OSU, Columbus and the housing authority have teamed up to resuscitate the Near East Side. Can this powerful partnership make it a good neighborhood again?

Seventy-one years ago, Poindexter Village, the nation's first public housing complex, opened to great fanfare, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on hand to welcome residents.

Constructed in an area known as "The Blackberry Patch," named for the fruit that grew wild among the neighborhood's ramshackle homes, Poindexter Village was built to provide quality, affordable housing to local residents. Many were impoverished black people, former sharecroppers who had moved to Columbus from the South and lived in scrap wood homes that lacked central heat and plumbing.

For a time, the complex fulfilled its goal. But as the decades passed, the 414-unit development grew outdated and occupancy rates dropped. The Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), which owns Poindexter Village, undertook $16 million in upgrades in the mid-1990s to no avail. "In the '40s, a bedroom that was 6-by-6 was considered OK. Well, it's just not anymore," says CMHA President and CEO Charles Hillman.

As Poindexter Village's fortunes shifted, so did those of the Near East Side neighborhood that surrounds it. Home at the early part of the 20th century to German and Irish immigrants, by the mid-century the neighborhood--particularly around the King-Lincoln District--had become a hotspot of African-American culture, with theaters, eateries, barbershops, clothiers and mom-and-pop shops that catered to black residents.

"It used to be the whole area was a center for the African-American community," says Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman. "Almost everybody owned their home, almost everybody had a job. It was a center of commerce, culture, civics and community."

Change came in waves. Housing stock, built in the late 19th and early 20th century, aged. Then Interstate 71 sliced through the area, isolating it from Downtown and displacing residents. The crime rate grew. As discriminatory housing practices tapered off, black people who could afford to do so moved elsewhere.

Amid dwindling residential and commercial populations, the neighborhood lost much of its vitality. As the 2011 WOSU documentary, "Columbus Neighborhoods: King-Lincoln," put it, many people came to "associate the neighborhood with poverty, unemployment and empty buildings." But a new--and powerful--partnership aims to change that.

In November, the city of Columbus, CMHA and Ohio State University announced an ambitious revitalization plan to transform the area surrounding University Hospital East--bounded by Interstate 670 to the north, Woodland Avenue to the east, East Broad Street to the south and I-71 to the west. Poindexter Village and Taylor Avenue, home to the hospital and another Ohio State University Medical Center (OSUMC) property, are considered linchpins in the revamp.

While the at-times gritty neighborhood has its share of challenges, supporters say it also has qualities that would be the envy of other, more well-heeled areas: proximity to Downtown, freeways and parks; solidly constructed buildings of architectural interest; walkable streets; and a populace with a deeply rooted passion for the community.

The Players

This collaboration is the first for OSU, Columbus and CMHA, which have pledged to spend a total of $1.25 million over a five-year period to fund community outreach, project overhead and planning. Additionally, OSU committed to a $10 million, 10-year investment in the neighborhood.

OSU

With roughly 1,000 people working at University Hospital East, OSU is the neighborhood's largest employer. Its presence is expected to grow as it hires more workers, expands health services and devotes additional money to the neighborhood, which it entered with its 1999 purchase of the struggling Park Medical Center.

Today, University Hospital East provides care including emergency medicine, family medicine and orthopedics. OSUMC's sleep medicine program is based at the hospital, which also offers wound care and addiction services, says East's Executive Director Elizabeth Seely. "What I like to say is we blend the friendly atmosphere of a community hospital with the strengths of the OSU Medical Center," she says.

Last summer, OSUMC purchased the former Chalmers P. Wylie Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic at Taylor and Leonard avenues for $11.5 million and is converting it to an outpatient facility. When it opens in July, Ohio State CarePoint East will have 90 staff physicians in 14 specialties, says Seely. "We'll be meeting the health needs of the immediate community while expanding growing services like orthopedics," she says. Some OSUMC services will shift from the main campus to University Hospital East; others, such as outpatient orthopedics, will shift to CarePoint East, which will also include physicians' offices.

Beyond improving access to health care, OSU's $10 million pledge is intended to improve quality of life via targeted housing investments, down-payment assistance and a $1 million faith-based initiative in partnership with neighborhood clergy to promote healthy lifestyles through education, diet and exercise. "We wanted to make sure that we weren't just in the neighborhood, but that we were of it," says OSU President E. Gordon Gee.

