Community: The Other Franklinton

Erica Thompson
Bruce Warner at his Franklinton home

Bruce Warner might be the person most knowledgeable about Franklinton. As the 77-year-old vice president of the Franklinton Historical Society, he can expound on everything from the motivations of Lucas Sullivant, who founded Franklinton in 1797, to street name changes. And he gets a kick out of talking about the toilets once manufactured at the present-day site of Strongwater Food & Spirits.

Businesses like Strongwater, Land-Grant Brewing Company, Rehab Tavern and the Columbus Idea Foundry are part of the revitalization of the east side of Franklinton, the former industrial area once inhabited by manufacturing companies like B&T Metals, which produced uranium rods for the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. Arts space 400 West Rich, along with events such as the Franklinton Fridays art crawl and festivals like Independents' Day and Urban Scrawl, have contributed to the area's reputation as an arts district.

Additionally, there are plans for new mixed-use residential projects, like the recently announced six-acre River & Rich development on the west side of the Scioto River that will boast eight buildings and 230 townhouse- and flat-style apartments, plus retail space and a parking garage. The project joins previously announced Scioto Peninsula development, including the new National Veterans Memorial & Museum, a new exhibit space at COSI and expanded residential, retail and office complexes.

This strategic transformation, made possible with public and private funding, has popularized the “East Franklinton” name, which has appeared on everything from city and area commission plans to Independents' Day promotional materials. “East Franklinton” and “momentum” are often uttered in the same sentence.

“I have a lot of problems with the division of Franklinton,” Warner said. “It'sFranklinton. Don't tell me it's East or West.”

But there is an artificial division of the Franklinton neighborhood, which is bounded by the Scioto River on the east, Norfolk Southern railroad tracks on the north, I-70 on the west and Greenlawn Avenue on the south. State Rte. 315, which replaced the residential Sandusky Street in the late 1950s, splits the neighborhood in half. “East Franklinton” is a historical distinction, but prior to the last several years, it wasn't used among residents, most of whom live west of the highway.

West Franklinton is currently wrestling with its identity. Generations of urban Appalachian families now share their neighborhood with young professionals. Vacant lots and abandoned or dilapidated houses litter the area, but so do clusters of newly remodeled homes. There are pockets of high-crime activity but also residents who haven't seen any crime firsthand. According to a 2014 American Community Survey (ACS) report, 55 percent of households in Franklinton have incomes below the poverty level. And based on 2010 Census information, the California-based geographic data firm Esri found that 24 percent of Franklinton residents are unemployed.

Franklinton also has a food-access issue. Though it's technically not a food desert, a bus trip to and from the Brewery District Kroger takes about an hour.

At the same time, there are arts activities, block parties, prosperous businesses, hardworking community organizations and a general feeling of neighborhood pride in West Franklinton, but all of that, residents say, goes unnoticed.

With separate city and community plans for the east and west, West Franklinton residents are feeling disconnected from the other side of 315, even as steps are taken to bridge the gap. Given its challenges, including already rising rents and home prices, West Franklinton could be described as both overlooked and looked upon too closely, which explains why residents are both excited and fearful as they consider the economic and cultural future of their historic neighborhood in the wake of continued redevelopment east of the highway.

Franklinton, named for Benjamin Franklin, was the original settlement in Central Ohio. It was founded on low-level land — hence its nickname, “the Bottoms” — prone to flooding from the Scioto River. The most devastating flood occurred in 1913, killing 93 people and leaving 20,000 homeless, according to theColumbus Dispatch. The 1959 flood was a bit milder, but some residents had had enough.

“They decided, ‘We're going to get away from this water,' and they left,'” said Warner, who moved into a house on Hayden Avenue in 1961. His wife, a Franklinton native, was committed to staying in her hometown.

“There were about 25,000 [people] then,” Warner said of Franklinton's population, which dwindled to about 8,700, according to the 2014 ACS report. Landlords bought homes and rented them out, but neglected to take care of the properties. Today, Franklinton remains largely a community of renters; according to ACS data, renter-occupied units make up 74 percent of the housing stock.

Until a floodwall was built in 2004, federal regulations prevented new structures from being built in Franklinton unless they were above the flood plain. Additionally, homeowners could only spend up to 50 percent of their property's total value on renovations.

“If the county says your house is worth $10,000, you could spend $5,000,” Warner said. “[That] would hardly do a roof, so things were not getting repaired. … And if you do go get something done and you had to get a loan, you had to buy flood insurance, so it was a vicious cycle.”

Those restrictions contributed to the blight and vacancies present in the neighborhood today. Of the estimated 4,530 housing units in Franklinton, an estimated 1,300 are vacant, as stated in the ACS report. Warner, who still lives in his Hayden Avenue home, recalls seeing one or two vacant lots on his block when he moved in. Now there are a dozen.

The floodwall was expected to be the catalyst for rejuvenation, bringing in developers who would buy, remodel and build new properties in the residential neighborhood. Instead developers utilized a “buy-and-hold” strategy, which did nothing to address the neglect.

