By Bob Fitrakis and Sally MacPhail
This week may mark a watershed in the history of The Ohio State University as the University Area Commission, Campus Partners for Community Urban Redevelopment, the Columbus Development Commission and the Columbus Historic Resources Commission are all slated to take action on sweeping recommended changes for the neighborhoods around the nation’s largest campus. If endorsed by those agencies, the proposal will be sent on to City Council and the OSU board of trustees for action later this summer.
On the table is the alternately bashed and ballyhooed University Neighborhoods Revitalization Plan, a 250-page document drafted by Campus Partners that addresses just about every aspect of off-campus life from trash collection to land use, from drinking and drug abuse to community schools. Critics say that what’s really behind the revitalization plan is gentrification and homogenization of a unique multi-ethnic urban community; proponents feel that the plan will encourage reinvestment-financial and philosophical-by present and prospective businesses, residents, students, and the university itself.
An indication of the heated dialogue surrounding this plan is that a Final Draft of the Revitalization Concept was issued April 1, 1996; on June 7, following over 20 hours of meetings in the month of May alone by the University Area Commission, Campus Partners issued a “Final Final Draft” that contains extensive changes.
Among those changes is one that exemplifies the purpose of the plan: “Recommendation 6.1.3: The Ohio State University should demonstrate its commitment to increased homeownership programs by considering the purchase of a residence for the university President within the University District.” To relocate the president from Bexley to what critics and residents alike say has become a problem area would be a bold move, and one that drafters of the Campus Partners plan say would show the university’s commitment to the area.
“I made this recommendation…that we should specifically mention in the housing area [of the plan] that we immediately begin to work to find President [E. Gordon] Gee a house in the district; that if OSU is really committed to this project then their president would live in the area,” explained Marc Conte, a member of the Campus Partners board of trustees who was recently awarded a master’s in public policy and management. “I’ve lived in the area since 1988 when I came here as an undergrad, and I’ve even seen the decline in those eight years. And…I’ve seen the university not invest-or disinvest really-much less than they have been.”
From de-investment to reinvestment
This theme of re-investment in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus is one that echoes throughout the latest draft of the Campus Partners plan. Statistics compiled by Campus Partners, and recent events in the off-campus area, show alarming evidence that maintaining the status quo is not working:
*A drop from 50 percent to 11 percent homeownership in the last 40 years;
*2,050 units of federally subsidized Section 8 housing, with one neighborhood claiming the highest concentration of such assisted housing in the city and the highest per capita violent crime rate in the city;
*14.2 percent more violent crime than in Columbus as a whole, and 21.6 percent more property crime;
*Three incidents in recent months on 12th Avenue involving police using riot-control tactics against students;
*The unsolved abduction and murder of a freshman in 1994;
*A drop from 49 to 39 percent in the number of students who live on- or off-campus in the 43201 ZIP code;
*A 20-year legacy of ineffective code enforcement and slum landlord exploitation resulting in unsafe, unhealthy living conditions.
While the city is obligated to address municipal problems such as crime and trash pick-up, what’s pushing the university into the mix is feedback from its potential customers-parents and students who could choose to attend OSU but are not because the area where most of the students live is now considered unsafe and uninhabitable compared to accommodations offered at other institutions of higher learning. “That’s the bottom line to the university,” commented Steve Sterrett, community relations director for Campus Partners. Not only are “prospective students and their parents, especially high-ability students, deciding not to attend Ohio State due to a setting that is perceived as disintegrating and unsafe,” as the plan states, presently enrolled “students are leaving the area; the area is not attractive to students,” Sterrett commented.
In the beginning
Whether compelled by moral or financial reasons, Mayor Greg Lashutka and President Gee announced in September of 1994 a joint commitment to the revitalization of the area known as the University Neighborhoods, the portion of the university district roughly bound on the south by King Avenue, north by Northwood Avenue, west by the alley behind High Street, and east by the Conrail corridor. With an initial outlay of $600,000 from OSU and $187,000 from the city, a dozen or so university trustees, administrators and city officials were named to the Campus Partners board, joined in recent months by two at-large citizens and students Conte and Jennifer Nelson.
The group was led by staff President Barry Humphries, who oversaw the plan through its initial phases before departing last spring as the first “Final Draft” was released, a time that some observers saw as the turning point in the Campus Partners’ planning process. What before were some isolated voices of criticism and gloom became a chorus of organized opposition when the University Area Commission got hold of the April 1 draft.
Not only did the UAC launch into a rewrite of the plan with a zeal, but for the first time, some commissioners assert, their efforts were welcomed, not rebuffed. Both Howard Skubovius, UAC president, and Commissioner Tim Wagner asserted that the whole tenor of the Campus Partners’ planning process changed after Humphries’ March resignation. The non-profit redevelopment corporation became much more receptive to community input, “from going through the motions to moving toward true collaboration,” as Skubovius sees it.
“Until recently we never met face-to-face, we basically communicated in writing after public forum,” he added. Skubovius recalled that the University Area Commissioners originally offered to serve as unpaid consultants to Campus Partners, but “Humphries never took us up on it.”
Commissioner Tim Wagner credited Sterrett for setting the new tone. “Steve’s done a marvelous job of redirecting and facilitating dialogue.”
