Grandview Heights is a suburban city located northwest of Downtown Columbus. Its location gives the city the unique aspect of being the most centralized suburb in the region with very close proximity to The Arena District, The Short North, and The Ohio State University. Grandview is often cited as a community cherished for its walkable streets, well maintained housing stock, and excellent public schools. The neighborhood is known for the commercial strip along Grandview Avenue, which is home to Stauf’s Coffee Roasters, Spagio, the Grandview Theatre and many other unique restaurants and businesses. Grandview is also home to the majority of the new Grandview Yard development, where Nationwide Realty Investors is replacing the formerly abandoned Big Bear grocery store warehouses with over 90 acres of commercial and residential in-fill.
We had the opportunity recently to sit down with Grandview Heights Mayor Ray DeGraw to discuss the current issues that the city faces, the types of new development that they hope to attract, and what type of approach is taken with making Grandview a welcoming community to all types of people. Our full interview is below:
Walker Evans: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us, Mayor. First can you tell us a little about your own background? I believe you’re in your third term as mayor, correct?
Ray DeGraw: Yes, this is my third term, and ninth year as mayor. I served two terms on City Council from 1986 to 1994 and then my kids got really active in their high school years. Plus, eight years was a lot on City Council. I had enough of it at the time, and I thought things were in pretty good hands, so I took off. Then some people started talking about me coming back, so in 2000 I ran again for Council. I thought that it was time for some new things to happen, and for some changes to be made, so I ran for Mayor in 2003, started office in 2004, and have been Mayor ever since.
WE: Sounds like you must enjoy the job if if you are continuing to run again and again?
RD: You know, there’s a lot of good things going on, and I have a lot of really good people all around me. I think we’ve taken a good approach to promoting development, and we have a good vision in place. The people around me really do a lot of the work.
WE: Are you originally from Grandview Heights?
RD: No, I’m from New Jersey. So is my wife, but we ended up here. I went to graduate school at Ohio State for City and Regional Planning and fell in love with Grandview. We had an apartment here, and my wife and I decided to stay. When she was pregnant, we decided to look for a house and bought one. It needs a ton of work, and I’ve already been working on it for thirty-some years. But I fell in love with the community and decided to get involved.
WE: Grandview Heights is one of the suburban communities that our readers are very interested in, along with Upper Arlington, Worthington and Bexley. One of the frequent challenges that I hear from a lot of these neighborhoods is the challenge of retaining young people within the community. What does Grandview do to retain young people?
RD: I think we’ve developed a very good image. In all honesty, a lot of it is good salesmanshp. Our location helps because we’re so close to Downtown. And as Downtown becomes more exciting, Grandview becomes more exciting.
Years ago, when Big Bear closed, we lost our largest employer, and that was followed by a number of other large employers. We had to have a vision for redevelopment, and we had to do something. In 1997, we started to look at redevelopment plans. I was on a planning commission during those years. When I became Mayor, we had an opportunity because that site came out of the flood plain. My Director of Economic Development had a vision of putting a road through there and following through with redevelopment. Our vision was a mixed-use urban area. One of the main focus areas was to develop something that could become a part of this community. Previously, it was a post-WWII industrial area and most people didn’t even recognize the fact that it was part of Grandview because it had little visual relevance to the old houses and the old streets. So we thought about how we could make this part of the community, and really add some excitement that could also attract new people to this community, especially young people.
So the vision, as you’re well aware, is mixed-use. We’d like to probably look at adding another 1,500-2,000 residents in this community, with different types of living opportunities, different activities. We have to look at community function, and community attraction at Grandview Yard. That’s something we’re going to start to discuss hopefully later this summer in some town meetings. How do we tie it all together and how do we create excitement that actually draws the communities together.
WE: One common issue I hear about Grandview is that although it has great schools, a great community, and great amenities…
RD: … people can’t find a place to live?
WE: Right. The housing stock is a little more on the expensive side. Is there strategy behind making more affordable options for younger residents? Or more rental options?
RD: I think the hope is that the work going on at Grandview Yard will create some different opportunities and some different levels of housing. We’ve seen some of that in the first phase with one, two and three bedroom units. I think we’ll probably see some other types of housing go in there as we start to see the main street developed. Hopefully that brings some more people in, to at least look at the community.
I think as far as inside the community itself, you’re seeing a number of rentals that are starting to convert into condos. So I think there’s more sales opportunities coming around. We don’t have a lot of redevelopment, but you are seeing some lots being split and some new houses coming up. I don’t think you’re going to see drastic change in the existing housing stock except for remodeling. But you are going to see some new opportunities as we develop here for different types housing stock. Hopefully that brings in different types of people.
WE: You bring up a good point that inner-ring “landlocked” suburbs like Grandview and Bexley have to redevelop what is already there, rather than expand outward into corn fields. Do you have to think a bit more creatively for the future to keep reinventing yourself as a city?
RD: Yes, redevelopment is a whole different challenge. What you are looking at here is how to attract investment to a property that is going to cost you 2.5 to 3 times what it would cost to develop in a green field. We’ve had to develop infrastructure down at Grandview Yard first. We believe that if you can get the street right, you’ll get the development right. Things are always going to change, and there’s already a lot of discussion about what’s going to be constructed down there. What you’ll recognize over time, is that whatever is going in down there now will change at some point in the future. So some things may be developed in twenty, forty, maybe fifty years from now. But if your base infrastructure is in a good place, your street system will remain the same. A good street system is very important. For cities that work, you need a solid grid system. Things will move around in time, but if you build high-quality, sustainable buildings there, for the majority of the buildings anyway, I think you’ll develop a long-term community.
