Olentangy Valley News

Long-vacant Altair tract on Polaris Parkway

Westerville to buy 'last bit of key, prime ground'

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The land south of Polaris Parkway between Cleveland Avenue and Africa Road has sat mostly vacant for more than a decade, as office and retail developments have sprung up around it on three sides.

Westerville city leaders hope they can change that by purchasing the 67 acres known as Altair from the private developers who own it.

"It's really too valuable of land to let waves of development pass it up," Westerville City Manager Dave Collinsworth said. "We believe it's time for the city to play a more active role in this development."

To that end, Westerville City Council was to hear the first reading of three pieces of legislation June 3 to authorize the city to purchase the land for $6.7 million from Altair Realty Ltd./North Westerville Ltd.

Jerome G. Solove, son of the late central Ohio developer Richard J. Solove, is listed in state records as the incorporator of both companies.

The city also would refund $9.5 million in to the landowners that it would have eventually owed for infrastructure improvements through an existing tax increment financing agreement.

Over time, the city will see that money returned as the land is developed, Assistant City Manager Julie Colley said.

Colley said it's crucial for the city to take an active role because Westerville is being passed up for development opportunities.

"Announcements are coming from other communities," Colley said. "We have a good opportunity to capture that market that we're currently losing."

A development plan for the Altair site has existed since 2001, Colley said. It was updated in 2005. Plans once included a multi-screen theater development and a hotel with space for convention meetings. But those subsequently were developed father west in Columbus' Polaris Centers of Commerce area.

Then the economic downturn of 2008 brought progress on the site to a standstill, Collinsworth said.

The city, however, is often the first contact for businesses that hope to locate in the area, and city leaders said they have heard demands from investors -- demands they believe the Altair property can meet.

"We have interest in the retail side, we have interest in the office side and we have interest in the hotel side," Collinsworth said, referring to Altair as the "last bit of key, prime ground in the city."

The city likely will directly market much of the site, looking to sell off smaller parcels to developers, but may bring on brokers to help sell harder-to-market parcels with less visibility, Colley said.

In addition to marketing the site to potential developers, the key role of the city will be to lay down infrastructure on the site to support the business development, Westerville Economic Development Administrator Jason Bechtold said.

"We'll be building the public piece of this, and they'll be building the private piece of this," Bechtold said. "We're going to do what the city does well: Build the infrastructure to allow for private development."

The city will stick with the development plan on file for the parcel, Colley said. That calls for a mix of uses on the site, including a hotel with conference space, office and retail.

In the mid-1990s, the city invested $30 million to add roadways and infrastructure to the northwest quadrant of the city, known as Westar, to allow for commercial development on 941 acres.

Since then, tax revenue from successful development on that land has repaid that investment, Collinsworth said, and city leaders would like to see that success spread to the vacant plot of land near the heart of the development.

The developed parts of Westar have brought 7,000 jobs to Westerville. The city staff estimates that the development of ALTAIR could bring an additional 3,000, Bechtold said.

The approach of buying a large parcel of land to encourage commercial development is not new for the city, Collinsworth said.

It's the same approach the city used in the 1990s to develop the Westerville Commerce Center and the Hoff Woods Business Park along McCorkle Boulevard, Collinsworth said.

"We view this as a natural extension of what we've already done," he said.

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