Quaint "Old North Columbus" archways above High Street demarcate the southern and northern boundaries of an area that longtime residents see as wholly distinct from Ohio State. The area contains three historic districts - Northwood Park, Iuka Ravine and Indianola Forest - and identifiable regions like Glen Echo, Tuttle Park, Indianola Terrace and SoHud (or Washington Beach, as artists and musicians once playfully dubbed it). Sure, plenty of students call the area home when school is in session, but it's Old North, not campus. Or is it?
Sarah Nocar moved to the Old North neighborhood about six years ago when she was 17. She came for the cheap rent (between $300 and $400 per person with four renters in a house) and the proximity to Ohio State, but she stayed for reasons beyond her bank account: the turn-of-the-century charm; the peaceful vibe compared to busier, louder streets a few blocks south; the mix of students, young renters and longtime homeowners; the Red Roots Community Garden on Clinton Street; the likeminded artists and activists all around her.
"I just love this area," she says. "I love the people."
So when Nocar heard in December that a developer had come before the University Area Review Board with plans to build a 10-story, 250,000-square-foot apartment complex in her neighborhood, she was concerned.
"A lot of us have invested time, money and care into maintaining and creating a neighborhood that we feel at home in," said Nocar, who's worried rents could rise and "luxury developments will come in and profit off the soul of the neighborhood, and then slowly push out those neighbors in an exploitative way."
Plus, developer JSDI Celmark's plans for "The View on Pavey Square" called for demolishing an entire block of century-old buildings on High Street between West Northwood and West Oakland avenues that house offices, rentals, Cazuela's Grill and Japanese Oriental Restaurant. The proposed structure didn't fit the historic character of the neighborhood, either; renderings made it look like a dorm. And there were potential parking and traffic issues.
Nothing about it seemed right to Nocar, and her neighbors shared her concerns. She sensed the need to mobilize, so in January, Nocar created the Protect Old North group on Facebook. Within a few days, it had more than 500 members, some of whom met at Kafe Kerouac to strategize. They decided to rally as many people as possible to attend the January 21 meeting of the University Area Review Board, which reviews and votes on design plans within the University District.
Old North residents packed the UARB meeting and voiced their opposition to the development. It worked. Less than two weeks later, an attorney representing JSDI Celmark wrote a letter to the University Area Commission, the district's advisory group.
"They regret the controversy over this proposal," wrote attorney James Maniace. "It is apparent that preservation of the streetscape is critical to many stakeholders in the neighborhood… JSDI Celmark is preparing an updated development plan which will not involve demolition of ANY of the existing buildings along N. High St."
It was a victory for Protect Old North, but Nocar and others - including elected members of the University Area Commission - say the Pavey project is merely the match that lit the fire. And it's not just some old buildings at stake; the Pavey development is one of many proposals coming down the pike, and the size, scope and character of these projects will define this part of town for decades.
Quaint "Old North Columbus" archways above High Street demarcate the southern and northern boundaries of an area that longtime residents see as wholly distinct from Ohio State. The area contains three historic districts - Northwood Park, Iuka Ravine and Indianola Forest - and identifiable regions like Glen Echo, Tuttle Park, Indianola Terrace and SoHud (or Washington Beach, as artists and musicians once playfully dubbed it). Sure, plenty of students call the area home when school is in session, but it's Old North, not campus.
Or is it? Despite the arches, people still commonly refer to this part of town as North Campus. It's part of the University District. High Street businesses include "campus" in their names. High-density housing south of Lane Avenue rarely turns heads anymore, but as OSU extends its tentacles farther and farther north, is this quirky district destined for redevelopment a la South Campus Gateway? Is it truly Old North Columbus - a historic neighborhood with a diverse mix of residents? Or is it just North Campus - a student-centric annex of Ohio State?
The Old North neighborhood is born
Charles Pavey was born in 1906 on the family homestead at 2259 N. High St. His father, C.W. Pavey, sold horses, and the old man was good at it, sometimes selling 500 or more in a day. After graduating from North High School, Charles Pavey studied medicine; at 22, he was the youngest man to graduate from the Ohio State College of Medicine.
Dr. Pavey became the best-known obstetrician in Columbus, according to longtime Old North resident and historian Doreen Uhas Sauer, who's also president of the University Area Commission and sits on the University Area Review Board. Pavey practiced medicine for 57 years, 43 of them at Ohio State, delivering somewhere between 25,000 and 33,000 babies. Pavey's medical offices were next door to his High Street home, and he and his wife became neighborhood royalty, regularly hosting faculty gatherings and card parties.
In 1952, Pavey created the rental management company Eventide Inc. and began buying up nearby homes. He added brick walls, pathways and gardens to the High Street houses. His preservation was often called "private urban renewal."
In the late 1950s, new zoning classifications threatened the neighborhood, and in 1961 concerned residents formed the still-active University Community Association to combat the rampant development. Frustrated would-be developers went so far as to rig the car of one association founder with dynamite. Pavey and the association kept the area stable until others took up the fight in the ensuing decades.
Pavey lived in the High Street house in which he was born until his death in 2004 at the age of 97. Eventide still operates out of the Pavey buildings and owns houses all over the neighborhood, most of which are occupied by student renters. The "About Us" page on Eventide's website once described the company's history this way: "Dr. Pavey originally started buying property around his home and office in an effort to preserve the historic qualities of the neighborhood, which was being threatened by developers replacing many of the area's single-family home[s] with large apartment buildings and complexes built for student housing."
