Columbus, Ohio USA
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Is Italian village developing too quickly to preserve its history?
By Tracy Zollinger Turner
November/December 2015 Issue
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Photos © Tracy Zollinger Turner
It has been more than a decade since a house was demolished in Italian Village. After commissioners entered this N. Sixth Street house while considering such a request, they broke out in hives.
A 95-year-old house that sits on Sixth Street just east of Fourth in Italian Village has seen better days. Floors and parts of the roof are sagging. Parts of the exterior appear to be rotting. When Italian Village Commission chair Rex Hagerling went to tour the property to help determine whether or not the historic cottage was a viable candidate for demolition, he and everyone in the group he was with broke out in hives.
“It’s an oddity,” he says. “I’ve been inside some pretty creepy places, including some that have been neglected for long periods, like houses full of mold that can definitely make you feel unwell when you’re standing in them. But everyone itching within a matter of minutes was a new experience.”
Still, it’s not reason enough to demolish a nearly 100-year-old home, he says.
“I think it would be nice if we could figure out what was causing that,” says Hagerling. “Maybe if they were to connect it to some larger issue – maybe if the whole house was infused in some poisonous mold – that could be a reason.”
Without interior walls removed that would allow him to see the condition of the studs or joints of the house, “it was hard for me to make an unequivocal judgment.” He told the petitioners that were asking to level the property at the commission’s October meeting: “I didn’t see the tipping point, but the tipping point may be there.”
Demolition requests for residences in Italian Village aren’t a common occurrence. It’s been more than a decade since anyone asked to bring down a house.
“Italian Village has a lot of small, cottage-like houses and this one falls into that category. We’re worried about setting a precedent that gives people permission
to demolish a small house to replace it with a larger one,” says Hagerling.
With the explosion of development the Short North has seen in recent years, there are certainly people who would like to do just that, and many other things that would be potentially out of line with preserving the historic fabric of the neighborhood. The Italian Village Commission has been charged by the city of Columbus with protecting its architectural integrity since 1973, but the push to review applications for renovations, new buildings and demolition of commercial land has never been greater.
“There is a whole lot of pressure right now,” says Hagerling. “Something is going on everywhere – I don’t know that there are any vacant pieces of land that aren’t in play.”
The Italian Village Society was founded 1972 to advocate for neighborhood preservation and provide a voice for quality of life concerns of people who live there. They make appointment recommendations for the commission to the mayor, and have often functioned as the first sounding board for developers who want to bring new projects to the area.
“I think our commissioners do a very good job – and it’s a thankless job –- in preserving and guiding the neighborhood,” says Nancy Haitz, owner of the Cookware Sorcerer, who served on the Italian Village Commission in the late 1980s/early 1990s and chaired the committee that wrote the guidelines for rehabilitation and new construction. “Things are different now. When I was on the commission, if somebody wanted to build a new structure or tear down an old one, they would be asked to go to the society first to get input from the neighborhood. That doesn’t always happen now, and I would like to see it get back to that structure.”
It does function that way at times, says Stephanie Harris, Treasurer of the IV Society.
“Some developers will come to us before they’ve ever gone to the commission, with just a concept in mind, to have these community discussions – to hear any objections or get our buy-in or just give us a heads up about a plan.”
Recently, the IV Society has borne influence on certain issues outside of the commission’s purview in the area, like addressing brick sidewalks torn up by the gas company to see that they are replaced with new brick sidewalks, rather than concrete.
But overall, “Our role has evolved into the quality of life piece,” says Harris.
“We’re always concerned about the mix of development in the neighborhood. At what point are the restaurants and pubs enough? At what point do we need to keep this a residential neighborhood? Certainly parking is a major issue for people who live in the community. There is lots of talk about how to calm traffic on Summit and Fourth – all of these are issues we discuss on a regular basis. More than anything, we want to make sure we’re staying on top of these developments and making sure that we are representing the community as best we can, being responsible stewards for the quality of life.”
Hagerling says that there is no formal path for developers about where to direct ideas first.
“One doesn’t necessarily come before the other,” he says. “We encourage people to come in and discuss things conceptually. We tell developers to talk to the Italian Village Society. I would welcome more direct input from the society.”
By design, a commission member is to come to each IVS meeting to report on recent activity and alert the neighborhood about any projects that might be controversial. According to Society President Christopher Vidoni, that’s been less consistent in the past six months, but is hopefully getting back on track. He is also concerned, for a variety of reasons, that, as much as residents are thrilled to see escalating property values, the current rate of growth may not bode well for preservation of the neighborhood or its sustainable future.