Others like real estate developer Richard Talbott are not as critical of Humphries. “We saw the final draft and we didn’t like certain things in it. There’s nothing like a deadline to stimulate discussion. Most work in any plan is done primarily at the end. We on the commission became much more aggressive after the final draft. We asked for and got face-to-face meetings.” “One thing people need to understand is, Campus Partners doesn’t replace the university district commission organizations, which area an umbrella organization of organizations. It certainly doesn’t replace the UAC as an advisory body to the Columbus city government; it’s really primarily a vehicle through which Ohio State can be involved constructively in the neighborhood,” Sterrett said.
Campus Partners may have always intended to be that way, but its original Final Draft didn’t always reflect that outlook. Paternalistic language found in the first Final Draft such as “The Concept is intended to receive community support leading to its ultimate adoption by the Columbus City Council and The Ohio State Board of Trustees as the [sic] major policy document relating to decisions for the University District” are now preceded by: “It is intended to provide a vision of what the District can be, and how the community can realize that vision through clear actions. It is not, however, a detailed prescription meant to solve every problem that besets the District.” Another change includes the softening of term “blighted properties”-those targeted for removal-now termed “problem properties.”
Gone, too, is the implication that Campus Partners will have the power of eminent domain, essentially the public taking of private property. In the introduction to the June 7 Final Final Draft is new language explaining that only the city has the right to exercise and grant the powers of eminent domain. Prior to his departure, Humphries was making a lot of noise about using the power of eminent domain to take out private businesses he felt were unfit for his campus master plan.
One commissioner called Humphries’ rhetoric “inexcusable.” As Talbott is quick to point out, “We’re the only legally recognized body by the city; we’re the recommending authority by statute in this area.”
The UAC’s attitude on eminent domain powers became clear after a May 15 meeting between the University Area Commission and Campus Partners that is spoken of in nearly reverent tones. Participants report that it started at six p.m. and ended somewhere around three in the morning. Call it “Lashutka’s revenge” on Gordon Gee over the loss of a sports arena, as some commissioners suggest; whatever the case, it’s clear that the city’s stance at the May 10 public hearing hosted by the UAC emboldened the commissioners. Steve McClary, representing the City Planning Department, let it be known in no uncertain terms that the city would not be doling out its eminent domain power without “consensus” between the UAC and Campus Partners.
“I think there’s a great deal of confusion on the question of eminent domain…First I think there’s probably a great number of people that think Campus Partners has the power of eminent domain. At this point, they do not. The mayor has made no decision to support provision of that power to Campus Partners…. All this is to say that I think many people are under the belief that if this plan is approved that the next day, the next week, there may be somebody coming an taking their property and that simply is not the case. A great many provisions of this plan will require endless public meetings….,” clarified McClary.
What the Lashutka administration did by its insistence on consensus was to further slow the out-of-control Campus Partners’ bulldozing of community groups. “You know, when it finally came down to it, despite all the talk of community input, it was us, the University Area Commission with the University Community Business Association (UCBA), who did virtually all the negotiation with Campus Partners…and that was after the final draft,” reflected Skubovius. “There was never the intention of using eminent domain to acquire vast lands, residential housing, and redevelop all that…. What Barry was trying to do up front…was to make sure people understood that he was serious,” Sterrett said in defense of his former boss.
Whatever the purpose of the rhetoric, there seems general consensus among critics that the first Final Draft approached “redevelopment” with a “giant bulldozer,” as Talbott put it. “We had a lot of that removed, and when we confronted Jim Heid [Campus Partners’ San Francisco-based consultant] about demolishing up to 50 percent of the buildings on High Street, he took offense and said it was more like 45 percent. In reality it would have been well over 50 percent of the floor space on High Street,” he reflected.
Talbott also emphasized that approving the plan in principle is altogether different than approving the equally important implementation. “We’ve never seen an implementation plan, we’d like to see it,” said Talbott. Commissioners privately worry that if the plan is not phased in properly, but instead prioritizes High Street property acquisition, demolition and redevelopment, then the east campus area would follow the “Atlantic City model.” As Talbott puts it, “A nice facade with everything rotting in back of it.”
The Implementation Plan is the as-yet confidential companion volume to the Revitalization Concept Document. This document will outline the stakeholders in the revitalization project, the projects and their priority, their costs and a timeline, according to Conte. Though exact numbers are not yet forthcoming, OSU is trying to ward off sticker shock by allocating up to $28 million on the various projects over the next five years; $25 million is expected to be invested in certain projects, such as the acquisition of real estate, Sterrett said; $2.5 million is set aside for operating expenses and the remaining half-million is for development of the Campus Collaborative, an academic partnership involving several colleges and academic units at OSU that are charged with creating a model teaching community in the neighborhoods.
“One of the things that is critical to the success of this plan is to look at the university as a model of education,” Sterrett explained, adding that “Ohio State is an enormous asset to Columbus; it draws visitors from around the world, it draws students from around the world, and the neighborhood should reflect the quality of the institution.”
While OSU has long been recognized for its quality extension and agriculture programs, one of the key parts to the success of the Campus Partners plan is “to help the university understand it is an urban institution and it needs to be looking at urban problems,” Sterrett went on to say. “If we’re going to play a role [in the community], where better to start than in our own backyard?”
This is the first in a two-part analysis of reaction to the Campus Partners plan for revitalization of the university neighborhoods.