rooms during lunchtime. Not anymore.

“If they’re not coming back to work. We don’t have much of a lunch business. We do have our days when we can fill up for lunch but they’re few and far between anymore it’s just not as busy as it used to be. I just think people aren’t here. I don’t know if they’ll ever be back. But, we’re hoping,” she said.

She’s hopeful there will be a restaurant renaissance downtown.

“We’re a small spot. But it’s been difficult because with the rising cost of food in and of itself, plus you’ve got the business not what it used to be, we don’t know. But we’re hoping people will come out and come down and come see us at least. I wish that people would come out more. I wish people would know that these small businesses can’t survive without them,” Pelleschi said.

Her restaurant needs it, and so do many others. Copella believes it’s just around the corner.

“I absolutely believe in downtown,” he said. “I’m an impatient person so I want it to happen right away. As long as we continue to invest in residential, I’m very bright on the future of Columbus.”

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