“I’m almost to the point where I wish we could just… take a breath and slow down,” says Vidoni. “Some of the developers don’t even know about the commission guidelines.”
Plans for rehabilitation, demolition or new construction in Italian Village must be approved by the Italian Village Commission in order to get the proper permits. If a property owner makes dramatic changes without going before the commission, they can be fined through city code enforcement. In historic neighborhoods throughout the country, there are cases when a property is not maintained deliberately so a developer can try to get around the historic guidelines. It’s called “demolition by neglect.”
Vidoni worries about sites he suspects could suffer from intentional neglect in the neighborhood, and feels that the commission could do more to see that those who are not adhering to the guidelines are penalized. (According to city code, penalties on properties can be leveled from $500 up to $25,000.)
“If you own something of historic value, you should take care of it,” he says. “Anything that exists that’s over 30 years old is pushing historic guidelines. I always say to people ‘once you tear it down, it’s gone.’” But there are limits to what the Commission can do, and “demolition by neglect” can be difficult to prove.
“We can’t force people to maintain a property,” says Hagerling, noting that by the time city codes are enforceable, a building is generally in bad, condemnable shape. “And we can’t say that just because a building isn’t occupied that it’s neglect.”
In some cases, buildings have been purchased for projects that the owner may take years to put into motion while they complete work on other investments, acquire funding or wait for neighborhood conditions to ripen. And this “mothballing” of a structure can still be ultimately beneficial to Italian Village, says Hagerling, especially if that developer or property owner is committed to restoring what they’ve purchased with quality materials and care when they are able.
Vidoni is also afraid that the rate of development could prevent the neighborhood from participating in strategies the city of Columbus is exploring for a more sustainable sewer system (an initiative called Blueprint Columbus) or its plans to plant 300,000 trees to improve the city’s tree cover, reducing stormwater runoff, among other environmental benefits. In addition to historic preservation, Vidoni would like to see that room for recycling services is being taken into consideration and sustainable architecture encouraged for new builds.
Another big consideration is planning for green space. The neighborhood’s key park will soon see some changes. Italian Village Park will be bounded by a new, multi-story structure on its west boundary where a parking lot currently sits. To help neighborhood residents warm to the idea, the Wood Companies promised to help with funds to build a pavilion in the park. On November 18, the three finalist designs for the space will be on view for the community at the Junior Achievement building (68 E. 2nd Ave.) with presentations by the designers. (http://www.theneighborhooddesigncenter.org/italian-village-pavilion.html)
“When we were talking with the Wood Companies, we thought this is a great opportunity,” says Harris, citing it as a time when the Society has been able to reconcile the interests of residents and developers. “We wanted to build a pavilion in the park for plays and music events and movie nights – we thought this could be an excellent opportunity to get a developer to participate in the next phase of the development of the park. From that point of conversation, we came to a mutual agreement about that building, how tall it would be, where it would sit.”
Haitz is not so sure that the development won’t be problematic.
“The nice thing about that park right now is that it’s a green space,” she says. “I think parks need to exist to provide relief from the built environment.”
Green spaces in the rapidly developing neighborhood of Fourth Street are part of private developments. Vidoni says he would like to see some public-private partnerships that make sure there are parks that remain protected.
A reflection of the neighborhood’s history as a place where people could live and walk to industrial setting workplaces, preserving the historic architecture along Fourth means finding new uses for very large structures and spaces. The Lofts at the old Wonder Bread building, the continuing development of the land the Jeffrey Mining Machinery Company once occupied and the potential new uses of the historic Budd Dairy Building are creating a concentration of new residents, a need for commercial service and future aesthetic that’s harder to imagine because so much of it will be new or completely repurposed.
“People living in that area will need to be able to not walk as far [not all the way to High Street] to get to a variety of things,” said Hagerling. “We have additional challenges in Italian Village because we have such a mixture… We have a lot of buildable land. So, in addition to these historic guidelines we have to follow, we are dealing with new construction that needs to be compatible with the visual rhythms we see in the neighborhood.”
What does that mean?
“I don’t want to see fake old,” says Haitz. “Architecture should be a product of its own time.”
According to Hagerling, “I hope that North Fourth will have a more cohesive appearance than it does now. It’s a pretty mixed use and a wide variety of building types. Italian Village has a mixture of industrial and residential that happened historically, so there’s an interest in preserving that wherever we can.”
But public-private green spaces or places that might tell the story of the neighborhood train yards, mixed immigrant population and the Jeffrey baseball team that used to play in the space now occupied by 670 aren’t part of any master neighborhood plan.
This article was reported with support from Puffin Foundation West., Ltd.
© 2015 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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