Houses lining a street

In a functioning democracy, all residents of a community should have an equal say in decisions that affect the entire community. But this hasn’t been happening in the Near East Side, Short North, Weinland Park, University District, and other Columbus neighborhoods.

With the blessing of a city government that is friendly to gentrification, developers and wealthy property owners have been on a frenzy of redevelopment in these areas — tearing down family homes and historic buildings to make room for luxury housing. Soaring housing costs in these neighborhoods have forced thousands of low- and middle income residents out of their homes.

Residents of the Old North neighborhood, just north of the OSU campus, believe that their collective concerns outweigh the desire of one family — the Paveys — to get even richer by redeveloping their properties on the west side of High Street between Lane and Oakland Avenues. The residents packed City Hall on March 14 to urge Columbus City Council to pass an emergency moratorium on development in a 14-block area of High Street, from Lane in the south to Arcadia Avenue in the north. The moratorium would include the planned Pavey Square development.

“Our neighborhood is the densest neighborhood in the City of Columbus,” said longtime University District resident John Marshall to City Council. “It is twice as dense as the Short North, and four times as dense as Clintonville. If these high-density projects continue to go forward, the neighborhood infrastructure will simply not be sustainable. That’s why we feel so strongly that the University Area Plan should be codified.”

Community groups, the University Area Review Board, and the University Area Commission developed the University Area Plan between 2012 and 2014. The Plan would permit only medium-density development — in contrast to the high-density development that’s been done south of Lane Avenue — and enforce a 45-foot height limit along High Street.

City Council “approved” the University Area Plan in February 2015, meaning only that they agreed that it’s a good idea. Council has taken no action since then to make the plan enforceable by working it into the city code.

“Our district has been vastly overdeveloped,” former University Area Commissioner Joe Motil told City Council. “Our sewer and storm water systems are too old to adequately serve those already living here.

“The University District between Lane and Arcadia is unique in that rents, homes, and storefront rentals for small businesses are still reasonable, and the area has maintained a flavor of its own for decades,” Motil said. “We want to see that this character is maintained with responsible development that contributes to the neighborhood.”

The Pavey family wants to put up luxury apartments that would rent for 2K a month, extracting as much profit per square foot as possible. The developer’s original plan was to build a 10-story apartment complex that faced High Street, requiring the demolition of ten historic buildings on the site. In response to public pressure, the most recent proposal scales back the project to a 7-story apartment building with a smaller footprint, preserving all of the houses that face High Street.

“The Pavey family’s attorneys sent a letter saying that they would commit to preserving the buildings facing High Street, and that they would work with the community,” said University Area Commissioner Deb Supelak.

“This was a promise, but it carries no weight,” she said. “Many times in the University District and elsewhere in Columbus, people have represented themselves one way and then have acted in a different way. The vast majority of the community really took offense at the idea of eliminating the Pavey block from a moratorium request, because there’s nothing legally binding in the letter.”

The University Area Commission has been divided on whether to include the Pavey project in the moratorium. “My objection to the Pavey project falls under a larger umbrella of concerns about what’s been happening in all the neighborhoods of the university area,” Supelak said.

“It really impacts those folks who have sunk their life savings into houses across the street or in nearby blocks,” she said. “Your house is usually your primary investment, and you make that investment believing that you have the right to expect that the neighborhood is going to maintain a certain quality. For one family to have the clout to completely change things for everybody for blocks around seems very fundamentally unfair.”

The imbalance of rights being played out in this particular battle has implications for the entire city. If Old North residents are successful in stopping runaway development in their neighborhood, it will slow down, but not stop the momentum of greedy developers. They will look for other neighborhoods to exploit — perhaps ones that won’t put up as much of a fight.

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