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Harrison West Open Garden Tour
Celebrating 30 years of neighborhood activism

June 2006
by Jennifer Hambrick

See Also The Garden District: Rob Harris share his story

Return to Neighborhood Organizations

492 West Fourth Avenue. Home of Jerry and Debby Colvin, original owners of home built in the Victorian style in 1983. Trees include linden, flowering crab, tri-color beech and redbud. Lot is delineated at corners with boxwood hedging and at front with barberry shrubs. Photo / Emily Noble

You’ve admired the beautiful Victorian and Victorian-inspired homes in Harrison West. Now it’s time to pay homage to the gardens around them.

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Harrison West Society, a contingent of Harrison West homeowners will open their yards to the public June 11 as part of the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department’s Open Garden Tour. The tour runs from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. and will feature six private gardens on West Fourth Avenue in the Harrison West neighborhood, as well as the public Side By Side Park at the West Third Avenue Bridge. Private gardens in Grandview, Upper Arlington, Bexley and south Columbus also will be on the tour.

This month’s tour marks the first time since 1998 that an organized group of Harrison West homeowners have entered the tour.

“We haven’t been on the tour as a group for several years and I thought it was a good way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the neighborhood because we did have that history of having garden tours,” said Harrison West Parks Committee co-chair Debby Colvin.

Colvin says those who come to view the Harrison West gardens June 11 will be given a little extra information about them.

“As part of our celebration we are going to have a handout, which you don’t normally get on one of these tours,” Colvin said. “The handout will have descriptions of the Harrison West homes, descriptions of their gardens and photographs of them.”

A resident of the Harrison West neighborhood since 1984 and a regular participant in the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department’s Open Garden Tour, Colvin says the Harrison West gardens are beautiful studies in urban gardening: how to make the most of a garden with limited space.

“Anyone who has gone on these tours knows that there are some incredible yards and gardens in the Columbus area,” Colvin said. “Part of the fun of it is going and seeing what other people have. Maybe it’s an unusual plant or yard furniture or sculpture. Or maybe it’s that our yards, by virtue of beginning in the inner city, are small, and people have to find ways to get a lot of plants into a small space.”

“The Harrison West Tour is outstanding,” Columbus Parks and Recreation Department administrative assistant Nancy Walsh said. “It’s wonderful because everything is in such close quarters. You can cover a multitude of scenery in a very short space. They work miracles in small spaces. I’m thrilled that they’re back on the tour.”

Among the Harrison West gardens on the tour is a Japanese-inspired garden at 350 West Fourth Avenue, featuring a tiered front garden with holly, Japanese lilac, tulips and boxwood and a backyard with a Japanese maple and weeping pine. Another garden, at 480 West Fourth Avenue, showcases container gardens and a backyard koi pond.

Colvin says some surprises are in store for visitors to Harrison West’s Side By Side Park. The City of Columbus added new plantings in the park last fall as part of a re-landscaping project. This summer will be the first growing season for the new plants, which provide the backdrop for the park’s centerpiece, Solon, Ohio, sculptor Charlotte Lee’s permanent installation Side By Side.

Longtime Harrison West resident and former Harrison West Society secretary Veda Gilp hopes visitors to this month’s Open Garden Tour also will take the opportunity to see the neighborhood around the tour’s Harrison West gardens.

“Some people are afraid to go into any of the city neighborhoods, but it’s a beautiful, walkable, friendly neighborhood,” Gilp said. “If you really look at the neighborhood, you can see how far it’s come

in the last five or ten years. It was a forgotten slum, but it has really bootstrapped itself up.”

Carol McCabe, the first president of the Harrison West Society, christened the neighborhood Harrison West when the society was established in 1976.
Photo / Emily Noble

Birth of Harrison West Society
In a concerted effort to rescue their neighborhood from further decline, Harrison West residents organized the Harrison West Society in the mid-1970s. The Godman Guild was instrumental in helping Harrison West residents organize.

“We had members of the Godman Guild board who lived in what is now the Harrison West neighborhood, and in our meetings they would complain that the neighborhood was literally falling down around their ears and they wanted to do something,” Godman Guild executive director Randy Morrison said. “We invited them to come to a series of meetings that led to their deciding that they wanted to have a civic organization and they started the Harrison West Society.”

Carol McCabe, the first president of the Harrison West Society, christened the neighborhood Harrison West when the society formed in 1976.