“Investors would come in saying, ‘Well, this neighborhood's gonna flip, and when it does, I want to make sure I get paid off,'” said Jeff Mohrman, a West Franklinton resident since 2008 and managing director of Integrated Services for Behavioral Health, an organization working to improve well-being in Southeast and Central Ohio. “But they didn't want to do any of the work, so they didn't invest the money. It certainly slowed the redevelopment of the community.”

The Franklinton Development Association (FDA) picked up the slack by constructing or rehabbing 150 affordable homes to sell or rent to those with low or moderate incomes. Mohrman previously worked for the FDA with Jim Sweeney, who served as its executive director from 2002 to 2016.

Sweeney was instrumental in changing the reputation of the Franklinton neighborhood, especially the east, which was once synonymous with danger and despair due to the area's crime and abandoned buildings.

“I have described Franklinton as a hole in the collective cognitive map of Columbus,” Sweeney said. “Most people that I have known in the past in Columbus had no idea what was next to Downtown and behind COSI. … It used to be something to fear. Now it's something to explore,” he said.

Sweeney helped develop the East Franklinton Creative Community District Plan in 2012, which helped create the arts scene and spurred redevelopment in the area. But residents bristled at the “East Franklinton” label. “There was definitely a fight around it,” Mohrman said.

Residents have started to use “East Franklinton,” but the west side is just “Franklinton.” Others still use “the Bottoms” in both a positive and negative way — but not Warner.

“My wife would have divorced me,” he said.

Although Warner doesn't care for the “East Franklinton” distinction, he thinks the development on that side of 315 has been positive for the community. He commends Los Angeles-based developer Lance Robbins of Urban Smart Growth, which owns arts space 400 West Rich and the old B&T Metals building. Robbins hopes to turn the latter into residential units and live-work space.

“He came in there and he put his money where his mouth is,” Warner said. “He was the first person to step forward and do something. How can you fault somebody like that?”

While the arts district in East Franklinton has been well-received, some West Franklinton residents feel disconnected from the scene.

“I'm happy to see a lot of my friends succeeding and doing well in East Franklinton,” said Mona Gazala, owner of Second Sight, a community-based visual arts organization in West Franklinton, where Gazala also resides. “I'm hoping as we progress, artists who are over in East Franklinton are going to be more involved with the community of residents who've been there for a while.”

“She's been doing a fantastic job of engaging the immediate community within her section of the neighborhood,” 400 West Rich Director Chris Sherman said of Gazala.

400 West Rich, Sherman said, has sought to interact with Franklinton residents through 400 Market, where attendees can buy products from vendors, and by collaborating on fundraisers for the West Franklinton-based Gladden Community House.

“Beyond knocking on doors, it can be very difficult to engage the community,” Sherman said. “Our best success has been through children's activities, because we would advertise these things at the library and at Gladden and at the schools where families might be a little more engaged.”

It's been a similar process for businesses like Land-Grant, which is still contending with people hesitant to visit “the bottoms.”

“You get them down here … and people get excited about it pretty quickly,” said Land-Grant Co-owner and Creative Director Walt Keys. “But how do we extend that excitement from something like Independents' Day across 315?”

Bruce Warner is accustomed to seeing Franklinton's cherished institutions shift and shutter over the years. He remembers residents' outcries when Central High School closed in 1982 and later became the new site for COSI in 1999.

“When COSI first came in, they really tried to take over,” he said, recalling a failed proposal to change Washington Boulevard to COSI Curve and Belle Street to Fascination Way. “My wife went berserk. You didn't want to piss her off. … She wrote a letter and stood up in front of a bunch of mucky mucks and told them what she thought about it, and she shook so bad I don't know how she read that thing, but she did,” he said.

Warner himself was upset when the now-demolished Veterans Memorial closed. “It was an icon to me,” he said. “I used to take my girlfriend there [as a teenager].”

The replacement of Vets Memorial with a new National Veterans Memorial & Museum is part of the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation's $500 million, 21-acre Scioto Peninsula Development. Plans also call for new American Museum of Natural History-curated exhibit space at COSI, an undetermined civic building, residential buildings, offices, hotels, retail, a parking garage and a park.

Warner isn't concerned with the redevelopment as much as the fact that the Peninsula, historically part of Franklinton, is now overseen by the Columbus Downtown Commission.

“It's a very bitter pill for me to swallow,” he said.

Still, the city invited the Franklinton Area Commission, East Franklinton Review Board and other members of the Franklinton community to a March 7 meeting to discuss the new development.

“We get that this is as much if not more part of Franklinton from a neighborhood standpoint than it is Downtown,” said Steve Schoeny, development director for the city.

At the meeting, residents inquired about affordable housing.

“We haven't made a decision in terms of the degree to which we're going to be looking at mixed-income within this development,” Schoeny said. “It will be one of the factors in terms of how we evaluate proposals [from developers].”

In response to questions about the potential of the development to drive up rents and house prices in West Franklinton, Schoeny said, “The really short answer is I don't know. … We get that we've got to find a way to raise the neighborhood up but make sure the people who live there … still feel like it's home.”

