You might think gentrification in Columbus is a recent topic, but a 42-year old city program shows o
In 1978, a dramatic struggle was occurring between one neighborhood group and a development company owned by the nonprofit research company Battelle. In Harrison West, some neighbors fought displacement through an extended campaign that involved city council members, planning administrators, and even U.S. senators. The ordeal is emblematic of many struggles between residents groups and large institutions, and of resident resistance to neighborhood change in general.
The Battelle Memorial Institute owned hundreds of homes in the adjacent neighborhood in the 1970s.
According to a 1978 Dispatch article by Michael Curtin, Battelle owned 328 structures and 114 vacant lots, or about 60 percent of the land in the area bounded by King Avenue and Ohio State University, Neil Avenue, Third Avenue and the Olentangy River. “Besides the stately, Victorian-era homes, the area consists of a variety of small and large single-family and multifamily dwellings. Battelle acquired the properties during the 1960s because it believed the land might be needed for expansion of its research facilities.” In an effort to stabilize and improve the adjacent neighborhood, Battelle chose to create a property management company and invest in improving the housing stock—rather than sell everything off at once. This precipitated the creation of the Olentangy Management Company, a subsidiary of Battelle that managed and performed extensive renovations of properties in the area. Battelle no longer wanted to be in the property management business, so the company began investing in their housing stock to prepare them for sale, and entice buyers into what was a largely undesirable neighborhood. The goal, according to newspaper accounts, was to create a mixed-income community.
But to this date, diverse neighborhoods tend to exist more on the desks of city planners than along real city streets. Michael Curtin, Columbus Dispatch, 2/16/1978
Leaders worked to mitigate displacement by applying for a federal grant that would allow tenants to purchase their homes.
In an effort to help prevent displacement and gentrification, the City of Columbus applied for a $2 million Innovative Grant, in conjunction with Battelle Memorial Institute (BMI) and its property management company, Olentangy Management Corporation (OMC). The grant was administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Displacement was of such concern that a Cincinnati-based group expressed support for keeping people of Appalachian heritage in the Harrison West neighborhood. In May of 1978, the Urban Appalachian Council wrote a letter stating that “efforts to revitalize the community will have been futile if the housing stock is renovated in such a way as to displace the current residents…displacement is a common social problem for urban Appalachians.”
Three years prior, a Columbus Monthly article asked, “Will Victorian Village Make It?” Investors in the Neil Avenue area weren’t quite sure if the area would ever recover. The article mentions that new residents wouldn’t like to see low-income families displaced. Almost a half-century later, not too many remain. In fact, the neighborhood today is rather homogenous. In the five Census Block Groups that make up the Neil Avenue neighborhoods*, just 8% of people are African-American and median household income is $77,475. In 1980, the median household (adjusted for inflation) was $35,889 and median rent was $730.
This 1984 photograph shows three two-story frame houses on W. First Avenue. Source: Loaned by Doreen Uhas Sauer to Columbus Metropolitan Library.
— This dynamic chapter in Harrison West history is cataloged in the 1980 book, Back to the City: Issues in Neighborhood Renovation. The following excerpts describe some of the circumstances surrounding the revitalization period.
_______________________ “[The] Battelle Memorial Institute…was required by a court order to divest itself of the 328 houses it owns in a one hundred acre tract. The increased demand for houses by first-time homebuyers and the middle class, and the impending divestiture of so many housing units generated considerable community and government concern over the tremendous potential for change in the housing market. The OMC Revitalization Area In 1977, Battelle, through its subsidiary, the Olentangy Management Company (OMC), developed a revitalization plan which directed OMC to rehabilitate and sell its houses. The exterior of each house is carefully restored; only in a few cases are the interiors renovated. After restoration each house is offered for sale to OMC tenants first, at a price which is the average of two real estate appraisals. If no tenant purchases the house, it is sold on a sealed minimum—bid basis at public sale. As of March 1979, 80 houses have been renovated and sold; less than a third of those houses were purchased by former tenants.
City Government Programs In mid-1978, in response to gentrification in Victorian Village, the OMC revitalization plan, and the realization that demand for housing in the Near North Side was increasing the city of Columbus applied to HUD [for] redevelopment funds.
Almost 1,700 structures require rehabilitation. During the next four years over four million dollars will be spent in the NSA for housing rehabilitation assistance, commercial development, capital improvements, and relocation assistance because of displacement. The city in conjunction with OMC was also awarded a HUD Innovative Grant of two million dollars in 1978. The Innovative Grant funds can be used in the OMC revitalization area only to: (a) reduce the dislocation of existing OMC tenants by providing funds for interior renovation if they purchase OMC houses; (b) provide relocation assistance if displacement occurs; (c) minimize the demolition of low- and moderate-income housing through the rehabilitation of selected structures; and (c) provide for necessary capital improvements. Since approval of the grant, HUD has questioned the effectiveness of the grant in reducing displacement and has not released the funds.”
_______________________ Though there were many efforts, investments, and programs that went into the Harrison West revitalization, one notable result was the transformation of the former Fourth Avenue School building into senior apartments. After $1 million in renovations were made to the building, it reopened in 1981 as a federally-subsidized residence for senior citizens at the intersection of Michigan Avenue.
Michigan Avenue Apartments, in the former Michigan Avenue Elementary School building on the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and West Fourth Avenue. The building was originally constructed in 1904 and opened on January 4, 1905 as an elementary school. It was remodeled in 1953 and closed as a school in 1976. After $1 million in renovations were made to the building, it reopened in 1981 as a federally-subsidized apartment building for senior citizens. (Caption: Columbus Metropolitan Library)
______________________ Just one block to the west, Harrison West Park was constructed around 1983, when the land was sold to the City of Columbus from the Near Northside Development Corporation as part of these revitalization efforts to replace sub-standard housing. From 1969 to 1981, the land was owned by the Battelle Memorial Institute, and possibly managed by the Olentangy Management Corporation. The park sits on what used to be four parcels.
Today, Harrison West is one of the city’s most expensive residential sections, with homes regularly selling for more than $500,000. The path from a factory-adjacent working class area to a high-end residential district was long, and fraught with unique obstacles and conflict that often define community change in historic urban neighborhoods. Learn more in Back to the City and this dissertation on the topic.
________________________ Browse through Columbus Dispatch articles about the Olentangy Management Company, published between 1978 and 1984.
*Census Tract 18.20, Block Group 2 Census Tract 18.20, Block Group 3 Census Tract 20, Block Group 1 Census Tract 20, Block Group 2 Census Tract 20, Block Group 3