At the top of the new society’s agenda was to seek the renovation of the many Harrison West residential properties that had fallen into decline. Many of these properties were owned by Battelle Memorial Institute and managed by Battelle’s property management subsidiary, the Olentangy Management Company, which Battelle established in 1976 to oversee the properties during a proposed Battelle neighborhood renewal and corporate expansion project. Battelle owned 512 properties in the area now called Harrison West and rented them at reasonable prices at the time the research corporation was considering expansion.

“At that time, there was a very low level of home ownership (in the area now known as Harrison West), probably 70 to 80 per cent were renters and most of that rental property was owned by Battelle,” Morrison said.

The Harrison West Society asked Battelle to take an active role in refurbishing the properties. Battelle’s plans for neighborhood improvement differed from the ideal Harrison West Society members had in mind.

“(Battelle) decided after some study that they wanted to divest themselves of the property but in such a way that would lead to some neighborhood improvement,” Morrison said. “So the neighborhood was saying, ‘Fix up the property,’ and Battelle said, ‘We’ve decided to implement a plan to divest ourselves of this property.’”

Harrison West residents were concerned that Battelle’s plan for neighborhood improvements would translate into rental housing with rents they could not afford. Craig Copeland was a student at Ohio State and rented an apartment on the south side of Vermont Place when Battelle’s plan, which included demolishing the residences on the north side of his street, was made known. Copeland remembers that Battelle’s plan nearly set the neighborhood in arms.

“There were some protests on the steps of Battelle,” Copeland said. “Some people in the neighborhood had put up protest signs on their porches.”

Neighboorhood Development: Wins and Losses
The Harrison West Society, Battelle/ Olentangy Management and the City of Columbus over a number of years hashed out a plan that would allow Olentangy Management to sell the rental properties and allow neighborhood improvements to occur without forcing Harrison West residents to leave their homes. The Harrison West Society and Olentangy Management worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to get funding under the Innovative Grant Provision to help the Godman Guild’s non-profit housing company, Northside Housing, renovate and sell some of the rental properties at a subsidized rate to current residents. The monies also funded construction of a park at Oregon and Fourth Avenue and provided relocation funds to individuals who could not afford to stay in the neighborhood, despite the subsidies.

At the same time, another developer acquired the site of the former Michigan Avenue School and converted the building into subsidized senior citizen housing under Section 8. Harrison West Society founding member Carol McCabe lives in the subsidized building and says she would have had to leave the neighborhood she’s lived in since 1951 without it.

Battelle’s initial plan for neighborhood improvement also included demolishing some of the residential properties in the space between Michigan Avenue, the first alley west of Harrison Avenue, Fourth and Fifth Avenues to make room for a shopping center.

“The Harrison West Society didn’t feel that was a good plan, that it was not conducive to neighborhood life, that it would create some hazards, traffic and noise right in the middle of a fairly congested housing area,” Morrison said.

“The front of the shopping center would have been Fifth Avenue, which means that deliveries to the stores would have come straight through the residential area,” Harrison West Society Vice President and 31-year Harrison West resident Mary Funk said.

The society disputed the plan successfully in a number of sessions before City Council. Olentangy Management did demolish the properties, but they were replaced with new condominiums instead of a shopping center.

Eventually, Battelle disposed of all 512 neighborhood properties it had once owned. Most of the former Battelle residential properties were restored, but others could not be salvaged, Battelle vice president for corporate communications Tom McClain said.

Morrison says both Battelle and the Harrison West residents who opposed the research giant’s initial plan had wins and losses.

“There is a significant number of more or less permanently affordable structures that occurred in the neighborhood, and persons who were unavoidably forced to move received significant assistance to do that,” Morrison said. “Facilities were improved with the park and there was no commercial development in the area. On the other hand, the vast majority of the people who did live there at the time probably did have to find their way out of the neighborhood.”

The Godman Guild attempted to record the number of people leaving the area, but Morrison says in the end it was impossible.

“There were people who would be there one day, and the next day they had moved,” Morrison said.

What might have happened if Battelle’s plan had gone into effect without challenge?

“What might have happened is a rapidly improving neighborhood that would have totally excluded diversity of income as property values, so that didn’t happen to the extent that it might have,” Morrison said. “You have a somewhat diverse community there now.”

Battelle Partnership Emerges
A unique partnership between the Harrison West neighborhood and Battelle has resulted from their earlier strife. Battelle and the society have worked jointly on a number of neighborhood improvement projects. In the late 1990s the Harrison West Society negotiated with Battelle to convert one of their parking lots into the current green space between Michigan and Perry, south of Fifth Avenue and north of Vermont. Battelle also agreed to maintain the lot at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Perry as permanent green space. The corporate giant also sponsors an annual clean-up along the Olentangy River and is contributing to a collaborative traffic calming effort.

