Whitehall Mayor Kim Maggard delivered the first blow, but many more will follow before the last of 42 apartment buildings are leveled at the abandoned Commons at Royal Landing, making way for a mixed-use development city leaders say will revitalize the East Broad Street corridor.
"This is certainly a significant step" toward the fruition of Norton Crossing, set to rise at the southwest corner of East Broad Street and South Hamilton Road, Development Director Zach Woodruff said.
Continental Real Estate is expected to invest at least $50 million in Norton Crossing, but the buildings that house 270 apartments on 17 acres once known as the Commons at Royal Landing first must be demolished.
That process began Dec. 15 -- almost exactly a year after the city first announced the project -- when Whitehall officials and others associated with the project met at the site to begin demolition.
Maggard personally climbed aboard a backhoe and swung its claw, crashing it into the wall of an abandoned apartment building.
"Knocking through the wall symbolizes renewal, hope and continuing progress for the Whitehall community," she said.
Norton Crossing is significant, she said, not only in the amount of money to be invested in the project, but that it is updating a major thoroughfare into a "multifaceted development" with restaurants, green space, housing and offices.
The energy surrounding the redevelopment promises "a community filled with vibrant thoughts, planning and action," Maggard said.
"The (apartment) complex has been empty since March, so we are excited and thrilled to begin work," Woodruff said.
The cost of the demolition -- estimated at almost $1.5 million -- is being funded with a grant from the Central Ohio Community Investment Corp. through the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, and is among the largest such grants for a demolition project awarded in the United States, Woodruff said.
Demolition is expected to be complete by the end of the first quarter next year, Woodruff said.
Groundbreaking for the start of construction is expected in the spring, he said.
Norton Crossing will be built on land Whitehall bought in April 2016 for $5 million from a New Jersey real-estate agent.
Also included in the project is a 1-acre parcel at 115 Shumaker Lane, the former site of an apartment building bought by the city for $25,000 and demolished in August 2015; and another 1-acre parcel owned by the Whitehall Community Improvement Corp.
The three parcels together total almost 20 acres, but Whitehall and Continental Real Estate also want to acquire a nearby retail strip center and a three-building apartment complex to add to Norton Crossing's footprint.
If the two additional parcels are added, the size of Norton Crossing will increase to almost 25 acres, said Frank Kass, founder and chairman of Continental Real Estate.
"We are striving to build a quality community and do not want to have substandard adjacencies at the entrance to Whitehall," Kass previously told ThisWeek Whitehall News.
Woodruff said the city continues to negotiate with the owner of the Broad and Hamilton Plaza.
"We want to reach an out-of-court settlement but will move forward with eminent domain if necessary, and feel we have a strong case for it," Woodruff said.
Whitehall City Council in October authorized the city to use eminent domain, if necessary, an action it would file in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.
Earlier this year, the city offered $920,000 to purchase the retail center from owner Eugene Fletcher, who rejected it.
The offer is based on an appraisal by the Robert Weiler Co., Woodruff said.
Fletcher said in October he considers the city's pending eminent-domain action "an abuse of power."
Fletcher would not identify the city's last offer but indicated "it was a little more" than the previous offer of $920,000.
The Shrimp Hut and Tacos Fogoncito are among the tenants at the strip center, a site through which city officials hope to construct a public road providing access to Norton Crossing from South Hamilton Road.
"City leaders and residents have been waiting for an opportunity like Norton Crossing ... signifies the continuation of development in Whitehall and more housing opportunities," Maggard said.