"This university cannot be truly great unless it's in a great city. We cannot do what we did in the 1950s, '60s and '70s and become isolated in our splendor and suck the oxygen out of our communities and not give back, because we have paid a high price for that," Gee says.

Funds for OSU's planned investment will come courtesy of a tax deal related to the $1 billion OSUMC expansion (formerly known as ProjectOne) that's projected to create 6,000 permanent, full-time jobs at the medical center. Under the agreement with Columbus, the university will receive a rebate equal to 30 percent of city income taxes on new jobs generated by the expansion. The rebate will be capped at $35 million; the project is expected to generate $77 million in new income taxes for Columbus during that 15-year period.

OSU also will funnel a five-year, $3.8 million grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration to train 12 residents at CarePoint East and University Hospital East. That's good news for the community since residents usually stay and practice medicine in the communities in which they are trained, says Dr. Steven Gabbe, OSUMC's CEO and senior vice president for health sciences.

Columbus

Under Coleman's leadership, Columbus has long taken an interest in the Near East Side, funding projects either directly or indirectly through its now-defunct nonprofit development arm, Columbus Urban Growth Corp. One of the most visible efforts has been the historic Lincoln Theater, which had been shuttered for nearly 30 years before reopening in 2009 with $13.5 million in publicly and privately funded improvements.

Columbus has also supported neighborhood housing construction and rehabilitation through projects such as the Gateway Building, the Whitney condominiums, Taylor Homes and North of Broad developments. While strides have been made, the mayor wanted more. "Frankly, we needed more sustained assistance over a longer period of time," says Coleman.

So when Ohio State approached the city about ProjectOne, Coleman suggested that, in return for a tax break, the university direct resources to the neighborhood, where the city already was working with CMHA. "We have three major institutions here that want to do great things for this area. What if we all partnered up together and developed a long-term effort that transformed an area for generations?" says Coleman.

"Preparation and opportunity usually bring results," Coleman says. "Up until now, we've been preparing for something great through these projects. ... [With OSU's involvement], here was opportunity."

CMHA

While the 26-acre Poindexter Village takes up just 3 percent of the 800 acres targeted for revitalization, its impact on the Near East Side neighborhood is far more significant. "It is our goal to create an environment in the community that stimulates investment and growth," says Hillman. Right now, Poindexter Village does neither.

And so CMHA will shutter the nation's first public housing complex. Residents will be relocated starting in September through March 2013. Hillman says he hopes the 414 families residing in Poindexter Village will be able to remain in the neighborhood if they so choose.

The future of the Poindexter Village site remains up in the air. "We look forward to embarking upon developing another community that will service our families into the next decade," Hillman says. "We want to do what's best, whether that's demolition, a sale, partnering ... whatever it takes to make it work. We don't know that we have all of the ideas. We do believe, as an organization, that a mixed-income environment is the most stable environment, so we clearly are going to be lobbying for that, but beyond that, we are completely flexible."

Collaborative Effort

An advisory committee of residents, businesspeople, social service representatives, clergy and others is providing input and serving as a conduit between the three partners and the community. The group is chaired by attorney and former Columbus City Councilman Fred Ransier, a 34-year East Side resident. Ransier says the decision to convene the committee was "insightful," given that OSU, Columbus and CMHA will have the final say on the work and its direction. "Nobody needed the community's permission," he says.

"We knew we really couldn't just come in and sweep into the neighborhood and make changes unilaterally," says Coleman. "We thought, let's bring the community together because they certainly have a major stake in how this community looks."

Dawn Tyler Lee, assistant vice president for community relations at OSU, agrees. "We don't want to come into areas and decide what's going to be done without involving the people who live, work and sleep in the area," she says.

The collaboration between the partners and community marks "a historic moment," says neighborhood resident Charity Martin-Via, owner of Urban Spirit coffeehouse. "There's so much talent in the room. ... You have people who are experts in housing, economic development, artists; they're all at the table."

Columbus Development Director Boyce Safford says that involving the community may help assuage some residents' concerns about the redevelopment. "There's always going to be a sense of fear," he says. "Change brings on fear. Change brings on anxiety. Change brings on misguided expectations, and so we all have to sit together to answer those questions, manage those expectations along the way, and then we have to deal with the realities."

