Columbus, Ohio — the city that never sleeps? After five years and $300 million, the Ohio capital has the makings of a vibrant, 24/7 downtown neighborhood around its Arena District. The only thing missing is residents. But now — in the first major multifamily housing project downtown in decades — two apartment buildings with 252 units are under construction.

Anchored by the $150 million Nationwide Arena for the NHL Blue Jackets, the district has attracted more than a half dozen office buildings, an eight-screen movie theater, an indoor-outdoor performance venue and a restaurant row since it opened two years ago.

But the most exciting part of the project for urban planners are the two apartment buildings that are expected to open by mid-2004. Bob McLaughlin, director of the city's Downtown Development Office, says the Arena District will play a big part in the city's efforts to create more downtown housing. “Our goal is to create 10,000 new housing units over a decade,” he says. “The Arena District can help that with its own housing and with its entertainment district.” A total of 700 residential units are planned for the district, double the amount shown on the original master plan.

The master-planned project features a conventional street grid and wide sidewalks to encourage pedestrian traffic. The district — which formerly housed a collection of rundown parking lots, an inactive rail yard and a huge state penitentiary — is being developed by Columbus-based Nationwide Realty Investors, an affiliate of Nationwide, one of the world's largest financial and insurance organizations. Columbus-based Continental Communities Ltd. is building the apartment units.

Designed by Kansas City-based architect Heinlein Schrock Stearns, the Arena District's buildings feature a 19th century industrial look with dark brick, metal and limestone. So far, tenants have leased nearly 620,000 sq. ft. of office, retail, restaurant and entertainment space. Major office deals include a 50,000 sq. ft. lease signed by the Don M. Casto Organization, one of the city's longest-tenured real estate development firms, and a 92,000 sq. ft. lease signed by American Electric Power, whose world headquarters is at the edge of the Arena District.

Arena Crossing, a pedestrian alley, features a row of restaurants and bars, including Buca di Beppo, O'Shaughnessy's Public House, Gordon Biersch, Starbucks, the Black and Blue Bar, Chipotle and the Frog, Bear & Wild Boar Bar.

Brian J. Ellis, president and COO of Nationwide Realty, says there isn't a specific build-out date for the project. He says the development's land will fill up organically, as the market demands office, retail, restaurant, entertainment and residential space.

Nationwide Realty has spent $300 million on construction and land acquisition since planning for the project began five years ago — 60% of the half billion dollars it anticipates investing on the development. The City of Columbus chipped in $16 million within the district and $19 million in adjacent areas to improve roads, utilities and infrastructure for tax-generating projects.

“We have the best deal of any city in the country for this type of venue,” says Ken Ferell, planning and zoning manager for the Downtown Development Office. “All we've had to invest in is infrastructure. We're getting a $500 million, mixed-use entertainment district for the price of streets and sewer lines.”