Gravity: Can Brett Kaufman's Franklinton Development Change the World?

“What makes us weird is what makes us great.”—Brett Kaufman

Eric Lyttle
Columbus Monthly
Developer Brett Kaufman, outside one of Gravity's office spaces

Eduardo Kobra's first visit to Columbus was brief—less than a week long. It didn't allow much time for exploration. When asked what he saw during his stay, Kobra struggles to remember. “The only place is a bridge that has, like, a deer,” he replies in his native Portuguese, recalling the bronze sculpture of a deer on the Rich Street Bridge overlooking the Scioto River.

It's safe to say Kobra left a much bigger impression on Columbus than Columbus left on Kobra. In less than a week, the internationally renowned muralist from Brazil created what quickly became the most visible, most vibrant and most talked-about piece of public art in the city. The five-story self-portrait is almost hidden amid a stylized kaleidoscope of bright triangles and squares that surround it, the geometric lines broken only by the heart the artist appears to be spray-painting on the sky—and his bearded, fedora-bedecked face smiling out over West Broad Street and into Franklinton.

The artist, whose many-stories-high murals have appeared in 17 countries on five continents, specializes in portraits of historic figures who have inspired peace, love and creativity: Nelson Mandela in Rome, Alfred Nobel in Sweden, Anne Frank in Amsterdam. His portrait of Michelangelo's David appears on the side of a mountain in Carrara, Italy—the very mountain that produced the marble from which Michelangelo carved his masterpiece. But here in Columbus, Kobra has produced a self-portrait—his first. And he did so, surprisingly, at the request of a real-estate developer.

“I usually don't accept when people tell me what to paint,” Kobra says with the help of a translator following the completion of his mural on Aug. 24. “Art, in painting—it's like you're giving your own life,” he says. “You have to find what has meaning to you and then give that message to the world.”

Finding what has meaning and giving it to the world was exactly what Brett Kaufman had in mind in 2015 and 2016 as he made the rounds trying to turn potential investors into believers. It would be, he told them, a project unlike any the city had ever seen; a project Kaufman had been working toward his entire life. He called it Gravity.

Sitting, as it does, at Franklinton's front door, Gravity has the potential to be Central Ohio's most transformative development since retail billionaire Les Wexner told his friend Jack Kessler, “I want to build a house in the country.” Though it's just a long par-3 from COSI, the new National Veterans Memorial and Museum and the redeveloped Scioto riverfront, it's a giant step for a neighborhood that, for more than a century, has been little more than a red-headed stepchild referred to as “The Bottoms.” But progress knows no boundaries, and city developers have long known that eventually someone was going to take a chance and go west, young man.

Kaufman is taking that chance, plunging the first tall stake in Franklinton's inviting ground with a development that will eventually encompass about 5 acres on either side of West Broad Street. It's a massive footprint in a neighborhood that, for decades, has been counting out time in baby steps. Gravity will be a large, mixed-used development with 50,000 square feet of office space, more than 200 apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail/restaurant space and a 564-space parking garage taking shape on the north side of Broad, with an even larger sister project to follow across the street—one that could rise 12 stories and fill an entire city block with offices, residential spaces, street-front dining and retail, another parking garage and maybe even a hotel stretching south all the way to West State Street by the time it's finished in 2020.

ThisReader's Digest version of the story is impressive enough. But that doesn't even begin to describe what Kaufman has in mind for Gravity.

This is something different, hinted at by the name itself—Gravity, an invisible force by which things are brought together. Further evidence of the project's uniqueness comes in the 56-page “Ethos Document” that defines Gravity's lofty ideals. “Our purpose,” it says, “[is] to elevate humanity by inspiring, connecting, and empowering individuals and communities.” And later in the document: “We celebrate and nurture the authentic self—sharing our unique gifts with the world.”

To help accomplish those consciousness-raising goals, Kaufman intends to activate the space with programming to keep both residents and office tenants—and in some cases the city at large—engaged. A 42-page “Life at Gravity” document is filled with ideas and possible partnerships for creative events. A full-time events staff is being hired to ensure the programming's viability and sustainability. Proposed events range from large, annual conferences and festivals to more intimate and more frequent lectures, speakers, workshops and pop-ups, nearly all geared toward health, creativity and philanthropy. Off-site excursions are included in the mix, both out-of-state (think Burning Man) and out-of-country (think the Egyptian pyramids).

Kaufman also plans to fill it with art. Lots and lots of art, including more than 14,000 square feet of murals, from Kobra's self-portrait to a 70-yard-wide rain-forest-looking mural on a wall of the parking garage at the back of the development done by Rather Severe, a pair of Columbus College of Art & Design graduates now living and gaining a following in Portland, Oregon.

Ninety percent of the art at Gravity will be created by local artists. “The amount of art that we're about to place in such a visible way—that doesn't exist in any real-estate development in the city,” Kaufman says.