West Franklinton resident Mona Gazala said she has started to see people leaving for financial reasons.

“I've already had one friend move out of the neighborhood specifically because she couldn't find anything that was within her price range,” Gazala said.

“I've seen home values go up substantially,” said Mohrman, who collaborates on affordable housing efforts with Jack Storey, Sweeney's successor at the FDA, now rebranded as Franklinton Urban Empowerment Lab (FUEL). “But at the same time, to just be anti-gentrification is terrible because the home quality was so terrible. … Just because rent was $500 or $600 [per month] didn't make it safe or sanitary.”

To keep homes safe and affordable “takes public-private partnerships, it takes investment from nonprofit, it takes leadership from government agencies, from community foundations … and it takes the skill of developers and contractors and property managers,” Mohrman said. “And I think, to some degree, there has been success, but there hasn't been enough.”

Some say gentrification has already occurred in East Franklinton after the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority razed the Riverside-Bradley, Sunshine Annex and Sunshine Terrace public housing complexes, which had issues with crime, neglect and poor management. The tenants were given Section 8 vouchers to use at an eligible location of their choice.

“Was it necessary? I don't know, that's for other people to decide,” Mohrman said. “It's what happened, and so now what do you do? I just would hate to see anything like that happen here [in a different way].”

“Residents are going to pay attention,” said Franklinton Board of Trade Executive Director Trent Smith, who is happy to see that community members are more vocal about affordable housing than they'd been in the past.

“The city is giving us the right kind of attention,” he continued. “This is all very new [and] this is all very exciting, but I would say it's a nervous excitement for most people.”

Some would say there are more immediate concerns.

“The 600-pound gorilla right now is Mount Carmel hospital,” Warner said.

Two years ago, Mount Carmel West, a staple of the Franklinton community for over 130 years, announced it will move its inpatient hospital to Grove City in 2018. A 24-hour emergency department, the College of Nursing and the Healthy Living Center will remain in Franklinton.

Smith said he's been working to calm fears among community members who feel the hospital is abandoning the neighborhood.

“This is going to give the College of Nursing a tremendous opportunity to expand,” Smith said. “If they build new buildings and new classrooms, well, they're gonna need janitors. They're gonna need maintenance [workers]. … Those are the types of jobs that people in this neighborhood could get.”

Smith is also looking forward to the continued impact of the Healthy Living Center, which puts on initiatives like healthy cooking classes that attract up to 100 people from the neighborhood.

Businesses left West Franklinton after the flood-plain regulations, but Smith says the trend is moving in the other direction. The Board of Trade now has about 150 members, most of which are businesses on the west side.

“We have actually seen great examples of businesses doing façade renovations [and] new businesses moving into this area,” he said, mentioning the success of Bottoms Up Coffee. Smith also said the Board of Trade encourages businesses to hire Franklinton residents, and there are efforts in the neighborhood to train them for such opportunities.

Community members say West Franklinton is full of success stories and people doing meaningful work, but they aren't always recognized. FUEL's Storey credits the Healthy Living Center and United Way's Fresh Foods Here program for addressing the food-access problem, and he said Andy Boy's Columbus Collegiate Academy is improving education for Franklinton students.

Other examples include the Gladden Community House, which has been providing services for Franklinton and near west side neighborhoods since 1905. And FUEL has partnered with other organizations to launch a parcel-mapping system to better manage vacant lots.

“There's been so much press around East Franklinton [and] what has been happening there in the arts community, which is very cool,” said Heather Mohrman, who moved to Franklinton in 2003. “[But] there have been so many unsung heroes that have fought really hard in [West] Franklinton to really serve people.”

Mohrman specifically cites Lower Lights Ministries — “They're just these silent giants that do really amazing work,” she said — and Youth for Christ. “Because these organizations have been around so long, they are dealing with third and fourth generations [of families],” she added.

It's a delicate balance, community members say, of highlighting positive aspects of West Franklinton, while pointing out what still needs to be done.

“I think there is some real service to making sure that we are clear about the boundaries of the west side so that when we are trying to address the problems, it doesn't get wrapped into the perception of how well things are going in the commercial, industrial side,” Storey said. “I can't tell you how many people have said, ‘Yeah, but Franklinton's fine. Franklinton's doing well. It's coming up.' And there's truth to that, certainly, but it's not coming as expeditiously to the west side.”

Though some residents say the perception of high crime in the area doesn't match their experiences, there are still problematic places. “It's not everywhere, but where it is, it is deep and gnarly,” Storey said, citing opioid use and prostitution. “I'm not going to downplay it. … Sullivant [Avenue] is tough.”

“It's gritty,” Warner said of West Franklinton, but he believes new people moving into the neighborhood will drive out crime. He doesn't share others' concerns about gentrification.

“They don't understand,” he said. “Everyone has to start some place, and I can understand people wanting to move in to get a nice home. … All that does is make a neighborhood better.”

And why wouldn't anyone want to follow in the footsteps of Lucas Sullivant, who settled in Franklinton for its ability to yield crops, and believed in the area so much he named one of its streets “Gift.”

“This is good land,” Warner said.