WE: One of the concerns I’ve heard about Grandview Yard is that while people have enjoyed the format of the first phase, the second phase includes more stand-alone retail, larger stores and an abundance of flat surface parking lots. Do you think that will be an interim step to more infill in the future?
RD: Oh, without a doubt. Retail centers have a shelf life and they will change. People are moving again towards the city. So I believe that as gas prices continue to go up and it gets more expensive to travel greater distances, people will continue to move inward. And there’s more reason to move in now when there’s more excitement happening Downtown. With OSU, Downtown, Battelle and a lot of other jobs in the area, we’re seeing people moving closer to all of that. It’s funny because the under-30s and the over-65s both tend to be leaning toward the same type of living. They want apartment living or Downtown living, or just moving closer to the Downtown area. They want things to be walkable and bikeable. Those two age groups very much have the same ideals, when it comes to how they want to live and have a good lifestyle.
WE: I hear about those demographic considerations constantly from developers and from national publications. It would seem that the older communities such as Grandview are posed to reap the benefits of what those generations are now wanting.
RD: We’ve all wanted to, as much as possible, get away from the big box mentality. The big box store creates traffic and I think if we were to include the big box format in the street structure, we’re going to try to shift parking to the back and keep the strong street. I think NRI continues to have that vision too. We both have a common goal. For awhile the retail community was getting creative, but in 2008 everything kind of fell apart. We’d be further along with Grandview Yard if it wasn’t for that, and I think big retailers have gone back to their old ways. So they just want these big parking lots.
Grandview Yard is an interesting market because the area doesn’t necessarily show a lot of strength on the retail front, because of the way retail people draw their circles on the map. They measure one mile out, and they measure five miles out and they evaluate the income levels. If you draw circles around Grandview Yard, you have a real interesting mix of people, plus you have over 30,000 people connected to OSU that show almost no income, even though they actually spend a lot of money. That doesn’t necessarily show through traditional metrics, but I think it’s beginning to register in other ways. I believe the Target at the Lennox Town Center is the highest producing Target around. So as retailers start to look into more detail, I think we’ll attract more interest.
WE: Between Grandview, the southern area of Upper Arlington, and the Fifth by Northwest neighborhood of Columbus, do you think that area is currently underserved for retail?
RD: Outside of Easton, Polaris and Tuttle, there’s really nothing that exists to that scale. I don’t think we necessarily need to build something to a large regional scale, but we could build something that serves a fairly expanded area. We have 10,000 people within walking distance of Grandview Avenue. The only reason this street works, is because of those people. I go to different meetings in other communities and people are saying that they want to recreate something like Grandview Avenue. Well, unless you have 10,000 people that are in a small area that could walk to something, then you’re not going to have anything like this.
I think the same thing could eventually happen at Grandview Yard as we add more residential. But we’re going to have to have auto traffic right now, at least for the time being, because we need support from outside the area to support anything that develops there.
WE: Was there any ever concern with Grandview Yard’s development cannibalizing some of the retail along Grandview Avenue? Or are they two completely different market segments?
RD: We were concerned. We talked with Wagonbrenner, which has a a majority of the ownership of the buildings along here. But I think what you have here is a completely different animal from Grandview Yard. Outside of Panera, most everything else on Grandview Avenue is a small one-owner type of business. So really, there’s a lot of loyalty here. So Grandview Yard may be more at a corporate type of operation, versus the more of a mom n’ pop feeling on Grandview Avenue. That balance should serve both of us well and potentially could make each one stronger.
WE: A portion of Grandview that I don’t think most people associate as being a part of Grandview is the strip of industrial buildings along Goodale Avenue that border the railroad tracks. It seems like over the past 10-15 years there’s been a lot of design-related firms setting up shop in that area.
RD: Yes, we call it our “Creative Corridor”. We put a name on it a few years ago and we continue to market it that way. Mayors can operate a community and mayors can also sell a community. So we continue to sell the ideas that this is a great place to be. We have 2Checkout.com, a tech firm moving into that area now with 160 jobs. So if you take a look at who’s moving into that area, then you’re absolutely right; it’s become an area that young creative firms are heading to. We have three of the fastest growing firms right now in that area. Our image is an important asset right now. We’re a lot smaller as a city than we are as an image.
WE: I do know quite a few people and businesses who will say they are in the “Grandview area” even if they actually are right outside of it. That’s the brand they want to align themselves with.
RD: Exactly. The brand is strong. That’s an important thing when you are trying to attract jobs and development.
WE: Outside of development issues, what are the types of things that you hear from people in Grandview as being a challenge for the community? Or what are the things people need to leave the neighborhood for because they absolutely can’t find it here?
RD: Most people I talk to say that they hate to leave. Sometimes people leave because they can’t find the space they need. You may see a larger family trying to find a large house, so they move out. But I think as far as this being a place to raise your kids, I don’t hear a lot of negative. I will say that the City of Grandview struggles because of money. Every time we get a little ahead, we get knocked back. We’ve come through some tough periods, but this community has always supported the city and the schools. I think that’s one thing that encourages investment. 2005 was a pivotal year for the city, as we passed the income tax and the school levy. We pretty much approved the money that’s needed to keep up the quality of the lifestyle here, and I think that in turn attracts people. It’s definitely a positive factor with housing values, because they’ve gone up almost 9% in Grandview while everybody else’s values went down.
WE: Thanks for taking the time today to speak with us Ray. I appreciate it.
RD: My pleasure.
More information about the City of Grandview Heights can be found online at www.GrandviewHeights.org.