Open Spaces Bring Light to Downtown Columbus (View on

The Scioto Mile park on the banks of the Scioto River in downtown Columbus, Ohio.
Photo by Andrew Spear for The New York Times

Tuesday May 31, 2016
By Keith Schneider The New York Times

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The capital city of Ohio adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending.

This year, those words on paper are fully coming to life in the southern blocks of the downtown area of Columbus, which is beckoning developers after decades of disinvestment.

“What happened here is that people chose the future,” Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said. “Our business leaders work closely with the public sector. We’ve taken some big steps that worked.”

In May, the Arshot Investment Corporation became the latest developer to embrace the formula. The company announced its plan for Millennial Tower, a 25-story, $90 million, 400,000-square foot mixed-use development that includes 180,000 square feet of office space, 40,000 square feet of retail space and 100 apartments.

Construction of the tower is scheduled to start early next year on the corner of Rich and Front Streets, a short walk from the nine-acre Columbus Commons, which was completed in 2011. The tower will also be one block from the city’s Scioto River shoreline promenade and park, which was completed last year.

Within a few blocks of the coming tower are five other buildings that are under construction or just opened, totaling $241 million in private investment to construct 275,000 square feet of office space, about 800 residential units and 80,000 square feet of retail space.

Preceding these changes was a challenging campaign for local lawmakers, who persuaded Columbus residents during the recession in 2009 to approve a city income tax increase to 2.5 percent, from 2 percent.

A food truck court in downtown Columbus, Ohio.
Andrew Spear for The New York Times

The vote was close, but the measure passed. The added revenue helped prevent layoffs of city employees and enabled Columbus to begin investing in its reconstruction plan. The city spent $63 million from 2011 to 2015 to build three new parks. The total cost was $105 million, and the balance was raised from city businesses, most of them affiliated with the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization founded in 2002 and directed by business and civic leaders.

In 2011, the development group scraped away the last vestiges of the 1.2-million-square-foot City Center. The nearly empty shopping mall, which opened in 1989 but struggled as interest in downtown shopping declined, was replaced by Columbus Commons, a $25 million expanse of grass, gardens and a shaded food court inspired by Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan.

The same year, the city rebuilt its eastern Scioto River shoreline, shrinking a five-lane riverfront boulevard to three lanes, and adding a promenade and restaurants. The renamed Scioto Mile cost $44 million.

Columbus then looked at the river itself, listless and muddy. In 2013, the city removed the Main Street Dam, which was completed in 1918 to control flooding but also doubled to 600 feet the distance between the river’s banks. With the dam out of the way, and with the help of dredges to remove sediments, the river narrowed to 300 feet, and the city gained 33 acres of once-submerged shoreline that opened as the $36 million Scioto Greenways park last year. The projects were principally financed by public funds.

Columbus’s strategy of seeding anticipated private real estate investment with taxpayer money defied the tactics of low taxes and public spending austerity that gripped Ohio’s state lawmakers through and since the recession. But city officials say their decisions have paid off, attracting developers into privately financing the replacement of cracked asphalt of parking lots with nearly $350 million in new and renovated market-rate buildings that house thousands of downtown residents, and helped generate 1,000 jobs.

The newest completed project in the southern part of downtown is 250 High Street, a $55 million, 12-story building on the southwest corner of Columbus Commons. It is 320,000 square feet, and has about 120 rental units and retail and office space. Opened in November, it has 140,000 square feet of office space and 10,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space. Over all, it is 99 percent leased.

The market response has been so strong that the builders — Robert White Jr., the president of the developer the Daimler Group, and Brett Kaufman, the chief executive of Kaufman Development — are preparing to construct a $60 million, mixed-use building of similar size on an empty parcel a block away.

“Our thought was that green space would change how people viewed this part of the city,” Mr. White said. “It did just that.”

Kickball leagues are popular at the Columbus Commons park in Columbus, Ohio.
Andrew Spear for The New York Times

The new project from Mr. White and Mr. Kaufman on Rich Street, called Two25 Commons, will be the final piece in a three-sided enclosure of buildings that surround the park. Other new structures are the Julian, a $21 million, seven-story apartment building with about 90 residential units, which opened last year; and Highpoint at Columbus Commons, a $51 million, 300-unit rental apartment project with ground-floor retail, which opened in 2013. Across High Street, a $30 million apartment project with about 250 units and 22,000 square feet of retail space is under construction.

“We knew we needed to build the amenities to attract privately financed development,” said Guy V. Worley, chief executive of the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation. “We had a lot of help from our major businesses here, which wrote seven- and eight-figure checks. At the same time, the public investment has been substantial.”

With 836,000 residents, Columbus is the largest city in Ohio and one of the largest in the Midwest by population. Unlike its two big sister cities, Cincinnati and Cleveland, which have lost residents, Columbus has grown over the last few decades.

