Franklinton, Olde Towne East trying to make comebacks
By Mark Ferenchik The Columbus Dispatch
Franklinton is on the verge of a comeback. New developments, artists' studios and new residents all mark signs of progress.
But revitalizing a struggling neighborhood takes time and work. Olde Towne East, on the other side of Downtown, is living proof: It's been working on a comeback for decades.
Both neighborhoods — one just west of Downtown and one just east — show signs of promise: splashy new developments, renovated homes and newcomers moving in next to longtime residents. Their proximity to Downtown makes them attractive areas to redevelop.
But both also face challenges, including crime and blight, that make the turnaround difficult and long. And some worry whether, if the neighborhoods are successfully revitalized, current residents will be priced out of their homes.
"I don't look for this to be a yuppie neighborhood," longtime Franklinton resident and community leader Bruce Warner said. "I hope and pray that people who own homes here aren’t going to get shoved out."
Franklinton was the only neighborhood near Downtown that didn’t see a renaissance in the years following World War II, said Ed Lentz, executive director of the Columbus Landmarks Foundation.
That’s because no one could get flood insurance. Franklinton — often called The Bottoms — is a low-lying area sitting in the crescent of the Scioto River.
A $111 million floodwall built and dedicated in 2004 gave the neighborhood promise.
“Cities are cauldrons of change,” Lentz said. “The housing stock in west Franklinton is not as quaint as German Village, but is still good solid housing."
The Columbus Downtown Development Corporation is considering four Franklinton proposals from companies that want to be the master developer of the $500 million Scioto Peninsula project near COSI. The Downtown development group envisions 3.1 million square feet of residential, hotel, office and retail and restaurant space, a development that Steve Schoeny, Columbus’ development director, called “Arena District scale.”
Remember what the Arena District was like before 1997, when the NHL awarded the city a franchise? It was the Ohio Penitentiary site. Think about the changes since then.
The Scioto Peninsula project is expected to be finished in 10 years. An artist’s concept shows two 30-story towers in East Franklinton, but Schoeny said he doesn’t want to see two high-rises like that in 20 years.
“Don’t assume the conceptual plan is what it will be,” Schoeny said. He said east Franklinton is not going to be just like Downtown, and it’s not going to resemble what Franklinton looks like now. “It’s both,” he said. The objective in Franklinton overall is to keep it a mixed-income neighborhood.
So far, 650 residential units have been approved for east Franklinton, said Kevin Wheeler, the city’s planning administrator.
In early 2015, Nationwide Realty Investors bought 11 acres on the south side of West Broad Street, mostly vacant lots or empty buildings between South Gift Street and South May Avenue. The company has yet to decide how to to develop the land, said Brian Ellis, president and chief operating officer of Nationwide Realty.
“We see that as first and foremost a commercial opportunity, retail and office," he said. "It will still have a mix of residential. We’re looking now for users to drive the development.” Ellis said he expects the project to complement the large residential projects planned for Franklinton.
But to make Franklinton a vibrant neighborhood, much has to change beyond new buildings.
Trent Smith, executive director of the Franklinton Board of Trade, the neighborhood’s business association, complained to the city in May about the homeless camps in the neighborhood after a stabbing there.
He said many property owners don’t want to invest because people are still dumping trash in the alleys, along with other problems that plague the neighborhood, such as crime. Reducing some of these chronic issues will lead more longtime residents to care for their properties.
“The more people we have to take care of properties, the more people (will) jump onboard,” he said. “The private investment will come once we get that out of the picture.”
Longtime Franklinton businessman Greg Jones, who owns J&J Auto Upholstery on South Glenwood Avenue, said the city still needs to better deal with homeless people in the neighborhood. He said the number has been growing and panhandlers have become more aggressive.
Jones, 49, who lives in Orient in Pickaway County, expects the neighborhood to keep improving and rebuilding. But he's wary. The racetrack at the former Cooper Stadium ballpark off West Mound Street has failed to become reality. And Hollywood Casino Columbus near Westland Mall hasn't helped the entire West Side as was promised, Jones believes.
"A little skeptical, but hopeful," he said.
Franklinton investor Matt Egner sees promise in Franklinton.
"In 20 years, these remaining empty lots in the neighborhood will be single-family homes," Egner said. "As rents continue to rise Downtown, Franklinton could be the attractive ownership option at a fairly affordable range."
Egner owns 25 rental properties — three commercial properties and 22 homes, including three duplexes. Only one is outside Franklinton.
Because of growing demand, rents have soared 40 percent to 50 percent over the past 10 years. He also predicts that many rentals will become owner-occupied properties.
Despite the rising rents in Franklinton, he expects a wide range of housing options to remain. "My peers and I want to retain those options," he said.
Both Smith and Schoeny fear that Franklinton might become unaffordable for renters.
“People will have to start putting their money where their mouth is to keep Franklinton affordable,” Smith said.
Warner, who has lived in Franklinton for 50 years, said he expects the area east of Rt. 315 to change dramatically in the next 20 years. But he doesn’t expect the whole neighborhood to change quickly.
“It’s still a long haul. I’ll never see it,” said Warner, who is 78. The housing market will improve when incomes improve, he said. Then, “the market will build homes.”
Olde Towne East
The city annexed Olde Towne East in 1879, and it was once home to Columbus' business leaders and politicians. Its revitalization has been in the works for 30 years.
“It used to be that Olde Towne East was the default neighborhood because they didn’t have the budget for other neighborhoods,” said Al Waddell, a real-estate agent who has lived in the neighborhood for close to three decades. “Now it’s becoming a neighborhood of first choice. There’s a great sense of satisfaction.”
Waddell moved to Bryden Road in 1990, spending about $100,000 for his home. Today, a similar house goes for $400,000.
He looks at businesses that have transformed parts of the neighborhood, such as Yellow Brick Pizza and the Angry Baker, which anchor the intersection of South 18th and Oak streets. Waddell believes the neighborhood has truly turned the corner.
“I think the momentum is strong enough for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Olde Towne has the vibe, the diversity that people are drawn to.”
Waddell said predicting the future requires looking back at the past. Olde Towne has seen tremendous strides. The new stores and restaurants, bars and coffee shops are filling in the gaps like the Short North once had.
"The creative class is priced out of the Short North, priced out of German Village, and coming here," he said.
He believes affordable housing will remain 20 years from now. But the low-end housing is "rapidly disappearing" and will be gone.
So what do more recent arrivals to Olde Towne East see?
Gabriel Mastin, the leadership giving officer for the Columbus Museum of Art, has lived in Olde Towne East for about two years. He said he moved there because of the diversity and character of the neighborhood.
While speaking in front of the neighborhood's popular Yellow Brick Pizza at Oak and S. 18th streets, Mastin, 34, said that he still doesn't feel safe and comfortable walking in some parts of the neighborhood. "I feel like I'm an easy target," he said. He hopes that it becomes safer, and adds a grocery store or market.
Bernie Frankl moved back to Columbus after traveling abroad and living in Arizona. When he started looking for homes four years ago, he happened upon Olde Towne East while driving around and was impressed by the old homes.
Now the 40-year-old lives near Yellow Brick Pizza and works as a Columbus building inspector.
Now, as renovation work continues on existing homes, many of them brick and larger than in other neighborhoods, he worries that Olde Towne East will be unaffordable to many in 20 years.
“If everything’s market-driven, I think it will be similar to German Village and the Short North,” he said.
Dispatch reporter Jim Weiker contributed to this story.