But that web bio is gone now, and Pavey's heirs seem to have abandoned his preservation philosophy. (Calls to Eventide weren't returned. "We don't have insight as to their business decision," attorney Maniace said.)
About a year ago, Eventide published a request for proposals to a number of developers, and JSDI Celmark was selected. Construction Market Data, which provides business information for the North American construction industry, lists the estimated value of The View on Pavey Square at $50 million.
Putting a plan into action
A couple of years ago, the city's development department worked with University District residents and organizations to develop a set of design and land-use guidelines that could be used for evaluating building projects. In January 2015, City Council approved the University District Plan, which the city and the review board use as a primary guiding document for the area. The plan's zoning requirements and height restrictions differentiate between areas south and north of Lane, but the plan was never written into the city code. It's not binding, not law.
Until the plan is codified, Protect Old North wants a moratorium on development in a 14-block area along High Street stretching from Lane to Arcadia avenues. About 400 people and 30 business owners have signed a letter to City Council asking for the moratorium. "The delay in enacting the University Plan as Code has created an exceptionally long period of ambiguity and conflict in standards between existing Zoning Code and the Plan," the letter states, "creating a perceived urgency among developers to implement large numbers of major construction projects prior to the anticipated enactment of the Plan."
The University Area Commission, which is made up of eight appointed and 12 elected commissioners, doesn't appear to be unified on the moratorium, or how much leeway developers should get, but in February the commission's planning committee agreed to bring a resolution requesting a moratorium to the next meeting on March 16.
"Some commissioners want to maintain hope and faith that the developers mean what they say, even though they're not obligated to follow through on anything," said commissioner Deb Supelak, an Old North resident since 1985. "Others look to the past where they were told one thing, and then, once developers got approval, went down a completely different path."
John Massimiani, owner of the Little Bar, just south of the Pavey block on High Street, sees JSDI Celmark's willingness to work with the area commission and the review board as something to celebrate rather than rally against. "If they wanted they could just build and knock everything out," Massimiani says. "But these guys are working with the UARB. That's what we need."
Kevin Wheeler, planning administrator with the city, said the decision to wait on codifying the plan was deliberate. "We needed to see how it worked in action," said Wheeler, who feels the plan has been successful so far. He wasn't surprised the Pavey project provoked public outcry. "The project was large scale, and it's an area of High Street that has not seen the kind of development that areas further south have," Wheeler said. "The plan does recognize a distinction between those two areas."
Wheeler said it's time to start incorporating the University Plan, and his department is working on an outline for the codification process, which includes more opportunities for public input. That process could take another year.
Protect Old North doesn't want to wait that long. The group plans to pack the City Council meeting on March 14 to discuss its request for a moratorium.
Where does campus end?
Ryan McKee, a third-year student in OSU's landscape architecture program who recently moved from Old North to the Short North, didn't like the idea of demolishing the Pavey buildings, but he sees a need for high-quality student housing close to campus. Where some see historic charm, McKee sees neglect.
"People don't take care of the street," he said. "They don't paint their houses and maintain their landscape."
And while Protect Old North members say they aren't against responsible development, McKee says that if people don't like apartments for student housing in their neighborhood, they shouldn't live so close to campus. "I don't think you should live next to a university and expect everything to stay exactly the same," he said.
Supelak takes issue with that characterization. "Campus moved to us. It's not that we moved to campus," she said. "There are people who live on those blocks who have been there 50 years. Or bought their house 25 years ago. At that time, no one considered that campus."
"It's a neighborhood," Supelak continued, "where people have children, raise families, retire, start their own cottage business. Those people have rights that are enjoyed by all other residents of Columbus. I think it's really unfair to say, 'Well, because you live in a two- to three-mile radius of this particular institution, you shouldn't have the right to dig a garden and expect the sunshine to fall on your backyard. Grandview Heights and Upper Arlington are just as close to OSU, and nobody says to them, 'You're near campus so you shouldn't have those rights.'"
Community activist Joe Motil, who lived on East Oakland Avenue in the '80s and '90s and remains involved with Tuttle Park, also wonders if the real-estate market can sustain these large-scale apartment projects. "There's already developers and large rental owners saying the area has become oversaturated with these type of buildings," said Motil, who works for construction company Elford Inc. "They don't understand why some developers are continuing to propose to build them."
Plus, Motil added, now that Ohio State requires freshmen and sophomores to live in dorms, why would demand for student housing increase?
In the end, the disagreement might come down to perception. "People are saying [the Pavey block] is like a gateway, letting you know you're leaving Ohio State and going to the Old North," McKee said. "But I would completely disagree. Everyone who lives around there is mostly college students. Every porch is full of kids drinking. It doesn't seem like this nice transitional area. It just seems like another part of campus."
If that's true, then where does campus truly end? "How much farther can you keep pushing people? Where is all this character of Columbus going to go?" Motil asked. "Are we going to have five-, six- and seven-story apartment buildings lining High Street all the way up to Worthington?"
This month, JSDI Celmark will likely come before the area commission and review board with revised plans for The View on Pavey Square. While one development may not seem like enough to change the character of an entire section of Columbus, the response to the Pavey project and others like it from City Council, zoning officials and the university area's various organizations - not to mention grassroots groups like Protect Old North - could determine whether those Old North Columbus arches delineate a distinct neighborhood or if they're just for show.