Business executives and government leaders cite Columbus’s long history as the state capital, its central location and huge pool of graduating students from Ohio State University and other colleges as competitive advantages in sustaining the city’s economy.

Columbus also has an allegiance to big ideas without flamboyance. In 1991, for instance, city engineers discovered that cleaning up traces of chemicals in the dirt behind a maintenance facility would cost $2 million because of national hazardous waste rules. The city issued an influential report that asserted such urban cleanups caused enormous expense for little gain. The report started a national campaign to change standards and sharply reduce the cost of making urban industrial sites, called brownfields, safe for new construction. The new brownfield rules, enacted in the mid-1990s, adjusted national policy, and helped Columbus and other cities redevelop their waterfronts and business districts.

Similarly, in the late 1990s, Columbus recognized that a 75-acre industrial area and abandoned rail yard along the Scioto River, about a mile north of Columbus Commons, was a prime site for a new multiuse district. The city collaborated with Nationwide Realty Investors, an affiliate of Nationwide Mutual Insurance, which is based in the city. Together, at a cost of $750 million, they turned the area into the Arena District, now one of the city’s most active areas for work and residences. The Blue Jackets, the National Hockey League team, play there, as do the Clippers, an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians baseball team.

Since 2000, the number of people living in the city’s center has doubled, to 7,500, according to the mayor’s office. The $388 million in public infrastructure investment since 2011 in the Columbus Commons area and several more downtown projects has generated close to $2 billion in private investment in Columbus’s downtown, the office said, and brought 1,600 new jobs into 2.5 million square feet of fresh office space.

The next area for development, Mr. Ginther said, is Franklinton, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and across the river from downtown in the 200-acre floodplain along the Scioto’s western bank. Ignored for decades, Franklinton’s turn-of-the-20th-century homes and mid-20th century light-industrial buildings are separated by many empty parcels. “We’ve got the public investments in place to make that neighborhood really work,” he said.

A version of this article appears in print on June 1, 2016, on page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: Open Spaces Bring Light to Downtown Columbus. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Low-pressure sessions welcome, encourage ukulele-playing beginners in Franklinton


Sunday April 24, 2016 5:09 AM

By Ken Gordon The Columbus Dispatch

A strummed ukulele, it turns out, produces a sound and a smile.

During a recent gathering of Strings Attached in the Franklinton neighborhood, about 25 people played and sang the Culture Club hit “Karma Chameleon.”

The musicians grinned at one another, their toes tapping and shoulders swaying.

“I always say you’re not going to find a friendlier group than people sitting in a warehouse playing ukulele,” said Scott Lloyd DeWitt, founder and leader of the group, which meets at the 400 West Rich building.

“It’s light, and we’re full of laughs.”

>> See a video of the ukulele jam session

Fun definitely ranked among his primary goals when the effort started three years ago.

He has owned a ukulele since age 8.

Raised in Illinois, he also played piano, xylophone and saxophone before putting music aside to pursue a teaching career — becoming an assistant professor of English at Ohio State University.

“I started hearing a lot of people with the exact same story — that, when they were young, they had all these opportunities to play music but they had lost track of that as an adult,” said DeWitt, a 51-year-old resident of the Clintonville neighborhood.

In 2012, he consulted a friend, Mikey Thomas, about forming a ukulele group.

“The gimmick would be that you don’t need any skill whatsoever and you would walk out of there after the first night knowing how to play a song.”

Thomas — who owns Movement Activities, an aerial-movement studio at 400 West Rich — lets DeWitt use the industrial space.

Strings Attached was born in January 2013. Advertised solely on social media, the first session drew about 40 people.

The monthly get-together, which lasts an hour, features a relaxed, welcoming vibe. DeWitt requests a $5 donation, partly to defray the cost of about a dozen loaner ukuleles he has bought for those who don’t own one.

A ukulele is considered well-suited to beginners because it doesn’t cost too much — about $75 for a decent starter — and it feature four strings instead of the standard six on most guitars, making chords easier to learn.

The opening speech at the April session was designed to put everyone at ease.

“This is about as low-stakes or no-stakes as you can get,” DeWitt said. “You can do whatever you want while you’re here. If your goal is learning one or two chords tonight, and you play one or two chords, then you’re a rock star.”

He then explained the basics, from how to hold the instrument to how to finger the chords. A handout of the “Karma Chameleon” lyrics was marked to show when to strum a different chord.

“Scott is wonderful,” said Cynthia Selfe, who has stuck with Strings Attached from its inception.

“He knows how to teach,” the 65-year-old said, “and that’s a rare gift.”

Within 20 minutes, the group — which ranged widely in both age (from the 20s to the 70s) and musical experience — was slowly moving through the song.

Ashley Miller of Clintonville didn’t have much of a musical background when she started attending sessions about two years ago.

“In seventh grade, I played the viola very poorly for about six months,” said the 40-year-old, laughing.

“But the ukulele is a very accessible instrument. It’s easy to succeed. We all leave this room, after just being here for an hour, having played a song successfully, so there’s a low bar. That feels good, and it builds confidence.”

The meeting this month marked only the third or fourth for Emily Probasco, 24, of Franklinton.

As others strummed confidently, she played sporadically and focused intently on the proper finger placements.

“It’s really low-pressure, and it’s a fun environment,” she said. “It gives you room to work up to things — which is cool.”

Andrew Freeman played myriad instruments in high school, but the recent session represented his first attempt at the ukulele.

He seemed tentative initially, looking to others around him for help. By the end, though, the 41-year-old was playing confidently and swaying in his seat.

“I couldn’t wait to go,” said Freeman, of Merion Village. “I mean, 30 of us sitting in a circle, playing ukulele and singing Boy George (the Culture Club lead singer) — how awesome is that?”

The gatherings have helped spread the ukulele love to other venues, too.

Doug O’Neal, a regular attendee, sometimes takes the instrument to his job as choral arts director at Olentangy Liberty High School.

“In the morning, before school starts, the kids are all dragging,” he said. “I’ll pull out my ukulele and walk behind them playing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ and you see them burst into smiles.”


Rents rising as Franklinton homes refurbished


Monday May 2, 2016 6:44 AM
By Mark Ferenchik The Columbus Dispatch

John Loechler is spending $100,000 to fix up a house in Franklinton.

He paid just $6,800 for the land bank house in 2014.

And he will soon rent it for $1,275 a month to a young couple moving from the Near East Side.

That’s a rent figure that might surprise some. After all, Franklinton is a neighborhood still fighting poverty, blight and bad landlords. The city counts 454 vacant buildings in the neighborhood just west of Downtown.

But Loechler is banking on Franklinton’s future. The Westgate resident said he might even move himself into the Dakota Avenue house one day.

“It was super groovy,” he said. “It has great bones.”

The 116-year-old house has new wood floors, stainless steel appliances, new woodwork and an attic that was transformed into living space. Loechler is using the bricks from two dilapidated chimneys to make a backyard patio.

Rents in the $1,200 range are not the norm in Franklinton but are becoming more common as some landlords rehabilitate houses and market them to young professionals looking to move to center city neighborhoods.

There’s been a lot of attention focused on the eastern part of Franklinton, with the 400 West Rich arts complex and nearby bars, brewpubs and restaurants sprouting up nearby. Houses on streets such as West Park, Dakota and Martin avenues are being fixed up and commanding higher rents.

Patrick Kaufman, a community organizer and former co-director of Franklinton Gardens, and his wife bought their brick house eight years ago. He said he is concerned that Franklinton won’t remain affordable in certain areas as rents increase 10 to 15 percent in lower-end units and 20 to 25 percent in higher-end units.

Some of those rentals are former Home Again houses. That was former Mayor Michael B. Coleman’s six-year, $25 million program to breathe new life into decaying neighborhoods. Under the city’s restrictive covenants, the buyers had to live in the houses for five years.

Kaufman, who bought a Home Again house himself, said that some families that benefited from the program’s heavy subsidies have either sold their houses for a profit or are renting them at higher rates. There are 16 Home Again properties on Dakota, Martin and West Park avenues.

“Years ago, I thought this was a great model,” he said. Now, he said, he thinks it’s a model that can be easily manipulated.

Jonathan Meier, who has lived on Rich Street for eight years and co-owns Rain Brothers, a rain-barrel manufacturer, said, “We’ve witnessed the subsidized housing programs with Home Again … be turned into high-end rental property.”

Matt Egner, who owns more than 20 rental properties in Franklinton, is renting a West Park Avenue house for $1,350 a month. The brick house is a former Home Again property that the city fixed up a decade ago. “We’re definitely experiencing high rents,” he said.

Egner said his properties typically start at $550 a month for a small one-bedroom house, and he doesn’t typically raise rent for current tenants more than 3 to 5 percent a year. When someone moves out, he’ll make improvements and hike the rent a bit more.

“I don’t want to be someone jacking up rents 20 percent a year,” he said. Rents in central Ohio went up an average of 3.1 percent in 2015.

Kaufman said the raised rents will begin to gentrify Franklinton.

Another rental property owner, Pat Donley, said that while certain streets might become gentrified, there are plenty of affordable rentals. He said his properties rent for $400 to $800 a month. “I don’t see it happening very quickly.”

Jim Sweeney, executive director of the nonprofit Franklinton Development Association, said some landlords have sunk a lot of money into rehabs hoping for good returns on their investments. His group has developed 150 affordable housing units in the neighborhood.

“We would like to have housing for a variety of people living in the neighborhood,” he said, “ plenty of affordable low-income housing for a long time to come.”

Columbus Development Director Steve Schoeny said in an email that officials discuss how to keep properties attractive yet affordable.

“We want to attract new people to Franklinton, but we also need to make sure that those who have been working to make their neighborhood safe, attractive and a home for years can still afford to live there,” he wrote.


Feline art fundraiser to help control population of feral cats


Monday January 4, 2016 11:58 AM

By Kevin Joy The Columbus Dispatch

Angela Jann once worked as an art handler at the prestigious Sotheby’s auction house in New York — a role that put her in contact with fine artifacts from throughout the world.

Which explains her laughter when recalling the particulars of an estate sale featuring works by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

A less familiar assortment outshone the masterpieces.

“This millionaire woman collected dog paintings,” said Jann, the events coordinator at 400 West Rich, a complex and work space for artists in the Franklinton neighborhood.

“It was kitschy and absurd but really interesting to look at hundreds of dogs on the wall all at once. It became spectacular — an event.”

A free exhibit opening on Friday seeks to evoke the same fun and fuzzy ethos — albeit with felines as the focus.

Dubbed “The Amazing Cat Show,” it will include more than 100 contributions by central Ohio artists as well as several from artists in North Carolina, Virginia and Washington state.

The open-call display, compiled without a jury process, marks the first at the venue, Jann said.

Ranging from cartoonish to contemporary, the quirky spread is visual catnip.

“Most of the art world is so serious,” said East Side acrylic painter David Barnes, who offered two works (one depicts a banjo-playing cat dressed in women’s clothing) for the show.

“It’s kind of nice to do something that makes people laugh.”

Considering the range of cat content in pop culture, from online memes and “celebrities” such as Grumpy Cat to viral YouTube vignettes of four-legged mischief, the subject seemed ripe for wider visual exploration.

But the event is hardly the first.

The fourth annual Internet Cat Video Festival, staged by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, drew more than 11,000 attendees in August to an outdoor screening of six-second Vine videos and short films such as Henri 2, Paw de Deux.

“I think that the world, as a whole, is kind of smitten with cats,” said Tona Pearson, a Franklinton watercolorist who helped conceive “The Amazing Cat Show.”

“They’re beautiful, small, cuddly animals. That’s something anyone can buy into.”

Priced at $10 to $500, the works will yield proceeds to be split 50-50 between the creators and a charitable cause whose mission lends an air of urgency to the gathering: Colony Cats and Dogs, a Columbus nonprofit that operates a no-kill shelter on the Northwest Side.

A larger focus of the volunteer organization is its “trap-neuter-return” program, which rounds up feral cats, shuttles them to low-cost clinics for surgery and releases the animals back where they were found. (Otherwise, more cats — ones that will probably breed — move in on the territory.)

The cost of spaying and neutering such cats is about $50 apiece. Relying on grants and donations, the group sees about 150 cats a month — with each, while under anesthesia, also having a small portion of an ear “clipped” to indicate the sterilization.

The forthcoming art show, said Colony Cats executive director Mona McKinniss, should help highlight an issue often more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods such as Franklinton.

Feral cats fight. They spray urine on homes. And, of course, they reproduce.

“Once they’re ‘fixed,’ almost all of that bad behavior everyone complains about disappears. Then you sort of live in harmony,” McKinniss said. “They (feral cats) didn’t ask to be out there.

“This is the best and most humane way to take care of them.”

The cause is personal for Pearson, who organizes the monthly Franklinton Fridays art crawl at 400 West Rich and various nearby venues.

Upon moving from the North Side to Franklinton in April, the mother of three children (and three rescue dogs) was surprised to find seven feral cats taking refuge on her property.

“It was so astounding,” she said. “I felt like it was important to try to do something within my means to help.”

The animals’ emotional quotient resonates with Erin Scaia, a graphic designer who supplied two humorous portraits of “startled” cats for the show.

At first in a foul mood when sitting down to create her pieces, Scaia said, she found it “ impossible for me to feel bad” after putting pastels to canvas to humanize the lovable creatures’ distinct expressions.

“I would hope people feel better when they see it, too.”

Exhibit preview: “Art for Franklinton” gives you chance to buy Urban Scrawl murals


May 27, 2015
By Jesse Tigges Columbus Alive

The auction for murals created during Urban Scrawl always features incredible — and quite large — pieces, but this year’s event also comes with a worthwhile charitable component.
Proceeds from this year’s sales will benefit the new George Bellows Grant Program, which assists artistically inclined Franklinton residents and enhances art and culture in the neighborhood.
Those looking to have their choice of pieces and not have to go through the auction process can purchase VIP tickets ($75) that includes early access, buy-it-now options, two free drinks, hors d’oeuvres and giveaways.

Strongwater Food & Spirits
General admission: 7:30-11 p.m. Saturday, May 9
401 W. Rich St., Franklinton

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