Columbus, Ohio USA

Come In and Wash Off the Dust!
Suds & Java Coin Laundry still churning away
behind High Street construction

by Jennifer Hambrick
November 2008 Issue

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Photos © Darren Carlson

Helen Stepien and her husband Michael want to get the word out that
Suds & Java remains open at 1254 N. High St., just north of Fifth Avenue.

Every Saturday at 8 a.m. an attendant at Suds & Java Coin Laundry and Internet Café lets Alfred Tyler into the laundromat at 1254 N. High St. Tyler, 63, puts his laundry into a washing machine, feeds a few quarters into the coin slots and presses the “start” button. He sits down at the coffee bar by the front door and orders a cup of coffee with cream and sugar and usually also a muffin. Banana is his favorite.

As the morning passes, other patrons come in and do more or less the same thing – laundry, soap, quarters, coffee, sit – until a little group of regulars has assembled. While their laundry soaks, they talk about their lives, the neighborhood, the world.

“We talk back and forth,” Tyler said. “We talk about everything from politics to the war. A couple of weeks ago we talked about the presidential race.”
Tyler says he could take his wash to another laundromat if he had to, but it wouldn’t be the same.

“I’ve been going there for years and years,” Tyler said. “I love it.”

Helen Stepien, who owns Suds & Java with her husband, Michael Stepien, wants regulars like Tyler and potential new customers to know the laundry’s still up and running, though its once-visible side parking lot is gone, and though you may have to hunt for it amidst the dust and debris of the High and Smith construction work around it.

“We want to make sure people know we’re still here,” Helen Stepien said.

According to Don DeVere, owner and president of DeVere LLC, Suds & Java’s landlord and the developer of the High and Smith construction project, the construction will bring new retail, business and residential properties to the east side of High Street in the block just north of Fifth Avenue. A new building constructed immediately to the south of Suds & Java’s building on High will contain ground-floor commercial storefronts and residential space on the second and third floors. The parking lot that once unfolded along the laundry’s south outer wall has been narrowed into a passageway between Suds & Java and its new neighbor to the south. The smaller building in front of Suds & Java will contain a single commercial storefront and apartments on the upper two floors. A parking lot with 50 spaces has been installed to the east of these buildings, between High and Courtland Avenue.

DeVere says the construction, which began in August 2007, will be finished this month. He expects the completed project will be a shot in the arm for Suds & Java.

“Construction is very difficult for everyone involved, but we believe the area and Suds & Java will be the better for it when it is all done,” DeVere said.
Stepien agrees, but is concerned about recouping the business her laundry has lost since the construction began, when Suds & Java’s south frontage – once clearly visible from High – became obscured by the new building to its south. Stepien says the laundry’s business this summer is down 45 to 50 per cent compared with summer 2007, before the construction started. She attributes the drop in business to customers not knowing Suds & Java is still in business.

“The (customer) comments are still there: ‘I can’t find you. Where are you?’” Stepien said. “One of my customers that drops off laundry . . . I told them how to go and they still couldn’t find us.”

Stepien and DeVere have been working together to try to enhance the laundry’s visibility during construction with measures that will endure even after construction is finished. DeVere says plans to install new illuminated signage for the laundry, possibly above the laundry’s building, are in the “formative stage” and that designs for the signs must still be created and approved by the University Area Review Board before any new signs can be installed.

“The object is to be tasteful and to maximize visibility for Suds & Java and the business to the east of it,” DeVere said of plans for the laundry’s signage.

Construction October 2008 on the east side of High Street where the parking lot entrance to Suds & Java was formerly located. The lot is now accessible off Courtland Avenue.

Stepien and DeVere also have worked to make parking for Suds & Java patrons accessible in the new parking lot behind the laundry. DeVere says 16 of that lot’s 50 parking spaces have been assigned to the new residential units, but that the remaining 34 parking spaces – including those closest to Suds & Java – will be open for customers of High and Smith businesses. The lot can be accessed from Courtland Avenue.

Until the construction work around the laundry is finished, Stepien says Suds & Java will labor on, and she hopes the neighborhood knows it.

“Our laundromat is a fabulous laundromat,” Stepien said. “We keep it clean. The atmosphere is nice. It’s safe. It’s just a wonderful place, and the bad part about it is that we can’t be seen anymore.”

But the visibility issues haven’t kept some of Suds & Java’s regular customers away. Steve Austin, who like Tyler started doing his laundry at 1254 N. High St. when the place was under different ownership and management as Maytag Coin Laundry, made a special trip without his laundry to see if Suds & Java was still open for business when he saw the signs of construction around it.

Austin says it has been difficult to access the laundry from High because the sidewalks in front of the building were removed during the construction work and only gravel pits stood in their place until new concrete was poured in late September. He now accesses Suds & Java from Courtland. Austin says he found an alternate route to get there because he wanted to keep experiencing the laundry’s friendly atmosphere.

“The customers are of a different mindset. They’re cheerful, they’re talkative,” Austin said. “I see neighbors from as far away as four or five blocks south, east, west. We kind of catch up there once a week. ‘How did the week go? How’s your sister doing after the surgery?’ It’s a neighborhoody kind of thing and I like that. Plus I can also get a nice cup of coffee.”

Sometimes Austin stops by the laundry just to grab a cup of coffee and say ‘hi’ to his neighbors.

“Usually I’ll stop in, I’ll chit chat for a couple of minutes,” Austin said. “I want to support people who are trying to make my community better.”

Like Stepien, Austin also suspects the results of the construction will make the neighborhood better. But Austin, a former historic preservationist, has wondered whether enough precautions were made to ensure that existing businesses don’t suffer while the construction is going on. He says a temporary sidewalk could have been installed sooner to cover the unwalkable gravel pit along High St. in front of Suds & Java’s building. He also says lights could have been installed in the passageway between the laundry’s building and its new neighbor to the south so Suds & Java patrons would feel safer carrying their loads of wash to and from the laundry during evening hours.

“I don’t think it’s right to allow people to develop things without taking into consideration the impact on the existing businesses,” Austin said. “It’s about responsible behavior: how do you build a better community?”

DeVere says all of the steps he has taken throughout the construction process will ultimately help build a more vibrant Short North community. He says the light fixtures in the passageway will be operational by early November. DeVere also says the addition of 12 new apartments and 7,000 square feet of commercial space to the area, as well as the retention of newly configured on-site parking, will bring foot traffic from new customers. Some of those customers might well do their laundry at Suds & Java, which DeVere calls “by far the best facility of its kind in Columbus.”

While Stepien has no plans to close Suds & Java, imagining a neighborhood without the laundry is a sad prospect for its customers. Austin says he’d have to move to a different apartment building where he could have his own washer and dryer. Tyler says he could take his laundry to another nearby laundromat, but he wouldn’t want to. He’d miss his banana muffins and he’d miss the Stepiens.

“I’m used to Helen (Stepien), her husband, and her kids,” Tyler said. “You get used to people.”

© 2008 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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