Indie Label: Changes in the Short North

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

As restaurateur Elizabeth Lessner tells it, there was no single reason for her decision to relocate Betty's Fine Food and Spirits after 13 years in the Short North. The building at 680 N. High St. was inefficient, with summer utility bills as high as $6,000, and Lessner felt a cross-town move might provide a much-needed refresh. (The restaurant is to re-open at 340 E. Gay St.)

There was also the matter of rent.

"My business is very strong-the sales are good," Lessner says. "It's just that the cost to do business has gotten to be really high." The rent has almost doubled since 2001, when Betty's opened. "When I moved in, I believe the going rate was less than $20 a square foot," she says. "Now, I see it in excess of $35 to $40 a square foot." Even though Betty's is only 1,000 square feet and has more than $1 million in sales each year, Lessner felt pinched. "We can't pay our bills," she says. "It's crazy."

For Lessner and other Short North business owners, escalating rent has come hand in glove with an evolution in the area's spirit. As more regional and national chains make their way in-Anthropologie, Melt Bar & Grilled, Bakersfield and Pies & Pints Craft Pizza and Beer are recent or forthcoming-some feel its edgy, iconoclastic character is being supplanted by something more refined. "It's definitely gotten shiny," Lessner says. "I love the neighborhood, but it's certainly not the neighborhood that I moved into."

Thirty years ago, Sandy Wood and other like-minded developers made the Short North affordable for idiosyncratic one-offs-because that is who they wanted there. "Sandy Wood is my hero," gallerist Duff Lindsay says. "He lured me over here from Upper Arlington, and he frankly made me an offer I couldn't refuse."

But, like Lessner, restaurateur Jeff Benson, whose Burgundy Room was in the Short North from 2003 to 2011, sees a change. "Probably at this point, unfortunately, it's just been priced out of our realm," he says. "Now anyone who's a smaller independent is just not going to be able to afford the rents there."

New developments are part of the change. Lindsay points to the redeveloped Fireproof Records building, which will include a Chipotle. "The people that are building that development can't afford to rent that space on the corner to a mom-and-pop burrito joint," Lindsay says. "Only a business like [Chipotle] is going to be able to afford that brand-new, deluxe layout and High Street frontage and all that."

Benson is concerned the celebrated diversity of the Short North is diminished when it is mostly multi-unit operators-not independents-that can afford to move into the neighborhood. He expects increasing numbers of already established businesses to enter the marketplace. "To me, it's just maybe not as exciting," he says. He adds that "the bigger guys" are taking their cue from early pioneers in the Short North. " 'They're the ones that gambled and built the traffic there-now we'll come in,' " he says.

But Betsy Pandora of the Short North Alliance says chains are hardly a new phenomenon. "I think it's interesting that there's this perception that there are so many chains coming into the Short North and that this is a new thing," she comments, adding independents and chains have always coexisted, and that many of the latter-like Donatos, White Castle and Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams-are headquartered in Ohio.

Lessner reports she sees fewer regular customers and more tourists-though this is not necessarily a bad thing. Pandora says recognizable brands lure newbies into the Short North from Ohio State University, neighboring hotels and the convention center. "On a daily basis, you literally have this churn of thousands of people who know nothing about Columbus, who know nothing about the Short North and how special it is," she says. "When they're walking outside and they recognize a brand, it draws them into the neighborhood."

Although Lessner describes Betty's relocation as "painful," she remains philosophical. "Neighborhoods change," she says. "That's life."

Lindsay also cautions against false nostalgia. Many mourn fewer galleries in the area, but he connects this impression to the geographical expansion of what is thought of as "the Short North." "When the Short North was confined to a couple of blocks of High Street, it seemed like there were all of these galleries because it was a compressed little area," Lindsay says. "Now that it's spread out, it seems like there are fewer. Now, are there fewer? Yes, there probably are a few less."

Pandora is optimistic the Short North's homegrown appeal is undiminished. In 2013, she says, more businesses opened in the Short North than closed, "and over two-thirds of those businesses that we gained … were either locally headquartered or independently owned or Ohio-based businesses."

Pandora also suggests if the Short North's past is any indication, what lies ahead is full of promise. "If you look at the whole history of the district since it began its revitalization over the last 30-plus years, it's always been changing," she says. "I don't know that you'll find any one moment of consistency throughout the district's life."