Craig Copeland, current chair of the Harrison West Society’s traffic committee, expects construction of a traffic calming island at Third Avenue and the bikeway crossing on the east bank of the Olentangy River to be completed by fall. Copeland says Battelle is building another island on the east bank at Fifth Avenue and also will be contributing to another at Fifth Avenue and Perry. The islands will be landscaped with trees and other plantings.

“It’s been collaborative efforts between the society and Battelle,” Copeland said. “It’s absolutely amazing that these things are falling into place with the neighborhood.”

“The big credit belongs to the Harrison West residents, and ultimately Battelle deserves a lot of credit for ultimately joining with the neighborhood,” Morrison said. “They really sponsored the effort to bring in this innovative grant project that would never have happened without their support. That’s what ultimately led to the resolution of the whole matter where there were benefits all around.”

McClain says relations between Harrison West and Battelle have never been better.

“We have worked together with them on a whole variety of things – the parking lot redesign, the green space at the corner of Fifth and Perry, traffic calming islands and generally how to keep our property in synch with the neighborhood so that there’s a commonality of design with the residential neighborhood. It’s our neighborhood too,” McClain said.

Neighbors Working Together
The Harrison West Society also continues to work independently of Battelle to bring about other neighborhood improvements.

“The Harrison West Society has planted more than 500 street trees, so our streets are lined with trees,” said Veda Gilp. “The society has built and maintained two parks. The society was the instigator in our public art. The City wanted to run high-capacity power lines right through our neighborhood and the society persuaded the City not to do that.”

The society also has worked with the City of Columbus to draw up the Harrison West Plan, a set of guidelines for future development of the neighborhood. The plan, which was adopted by the Columbus City Council in September 2005, calls for preservation and extension of the existing street grid, so that new buildings will blend in seamlessly with existing ones; thirty-foot-wide streets to allow for on-street parking and the addition of tree lawns. All of these measures are intended to maintain the feel and aesthetic standards that now define Harrison West.

“It’s not that we are against development or want everything to be a carbon copy of everything else, but there’s a feel and ambience here that frankly, if you encourage, things get better and better,” Gilp said.

Gilp and other Harrison West Society members are proud of the neighborhood successes their efforts have brought about.
“The people who live in the neighborhood have really worked hard to build the neighborhood to what it is,” Gilp said. “Some neighborhoods in the city have wondered why they can’t achieve the same things Harrison West has. We’ve been organized for thirty years. It’s the organization, people who are willing to band together and do the work that it takes to bring back your neighborhood. Our street trees didn’t plant themselves. You have to go out and you have to help plant those trees. We used to have one of the roughest corners in the city at Michigan and Third Avenue. Now it has an upscale coffee shop on it and down the street a block is Cafe Corner where you can get breakfast all day Saturday and Sunday, and you can sit on the deck and watch people walk by and there’s always somebody you know.”

Harrison West Open Garden Tour
Part of the City of Columbus Recreation and Parks Open Garden Tour
Sunday, June 11, 2006 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Side by Side Park: Located at the West Third Avenue Bridge, one block west of Perry Street, on the east bank of the Olentangy River. Neighborhood Park with new perennial beds planted in the fall of 2005. The park features the “Side by Side” sculpture by Charlotte Lees.

331 West Fourth Avenue Mark Holtzapple and Tim Prince: Front plantings of mixed annuals, sun/shade plants including foxglove; also container plantings. At the rear is a shade garden featuring many mature hostas.

344 West Fourth Avenue Mark Hamsher: Back yard patio with shade garden including both annuals and perennials.

350 West Fourth Avenue Jim Slone and Jeff Stevens: Low maintenance tiered garden in front with holly, Japanese lilac, tulips and boxwood. Japanese-inspired back yard highlighted by a Japanese maple and weeping pine in a raised bed of astilbe and other shade loving plants.

358 West Fourth Avenue Rob Harris and Tim Bledsoe: Compact urban garden - mostly perennials - with decorative fountain.

480 West Fourth Avenue Doug Swartz and Scott Robinson: Formal garden with container plantings in front. Back yard includes koi pond, and newly installed patio.

492 West Fourth Avenue, Jerry and Debby Colvin: Several varieties of ornamental trees, including a tri-color beech. Large variety of miniature to large hostas. Large back deck and arbor. Assorted perennials, including many labeled daylily varieties.

© 2006 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.