The Goose with the Golden Eggs
The Short North has gone through Maria's Four Phases of Gentrification. The First Phase is Discovery and Reclamation, mostly by artists, galleries and funky cool small retail. That phase lasted until the tax breaks came in and the landlords got involved: Phase Two - Renovation. This took the reclamation from individual storefronts to whole buildings, then whole blocks. This phase started in the south end, as most of the phases have, until there were no longer any buildings to renovate. Phase Three is a little more subtle - Addition and Construction. That is the adding to existing buildings without demolition, or with minor demolition. Examples of this are the Wood Building above Northstar Cafe and the rear of the old UCT Building, now the home of the Pizzuti Collection. It also refers to infill on vacant lots, like the Jackson. There has been some overlap with Phase Four which is Demolition and Construction. The former AAA Chair Rental/Ibiza/The Hub development and the Dakota are early examples. In both instances a one story building (deemed non-contributing) was demolished to make way for a multi-story mixed use building. Most one story buildings in the Short North are considered to be non-contributing, but they are still part of the fabric of the neighborhood. Most date to the era of car dealerships on N. High St. Currently there are multiple one story buildings slated to come down: the White Castle and the adjoining city parking lot will be one huge development. The two small buildings north of the new Donatos. The former gas station that was Ibel Gallery is already gone and the earth is being moved around as I write. Recently there has been news of an offer to demolish the Grandview Mercantile building, at W. First and N. High, to build a 12 story tower. This particular building is unique in the Short North as it occupies most of its lot. The rest are small buildings on big lots, definitely underperforming from a land use standard and not protected by the Short North Guidelines. Is it worth saving? Not my call. However, it is an interesting building, with a tile exterior and an open interior, since it was also once a car dealership. I would hate to see it go. I would also hate for it to be replaced by a modern, heavy, dark building. Buildings in this neighborhood are not supposed to use tinted glass, yet the new glass being put in is so dark you cannot see the interiors of the businesses, which greatly reduces the energy of the strip. Imagine a crowd of people wearing sunglasses, all staring at you. It is uncomfortable. And a little spooky.
So what happens when the galleries, the cool funky start-ups, the interesting specialty stores can't afford to exist in the Short North anymore? Will we become like Easton, the corporate manufactured faux Short North? Will we become a restaurant row, dotted with chain retail? Or... could we not let that happen and find some other reality?
Could we be imaginative? Could we make space for galleries? Make space for alternate retail? I think we can, but it is, again, not up to me. What is needed is a real commitment to the Short North, not just seeing it as a resource to be tapped and profited from, too often by those who had nothing to do with making the Short North the dynamic neighborhood that is has become. And who, oddly, seem to be tone deaf about keeping that dynamic element that attracted them in the first place, instead going for the easy tenant, the one that brings in the most money as quickly as possible. Who is not looking into the future and being a little alarmed by the way the area is heading.
How can we fix this? Set aside 500 square feet (at least) per new build for the arts. A gallery, a co-op, perhaps even a studio space. Make the rent affordable. Don't put offices, salons and fitness centers on the ground floor of North High St. They can go on the side streets. Or upstairs. Don't automatically rent to a restaurant. Especially if it is pizza and beer. Or beer and pizza. And don't rent to a mega restaurant. Ever. Don't convert spaces that are currently retail to a restaurant or bar. Don't connect multiple small spaces to make one big space that can only be rented by chain retail or a beer and pizza restaurant. Keep the diversity and the energy of finding surprises behind every door. Install public art. Lots of it.
The new (and old) businesses have to be innovative, too. The days of opening a small shop that reflects your very specific interest are gone. Or are they? The co-business is a possibility. The logistics can be daunting, finding that perfect fit of a business (and business owner) to share a space with. Antiques with comic books? Furniture and cookware? Years ago my husband had a dream that a hardware/health food store had opened across the street. Why not? That actually kind of works.
What I would LOVE to see is the antique mall concept applied to artist studios and small art galleries. It has happened in other cities, usually a whole large building, like the Torpedo Factory in Virginia. Perhaps we could have a smaller version, more on the scale of Grandview Mercantile. It could be on N. High, but would also work on a side street. The Wonderland project (in the old Wonder Bread factory) didn't happen, alas, but it is still something on the radar. How about the former blood bank space....? Or Everett School? Or, if they leave, Family Dollar?
All I can do is imagine, but the imagination is a powerful thing, when it is shared. I encourage everyone to imagine, to share, no idea is too wild or unlikely. It was very unlikely 36 years ago that the Near North Side would have a resurgence and become the Short North. It was far more likely that it would be razed as so much of Downtown had been, especially when Union Station came down. And yet, it was spared that fate, mostly by those who imagined something more. Starting in the Yukon Building and spreading outward, to Lincoln and N. High and then beyond. Someday it will be all the way to The Ohio State University. Imagine that.
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