Even the way Kaufman and the members of his hand-picked Gravity team talk about the project is different. To them, these are not just buildings with construction timetables and pro forma financial statements. They talk of Gravity as a living entity, something that, at a certain point, will be “set free” to blossom into a fully realized community. When asked by his team for direction on development strategies or challenges, Kaufman has been known to reply, “What would Gravity do?”

“Gravity is a concept more than a project,” Kaufman says. “An experiential concept.

“What makes us weird is what makes us great,” he says.

A cynic might roll his eyes at the notion of a building with an ethos, much less one that claims so boldly its intention to change the world. “We believe Gravity can be harnessed as a force for the development of unique communities; bringing like-minded people, programs and physical spaces together,” the ethos document says. “In that way, a collective consciousness forms that positively impacts the world at large.”

Kaufman doesn't suffer the cynics. “We shouldn't be ashamed to do great stuff, no matter where it comes from,” Kaufman says. “Boundaries make us small.”

Kaufman is a believer in the notion of “purposeful living,” and yoga, meditation, running and exercise are all crucial parts of his life. There's often a guitar within arm's reach, and he has a studio inside 400 West Rich, where he “throws paint on canvases,” he says. “I put on some music, change my clothes and cover up the walls and just go crazy. For me, it's really about finding creative outlets outside of work.”

He's grown up around smart, successful people. His stepfather, who was Kaufman's true father figure, is Gary Schottenstein, CEO of Schottenstein Real Estate Group, where Kaufman got his start in development before branching off to start his own company in 2010. His father-in-law is Michael Weiss, the former Express CEO.

But he's also created his own success. His projects include a pair of 12-story, mixed-use developments on either side of the Columbus Commons—80 on the Commons and 250 High. Kaufman also added 69 apartments and eight penthouse condominiums inside the LeVeque Tower. Not every venture took hold though, as last year, he pulled his plans for a 10-story project in Victorian Village when some residents opposed the project's height.

“Brett is, by nature, aspirational,” says friend and Gravity investor Christopher Celeste, co-owner of the nearby Columbus Idea Foundry and son of former Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste. “Brett could have stayed in the cushy fast lane that his family afforded him. But that's not Brett. Instead, he's constantly pushing himself, constantly challenging himself to get better, to do more.”

Kaufman loves to immerse himself in the company of big thinkers, whether it's through the pages of a book or flying around the globe to be inspired at events where “big ideas” are shared, like Summit Series in Utah, the Landmark forums, Strategic Coach, Abundance 360 or the Esalen Institute.

Locally, he's found inspiration in the organic, creative community that has taken hold in Franklinton, from Lance Robbins converting a shuttered factory into the co-working arts space of 400 West Rich to Alex Bandar's makerspace at the Idea Foundry to the folks like Adam Brouillette, Timothy Wolf Starr, “Downtown” Mike Brown and organizers of events like the Independents' Day festival, which ended its 10-year run on a high note in 2017.

“When I went to my first Independents' Day and met those guys and experienced what they were doing, it was energizing,” Kaufman says. “It was like walking into the art room for the first time when I was like 15. I was like, ‘Whoa. These are my people.'”

A project this big and this ambitious is bound to attract a lot of attention—especially in a neighborhood that has been downtrodden for a century and only recently started to pick itself back up by the bootstraps. Kaufman knew he had to prove himself before he could put a shovel in the ground.

In March 2016, Kaufman invited the neighborhood's stakeholders—artists, residents, business owners, government officials and potential investors—and laid his idea for a new kind of “enlightened” development. He even brought renderings of what the development might look like.

“There was an architect in San Francisco that I'd kind of fallen in love with,” Kaufman says. “I worked with him for about six months. He came up with these beautiful drawings of a round, Apple headquarters-looking structure. And the community immediately said, ‘You've closed out the neighborhood.' And they were right. I ate the cost of those drawings and it was worth it. I hired NBBJ and started all over.”

“That original idea was less than desirable,” says Jim Sweeney, who, as director of the Franklinton Development Association for 14 years, was instrumental in helping guide the neighborhood's rebirth. “We were all delighted when they took another swing at it.”

A.J. Montero, a partner at NBBJ Design, remembers walking the site that Kaufman was piecing together, tucked between May Avenue, Broad Street and the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, where Wasserstrom's National Furniture Warehouse was shuttered and neighboring Phillip's Original Coney Island owner Nick Manus was just waiting for offers. “The site had obviously seen better days,” Montero says. “It's real. It's really real. The question, then, is, do we want to alter that course, or do we want to tap into whatever that DNA there is? Brett wanted to figure out that secret sauce.”

