Franklinton on the Verge

  • Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman
  • Chris Sherman
  • Jim Sweeney
  • Bruce Warner
By
From the Franklinton on the Verge edition

The city's hottest, hippest place for artists, young families and entrepreneurs is sitting just west of the Scioto River, disguised as a blighted industrial district in the shadow of the Downtown skyline.

Artisans working in rehabbed manufacturing buildings can see it. A handful of developers, acres of land in hand, can see it. Even longtime residents, who braved decay and demise for years, can see it.

Can you?

If not, don't worry. It hasn't happened yet.

But pieces finally seem to be in place for Franklinton to become the city's next great redevelopment story, the last core neighborhood in Columbus to experience rebirth.

"I recognize potential when I see it," Mayor Michael Coleman said. "And I recognize, in this case, Franklinton has the potential to be the hottest area of the city in years to come. But it's going to need a little help."

Visions of Franklinton as a rehabbed bohemian live-work enclave have swirled for years, though ideas always struggled to materialize beyond schematics and isolated projects.

Now, though, the neighborhood is pulsing with momentum, as public and private investors build housing, repurpose warehouses, attract creative-class workers and residents and erase an image of danger and hopelessness that has plagued the area for decades.

Running Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 27 and 28, Urban Scrawl 5 will be as much a celebration of art and music as a coming out party for a neighborhood on the rise.

"There has been a perception that the world had given up on the neighborhood - and it's just not true," said Jim Sweeney, executive director of the Franklinton Development Association. "There have been people for years who believed that this place could come back to its past glory."

Their faith is paying off, Sweeney added.

"We're seeing people come to us and say, 'Gee, we'd like to be involved,'" said Bruce Warner, a Franklinton resident for 50 years and a development association board member. "It's baffling. When I sit down and I look at our financials, it's mind-boggling."

Pockets of growth and redevelopment have peppered the neighborhood since 2004, when a $134 million floodwall was completed around the neighborhood. Before then, federal and city restrictions made it nearly impossible to renovate or erect structures, because Franklinton lies in a floodplain.

After the final floodwall section went up, the city's Home Again program built or rehabbed 16 homes. The development association continued finishing numerous housing units, including 47 this year. Groups like Habitat for Humanity also funded new projects.

"There is a close-knit community of people who live here and who have hung on, just clawing their way, because this is where they want to live," Warner explained. "Now we've got some new folks coming in, which is great."

Other new projects - the type common in thriving urban neighborhoods - have emerged only recently.

Today, ground zero for revitalization lies near the corner of McDowell and West Rich streets in East Franklinton, a district that stretches west from COSI to State Route 315 and south from Scott Street to Dodge Park.

Two years ago, the intersection held empty lots, abandoned factories and three government-subsidized housing projects. Now it's an entirely new block.

The Riverside-Bradley housing project - the site of at least two killings since 2008 - was shuttered in June and is slated for demolition. Of the other two units that rose a block southwest, Sunshine Annex was razed in 2009, and Sunshine Terrace awaits the same fate.

Across the street, at 400 West Rich, studio space for artists and entrepreneurs has arisen from a former manufacturing complex. The new home of Urban Scrawl has attracted 13 renters, and project manager Chris Sherman plans to build space for 60.

Development company Urban Smart Growth, owner of 400 West Rich, also has started work on the nearby B&T Metals site, which will be transformed into apartments and condos, potentially with live-work space for artists. Several blocks away, the development association has bought a former factory with $900,000 from the City of Columbus.

"The positives are starting to outweigh the negatives," said Sherman, who owns a small warehouse a block from 400 West Rich. "In East Franklinton, there's an opportunity for a clean-slate type thing to happen."

If these projects seem too small or isolated to make much difference, consider this.

All four corners of McDowell and West Rich are owned by the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority, the City of Columbus or Urban Smart Growth. These groups have stacked hands with the development association to hash out ambitious plans for an affordable, mixed-use starting point.

Together the four organizations own 23.5 acres of land in Franklinton. The bulk of that is situated at the foot of the new Main Street bridge, about a mile from the Ohio Statehouse and across the river from Scioto Mile.

"The amenities available here are unmatched anywhere else in the city," Sweeney said.

The idea, Sweeney explained, is to incubate creative energy and allow it to ripple through the rest of the neighborhood. As it does, it will boost property values and instigate more private development, which has struggled for decades.

His vision is contagious, yet hard to see at first glance.

Franklinton's history has been one of pioneers and floods, trial and error, determination and disaster - and it remains a landscape of extremes.

Established businesses like Florentine, an Italian restaurant opened in 1945, share property lines with storefronts that have been shuttered and tagged with graffiti.

Sturdy new homes stand next to ones waterlogged by floods in 1913 and 1959. A few of the oldest still bear mold lines beneath the second-story baseboards.

Kids play in wide, grassy boulevards on streets like West Park Avenue. In other areas wracked by blight, owners peer cautiously from sagging, cluttered porches.

The Franklinton sections of Sullivant Avenue and West Broad Street are among the city's busiest prostitution strips, according to incident reports dating to February. Yet revitalization and other factors have led to a decrease in violent crime, police spokesman Sgt. Rich Weiner said.

"I can say that Franklinton is on the upswing," he said. "Within the last 10 years, calls for service have declined. I was there [on patrol] 10 years ago, and it had its fair share of violent crime. Through the years, it has decreased."

Rich Corns, who's lived 10 years in Franklinton, says he still sees good and bad.

"You have a lot of rowdy people down here who like to be stupid," he said. "But we've got a lot of hardworking people down here."

Corns has lived for three months on West Park Avenue with his wife and child. His in-laws live down the block.

"In a few years, I think this area is going to be booming and thriving again," he said from his front porch. "It's not going to look like it does now."

Those who live and work in the neighborhood feel that the changing perception is just as powerful as the plans for mixed-use projects and the new houses.

"Franklinton is for people who want to live, work and enjoy life," said Carol Stewart, who came to Franklinton in the 1960s and became one of its most dedicated activists. "I think there's a positive momentum going forth. A lot of the people who are 50 and younger feel positive and feel that Franklinton has a good future."

Sweeney also believes that changing public perception will change the neighborhood - that the cycle of action and education will be key to rebuilding Franklinton.

"Most of the successes we've had to date over here have less to do with physical pace than with the perception of hope and common vision," he said. "In a large part, perception becomes reality."