The Rev. Cynthia Burse of Bethany Presbyterian Church represents the Eastside Fellowship Ministries on the advisory committee. She says fellowship members are worried about housing, jobs "and what's going to happen to this area when this huge entity makes another footprint here." Burse aims to make sure those concerns are heard. "Growth involves change," she acknowledges, but "change should bring people along and not exclude or push people out."

A bottom-up, rather than top-down, approach is key, says Annie Ross-Womack, CEO of the Long Street Businessman's Association and chair of the Near East Area Commission's Zoning Committee. "We can listen, but there needs to be action to follow up," she says.

"Some of the people that are on these committees are very driven and they are ready to put plans into action," Ross-Womack says. "This is going to be the test to see how well this collaborative listens to the community, because no matter how beautiful or shiny things are that are put into a community, if nobody uses them, they will close."

Next Steps

Tyler Lee is assigned to the yet-unnamed redevelopment project full time. She works out of a modest university-owned house (gray, with red shutters) on Taylor Avenue, across a side street from University Hospital East. Amid boarded-up buildings and trash-strewn yards, Tyler Lee sees the potential for sandwich shops and renovated residences. Right now, about 11 percent of the planning area is vacant, according to the city's development department.

Though the last six months have been spent getting the project off the ground, the heavy lifting is about to get under way. Starting in June, the partners will use a neighborhood assessment to shape the Taylor Avenue revitalization plan and start the search for a master planner. In June 2012, funding needs will be identified; the goal is to tap a mix of local, state, federal and private resources. If all goes well, the master plan will be implemented in June 2014.

The partners' efforts don't occur in a vacuum, of course, and several unrelated developments may impact their plans. The Ohio Department of Transportation will soon begin untangling the I-70/71 split, which will add a cap at the Long Street Bridge. The cap is expected to help reconnect the neighborhood to Downtown, provide more public parkland and free up additional land for future commercial development. Those long-term positives may bring short-term traffic headaches, Ransier points out: "There is a fire station in the area, a hospital in the area, businesses that exist there and residences that are there."

Also looming on the landscape is the 51-year-old, 10-story Poindexter Tower, at Mount Vernon and Champion avenues. The former CMHA property was sold and turned into condominiums before being emptied of its residents in 2003; vandals have since stripped the crumbling structure. Franklin County is in the midst of foreclosing on the tower's 101 condos; once the paperwork is complete, Columbus will demolish the building.

And then there's the structurally sound, yet obsolete Pilgrim Elementary School, which has been closed for four years. The 89-year-old building, whose annual utility costs are $46,600 even without air conditioning, sits on a 3.2-acre site along Taylor Avenue. "It's a big hole right there in that area," acknowledges Carole Olshavsky, senior executive of capital improvements with Columbus City Schools. Despite its key location, the cost of updating and reopening the building may dissuade many potential users. In addition, state law restricts how the property may be disposed of, Olshavsky says.

A ‘Community Project'

Ultimately, to be successful, the partners' efforts must be complemented by both money and attention from other parties. Martin-Via says she hopes that having such big-name players involved will cause potential investors to take note. "Do we think Ohio State will save the Near East Side? No. Do we expect them to? No. It's not one of those things where you have a Block O with a cape on it," she says.

That perspective is just fine with Gee. "I'm very wary of it being labeled a ‘university project,' " he says. "That's not what it is, it's not what it's intended to be. It should be labeled a ‘community project' with the university as one of the vital partners."

Coleman, on the other hand, prefers the word "transformation" to "project." Why the semantics? "It won't be a project, it will be hundreds of projects," he says.

If all goes as planned, a neighborhood will be reborn. "You'll see the income of people in the area rise, because people will have better jobs," Coleman says. "You'll see the housing stock improve. You'll see a neighborhood that has fought back and come back a long way with a better quality of life. You'll see the difference walking down the street. ... I can tell you, we've already made progress."

Still, times have changed, and it's unlikely that the Near East Side will again be the African-American community center recalled by older residents and documented in history books, Safford says. "It will still have its cultural influences, because those transcend time. But I don't think it will be a place where every black folk in Columbus lives and works. That's not realistic-but it can become a good neighborhood."

Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the June 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.