Liberty Center developer Steiner & Associates has announced that COSTO will construct 356-unit development Liberty Flats on 22 acres west of Taylor Street and adjacent to Liberty Center. This is a view looking at the land from AC Hotel by Marriott Cincinnati at Liberty Center. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

‘Drastic changes’: New apartments will fill empty space once targeted for more Liberty Center retail

Recent news that the 356-unit development Liberty Flats is coming to 22 acres adjacent to Liberty Center is shifting emphasis in that area, at least for the time being, to residential over retail.

The 65-acre project just off Liberty Way in Liberty Twp. “always contemplated a mixed-use second phase including a retail component,” Steiner + Associates CEO Yaromir Steiner said in a March 13 letter to township trustees. However, “drastic changes” in the retail environment due to the impact of direct-to-consumer shopping and the growing importance of online fulfillment mean “the role of retail in these mixed-use environments must be reconsidered,” Steiner said.

Liberty Center has 238 units at its two apartments buildings — The Fillmore and The Grant — with occupancy at 95 percent, according to Alecia Fuller, property manager for Liberty Center Apartments.

Having Columbus developer CASTO, which owns and manages more than 4,000 units in 13 apartment communities throughout Ohio, add even more residential use next door to Liberty Center is “critical to maintaining the vibrancy and vitality” of the project, Steiner said.

“We believe high-density housing is necessary for the long-term success of Liberty Center and the surrounding retail and commercial businesses,” he said. “It will result in significant increases in real estate valuation of the site, which will be captured by the existing Liberty Center TIF (tax increment financing district).”

The lean toward residential is nothing new. Steiner + Associates initially said that the site’s second phase on 35 acres to the west of Phase One could include 100,000 square feet of retail space, another department store, additional office space and more apartments with larger units. But Beau Arnason, executive vice president of asset performance, in 2016 said that tract of land would be developed as the market dictates and not in “one big chunk.”

In the past four years, Steiner has focused its efforts on developing a West Chester Twp. property across the street from Liberty Center. Plans to build a second and third hotel at Liberty Center and add 60 more apartments have not materialized.

Bayer Properties, which has handled property management and leasing for Liberty Center since December, said it couldn’t comment on the decision to initially pursue residential use for the neighboring site before any potential retail plans are lined up, but officials there said they are confident Liberty Flats will quickly bring added value to the overall project.

“Having a new multifamily community directly adjacent to Liberty Center will not only benefit our current tenants, but further strengthen our ability to attract new concepts to the center and enhance our position as a premier, regional mixed-use destination,” said John Taylor, Liberty Center’s general manager. “We are thrilled to welcome Liberty Flats and look forward to extending the resident experience beyond the walls of the complex by providing retail, restaurants and entertainment within walking distance.”

Liberty Twp. trustees on June 16 approved rezoning the acreage meant for the Liberty Flats project from business to residential use. Liberty Twp. Trustee President Christine Matacic said she has “always had reservations” about having so many apartments in such a concentrated area, as far back as 2016 when Steiner + Associates approached presented a plan to add hundreds of more apartments to the area just west of the site. However, she said she understands that adding residential use also means adding foot traffic aimed at helping local businesses.

One of her biggest concerns, the potential increase in vehicular traffic, was addressed by CASTO with the addition of entrance and exits not only along Liberty Way but also at Cincinnati Dayton Road.

While Liberty Flats will be “a very good product,” flooding the entire remaining area west of Liberty Center with apartments isn’t a desirable solution, Matacic said. Trustees said as much to officials with both Steiner and CASTO, asking them to strike a balance between residential and commercial, she said.

“There are a number of lots along Liberty Way and … we said, ‘Those are not going to be apartments.Those have to be some kind of business,’” Matacic said. “As a community, we have to balance our growth. Right now, we are very top heavy on residential. We need to see more commercial growth in our community because otherwise our resident are going to be faced with hefty tax bills and I cannot conscionably leave our residents with that burden.”

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