Red brick apartments with a big green tree in a courtyard in the middle

A thriving community where wisdom prevails is the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s vision and mantra. But this doesn’t apply anymore to the Main Library’s next door neighbor the Grant Oak apartment complex, a quasi affordable dorm for college students attending CCAD, Franklin University and Capital University. And much like many lower-income peoples who were living downtown (ie, Bollinger Tower), they too are set to be thrown out into the cold.

Grant Oak, seven red-brick buildings built in the 1940s, was sold in January by the library’s Board of Trustees to the city’s pet developer the Pizzuti Companies for $1.26 million even though the Franklin County Auditor’s Office valued the property at $3 million. Thus the library, which could always use the money, shorted themselves roughly $1.75 million in taxpayer’s dollars.

True, Pizzuti Companies had the inside track because they were recently under contract to oversee ten other library construction projects, but $1.75 amounts to a lot of books and other services that could be utilized by the numerous collegians and high schoolers who use the libraries to further themselves.

Grant Oak and its 130 apartments, some renting at just over $500 for a one-bedroom, will be demolished for, you guessed it, a mix-used complex chock full of $1,500 a month studios, underground parking and probably a Starbucks. The library notified residents in 2016 the apartments were going to be sold.

The library’s decision is hastening the end of an era. $500 for a downtown for a respectable one-bedroom. Students and their education be damned. By one of our community’s educational leaders, no less. 

Instead of razing Grant Oak, the library’s Board of Trustees considered renovating it, which potentially could have saved the affordable apartments.

One developer who did propose renovation was Thomas Fortin of the Thomas Fortin and Company, and he told the Free Presshe tried his best to save Grant Oak for students and blue-collar types who work downtown, but believes the library’s only intention was to build an upscale complex.

Fortin also told us he offered a lot more money for Grant Oak, twice as much actually, than what Pizzuti paid.

“I was willing to pay the library far more then what they ultimately sold it for,” said Fortin. “I wanted to accommodate the average person, the blue collar workers and the students to afford and live in that area because I feel there is an overwhelming demand for that demographic and an oversupply of existing apartments that are renting for more than $1,500 which only ten percent of the people who live downtown can afford. But my feeling is that the library’s motive was to have it torn down and build something new, and that’s something they’ve always wanted.”

Nevertheless, Fortin says he was treated friendly and fairly, and given several opportunities to pitch his vision.

“My plan was fitting and suitable, and I feel there should have been some more social responsibility on the part of the library’s Board of Trustees because it’s something of a quasi-publicly owned property, but they were more interested in having more-of-the-same. Just more new upscale apartments that the majority of the people who work downtown can’t afford,” he said.

Progressive activist and former City Council candidate Joe Motil, who’s worked in the construction field for much of his adult life, says Joel Pizzuti’s comment to the Dispatchthat Grant Oak was too old to renovate suggests Mr. Pizzuti, perhaps the region’s most high-profiled developer, doesn’t know much about development.

“Stating that they were ‘too dated to renovate’ has to be one of the most ignorant statements I have ever heard in reference to why a structure can’t be renovated,” said Motil.“Sure, the rents would have likely gone up if the buildings were renovated, but not nearly as much with a new development.”

The loss of Grant Oak continues a trend that doesn’t bode well for a lot of Central Ohioans. Forbes in 2016 ranked Columbus the third best city in America for renting a single bedroom with an average cost of $822 per month, which is too high for many people, and that average cost is bound to go higher.

Just off campus, for instance, you can get a cavernous 400-sq-ft pad for a cool $1,300 and a 775-sq-ft two bedroom for an affordable $2,400.

But the Grant Oak sale is different because well, it was owned by the library of all places, where the poor and marginalized are always welcomed to better themselves. Yet we wonder if the library’s Board of Trustees even had a choice in the matter?

Columbus developers such as Pizzuti and their in-pocket partners, City Hall and the city’s Department of Development, are hell-bent on having their “Discovery District,” which includes the Columbus Museum of Art, the Main Library, Columbus State and CCAD. The city likes to promote the district as a cultural and educational district because of its close proximity to higher education, but is it becoming a gated community for the upper crust?

The web site lists the average rent for a studio in the district at $1,100.

This desire to build luxury apartments stacked on top of each other and the profits they bring apparently makes selling out dirt-poor students an easy choice for the Department of Development and Pizzuti, especially if the downtown market for luxury apartments doesn’t go soft and the tax abatements stick around.

Selling out broke college students, no matter if it be Pizzuti or the library’s Board of Trustees, is akin to, well, throwing books on a bonfire.

Motil says this trend of building luxury apartments in the central city, which is pushing out affordable housing, is business as usual.

“This entire process for Requests for Proposals by the library’s Board of Trustees reeks of the usual preferential treatment given by nearly every governmental body in Franklin County to the likes of the Pizutti Company,” he says.

Library spokesperson Ben Zenitsky was given more then week to respond to questions regarding this story, for example, “Why sell Grant Oak to Pizzuti for far less than its value?” but did not respond before deadline.

UPDATE: Response from CML spokesperson Ben Zenitsky:

Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML) has been very thorough and thoughtful about the best use of the Grant Oak Apartments. We want to leverage the recent investments we’ve made in our Main Library and also help contribute to the revitalization of the Downtown Discovery District. Therefore, library leaders and trustees agreed that redevelopment was the best use for the property.

We worked closely with the Columbus Downtown Development Corp. (CDDC) throughout this process, and we made it clear to interested developers that we had a vested interest in the redevelopment of the property – not only for the reasons stated above, but also to improve the safety of those library customers entering and exiting the Main Library garage.

Of the five proposals we received, The Pizzuti Companies’ proposal most closely shared our vision and also enabled CML to retain significant approval control over the architecture, design and other building elements. The sale price of the property reflects this agreement, which allows CML to have continued control in decisions being made in the redevelopment.

Please let me know if you have any additional questions.


Appears in Issue: