Bottoms Up: Franklinton’s Growing Pains

By
From the August 2014 edition

For decades, Franklinton, with its crime and decay, was a place to avoid. But in the last few years, the neighborhood across the Scioto from Downtown has become, if not a destination, then a place less vilified. The city demolished vacant buildings. Artists moved in. A few businesses opened. The city has a vision for a neighborhood populated by creative young professionals. The powers revitalizing the neighborhood say it can be done without pushing out longtime residents. But history, in Columbus and elsewhere, says otherwise.

The sun begins to set behind a row of deteriorating houses west of Downtown Columbus, rusted chain link fences containing their small yards. It’s easy to pick out the ones that are abandoned—overgrown grass in the lawn, weeds climbing up the walls, graffiti-sprayed boards over the broken windows—and they pop up so often they’re even harder to miss. This is Franklinton, a 217-year-old neighborhood of about 15,000 people, more commonly known as the Bottoms, both a nod to its geographical location below the Scioto River’s water level and its reputation as an impoverished and crime-stricken area that’s been historically disinvested.

It’s a cool Friday night for June, and Officer Nate Schwind cruises down West Broad Street as his overnight shift begins. The six-lane thoroughfare, lined with iron-clad convenience store windows, broken bus stop shelters and shuttered businesses, slices through the neighborhood, a slowly fading lifeline to Downtown.

He spots a prostitute, one of nearly a dozen he’ll encounter that night, lingering outside a corner convenience store chewing some candy she bought inside. He stops to greet her, calling out her first name. She smiles as they chat, the tanned skin around her misty eyes crinkling. “You can tell she was really pretty once,” he says, sadly. That was before the drugs, before she started selling her body to feed her addiction. “If you want any kind of narcotic in Columbus, come to Franklinton,” he says. He can point out the drug houses as if they’re lit up by neon signs.

When he joined the Columbus Division of Police eight years ago, Schwind completed his field training in Franklinton. Back then, “things were off the hook,” he says. Nightly stabbings and shootings, violent robberies and rampant gang activity were a surefire way to initiate a green officer. “It was a great place to learn,” he says. He still works the same precinct.

Over the last several years, he’s seen an improvement in crime. “East of (Route) 315 is getting better,” he says. The turning point? When Riverside-Bradley, a public housing complex built in the 1940s, was torn down in 2011. “I couldn’t tell you how many people have died in that building,” Schwind says. “Homicide, suicide, drug overdose. It was that bad.”

Now, things are pretty quiet in East Franklinton, at least comparatively. “West [Franklinton] is getting a little better,” he adds. “There aren’t as many violent crimes.” Less crime in one area often means heightened crime in another. “Things are moving up into the Hilltop,” the neighborhood just west of Franklinton, he says. “It’s a shuffle move. They’ve got to go somewhere, so [the Hilltop] is the next crime hotspot.”

If you ask lifetime residents of the Bottoms, they’ll tell you there’s never been a distinction between East and West Franklinton. To them, it’s always been the Bottoms. Though they were used in city documents dating back to the 1960s, the terms East and West Franklinton never gained traction. That changed three years ago. Mayor Michael B. Coleman announced plans to reinvest in the neighborhood, starting with the 200-acre chunk nearest Downtown. Three years later, warehouses that had been abandoned by departed manufacturers now house artists, performers, inventors, brewers, chefs, entrepreneurs—and more continue to arrive. Soon, a slew of proposed residential and commercial developments will welcome new residents, creators and businesses. This is East Franklinton and, if you haven’t yet heard, it’s Columbus’ up-and-coming neighborhood, the new arts district-—some say the next Short North.

It’s a story often told: A city’s public and private sectors partner to revitalize a dilapidated urban neighborhood, redeveloping real estate and improving amenities to attract a new class of residents, visitors and businesses—and pushing out existing parties along the way. But the powers behind Franklinton’s revitalization say gentrification is avoidable with proper planning and the right strategy. Franklinton’s fresh image—and newly branded East and West districts—will encourage the new while supporting current businesses and residents. It will be an integrated rebirth. New meets old, creative class meets working class. That’s the goal, but is it attainable?

Once Mayor Coleman concluded his State of the City speech outside COSI three years ago, the well-oiled wheels behind Franklinton’s planned redevelopment started to turn. For $260,000, the city hired urban planning firm Goody Clancy to create the East Franklinton Creative Community District Plan, a dense strategic outline that includes the formation of three mini-neighborhoods within East Franklinton, divided from West Franklinton by the Route 315 overpass: one for single-family houses, a second for apartments and condos and a third for arts and innovation studios. The plan estimates 3,600 to 4,800 new residents will move to East Franklinton over the next 20 years.

“East Franklinton isn’t very residential to begin with,” says Vince Papsidero, interim deputy director for the division of jobs and planning for the city. “That’s one of the goals of the plan, to focus investment in the eastern half and protect the rest of the neighborhood so we don’t see gentrification.”

Gentrification is a term that’s tossed around freely in conversations about redevelopment in urban areas like Franklinton. It defines a renewal process that, in theory, boosts the local economy, lowers crime and increases property values. It’s hard to argue against the benefits. But it also tends to push out existing, and often poor, residents along the way. (The median household income in Franklinton is $15,000, and the average house sells for about $40,000.)

Fight as you might to avoid gentrification, it’s often a futile effort, says urban planning scholar Rainer vom Hofe. “It’s part of a natural process that occurs when you’re dealing with the redevelopment and revitalization of neighborhoods,” says vom Hofe, a professor in the University of Cincinnati’s School of Planning. “Of course, it would be ideal if the same people would be able to stay, but that’s usually not the case. You have people with higher incomes moving in. Developers work for profit. If there’s no market for high-end rentals, who will pay the rent? You need the right tenant.”

In East Franklinton, that targeted tenant is defined as belonging to the creative class—typically characterized as young, hip, diverse and progressive and working in a creative field like art, design or technology.

“As great as the Short North is, the real-estate prices are becoming significant,” Coleman says. “We have a high number of creative people in our community, and I wanted to make sure they had a place to nurture and grow inexpensively.”

Likely the first development to come to fruition in East Franklinton will be on the former site of Riverside-Bradley, on West Rich Street not far from the Main Street bridge. The Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority still owns the land where developers plan to break ground on a high-rise, mixed-use residential building next spring. Across the street, Urban Smart Growth, owner of warehouse-turned-art collective 400 West Rich, plans to convert more land to residential development.

Still, the mayor is determined the area remain affordable.

“I don’t want to see it develop into a place where a bunch of rich people live,” Coleman says. “I want it to be a place where the young, creative class of people live and develop ideas of the future in an electric and energetic environment.”

How can the city do that? By staying vigilant, Coleman says. And through “getting control of a lot of property … so we’re able to control the market. We’ll not do it with a big subsidy thing; we’ll be able to control what we own.” In other words, the city will work only with developers who are aligned in their mission to keep rent affordable. The city has already spent about $800,000 on land in the neighborhood, Papsidero says.

“When you keep things affordable, you maintain the diversity of the neighborhood, maintain the population of the neighborhood, maintain the people who are there,” Coleman says. “Our plan is to bring more people to Franklinton but not displace anybody who is already in Franklinton.”

Unlike West Franklinton, displacement of residents isn’t really an issue in industrial East Franklinton. There are fewer than 50 houses on the east side of the neighborhood, and most of the new developments are slated for vacant lots.

“That’s the beauty of it,” says Jim Sweeney, executive director of the Franklinton Development Association (FDA). “There’s nobody here. You can’t displace anyone from East Franklinton.” The nonprofit community development organization, headquartered in a renovated corner carryout—a former drug haven, Sweeney says—owns a plot of land at the corner of State and McDowell streets that is scheduled to be home to Warner Junction, a cluster of 18 two-bedroom townhouses. The association plans to apply for construction permits in November and break ground soon after.

Although market studies suggest rentals are a smarter investment, these townhouses will be for sale. “We want to help ensure that there will be a proper mix of ownership and rental properties in East Franklinton,” Sweeney says.

The FDA also owns the 65,000-square-foot former shoe factory next door to future Warner Junction; this was purchased a few years ago with a $900,000 grant from the city. Arts and technology incubator The Columbus Idea Foundry recently moved into the factory space and will rent from the association for the next 20 years, until it owns the building.

“So that means the money isn’t going to a bank,” says Alex Bandar, Columbus Idea Foundry founder and CEO. “It’s going to the FDA, and then it gets pushed back out into the neighborhood. It allows us to execute our mission while revitalizing the neighborhood.”

Most of the FDA’s work, however, focuses on developing quality, affordable housing in West Franklinton, where 99 percent of Franklinton residents live. Since the FDA became a Community Housing Development Organization through the federal Housing and Urban Development department in 2003, the FDA has renovated or built around 200 houses.

Sweeney’s not concerned rapid change in East Franklinton will negatively affect the west side of the neighborhood—at least not any time soon.

“We’re not afraid of the gentrification monster down here because we’re so far away from it,” he says. “Our median household income is so low and our property values are so low that we have quite a way to go before we’re looking at displacement of anybody.”

“We have much bigger problems facing us right now,” he adds.

A call comes through officer Schwind’s receiver. It’s a burglary in progress. When he arrives, three other officers have arrested three men and taken drugs from them. As it turns out, the men weren’t burglars. They were living—albeit illegally—and using marijuana and heroin in an abandoned house and, judging by the conditions inside, they weren’t the only ones. Broken glass in the first-floor windows has been replaced with boards, and a mattress blocks the back door. The windows upstairs have been boarded, too, presumably for privacy. Makeshift beds are scattered throughout, and two upstairs rooms are filled with personal belongings. A third overflows with trash. There’s no plumbing, but that doesn’t mean the bathroom hasn’t been used. The stench is so overwhelming, it’s hard to tell whether the putrid odor or a swarm of gnats forms the haze that hangs in the air.

Abandoned houses in West Franklinton are a dime a dozen. On many streets, you’ll find several boarded up and covered with graffiti. These vacant houses are a hotbed for drugs and human trafficking. If it were possible to buy them all, tear them down and start from scratch, the FDA would, says the FDA’s assistant director, Jeff Mohrman.

But it’s a complicated process, one that often involves taking the current owner to court. Still, it is a strategy the FDA employs whenever possible. The county’s Land Bank program, which demolishes blighted, vacant and tax-delinquent properties, has also freed up about 40 lots in Franklinton, some of which the FDA has purchased for development.

“Without removing the blight, no matter how much we do as far as providing new houses or renovating houses, that brings the neighborhood down so quickly, and not just in regard to surrounding home values,” Mohrman says. “Those houses are an opportune place for criminal activity. By removing them, we remove the opportunity.”

Decent, affordable housing is just one component that makes a neighborhood a good place to live. Residents also need access to education, jobs, parks, transportation and healthy food.

Matt Martin, a researcher for the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State, analyzes factors “that have been proven meaningful in having successful life outcomes” in Columbus neighborhoods, eyeing trends and creating what the institute calls “opportunity maps.”

“It’s not one thing that makes [a neighborhood] a bad or good place to grow up in,” Martin says. “There are a lot of different factors that play in.” Very low-opportunity areas are limited in most, if not all, of these categories, he says.

Franklinton, unsurprisingly, is a low-opportunity area.

“When you’re looking at a regional strategy for improving access to opportunity, a part of that is investing in places where there’s possibility to build structures that bring opportunity to these places,” he says. It takes patience, though.

“You can drop a lot of money in a place and see some major infrastructure improvements, but if you’re not in it for the long haul and prepared to help connect residents to that opportunity, you might see the market turn around, but what you’ll see is a drastic turnover of population,” Martin says. A long-term approach that engages residents helps ensure they don’t get left behind in the process.

Jen Gable sits on her porch in West Franklinton one humid weekday evening, sipping water flavored with a slice of lime from a sweating Mason jar. A handful of shirtless, barefoot toddlers play in the yard next door, joined intermittently by a few older kids who pass by on their bicycles. She waves to a neighbor across the street, greets another a few houses up. Gable knows her neighbors personally, something she couldn’t say when she was living in the Short North three years ago.

“It’s a real neighborhood,” says Gable, 28. “There are kids everywhere; people know each other.”

This inclusiveness is one of the reasons she and her boyfriend bought their 3-bedroom house on Cypress Avenue two years ago, after spending a year helping a friend renovate his house nearby. Another reason is it cost them only $25,000. They represent a new breed of residents who are buying and restoring houses in Franklinton, planting gardens in their yards and attending planning meetings, during which residents talk with city leaders about future investment in their neighborhood.

“We have a vested interest in the future of the neighborhood because we just got here, and we’re younger,” she says. West Franklinton is in the thick of its own development effort now, one that the city joined last fall. Columbus hired urban planning firm Edge Group to do essentially what Goody Clancy did in East Franklinton. About 60 people regularly attend planning meetings, Gable says.

They’re hosted at the Gladden Community House, a United Way-affiliated organization that has provided food and social services to Franklinton residents since it was founded in 1905.

“It’s an opportunity for residents to hear what’s going on and give their input,” says Gladden House CEO and president Joy Chivers. She says the residents’ No. 1 priority is safe and affordable housing for all. She thinks the city is listening.

“Especially when they get to West Franklinton,” she says. “Here, they are talking about diversification and residents with different levels of income.” Residents also want more green space, more gardens and more retail, including a grocery store.

Before Gable took a job as administrator for the Economic and Community Development Institute’s Food Fort business incubator a little more than a year ago, she was the office and leasing manager for 400 West Rich and had already joined in development conversations with the city and other stakeholders. She says the discussion between the city and residents about West Franklinton is promising and a different process than the one she witnessed in East Franklinton.

“They’ve done a much better job at engaging the community,” she says. “If there is a way to support development for all, and I don’t know if there is or not, I think that the people in these conversations would all love to find ways to make it happen.”

In East Franklinton, she says, “that’s gentrification, plain and simple. Eventually, it’s not going to be edgy or hip anymore. It’s just going to be an extension of Downtown.”

And so what if it is?

“It’s funny how much emphasis people place on naming what a place is versus describing it,” Sweeney says. “I don’t think it would be such a bad thing if East Franklinton enjoyed some of the success of the west side of Downtown. It looks pretty good on the west side of Downtown. Why not draw that farther west? Then West Franklinton is adjacent to Downtown, rather than just being adjacent to East Franklinton.”

It’s a transition, he says. “We should transition out from Downtown, just like the Short North did, just like German Village did.”

But he says the timing of Franklinton’s emergence as an up-and-coming neighborhood around the same time the Short North has transformed from an arts community into a high-end retail and restaurant community is largely coincidental.

“I won’t deny that we looked at that as an opportunity,” Sweeney says. “That Franklinton can be the new place for the young artists since the Short North isn’t anymore. We are aware, but we had nothing to do with it.”

What Franklinton is becoming, or what they plan for it to become, would be better compared to German Village. He compares Broad Street in Franklinton to High Street in German Village. It’s not the spine of the neighborhood; rather, it’s one of a few central streets with shopping, dining and housing.

Residents like Jen Gable don’t care much for the comparison—or any for that matter.

“We’re never going to be the Short North. We don’t care to be the Short North. We like being Franklinton,” Gable says. “Everybody is kind of tired of hearing about the new Short North. It’s not the new or the old anything. It’s Franklinton.”