The design NBBJ created is among the most striking in the city, looking almost like a bicycle wrench angled to Broad Street, creating lots of corners that tempt the eye to peek around, permitting views into an outdoor kitchen and lounge area or a yoga class taking place on the lawn or a movie showing on the giant parking garage wall.

“Part of what we were trying to accomplish was to have the architecture go away,” Montero says, “to break down the architecture so that it was approachable, allowing views of the public spaces inside that people on Broad Street could interact with. It's very unique. I wish we could take all the credit, but it was Brett and his team, pushing us, asking, ‘What if?'”

People have also been asking “what if” about Franklinton for a long time. Founded in 1797 by Lucas Sullivant, its location on the Scioto River floodplain proved its downfall. Every time Franklinton would start to take hold, it seemed a flood would come along and wash away the progress. The 1913 flood killed nearly 100 and left thousands homeless.

The construction of Rt. 315 in the 1960s did more damage, splitting Franklinton in half. Much of the population of Franklinton has since lived west of the highway, with the east side dedicated to manufacturing and warehouses. Franklinton's fate was once again sabotaged when, in 1983, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared Franklinton a floodplain, demanding stricter building codes and higher insurance rates.

Progress, essentially, was stymied until 2004, when the Franklinton Floodwall was completed. The 11-year project effectively abated the threat of flooding and removed the federally mandated building restrictions. Franklinton waited patiently for opportunity to knock. Growth came slowly, thanks in part to an economic recession that followed. But a character began to develop—a creative character—as long-closed warehouses were converted into inexpensive artist studios and co-working spaces like 400 West Rich, or makerspaces like the Idea Foundry.

“Franklinton has become a neighborhood of creators,” says Gravity director Mike Schott. “There are people creating physical things at places like the Idea Foundry, or people creating art in a variety of mediums at 400 Rich. People are creating companies, they're creating beer, they're creating nonprofits, they're creating social enterprises. And I think that makes it the perfect place to build a bigger canvas for people to come paint on. I think Franklinton was the perfect place at the perfect time.”

Apartments in the first phase of Gravity range from 416-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath units that rent from $835 a month to 1,174-square-foot, two-bed, two-bath units for $1,940 a month. Most (164 of the 234 apartments) rent for $1,430 or less. Gravity's second phase, on the south side of Broad Street, will potentially include a six-story co-living space, which would include private bedrooms with shared common areas aimed at the post-graduate or creative types who want a more collaborative and communal living environment, with rents starting around $500.

According to Zillow, median rental rates in Franklinton in July 2018 were $839 per month, most of which were for single-family rental homes. It should also be noted that Franklinton rental rates rose 12.8 percent year-over-year, more than any other Central Ohio community.

“Yes, we need affordable housing in Franklinton,” Sweeney says. “But not every project needs to address that. There's so much undeveloped vacant land in Franklinton. We have the opportunity to serve a lot of different needs here if we all work together—the residents, the developers, the elected officials and the banks. But I think Gravity fits well with the neighborhood it's in and fits well with where the community wants to go. I like that it's bold. I like that it's experimental. I like that there will be a variety of reasons to be there.”

Doug Ulman agrees. That's why the CEO of Pelotonia, which has raised $174 million for cancer research, was the first to reserve space at Gravity. The Pelotonia offices will occupy about 4,500 square feet on the ground floor, toward the back of the eastern side of the development near the courtyard. It's more than twice the space that Pelotonia currently occupies in the Arena District, where their lease expires in March.

What excites Ulman and his 18 Pelotonia employees about the new space is that it will allow more interaction and opportunity for the annual event's riders and volunteers. “We're super excited,” says Ulman. “I first heard about the vision for Gravity at least two years ago. From that point on, I was interested. They're about how to bring people to a space to create community and create impact. I see such a similarity to our mission. We want our headquarters to be the community's space, to come out and make it their own.”

“Partnerships externally are crucial for Gravity,” Kaufman says. “There are people and organizations out there that will make this better than we will alone. Pelotonia exemplifies that. They inspire. They raise the quality of life in our community. They make the world a better place.”

It's something Kaufman believes in completely—the power of community to make the world a better place by providing a space for people to come together through wellness, creativity, sustainability and philanthropy. It doesn't take Sir Isaac Newton to understand the power of Gravity. Kaufman says he's done the math. “If we own 1,000 units, and the national average is that 50 percent of those are going to turn over every year, that means I'm serving 1,500 people a year. And so over 10 years, that's 15,000 people. And that's not counting people who are driving by or coming here to meet a friend or engaging with the businesses that locate here. And then we layer in events throughout the year. And what if what I do here at Gravity catches on and other people want to do it, too?

“That's not nothing. That's a big impact,” he says. “I believe we can create this place under one roof where people can elevate each other and inspire one another, and then go out in the neighborhood, the city, the world. I believe we can raise the quality of life on earth through the expansion of consciousness.”